Lectionary 21C (August 21, 2016)

Who is my audience? You ask that when you’re preparing to write something (or you should). It’s an interesting question for us to ask whenever we do anything. For whose benefit do you act? Take the Synagogue Leader. For whom is he acting?

He has been here unnoticed from the beginning of the scene, stepping into the foreground after the miracle to say his piece. (You know the guy, right? Everything is wrong. No matter what happened, how hurt the lady was before the miracle or how happy she is after it, it wasn’t done right, or it missed the “big picture,” or it perpetuated oppressive systems, or it didn’t get rid of the problem. This guy drives me nuts. And he has a lot of descendants in every race and every community on earth. But I am getting ahead of myself.) He is “indignant,” angry about something he perceives as wrong (in this case, healing on the Sabbath), but he is yelling at crowd and not at Jesus. I get the feeling his audience isn’t really there. They are figments of his imagination.

The guy expects a favorable judgment from somebody. He expects to be lauded for defending the work-free Sabbath. By Jesus day, the work-free Sabbath was what we might call an article of faith, as important as purity laws or circumcision. It was a controversial matter, though. The book of 1 Maccabbees, written a century and a half before Jesus, records how some Hebrews, determined to keep the Law during the reign of a sadistic Greek king, left occupied Jerusalem and settled in the hills. The Greek king sent his army to attack them. The attack came on the Sabbath, and the Hebrews were so determined to keep the Law that they refused to fight on the Sabbath, and were slaughtered. In later generations, some would argue that combat on the Sabbath was okay if it prevented such slaughter. So, the question of how to observe Sabbath was open for debate. I have to imagine that the Leader of the Synagogue is debating over this. He’s got some largely imagined audience of like-minded people cheering him on, and opponents whom he has taken down.

We have these imaginary people—they have no names, no faces, no description whatsoever—who are judging how we act and react, and we interact with them instead of the people around us. And it keeps anything from getting done. Think of the Occupy Movement. Remember them? First they occupied Wall Street, then several cities. It was the revolution! (Finally!) It’s been like five years, and nobody cares. One of the leaders of the movement, Yotam Marom, wrote a piece published in AlterNet late last year about what happened. And it wasn’t just that it got cold and the cities got nervous and sent in the police who raided the camps and dispersed everyone. That was just the endgame. Long before that, the movement lost any sense of purpose or shared vision because of what Marom calls “call-out culture.” A group would be talking, and an overzealous person would call out another for something. And this wasn’t done because the other person was doing anything egregiously wrong, or because the one calling-out wanted to raise awareness of an issue or educate people, but because the one calling-out wanted to seize moral high ground. Look how moral I am! Everyone bask in my glory! And anyone else just looked at the floor hoping they didn’t get “called-out.” Before long, the ones doing the calling-out would form their own subgroup of morally superior people with their own agenda. By the time the cities decided to raid the camps, the Occupiers were looking for an excuse to go home. And most of the rest of us no longer cared, because we couldn’t figure out what the heck these people wanted. They just knew that their imaginary people who would cheer them on for being so right about stuff were cheering them on for being so right about stuff. I told you that Synagogue Leader had descendants.

Jesus immediately senses this is happening in that synagogue. He states bluntly what he sees going on, and then reminds everyone of what they are supposed to be doing. First, he names what is going on: hypocrisy. Hypocrite—one of those English words taken, untranslated, from Greek—meant “actor” in a play. Jesus in the New Testament only ever uses it negatively. The word itself is a compound of two words, which meant “under” and “judgment.” An actor performed his part, placing it under judgment—of audience, critics, etc. He sought praise for how well he performed the role. That’s exactly what the Synagogue Leader does. Jesus says, “I see what you’re doing!”

And then Jesus reminds everyone of what they are supposed to be doing. Even before anyone knew or cared who Jesus was, John the Baptist had said to the crowds, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” The status of “Child of Abraham” was coveted, and apparently conferrable upon whomever God pleased. Then, in Jesus’ opening sermon, Jesus clearly states the purpose to which he has stuck ever since: “[God] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, …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 favor.” I’ve come back to that first sermon a lot as we read through Luke, because Jesus comes back to it repeatedly. It’s like he meant it, or something. And what has Jesus done here, if not proclaim good news—“Woman, you are set free from your ailment”—released someone captive—in this case to illness—and raised up this woman as bearer of that elite status, “daughter of Abraham”! Jesus has gotten everyone back on task.

Likewise, Jesus says to us, “Forget about your imaginary audience—everyone who is going to click ‘like,’ the haters you’re totally gonna take down, the dispensers of righteousness who will reward your “call-out” with moral high ground.” You’re putting on a show for these people, many of whom don’t even exist outside of your imagination. Meanwhile, there are real people really suffering. Jesus is trying to free them and heal them and enrich them and empower them. Jesus says to us, “Are you liberating them? No? Well, get to it! Yes? Then keep it up! We may have to tweak some things along the way, but you’re doing what I asked you to do.” We are here because Christ has called us through the Spirit to liberate people from Sin, whether that sin is their own personal sense of guilt and brokenness, or the systemic guilt and brokenness of society. Regardless of our opinions on Sabbath propriety, that is our mission.

Think of it in terms of our worship, today. Trinity does worship well. Really well. I love that, and I want that to be one of the things everyone knows about us, because I think doing worship well is important, when it is done well it is powerful, when it is done well it proclaims God in the world. And I want it known because not everyone does it well. I hope we grow our good worship. It is easy for worship, like anything else, to supplant our discipleship. Today, everything is different. The leaders are not vested. The beautiful things from our space are not here. The bread is simpler. The acoustics are nonexistent. The liturgy is simplified. We’re all waiting for the picnic to start. We have no idea how offering or communion will happen, but we are gonna do it. And nonetheless, it will be Holy Communion. And when it is done we will be able to look at it and say, “That was church. The gospel was proclaimed and the sacraments administered. In that time and in that space, Christ was present and the Holy Spirit was moving in the assembly, calling us to liberate those held captive by Sin.”

For that is our work. When we speak and act as disciples, our audience is not the imaginary masses we will wow; rather, it is the Father who speaks the world into existence, the Son who died and was raised from the dead to free the world from Sin, and the Holy Spirit who dwells in all of us and everything, working to liberate us.