A Message given Sunday, August 26, 2007
by Rev. Scott Summerville
There were major religious stories in the news this past week. I am referring to the controversial program on CNN entitled God’s Warriors. I am referring also to publication of the private confessional writings of Mother Theresa that have caused such a stir. I’ll come back to both of these hot items in the news after we spend some time with this Sunday’s scripture readings.
I have provided you with a printed copy of the two readings for today: the one from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah and the other from the gospel of Luke, chapter 13. I invite you to look with me at these passages. Notice in the passage from the book of Isaiah, in verses 9 through 12, there are conditional phrases: “if you remove..”. and “if you offer…”
If you remove the yoke from among you: in the writings of the Hebrew prophets the yoke refers to the burdens that the powerful and the privileged place upon the poor, so the prophet says:
if you remove take your foot off the neck of the poor, and if you remove from among you the pointing finger [that is, malicious gossip and false accusations] and the speaking of evil, and if you offer your food to the hungry, and attend to the needs of those who are suffering, then:
58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Verses 9 to 12 offer a promise that God will reward those who are compassionate and just. In verse 13 the emphasis shifts to a concern for the Sabbath day, that day of rest modeled on the seventh day of creation when God rested in the story in the book of Genesis.
58:13 If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; 58:14 then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Verses 9 to 12 speak of justice, compassion, and living one’s life according to high ethical standards. These verses speak of our obligations as human beings to one another. Verses 13 and 14 speak of Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, where there is an obligation of a different kind – an obligation to one’s own soul and obligation toward God. Notice that in Jewish tradition Sabbath is not a burden; it is a delight; it is a joyful day.
This passage from the prophet Isaiah is very Methodist, even though Methodists were not around until a couple of thousand years after these words were written . I say this is very Methodist, because the heart of Methodism is combining those two things that Isaiah speaks of; Methodism historically has been marked by the combination of concern for the poor and for social justice, along with the joyful life and joyful worship. With this in mind let’s turn to the gospel passage.
In the 13th chapter of Luke we have a person who is suffering, a person who has suffered for eighteen years. And we have Jesus, who stands in the tradition of the prophets, the tradition of Jewish compassion. Out of love – out of compassion for the afflicted – he responds to this woman, and she is released from her burden – “Woman, you are free!”
So far so good.
But there is a problem, because in fulfilling the law of compassion he has perhaps – perhaps – violated the second obligation that Isaiah spoke of, which is to honor the Sabbath. You see, religion always involves interpretation. In this story we have a conflict about the interpretation of Scripture.
Jesus is taking a liberal interpretation of the Scripture. He knows it is the Sabbath; he is involved in teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Everyone agrees that teaching on the Sabbath in the synagogue is a perfectly appropriate thing to do. He departs from his teaching to respond in compassion to the afflicted woman and to heal her. In his view, he was fulfilling the obligation of every Jew to satisfy the needs of the afflicted – that is exactly what Isaiah said – “satisfy the needs of the afflicted and your light shall rise in darkness.”
He was not doing this for his own benefit. Remember, Isaiah said that on the Sabbath one is to refrain from “serving your own interests or pursuing your own affairs.” So, in Jesus’ interpretation, what he did on the Sabbath was legitimate.
But there were others present who took a more conservative view of the Scripture. They argued that healing is a form of work, and that therefore healing should be done on the six other days of the week, but not on the Sabbath. They had a point. This woman had been suffering for eighteen years. That is 6,570 days. She could have made an appointment with Jesus for the following day to be cured. Would one more day make that much of a difference? If he had said to her, “My daughter, if you return to this spot tomorrow you shall be cured,” would she not have been the happiest woman in the town?
This is the way the leader of the synagogue saw things. It was not a totally unreasonable position. The leader of the synagogue says [paraphrasing], “ There are six days on which work should be done; but this is the Sabbath, the day for prayer and Torah teaching, the day to focus the heart and mind on God alone.”
Despite the objections of the synagogue leader, Jesus did heal the woman on the Sabbath, and he disputed with those who criticized him, pointing out that any of them would do work on the Sabbath, if only to give water to an ox or a donkey. So why should he delay in bringing relief to this child of God?
In Jewish tradition arguing is not a bad thing. Jews have always interpreted Scripture and tradition different ways; debate and argument are an essential part of Jewish tradition . As we see in this case, two Jews could both feel they were being faithful to the commandments of God, but end up with different ideas about what to do in a given situation.
There are two crucial principles here:
one is the principle of tolerance – which fundamentally means being willing to acknowledge that one’s own experience, one’s own opinions, one’s own interpretations are not the only ones. Tolerance fundamentally is a willingness to listen and to be respectful of the experience of others.
The second principle is the principle of humanism. Jesus was a humanist. By that I mean that he interpreted life and God and Torah in a way that favored human needs. If there was a tension or a conflict between a ritual commandment and the need of a human being, he would favor meeting the needs of the human being. He formulated this succinctly when he said, “The Sabbath was made for humans; humans were not made for the Sabbath.”
Religious extremists tell us that tolerance and humanism are the devil’s tools. I would say that religious people, whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim or anything else, have a sacred obligation for tolerance and humanism:
Tolerance, so that we live in peace with those who disagree with us, and humanism, so that we can see in every person that universal quality, that humanity that unites us, regardless of the matters that divide us.
This brings me back around to this week in the news. I did not see God’s Warriors, in its entirety. I saw half the program dealing with Jews, all the program dealing with Muslims, and half of the program dealing with Christians. Some have criticized Christiane Amanpour, who created the series, for focusing on extreme manifestations of each of these religions. Others have criticized her for comparing radical Islam with elements of Christianity and Judaism. Some argue that radical Islam has produced far greater violence in our time than any Jewish or Christian groups. You can judge that for yourself.
What struck me most about the programs, and why I think the series is well worth watching, is that there is a common element in extremist religion. If you believe with certainty that the world is meant to be a battleground between the truth of God and other truths, and if you believe that you possess absolutely the truth of God, you have set yourself on a course that will lead inevitably to violence of some kind.
In the segment on Christianity, Amanpour gave a lot of attention to a movement called the Battle Cry Campaign, led by Christian evangelist Ron Luce. Ron Luce has organized thousands of young people into a campaign that involves mass rallies in which youth are whipped into a frenzy and are encouraged to shout slogans – battle cries for God – and scream out their loyalty to a particular interpretation of the gospel.
The language of the movement is the language of battle, and there have even been armed men on stage during some of these rallies, blurring the distinction between the spiritual battle for human souls and actual armed conflict.
I happen to think it’s a bad idea to get people together, especially young people at an impressionable age, and encourage them to scream their brains out and fill their mouths with slogans that their elders have given them. That approach is not conducive to acquiring wisdom, true compassion, and a tolerant understanding of the gospel.
If you adopt the language of battle, you’ll always be looking for enemies; and just as the Jews in history have been so often made the enemy and the scapegoat, in our time the Battle Cry Campaign singles out gay people as the particular object of divine wrath. It’s sad and scary for kids to be hearing that. Kids do not need to approach their daily life as though they are at war. I encourage you see the program, if you have an opportunity.
It was just after seeing this CNN series that I read the news reports about Mother Theresa’s confessional diaries. Extensive personal writings of Mother Theresa of Calcutta were just released, and they are shocking.
Mother Theresa gave her life to works of extraordinary compassion on behalf of the poorest of the poor. After her death the usual waiting period was waived, and she was made a candidate for sainthood. Her life has been seen as an extraordinary testament to a profound and powerful faith. What is shocking is that her intimate writings reveal decades of spiritual emptiness and lack of faith.
Here is one excerpt:
“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. – Alone … Where is my Faith – even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness – My God – how painful is this unknown pain – I have no Faith – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart – & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God – please forgive me – When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. – I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
It’s not just that Mother Theresa had a bad night, a bad week, a time of spiritual pain and questioning that come to most people; these writings cover virtually the entire span of her active career.
People are rushing to make all kinds of sweeping comments about this. Some say it only proves how great a saint she was. Some say her doubts and struggles were typical of great religious figures. On the other hand, some are accusing her of being a fraud. In her journals she accuses herself of hypocrisy.
As I contemplate this woman, I feel, “Who am I to say that she was a saint or a fraud? Who am I to say that her lack of faith was in fact a sign of great extraordinary faith? “
Before we start making broad generalizations or pronouncing judgment upon this woman, we should sit a while and not just read the news reports, but read the whole of her writings as they are published and contemplate her words alongside the deeds of her life. This whole matter is so deep and so profound that it is worthy of much contemplation; it is not something to make into a quick sermon illustration.
The prophet Isaiah spoke the word of the Lord and spoke God’s promise that if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy that needs of the afflicted, “then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noon day; the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”
Here, in Mother Theresa, is one who lived the life of a saint, but for whom the waters of God failed. This is something to ponder deeply.
Next week, in the gospel lesson, we will hear Jesus say, “Take the lowest seat, the seat at the end of the table, the place of least honor…. for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Most people thought Mother Theresa was up there at the highest seat, spiritually speaking. Apparently she never left the lowest place, and that is something to ponder as we contemplate the next gospel lesson: those who humble themselves shall be exalted.
Grace and peace to you.