Monday, 22 August 2016

The Wow Factor

This sermon was my first as a guest-preacher, preached on Sunday 21st August; I was invited to preach at St Agnes and then at St Thomas in Oldham. The gospel that morning was Luke 13:10-17. (As an aside, ignore the heading on the biblegateway link; headings (like chapters and verses) in the Bible are not original and are added by editors to help seperate the sections. Hopefully you'll see (as you read through the sermon) why I don't think the heading is the most helpful!)

I’d like to start my sermon this morning with a confession, I hope you won’t hold it against me; I’m not a sports fan.  I don’t follow any football team – and that’s tricky as it’s always one of the first questions I get asked whenever people hear that I live in Manchester – are you City or United? There’s always a sense of disappointment when I answer ‘neither’, the person I’ve met has just had their conversation-starter stopped in its tracks and needs to try to think of something else to talk about.

I can’t help it; I’ve never been into sports, it’s just not something that interests me.

Having said all of that, I have enjoyed watching the Olympics coverage over the past couple of weeks – and that’s probably a good thing, as it’s been nigh on impossible to avoid it; every time I turn on the TV, there’s a new sport or athletic event that even people who do enjoy sports would not normally make the time to watch – equestrian dressage, trampolining or synchronised swimming anyone?

In particular, though, I’ve really enjoyed seeing my son Isaac’s reaction to the events. He’s 20 months old, and has just learned the word ‘wow’. When he notices the gymnastics or the swimming or any of the other competitions, he stops whatever he’s doing, and is transfixed by the TV – “Woooow!”

His favourite thing about the Olympics, though, is the Channel 4 Paralympic advert. Have you seen it? It’s the one with the jazz band, singing “I can do anything; yes, I can”. That trailer for him, really has the wow factor. Me too, if I’m honest. It’s great, and portrays an immense sense of freedom. It’s not just Isaac who said ‘wow’ when he first saw that advert.

The Superhuman band - Yes I Can
 That all might sound like an odd introduction to our Gospel today, but it is linked, I promise! Stick with me whilst I get us there!

In our Gospel, we heard the story of Christ healing a woman from something like osteoporosis. Luke tells us that she’s been bent over, unable to stand up straight for 18 years, unable to look her fellow men and women in the eye. Christ sees her, and asks her to walk over to him – she must hobble over in something like slow-motion – and then Christ cures her. Luke then tells us that the synagogue leader became cross because Jesus had not obeyed the religious rule that says you shouldn’t do any work on the Sabbath.

Except… that’s not quite what happened. If we look closely at this passage, we can see that Luke doesn’t mention ‘healing’ at all. The language used here is of loosening, untying and freeing. The woman is talked of as having been ‘bound’, and Jesus unties her (the word used for ‘set free’ here implies ‘untying’). Her bones were knotted and locked, preventing her from standing up straight, preventing her from looking upwards, and Christ loosens them, allowing her to move freely, and look up for the first time in eighteen years. The only person who talks about a ‘cure’ is the leader of the synagogue.

When the synagogue leader complains, Christ points out that those who thought he’d done wrong would untie their donkey to allow it to go free to get some water on the Sabbath, so why shouldn’t the woman also be untied and set free? Again, he’s using the language of freedom, rather than healing.
This is what our Gospel today is about; not about a healing, but about people being set free. And that’s an important distinction. Yes, this woman, who Luke never gives a name to, was cured, but more importantly, she was freed. And freedom is what Christ was all about.

He sets it out, at the start of his ministry – earlier in Luke’s gospel, we hear of a prior trip to the synagogue, when he’d just started to teach there. Christ reads out the following piece from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

And then he sits down, and says what he’s just read out has been fulfilled at that moment. It’s a ‘mike-drop’. Release to the captives, and letting the oppressed go free. Freedom is the purpose.

Paul confirms it in his letter to the Galatians – why has Christ set us free, he asks? For freedom itself

Freedom is not just the means, it’s the end goal.

But so what? Why am I making this distinction here? What difference does it make whether the woman was healed or freed? What impact does that have on our lives here today?

The difference is this; if we want to follow Christ and imitate him, we must try to do what he did. But, realistically, we do not all work in the health service. We can’t all heal the sick with the tools and skills we have available to us, and we know that some people, barring miraculous acts of God will not be healed of their ailments this side of Heaven.

But that’s actually ok, because we can all play our part in bringing freedom. Freedom from oppression and captivity. Whether that’s physical, emotional or metaphorical. We can work towards ensuring greater accessibility for all in our workplaces and our churches – if Christ has freely opened the door to us, let us ensure it stays open for others. We can free people from the debts they owe to us, whether that’s actually money, or grudges we are holding against them; for haven’t we been freed from our own greater debts with God? We can free people from the labels and the judgements we have placed upon them – the illegal immigrant, the greedy banker, the workshy unemployed, the poor disabled – and see them instead as fellow people, brothers and sisters; for hasn’t Christ done the same for us, given us a new name and a new start in his Kingdom?

We can all play our part in bringing freedom. If it was Christ’s goal, it should be ours too.
Did you spot the link to the Paralympics advert, by the way? None of those people who feature in that advert, or who will participate in the Paralympics could realistically be described as ‘cured’ or ‘healed’, but simply watching them, you can see that they are free. And it’s that freedom that makes everyone around them, just like my son, Isaac, and just like the crowds at the synagogue when Christ freed the woman in today’s Gospel, stop what they are doing and say ‘wow’.

So, can we heal people in the way that Christ did? Probably not, no (but let’s keep praying that we will). Can we free people in the way that Christ did? To paraphrase that Paralympic advert, “Yes we can”, and when we do, we are doing the work of God, and that freedom is what brings the ‘wow’ factor.

Amen.

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