This weekend across our great country Australians have been participating in the democratic process which will define our identity as a nation for the coming years.
The last few weeks of political campaigning have given us the opportunity to hear and to debate and to reflect upon the issues that are at the heart of our nation.
And now we have each been given the opportunity to indicate the framework and direction which we would like to see followed by the next federal government of Australia. My young boys have totally misunderstood the concept, and they think that it is a competition of girls versus boys! Some of us relish being able to be involved in this democratic decision making, others of us find it bewildering.
One thing is for sure: no matter what the candidates and parties have told us, there is no one party, out of the choices that have been available to us, which we could all agree together will govern us on the basis of the principles that we find in the life of Jesus. Because when we come down to the details of policy and priorities, we find that within the life of the Church there is no consensus about a single best route for moving forward. Not even political parties which have the word ‘Christian’ in their name speak on every issue for those of us who are members of the Church.
When students in the Bishop’s Certificate and Bishop’s Diploma programmes come to study issues that relate to ethics they find out very quickly that there is no one Christian response to the ethical issues that they see around them. One of the things that elections highlight for those of us who engage with them, is that trying to live the Christian life is a complex business.
There are no one set of policies that are consistent with all of the many ways that those of us who are gathered here today understand our life in Jesus.
So questions about our identity, about who we are, are vitally important for us.
Who are we? Why are we? What makes us who we are?
Those questions are also at the heart of the encounter which we find in our Gospel reading today. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, the religious place of prayer, and he sees before him a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years, bent over double and unable to stand up. It doesn’t take much imagining for us to be able to sense some of the pain which she must have felt, the agony which she lived with, the lack of movement which limited her every step.
‘There would have been little doubt in her own mind, and in the minds of those around her, about why she found herself in such a position. Even in the text the Gospel writers determine that the cause is spiritual. She is crippled by an evil spirit, her being bent double is the work of the devil, and it hasn’t happened by chance. In that society it would have been simply assumed that her condition had been caused either by her own sins, or by the sins of her ancestors. So her being bent low, is not just a physical condition she is literally bent over, as a sign that she is an outcast.
She doesn’t deserve to hold her head up, because of her sin, or because of the sins of others in her family.
We can imagine the kind of things which she would have said, had she been asked those questions about identity which we have just been pondering.
Who are you? I am the lowest of the low, I don’t deserve to be a part of society. Why are you? Because of my terrible sins, and the sins of my ancestors. We have done so much wrong that I am not worthy to stand up strong like everyone else. If people thought those things of her, and if she thought them of herself, it is most likely that she was shunned by the people around her, and judged every time she walked down the road.
As I have been reflecting on this story during this election week it has reminded me of the extraordinary responsibility that people like you and me have to ensure that those who are the least, and the lost and the left out in our society are the ones who are put first in the policies of our nation. This poor handicapped woman, who encounters Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning, and who needs the most help from those around her; in fact receives the least help from the religious people of her day.
Instead of supporting her in her infirmity, they damn and condemn her by placing upon her the sins of them all.
Because we are religious people here, this story reminds us that we need to be especially careful to examine our own lives, to ensure that we are not doing the same thing to those who people who are marginalised in our society. I say that because as I travel around our Diocese I sometimes hear good Christian people say the strangest things about people who are coming here as asylum seekers, I hear Christian people say the most peculiar things about aboriginals, and single mothers, and the unemployed. If I stop and examine my own actions, I realise that I am all too easy to condemn others, and to even find words of Jesus to use to condemn them as well.
Jesus’ response in our Gospel reading this morning is quite different. He simply says to her, “woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And she is. Of course, it is this same Jesus, who has been remembered elsewhere in the Gospels as the one who challenges those without sin to cast the first stone, it’s the same Jesus who cured the lepers, the ones who were seen as the greatest outcasts, it’s the same Jesus who mixes with the most undesirable of groups in society — the Samaritans and the tax collectors.
Can you imagine that woman, bent over double for eighteen years, living with all of the pain and the shame, now standing up straight, being able to look at those around her directly in the eyes, and all because of the words of Jesus – the words of new life which the Son of God, speaks to her, and to us all. What would any decent person, who was in their right mind have done next, what would you have done?
The only response to an event such as this enfolding before you, would have been to celebrate. To go to that woman and to share her joy, to give thanks to God for the miracle which has occurred. To be a part of it, to start the party that that woman has missed out on for so many years. But we have come across the Pharisees enough in the Gospels to not be surprised that they respond in a very different way.
We need to remember that the Pharisees are really not the bad guys, (because of what we read in the Gospels we tend to have a fairly harsh bias against them). But their intentions are always good. In response to many of their contemporaries leaving the Jewish faith, or becoming less devout in their worship, the Pharisees were the ones in the time of Jesus who were trying to bring people back to God, they were trying to raise the profile in people’s lives of the need to keep the Jewish laws, for the sake of following God’s commandments.
In trying to keep the laws, they have lost sight of the human needs of the people around them. So when Jesus cures the woman, there response is not one of celebration, but of indignation. “How could he do this on the Sabbath, on the day of rest?” they say. They put the Jewish law above the work of God, they are so busy trying to be holy that they are not watching out for God’s work in their midst. It is a trap which we can all fall into.
Many of you will know the name of William Wilberforce, he was the English Christian prophet whose campaign brought the end of slavery in the British Empire. Luisa and I have recently watched a film about his life, and I found it absolutely captivating. He argued that it was incompatible for those who followed Christ, and who sought to bring the reign of God (the love and peace of the Kingdom of God) to the world, to also be involved in the business of slavery. He is a champion of the Christian faith, and his story should rightly be known and celebrated.
What is less well known, is that many of the bishops of the Church of England at that time, fought against him and his ideas of slave emancipation. What is more they used scripture to back up their argument in order to try and keep slavery. In South Africa, apartheid was built on a Christian system of living, and was upheld by the Dutch Reformed Church’s interpretation of scripture.
The signs of the Kingdom of God in our midst, are the sounds of laughter and of celebration for everyone, not just a few. We know that God is at work when people are being lifted up rather than being bent down, when stigma is being removed, and the marginalised are being welcomed into the centre of our society and our community.
The story of the woman healed by Jesus not only reminds us that Jesus has the power to reconcile and heal and make new. It also makes us more painfully aware of the Church’s inability (just like the Pharisees) throughout its history, to live up to the life of Christ in our own activities.
So we come back to our original questions about our identity. Who are we? We are the hands and feet, and mouth of God. We can be used by God to bring that Kingdom in around us, or we can use our religious beliefs to cause immense harm to others, whilst making ourselves feel better.
Why are we? We are who we are, because God first loved us. We are members of the Church because we know what it means to be lifted up, to be made new and alive in Christ. To be truly human is to be immersed in the Kingdom of God, where we are, here in this Parish. Through our baptism each one of us has been made a minister of God’s love, a sign of God’s grace for all who we encounter in our local community.
That is what the vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission, which we share in in this parish is all about. The recognition that each one of us, and not just Fr Ray has been gifted and given responsibility for acting for Jesus on behalf of our Church for the sake of all those who live around us.
And the good news is that Ruth and Janella and Fr Ray, have been commissioned to lead us in that task, to give us direction and to keep us focused, but each one of us has been called to be a part of it.
Elections provide the opportunity for us as a nation to decide what will define us for the future. In our Gospel reading this morning the religious people of Jesus’ day were defined by law and not by love, which had terrible consequences for that poor woman in the story. Jesus broke through that framework and offered another way.
Now the question for us is, what parts of this Church and our lives, don’t look like they belong to Jesus? What parts of this Church and our lives are driven more by immovable rules than by love? Or to put it another way: how is all that we do here defined by God’s mission of loving and saving the world?