Sensitivity and Exaggeration in “Ground Zero Mosque” and Luke 13:10-17

Lectionary 21 (13th Sunday after Pentecost)
Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

I hate to start off so negative.
But I fear for what some might be saying today about this Gospel text,
    in adult forums and pulpits around this country.
Today’s Gospel reading is a story of Jesus healing a woman in a synagogue on the Sabbath.
    As you just heard, after healing the woman,
    Jesus is confronted by the synagogue leader,
        who protests that Jesus performed a work of healing on the day of rest.
And so, I fear for what will be said today about that synagogue leader,
    that he will unfairly be pilloried as an enemy of Christ,
    a denier of grace more interested in divine law than divine love.
But let’s not walk that plank.

    Instead, let us consider his point of view.
As a dutiful religious leader –
    and I am sympathetic to dutiful religious leaders –
    this man was simply trying to uphold God’s law.
Surely this synagogue leader had read Genesis 2,
    which describes God’s rest on the seventh day of creation,
    perfecting and completing the glorious work of creation by resting.
Surely this man knew Exodus 20:8-11,
    which decrees that all God’s people shall rest as God rested on the seventh day.
Surely this devout man of faith believed – with fear and trembling –
    that the Ten Commandments were “written with the finger of God,”
    as Exodus 31:18 says …
        and you surely don’t mess with what’s written with the finger of God.
All this man was trying to do was to follow the teachings of God,
    to adhere to the Third Commandment
    which stands, according to Exodus 31:16,
    as “a perpetual covenant” between God and his chosen people, the Jews.
So when your entire identity as a people and a faith
    is predicated upon being chosen by God,
and your God gives you a commandment to observe a day of rest
    as a “sign forever” of that covenant, as we read in Exodus 31:17,
    and when a day of rest is built into the act of creation,
        into the sacred rhythm of time and space,
    then you just might, as this dutiful synagogue leader did,
    try to maintain and enforce Sabbath observance,
        at least in the synagogue over which you have charge.

But, I fear.
I fear that some preachers and teachers this day will be quick to bash this guy
    and the sacred observance that he tried to uphold,
    and by bashing him they are subtly – or not so subtly –
        criticizing the very covenant that God made with his chosen people Israel,
        and indeed, those people themselves.
The leap from criticizing one ancient synagogue leader’s teaching
    to criticizing the practices of the Jewish people as a whole
    is all too easy to make, either intentionally or unintentionally.
So I fear that this text can too easily find itself bent over into a rather anti-Semitic shape,
    turning Jesus’ gracious act of healing on the Sabbath
    into a blunt object with which to beat the Sabbath, Jewish law in general,
        and indeed, by association, the Jews who observe such laws.

Perhaps I’m wrapped up in this concern this week after seeing all the brouhaha
    about the proposed Islamic center and mosque
    to be built nearby Ground Zero in New York City.
Months ago religious leaders of all stripes,
    and political commentators – conservative and liberal alike –
    applauded the construction of this mosque,
        both as a sign of religious freedom and reconciliation,
        and also as a way to revitalize a still-struggling neighborhood.
    Lots of folks would find work building such a center,
        and many more would come to that part of town to visit it.
But how the winds have changed in recent weeks.
    Suddenly the airwaves and websites were full of commentary on the matter,
    from legitimate, sensitivity-driven concerns
        about the wisdom of the center’s location,
    to ridiculous and exaggerated claims that the center would be
        a new command center for terrorism.
Give me a break!
But thinking about those who are calling for sensitivity,
    I wondered about how sensitive and sympathetic Christians ought to be in reading today’s Gospel,
    especially in how we treat this poor synagogue leader
        who gets upstaged by a miracle-worker
        whose marvelous words and wondrous works
        challenge the synagogue leader’s authority in his own synagogue,
        not to mention upending a prevailing understanding of Sabbath observance.
And thinking too about those who exaggerate the threats
    supposedly posed by a so-called “Ground Zero mosque,”
I wondered about how Christians might this day exaggerate
    the point that Jesus was trying to make,
    turning what for Jesus is a nuanced – if nonetheless dramatically made –
        point about of the meaning of Sabbath
    into unfortunate characterizations bashing Sabbath and Law altogether.
But in today’s climate of religious anxiety,
    what we need today are more opportunities for understanding and graciousness,
    not quick judgments, cheap claims of religious superiority,
        or the spreading of falsehoods.
After all, our dear brother Martin Luther, in his reflections on the eighth commandment,
    teaches us to come to the defense of our neighbor, to speak well of them,
    and to interpret everything they do in the best possible light (Luther's Small Catechism).
Let these words guide us both in our discussions about mosques in New York
    and Jewish synagogue leaders in ancient Israel.

But it’s not just the current unfortunate situation that has brought this to mind.
Our brother Luther, who teaches us so well to honor and speak well of our neighbor,
    himself failed too often to do just that.
His vitriolic characterizations of the Jews and their laws,
    and of the Roman Catholicism which he sought to reform,
    has contributed to all kinds of evil done in the name of God,
    including giving generations of anti-Semites religious fodder for their hateful efforts,
        and providing the basis for an anti-Catholic sentiment that
        thrives all too strongly to this day in churches that bear the name Lutheran.
Our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,
    has repudiated and rejected Martin Luther’s horrible anti-Semitic writings,
    and apologized to the world’s Jewish community for his words and their legacy.
Because of this legacy,
    we owe it to our sisters and brothers of other faiths and traditions,
    and most importantly to our Lord Jesus Christ himself,
        to whom we seek to be faithful,
    to be extremely careful in how we speak of our faith
        and of the faith of our n
    and, in obedience to the eighth commandment,
    to speak well of our neighbors and interpret everything they do
        in the best possible light.
We owe it to them and to our Lord to be especially careful
    with how we characterize and describe our relationship
        with the daughters and sons of Abraham,
            our Jewish sisters and brothers, yes,
            and also those of the Muslim faith,
        for the slope of evil is slippery, and it begins quite gradually.

Yet even though I see in today’s Gospel text
    the potential for interpretations that lead us to theological disaster
    and which can stir the pot of needless interfaith conflict,
    I also see in it all kinds of hope.
For one, Jesus here brings healing to a woman who was bent over for 18 years,
    a woman who didn’t even ask for healing,
    a woman who Jesus acknowledges as and dignifies with the title,
        “daughter of Abraham,”
    that is, as someone who is an inheritor of promise, whose birthright is freedom.
Yet, she made no expression of faith in Jesus. 
    We don’t know if she even knew of Jesus.  She didn’t seem to seek him out.
    And those things don’t matter.
Jesus, purely out of compassion and love, heals this daughter of Abraham and sets her free.
And so we pray that he might do the same
    to a human race that is in bondage to demagoguery,
    a sin that cripples the human community and impairs our well-being.

But more.  In vs. 17 we see that the synagogue leader and other opponents of Jesus
    were put to shame.
In other parts of the Gospels when Jesus one-ups his opponents,
    we sometimes read that his opponents go away angry,
    or they begin to devise a plot against him.
But look at today’s text.  That doesn’t happen here. 
I can’t help but wonder – and wonder is all we can do,
    since the text is silent on what happened next for the synagogue leader –
    I can’t help but wonder if the synagogue leader’s shame was the kind of shame
        that led him to see the mistake in his indignation
            and the truth in Jesus’ words and deeds.
    I can’t help but wonder if this synagogue leader’s shame
        was more than the result of being shown up
        by a wandering preacher from Nazareth,
    but that he realized that his overly zealous concern for the letter of the law
        stood in stark contrast to the spirit of the law,
        which is so eloquently captured in the words of our first reading from Isaiah,
            a passage he surely knew well.
    For the Sabbath is a time of delight in the Lord, as the prophet says,
    a day set aside to revel in the gift of life given to us by our God,
        to nurture this gift in ourselves and others, and to give humble thanks for it.
    And what could be more delightful and honorable on the Sabbath
        than healing someone who had been crippled for eighteen years?

In the final verse of today’s reading, we read,
    “that the opponents were put to shame.”
But that verse goes on:
    “and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
The entire crowd was rejoicing!
Is it possible that the phrase, “the entire crowd” really means every single person there,
    including Jesus’ opponents, and especially that synagogue leader?
Is it possible that even the synagogue leader who was indignant moments earlier,
    having witnessed a miraculous healing
    and being confronted by our Lord’s justice and mercy
    rejoiced at the wonderful things he had just seen?
Is it possible?  Yes, I think so.  That is my hope, anyway.

And this is my faithful expectation:
    that in the Kingdom to come a whole host of humanity
    will stand with hands uplifted to the heavens,
        even and especially those we might like to accuse and demonize,
        all gathered to give praise to God for “all the wonderful things he has done.”
For in the presence of such grace and might, how can anyone keep quiet?

We read elsewhere in the prophet Isaiah that in the fulfillment of time
    the Lord will gather on his holy mountain all people
        and set before them a grand feast (Isaiah 25:6),
    and that the Lord’s house will be a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7).
May we find comfort in these words, particularly in these days of religious anxiety,
    and pray that by God’s grace we might live as people of this promise,
    as people looking forward to that heavenly banquet,
        which is a feast for all the people of God;
    a people dwelling in a holy house of prayer built for all peoples,
    people giving thanks and praise to God for all the wonderful things he has done.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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