‘Therefore since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.’ Strong words from the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews and yet words which we do well to take as an article of faith, for let’s be honest we live in a flaky, unjust and at times a downright cruel world.
As we look at and consider the world around us it can seem too cruel to bear. The very real pain, suffering and injustice of the world can leave us feeling both angry and impotent. The good news is that men and women throughout the generations have felt this self-same sense of hopelessness and futility. The prophet Jeremiah, one of my heroes, certainly felt this way at the beginning of his ministry: ‘I am only a boy’ he says to God, which could taken as the equivalent of saying ‘why me, why do you want me to be the one who says to the powers that be, enough is enough?’ The answer God gives is simply this: ‘why not you, and if not you who?’ God is saying the same thing to his people today: ‘if not us, then who?’ We the people of God need to develop the courage to speak out against all forms of exclusion, prejudice, hatred and tyranny: ‘if not us, then who?’
One of the Five Marks of Mission is to challenge the unjust, by which we might mean excluding structures of society. We are called on to be agents of freedom and liberation. We are Christ’s arms of love in a sometimes cruel world, but we are more than this, for like Jeremiah, like John the Baptist, and like Jesus, who let us not forget, was a social prophet, we are to called on to be the divine voice; God’s echo chamber. We are called onto be a people of healing, but also a people who dare speak truth to power, and the two go hand in glove. Christians are not meant to be passive; we are not meant to be religious stoics. The here and now is the place where we exercise our faith, through the works of our hands, and with voices raised loud, for as Meatloaf sang ‘heaven can wait.’
This combination of healing and prophecy is played out in today’s Gospel reading. The story starts with Jesus seeing a disabled woman and he calls out to her. Moved by compassion his instinct is to include her; he beckons her over, touches her, heals her, and gives her back her dignity. For eighteen years she has been excluded and now she is to be included. Yes, there is a very real physical healing, but there is also a social and relational healing. Our job is to effect social and relational healing, to free people from the power and domination structures that leave them as bystanders at best; excluded and vilified at worst. That is what real healing both looks and feels like. But that is not all that Jesus does for he also enters into a terse conversation with the synagogue leader.
The synagogue leader is an interesting character. He is a kind of work’s supervisor; a clip-board king. He hasn’t much real authority, still less status in the world of Jewish religion, but he is determined to protect his own turf and to protect the minutiae of the law. His obsession with the minutiae of the law is, however, at the cost of his humanity. He would prefer to ‘shame’ others than to see healing, liberation and inclusion. He is a walking and talking religious tragedy. He knows all the rules but none of the virtues. In his conversation with this Captain Mainwaring type figure what Jesus does is to relocate shame. The synagogue leader wants the disabled woman to be the focus of shame, but Jesus takes away any shame that she might be feeling and places it on the synagogue leader and his ilk. And, that’s what prophets do: they relocate shame. They name and relocate cruelty and injustice.
Over the course of September and October we are going to be considering Anglicanism’s Five Marks of Mission. We are doing so for one simple reason: so that we become an ever increasing Christ-like church, for Jesus is the ‘perfector and pioneer of our faith.’ Being Christ-like means acting as Jesus does in the account we have heard today. It means acting with compassion, as agents of healing, reconciliation and justice whilst at the same time daring to speak truth to power, so that shame can be properly located. This is the journey we are, hopefully, about to embark on. It will be an interesting and challenging journey, one for which we might, like Jeremiah, feel ill-equipped, but let’s do so in the full and certain knowledge that God is ‘our consuming fire,’ and that however uncertain we may feel, through the very exercise of our faith we are both ‘receiving’ and proclaiming a ‘kingdom which cannot be shaken.’ Amen.