21 August 2016
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Revd Simon Cowling
Jeremiah 1. 4 – 10; Luke 13. 10 – 17
Often the less there is to justify a traditional custom the harder it is to get rid it. So wrote Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I learned the truth of Twain’s remark in a rather unexpected way some years ago. Part of my remit when I worked at Sheffield Cathedral was to liaise with the Flower Guild, keeping them abreast of forthcoming diocesan and civic services and talking through their plans for the great festivals. A few weeks before my first Christmas at the Cathedral I made a specific request for the traditional white flowers to be mixed with some red ones. The subsequent exchange went something like this:
But you can’t mix red and white flowers!
Because it’s a tradition that you can’t.
(I was genuinely interested. I had not come across the tradition before.) The exchange continued:
It’s all to do with the red and white being a reminder of the blood and bandages of wounded soldiers in the First World War. Red and white flowers mean there’s going to be a death.
Well that’s ok, I said, in fact that’s really the point.
I was then able to explain that my request was grounded in an important theological truth, namely the fundamental link between the birth and death of Jesus. Christmas was devoid of meaning unless Christians were prepared to set it alongside the cross; to acknowledge that the birth would lead to a death; to acknowledge that the birth would only make sense through the death. Linking red and white flowers with blood and bandages and death on the other hand – though I did not put it quite so abruptly – was mere superstition, a ‘traditional custom’ which, to paraphrase Mark Twain, had little to justify it. Well respect for the cloth won out in the end, and the red and white flowers duly appeared.
It was today’s Gospel reading that brought to mind the incident I have just described. Ostensibly we have heard St Luke describe a healing miracle: as Jesus teaches in the synagogue a woman appears whose crippling infirmity has held her bound for eighteen years. Jesus lays his hands on the woman; she is released from the bondage of her painful disability, and praises God for her healing. But the healing miracle serves a deeper purpose: it allows Jesus, through Luke’s narrative, to teach the crowd, and us, something significant about traditional customs, about the nature of God, and about God’s way with his creation.
An important component of this teaching is conveyed through the conflict that arises as a result of Jesus’s miracle. The leader of the synagogue expresses indignation that the healing has taken place on the Sabbath: as far as he is concerned the healing constitutes work – strictly forbidden on the Jewish day of rest. There are six days on which work ought to be done he asserts in front of the crowd. The woman should have come on one of those days, not on the Sabbath. A traditional custom has been violated. Jesus’s response is uncompromising: he reminds the leader of the synagogue of one of the exemptions that the Jewish Law allows in respect of work on the Sabbath: an ox or a donkey may be untied and led away to a water trough. Jesus then throws the leader’s words back at him: he has said that work ought to be done on the other six days of the week. Now Jesus uses the same word, ‘ought’, to make a point about God’s purposes and how they confound merely human understanding of traditional custom: ought not this woman … (to) be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day? The ‘ought’ of divine necessity, God’s healing and liberating purposes, transcends the ‘ought’ of a constricted understanding of God’s law, in which custom and tradition can so often become a dead letter. It is no coincidence that Luke refers to Jesus as ‘the Lord’ when he is responding to the leader of the synagogue, because through this miracle of healing Jesus not only reveals, he embodies in his very self, in what he does, the God who liberates us and unbinds us all.
The history of all religious traditions is, at least in part, the history of how human beings have constantly struggled to see, and to embrace fully, the great things that God is doing among them. Thus in today’s Gospel story Jesus draws the circle of God’s grace within his own Jewish community a little wider, to the consternation of the synagogue leader but to the general rejoicing of the crowd. In our own Christian tradition, the great movements of reform and renewal – Cistercian monks in the twelfth century, Franciscan friars in the thirteenth century, Lutherans in the sixteenth century, Methodists in the eighteenth century – have all had to fight, literally fight at times, against established and entrenched interests and assumptions. The challenge of the Gospel is to allow the limiting horizon of own interests and assumptions, our own preferred traditions and customs, to be expanded by God so that we can begin to glimpse the great and glorious things he is doing among us.
Often the less there is to justify a traditional custom the harder it is to get rid of it.
There is a coda to the story about the white and red flowers with which I began. When I was briefing the Bishop of Sheffield about the forthcoming Christmas services, I recounted – quite neutrally and factually – my conversation with the Cathedral Flower Guild. In his sermon at Midnight Mass the Bishop preached on the necessary link between Christmas and Good Friday, taking as his starting point the mixture of red and white in the Cathedral flowers. From which I concluded that God is able to work even through bishops to expand the horizon of our inherited traditions and to liberate us into new ways of understanding them.