Trinity, Mattoon—Luke 13:10-17
I served for 13 years in the Diocese of San Joaquin, from 1994 until 2007. During that time—and I’m not quite sure how this happened—I acquired a reputation as the font of all knowledge for anything liturgical. Some may even have thought of me as a bit of a “liturgy geek,” and I know that the term “rubrical fundamentalist” was applied to me at various times. (Rubrics are the “fine print” in the Prayer Book that give various instructions about how things are to be done.) But if I’m a liturgy geek and a rubrical fundamentalist, then I have a fairly mild case of the disease, because there are those with full-blown symptoms much more impressive than mine. I have a book on my shelf that offers detailed ceremonial prescriptions for every conceivable contingency—how to celebrate the Eucharist when the Bishop is not present, when the Bishop is present, when the Bishop is present in the room but not at the altar, when a bishop other than the diocesan bishop is present, when an archbishop or primate is present, and on and on and on.
Of course, even ordinary lay Christians—especially Episcopalians, perhaps—can care about certain liturgical details, and use churchy jargon in ways that make perfect sense to them, but leave outsiders scratching their heads—Rite One, Rite Two, what parts of the service are sung and what parts are said, special practices during Advent and Lent, and the like. To many outsiders, both Christian and non-Christian, it can easily seem a little much; it can seem like “religion” getting in the way of “faith.”
This seems to be something like Jesus’ point in the synagogue encounter we read about today in the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he sees a woman who has symptoms that look like what we would call osteoporosis—she can’t straighten up. We’re not told that she even asks for his help, but he simply says to her, “Woman, you are healed from your infirmity.” Then he lays his hands on her, and she immediately stands up straight. Pretty impressive, huh? The congregation in the synagogue evidently thought so; it certainly wasn’t what they were expecting when they showed up for worship that day. But the ruler of the synagogue, the head guy, was miffed because, you see, what Jesus did was a violation of the rubrics—indeed, to apply our Episcopalian terminology to the situation, it was a breach of canon law. It was the Sabbath, and you’re not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and what is healing somebody from a disease if not work, right? But Jesus comes back with, “Look, get a grip here, people! [I’m paraphrasing slightly!] Every one of you at least feeds your animals on the Sabbath day, and here we have a child of God who’s been cursed with this disease for eighteen years, and you want to make her wait a day because it’s a violation of the rubrics? Come on, get real!” To borrow one of Jesus’ sayings from another context: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”
Now, we intuitively agree with Jesus in his condemnation of “religion” for its own sake—this is not one of his “hard sayings” such as we dealt with last week. No, this is one we are easily on board with. Yet, there are those—I think we can safely say there are many—who would want to take it a step further and have a very casual or even dismissive attitude toward formal and outward religious practices such as corporate worship, especially corporate worship that uses liturgical forms, and especially liturgical forms that contain such things as rubrics! There are those who automatically and instinctively devalue spiritual disciplines and sacred objects and symbolic actions, the keeping of special days and seasons. And then there are those who not only dismiss and devalue such things, but condemn them outright. One could think here of the Puritans who had such a stormy relationship with our Anglican ancestors three and four hundred years ago. (The Puritans, you know, didn’t even celebrate Christmas.) One might also think of some of our evangelical Protestant friends, for whom much of what we do in our worship seems either baffling or foolish or just plain boring. And then there are those who are inclined to let values that they may describe as “compassion” or “justice” trump any other concerns, and for whom liturgical texts and rubrics are matters of trifling importance.
So we have a bit of a paradox here, an apparent contradiction. As Anglicans, we have a liturgical and spiritual tradition that is rich and complex and, at times, quite detailed. We have rubrics! But within that very tradition, we have this gospel story in which Jesus’ own words and actions can be seen as granting a license to take the whole tradition very lightly, or even to ignore it. Well, as is the case with so many aspects of our Christian experience, the truth is found not in opting for one polarity or the other, nor is it found in splitting the difference between the two, but in maintaining both polarities, both ends of the tightrope, in their full integrity. We can be faithful to our tradition—even the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer!—and still live in the spirit of what Jesus reveals when he heals the woman in the synagogue. A balanced Catholic Christian perspective sees religious practices—like, for Jews, keeping the Sabbath, like worship and prayer and fasting and abstinence on certain days—we can see all these things as signs, shadowy counterparts, of heavenly realities. For example, when we honor the Sabbath principle of stepping aside from our routine of work on a disciplined and regular basis, we are allowing God to prepare us for the eternal rest that he promises his people in Heaven. When we are faithful in our attendance at corporate worship on Sundays and Holy Days, we are opening ourselves to the sort of communion with God that is our destiny, that to which our souls are naturally bent and inclined. When we practice abstinence and self-denial on Fridays and during Lent, we are walking the way of the cross, we are allowing ourselves to be conformed to the example and image of Christ. Saying our daily prayers and making our confession and keeping Lent, and other such religious practices, put us in mind of the sort of training an athlete or a performing artist undergoes in preparation for a contest, even as we are preparing to receive the crown of life on the Day of the Lord.
Of course, the important caveat to bear in mind is that these religious practices, wholesome as they may be, are means to an end, and not ends in themselves. They are intended to make us holy, not to make us proud of our accomplishment. Today’s gospel incident rightly teaches us to regard them precisely as vehicles toward a destination and not the destination itself. Nonetheless, religious practices, liturgical texts, and even rubrics(!) can be invaluable means to a very important end—that is, the salvation of our souls. Like they say about tradition, religion is a tyrannical master but a most excellent servant. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.