St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 13 (21.08.2016)

Tony Dickinson

Both our readings today can be read as stories about liberation and transformation. Very obviously in the case of the gospel reading, focused on the woman bowed down, quite literally, by what sounds like advanced scoliosis (curvature of the spine); perhaps less so in the case of our first reading, with its focus on the two mountains, Sinai and Zion.

So, let’s start with the easy one. Where is the liberation in the gospel story? Who is set free?

The woman is set free. At the start of the story she is bent double. When Jesus lays his hands on her she stands up straight.

Who else is set free?

The crowds are set free – and “the crowds” probably doesn’t just mean the congregation inside the synagogue. When Luke mentions “crowds” he’s usually talking about people who had come to hear Jesus or be healed by him. Were there lots of people outside trying to get in? Whether they were inside or outside, Jesus reminds them that the Sabbath law does not put a stop to any kind of activity. You are allowed to do good on the Sabbath, whether it is to a thirsty animal or to a suffering human being.

And it’s just possible that the leader of the synagogue might have been set free. If he took to heart what Jesus did and what Jesus said, he just might have been set free from his slavery to rules and regulations. He might have stopped chuntering on about not bringing people to be healed on the Sabbath. He might have stopped being such a block to freedom and transformation. He might have realised that a rule is no help if you don’t know how to bend it – or when to break it. That would have been a great liberation!

Now, what about our first reading?

Who needs liberating, first of all? Who needs to be set free?

How about the people of Israel? They’d been set free from slavery in Egypt, but they were still in bondage to fear. Even Moses trembled with awe at his experience on Mount Sinai.

But it wasn’t just the people way back then who were in bondage. It looks as if the people to whom the Letter to the Hebrews was written were equally inclined to be fearful and to cling on to the past.

The writer, on the other hand, is having none of that. He makes them look at the positives. This is your situation. Not at the bottom of Sinai, scared stiff of provoking God’s anger. “You” he tells them “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering…” He just goes on and on piling up the pluses until he reaches “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and… the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

This is about a transformed relationship. It’s about taking God seriously, engaging with God – not “trembling with fear”, but recognising that “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”. Note that present tense. It’s “we are receiving”; not “we will receive”. God is among us, around us, within us, here, now, in Terriers, on 21st August, 2016. God offers us today the same freedom, the same possibility of transformation that he has always held out to his people.

And God offers us the same warning. Don’t become trapped in a culture of fear. Don’t become too attached to things that are passing away. Don’t become blocks in the way of God’s liberating, life-giving action – religious people (and particularly those of us who are religious for a living) are rather too good at that, alas. Don’t become bowed down by the pressures and anxieties of life. “We have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God.” “We are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”. Enjoy it. Enjoy God – but don’t imagine for an instant that you can control God or manipulate him. “Indeed our God is a consuming fire” – but that fire is the fire of love. And so to God the Father, …