The Rev. Larry Koger
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
August 21, 2016
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
This is a great privilege to be here with you today. I have heard, over the years, from many people, about the faithful ministry of First and TACO. Including Rachel Line, who went to Germany with Pastor Andy Taylor, now Bishop Andy Taylor and I on a Luther tour about 6 years ago. Of course, before Bishop Taylor became bishop, he served on the TACO board and he spoke about the ministry and mission here and he continues to keep you in prayer. I want to tell you, to be considered by Bishop Finck, now Bishop Emeritus Finck, as a possible candidate to serve as your Intentional Interim Pastor, and then to have been prayerfully selected by your interviewing team, it is a real honor and privilege to be here today, and to begin Interim Ministry with you. My first day on the job, earlier this week, began with Hannah warmly welcoming me, showing me around the facility, getting me settled into the office. The day ended by spending time with Council President Kathryn Kanaan, and then meeting with leadership, your Church Council. What a capable and talented group of leaders God has called to First. On Friday, I was here for the clinics and the Friday meal, and the core volunteers that keep that ministry moving forward. I witnessed how the good people of First and Taco, through word and deed, were extending hospitality to our guests and graciously finding ways to “put me to work”, and let me help out and be a part of the Friday meal. Again, many people welcoming me and extending hospitality. As I experienced Friday morning, as I thought of today’s bible lesson, with this bent over unnamed woman, I thought about the words of Henri Nouwen, words shared in an email earlier this week by Executive Director of TACO, Jim Lovell. Nouwen wrote, “Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: “What is my poverty?” Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! “How blessed are the poor,” Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty.
I thought of these words, as I thought about our bible story for today. It is easy to see the “poverty” of the unnamed woman, a woman who everyone else around her could easily see her physical ailment. She was bent over, and could not stand up straight. This woman came to worship despite this ailment. She did not come to worship in order to ask Jesus to heal her. No, she was in worship to receive comfort and peace from God. Though the woman in the Bible could not lift her head and shoulders to look at others when they spoke, she came because she wanted to join with God’s people in worshiping the Lord. She came to receive the blessing that worship alone can bring. But something unexpected happened, the unnamed woman also received the blessing of healing.
And then she received a boatload of criticism as well. The leader of the synagogue chastised her for being healed on the Sabbath. “There are six days on which you can come for healing. But the Sabbath is to be a day of rest.” Why was he so against healing on the Sabbath? To understand that, we need to know a little of the story of God’s people.
Most of you know the story of Moses, how God sent Moses to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt. Moses brought them to the Promised Land, the country that the Lord had promised years before to the ancestors of the people of Israel, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God had promised all three that he would give the land of Israel to them, and Lord delivered on his promise. What he asked in return was that they worship him and him alone. He would continue to bless them, and thus the whole world would come to know that he alone was the God in whom people could trust, and all the earth would turn in faith to the Lord. There was only one problem with this plan – God’s people failed to live up to their part of the bargain. Instead of worshiping the Lord alone, they worshiped idols, even putting foreign idols, gods made of wood and stone, into the temple that was built to worship the Lord alone. Time and again, God sent prophets to warn the people to return to him, or he would repossess the land he had given them. Time and again, the people failed to worship the Lord. And eventually, the Lord withdrew his protection, and the people went into exile, away from their land.
In exile, the people figured they had learned their lesson. They had been unfaithful to God, and disobedient to his commandments. If they ever were allowed to return to the Promised Land, they would not make that mistake again. They would obey every one of God’s commands, and encourage their fellow Israelites to do the same. The figured it was up to them to keep God’s laws and thus earn God’s favor. And that is why the leader of the Synagogue was so upset. There was a law, the third commandment, which says “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” God had commanded a day of rest for all the people. When Jesus healed, he was working. The Lord had commanded rest. And the leader of the Synagogue took the woman to task for tempting, indeed allowing, Jesus to break the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. For the leader believed, as did most of the people, that if they disobeyed the commandments, God would withdraw his blessing from them. They believed it was all up to them.
And sometimes we believe it is all up to us to make our lives right with God. Debbie certainly did. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Debbie, in prayer, made a pact with God. If you will heal my mother through her treatments, then I will go back to church and be more faithful to you. Eight months later, her mom was declared cancer-free, and Debbie went looking for a church in the city where she lived. She found one she enjoyed, where she heard the word of God regularly, and she not only attended, she encouraged her husband and children to attend with her, which they did. And for awhile, all felt right about this bargain. Debbie had done her part, God had done his, and everything seemed to be working out. But then Debbie’s husband lost his job. Debbie prayed in confidence that he would find a new one. But that job did not materialize. Debbie thought she was praying incorrectly, and began to read up on proper ways to pray. But no matter what she did, her husband remained unemployed. Worse, he was stressed and unhappy, and it began to take a toll on the kids and the marriage. Debbie kept on trying to figure out what she was doing wrong that was keeping God from taking care of her family. Because she was certain that her suffering could be reversed if she only did the right thing, the thing that God wanted her to do. She really believed that it was all up to her.
But it was not up to her. Just as it is not up to us to make God bless us. Just as it was not up to the woman in the Synagogue to ask to be healed. Instead, it is up to Jesus. And Jesus our Lord has acted for us. Jesus saw our poverty, the brokenness we all share, whether we are bent over or stand up straight, whether we are people of financial means or poor, whether we are single, or married, confident or insecure, or whatever our situation. Before God we all have “poverty”, as Henri Nouwen points out. So Jesus acted. He went to the cross to take on our sin, our brokenness, and all that separates us from God and God from us, all that separates us from one another. When he died, he put to death sin’s power over us. And when he rose from the dead, he rose to be with us. It is not up to us to make us right with God – Christ has already done that for us. We do not need to do things in the right way to earn God’s favor – our Lord has already let us know how important we are to him by his death and resurrection for us.
But then, what are we to do? We are to show our love for God by loving our neighbor. The people of Israel had it right, in a way. After they had lost the land, they realized they had blown it by not loving God. The problem with the leader of the synagogue was that he thought the Sabbath commandment was about restricting what people were to do. The reality, if you read the giving of the commandments in Deuteronomy, is that God gave the commandment in order to help people. For the Lord our Creator made human beings with a need to rest. If this commandment had not been given in a society like the one of ancient Israel, where the wealthy were allowed to own slaves, then slaves would have been worked 7 days a week. It was to protect people, to give them rest, that God gave the commandment. And to follow not only this commandment, but every commandment, we are to put the needs of people first. We obey all of God’s commandments when we show love for God by doing loving and good things for our neighbors. And Christ, by reaching out to heal the woman, was doing something loving for her. He was not breaking the commandment. He was instead keeping the greater commandment, to show love for God by loving our neighbor.
And it is not up to us to make ourselves right with God. Yet we are called to do those things that help us show our love for the Lord. We are to take time for worship, as the woman did, trusting that God is with us in a special way, strengthening us for service as we hear God’s word and share his supper. It is not about what we do, but about what God does for us. We are to utilize our financial resources to give generously to God’s work, so that people throughout the world may have shelter, clothing, sustenance, and a chance to hear God’s word. We do this not to earn God’s favor, but out of our love for God and neighbor. And we are to put our faith and trust in God even when times are difficult, not because we earn something from God, but because such trust helps us live more peaceful, hopeful lives, especially in times of great stress.
Debbie was living in a time of great stress, and finally asked a friend at church “What am I doing wrong, that all these bad things are happening to me?” Her friend listened, suggested that she was doing nothing wrong but going through a bad time, and assured her that God still loved and cared for her. She prayed with Debbie, praying for her peace and hope in the midst of a difficult time. And Debbie began a journey that continues to this day, a journey in which she realizes that it’s not the bargains she makes with the Lord that are important, but it’s what the Lord has done and will continue to do for her, giving her hope, strength and peace that make the real difference. And for that, she gives thanks to God.
As we can give thanks to God on this day. For our God is with us here in worship. We come not because this is what we must do in order to earn God’s favor, but because this is the place where God’s word is spoken and we find our Lord reaching out to us to bless us with his peace. Receiving God’s blessing through the service, through the Scriptures, being with God’s people, through receiving the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. I hope and pray that you and I hear of a God who loves and gives everything for us, and that we hear that word each and every worship. For our God, has done it all for us. Thanks be to God.