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Morning sermon
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 25, 2013
Our experience of the Gospel today reminds me of a family vacation we took 25 years ago. That summer we went to Williamsburg, Virginia and one day we went to the Busch Gardens amusement park nearby. In those days, 5-year-old Jonathan thought dinosaurs were the greatest living things that ever walked the earth and, sure enough, as we walked near one of the booths, Jonathan spied a 3 foot tall, stuffed velociraptor, the grand prize at an archery booth. Try as he might, nearly 11-year-old Mandy could not put three arrows in the bull’s eye no matter how hard he tried. So I offered to try for it myself, and Mandy collapsed in a paroxysm of laughter. “Dad, you can hardly hit a golf ball! You can never hit, or catch, a baseball! You can’t even hit a tennis ball with a big racket!” — All of which is 100% true. But nevertheless, I paid my dollar and, exactly three arrows later, Jonathan was carrying a stuffed velociraptor all over the park. Mandy was stunned. You see, I never told him that I had been a Boy Scout and that my very first merit page was for archery. To this day, I seldom miss the mark.
“Missing the mark,” however, missing the goal of God’s kingdom is exactly what’s happening in the Gospel narrative today. Those good people and their leaders were trying very hard to faithfully live lives of faith, but their well-meaning practice was missing God’s kingdom’s goal. Not unusual, even for us today. And, like all such well-meaning but misguided religious practices, then and now, someone is always getting tossed aside, someone is always getting hurt. In this narrative, it’s the crippled, unable-to-straighten-up woman. In our contemporary narrative? Well, you can name the victims as easily as I.

Like so many good, church-going people today, these and their leaders were doing the best they can to make it in a tough, oppressive, out-of-control world. They lived under the thumb of an oppressive empire; they were burdened with endless taxes, repeated indignities, continuous conscriptions, with unrelenting demands on their time and their resources. Seemingly nothing in their life was under their control. They were always afraid — fear and anxiety were always below the surface, always in the atmosphere.
They and their leaders had learned to go along with the injustices and indignities in order to get along. That makes them not that much different from us. The only thing barely left in their control was their religious identity and they applied — they thought faithfully —every jot and tittle and rule not just on others, but also and equally on themselves. This bent-down, faithful woman was one of them — she was, after all, with them in the synagogue when Jesus showed up — and with them she rigorously applied these religious principles, on herself. For eighteen years she suffered. She was a victim. So were they all.

In Luke’s narrative it’s not hard to know why. Given the imperial political and economic system; given all their oppressors demanded of them, it’s not hard to understand the “go along to get along” attitude of these people and their leaders. Like all of them, this woman worked hard and bore any number of physical and social burdens. These might have made her ill or, more likely, reduced her to the indignity of bowing low and begging. She lived not only with Roman oppression but with her own co-religionists’ oppression. They all did.
And then Jesus showed up — to show them the goal of God’s kingdom. To show them and us, how to be religious and faithful and not miss God’s kingdom’s goal.

God’s kingdom, Jesus told them and showed them, has only one purpose and goal. The goal is to end suffering, to remove burdens, to give life where there is less than life, to seek justice and compassion. The goal of God’s kingdom is that no one should suffer and life in God’s kingdom is about people, all people and not about following rules. In fact, Jesus told them as he showed them, the rules themselves were given for the sake of all people and are never to be applied at the expense of some. Finally, Jesus told them as he showed them — and his indignation is the clearest indication of this — that, as citizens of God’s kingdom who live surrounded by and under oppression — they ought not be afraid and they ought not “go along to get along,” because, like that woman, their dignity has been restored and they can stand up for themselves. The evangelist gives us their response to Jesus’ message: “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that [God] was doing.”
Religion in general and Christianity in particular, is in trouble today. Being religious while missing the goal of God’s kingdom, being observant while forgetting the purpose of Christ’s living, dying and rising is one of the reasons for that. It’s hard for “the entire crowd” to rejoice when some of us are victims. And that’s yet another reason why it’s absolutely essential that the whole Church listen to Christ, and feed on Christ and let Jesus Christ guide what we teach and sharpen our aim, less we miss God’s kingdom’s goal.

Just to say again: The goal of God’s kingdom is to end suffering, the remove burdens, to give life where there is less than life, to give hope for life where there is only death. To focus on that goal is to get an entirely different response. In the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer puts it this way: “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer acceptable worship with reverence and awe, to God. So, as Jesus shows us in that woman, we can stand up straight and give God praise.