When Religion Does Not Bring Life

A panda walks into a bank and hands over an empty bag to the bank teller. In one hand hehas a gun and in the other he has a banana. The position is clear. The bank teller hurriedly fills the bag with money, while the panda eats his banana. When the bag is full the panda shoots his gun in the air, collects the money and hurries out of the door.  Sometime later the police track him down and arrest him, and in his defence he says “I was simply doing what I am made to do.” Pointing to the dictionary he reads, “You see: Panda — eats shoots and leaves.”

Our family has a beautiful rabbit, it is very much a part of the family, and it has been around for as long as my brothers and sisters can remember.  It is the fattest rabbit you’ll ever find, but what is really special about it, is that it is a house rabbit.  She is not confined in a hutch, it knows nothing about netting and fences, but instead has the whole run of the house and my mother’s garden to enjoy.  It is always worth watching our rabbit Jess, because she thinks that she is a cat. During the winter evenings she can be seen trying to cuddle up to the cats, during the day she chases them around the place, seemingly bemused that they are faster and can jump higher than she can.  She  may be a rabbit, but she lives like a cat.

We are experiencing something similar in our own house at the moment.  Whilst my mother has a rabbit which thinks it is a cat, we have a son who is desperate to be a cat as well.  I found him yesterday morning on all fours exhibiting a perfect cat pose, watching our two kittens eating their dinner from their bowls. Now thankfully Isaac does not try to eat their food, he would have rather a nasty shock if he did.  But nevertheless he is trying his hardest to mimic those kittens and to join in wherever he can with their activities.

What does it mean to be who we are? Pandas may try to work that out, as might rabbits, we do not know. Whether my son Isaac is simply having fun with the cats, or as I suspect, trying to work out who he is and what he is supposed to be doing with himself, we know that those are questions which we frequently ponder in our own lives. Who are we? Why are we? What makes us who we are?

Those questions are at the heart of the encounter which we experience this morning in our Gospel reading. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, the religious place of prayer, and he sees before him a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years, bent over double and unable to stand up.  It does not take much imagining for us to be able to sense some of the pain which she must have felt, the agony which she lived with, the lack of movement which limited her every movement.  There would have been little doubt in her own mind, and in the minds of those around her, about why she found herself in such a position. Even in the text the Gospel writers determine that the cause is a spirit.  She is crippled by an evil spirit, her being bent double is the work of the devil, and it has not happened by chance.

Her condition has been caused either by her own sins, or by the sins of ancestors. So her being bent low, is not just a physical condition: she is literally bent over, as a sign that she is an outcast; she does not deserve to hold her head up, because of her sin, or because of others sins.  We can imagine the kind of things which she would have said, had she been asked those questions which we have just been pondering. Who are you? I am the lowest of the low, I do not deserve to be a part of society.  Why are you? Because of my terrible sins, and the sins of my ancestors. We have done so much wrong that I am not worthy to stand up strong like everyone else.  If people thought those things of her, and if she thought them of herself, it is not likely that she was ever invited to the party. On the contrary she was shunned by the people around her, she was judged every time she walked down the road.

Do you know that religion can be evil?  We set up for ourselves such systems, such beliefs and practices (which we justify through our texts and traditions) that marginalise, and oppress, and put onto other people all of those things which we really feel inside about ourselves. Sometimes we do it so well that people begin to believe it all. Good happy people begin to believe that they are worthless and sinful: the Church is an expert at it. Psychologists alert us to the fact that those who speak loudest against other people’s lives are often those who are most unhappy with their own. We shout loudest about other people’s actions when we are most uncomfortable about our own sins, that we deflect the bright spotlight on to other people’s failings in the hope that that light won’t shine upon us, so that we are not called to account for our own faults and transgressions.

This poor handicapped woman, who encounters Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning, and who needs the most help from those around her; in fact receives the least help from the religious people of her day. Instead of supporting her in her infirmity, they damn and condemn her by placing upon her the sins of them all.  And because we are religious people, here this morning, we should remember that we need to be especially careful to examine our own lives, to ensure that we are not doing the same thing to those who people who are marginalised in our society. I say that because as I travel around in this region I hear good Christian people say the strangest things about people who are coming here as asylum seekers, I hear Christian people say the most peculiar things about aboriginals, and single mothers, and gay and lesbian people. And if I stop and examine my own actions, I realise that I am all too easy to condemn others, and to even find words of Jesus to use to condemn others as well.

Jesus’ response in our Gospel reading this morning is quite different. He simply says to her, “woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And she is. Of course, it is this same Jesus, who has been remembered elsewhere in the Gospels as the one who challenges those without sin to cast the first stone, it’s the same Jesus who cured the lepers, the ones who were seen as the greatest outcasts, it is the same Jesus who mixes with the most undesirable of groups in society: the Samaritans and the tax collectors.

Can you imagine that woman, bent over double for eighteen years, living with all of the pain and the shame, now standing up straight, being able to look at those around her directly in the eyes, and all because of the words of Jesus.   The words of new life which the Son of God, speaks to her, and to us all.  What would any decent person, who was in their right mind have done next, what would you have done?  The only response to an event such as this enfolding before you, would have been to celebrate. To go to that woman and to share her joy, to give thanks to God for the miracle which has occurred. To be a part of it, to start the party that that woman has missed out on for so many years.

We have come across the Pharisees enough in the story of Jesus to not be surprised that they respond in a very different way. We need to remember that the Pharisees are really not the bad guys, (because of what we read in the Gospels we tend to have a fairly harsh bias against them). But their intentions are always good.  In response to many of their contemporaries leaving the Jewish faith, or becoming less devout in their worship, the Pharisees were the ones who were trying to bun. g people back to God, they were trying to raise the profile in people’s lives of the need to keep the Jewish laws, for the sake of following God’s commandments.  But in trying to keep the laws, they have lost sight of the human needs of the people around them. So when Jesus cures the woman, there response is not one of celebration, but of indignation.  “How could he do this on the Sabbath, on the day of rest?”  They put the Jewish law above the work of God, they are so busy trying to be holy that they are not watching out for God’s work in their midst.

It is a trap which we can all fall into. Many of you will know the name of William Wilberforce, he was the English Christian prophet whose campaign brought the end of slavery in the British Empire. He argued that it was incompatible for those who followed Christ, and who sought to bring the reign of God (the love and peace of the Kingdom of God) to the world, to also be involved in the business of slavery.  He is a champion of the Christian faith, and his story should rightly be known and celebrated.  What is less well known, is that the Bishops of the Church of England at that time, fought against him and his ideas of slave emancipation.  What’s more they used scripture to back up their argument in order to try and keep slavery. In South Africa, apartheid was built on a  Christian system of living, and was upheld by the Africaans Churches interpretation of scripture.

The signs of the Kingdom of God in our midst,  are the sounds of laughter and of celebration for everyone, not just a few.  We know that God is at work when people are being lifted up rather than being bent down, when stigma is being removed, and the marginalised are being welcomed into the centre of our society and our community.

The story of the woman healed by Jesus not only reminds us that Jesus has the power to reconcile and heal and make new. It should also make us more painfully aware of the Church’s inability (just like the Pharisees) throughout its history, to live up to the life of Christ in our own activities.

So we come back to our original questions: Who are we? We are the hands and feet, and mouth of God. We can be used by God to bring that Kingdom in around us, or we can use our religious beliefs to cause immense harm to others, whilst making ourselves feel better.  Why are we? We are who we are, because God first loved us. We are members of the Church because we know what it means to be lifted up, to be made new and alive in Christ.  To be truly human is to be immersed in the Kingdom of God, where we are, here in this Parish.

Now the question is, what parts of this Church and our lives, don’t look like they belong to Jesus? What parts of this Church and our lives are driven more by immovable rules than by love?  And of course, a further question is, if we want to be an attractive community, to which others feel drawn, and then want to remain, what are we going to do about it?