21 August 2016

When there is no longer us and them,
we move from sentiment to action

The Kahal Shalom Synagogue, with the women’s gallery behind and above the tevah (Photograph: I, Sailko/Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 21 August 2016,

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity,

11 a.m., The Choral Eucharist

Isaiah 58: 9b-14; Psalm 103: 1-8; Hebrews 12: 18-29; Luke 13: 10-17.

In the name of + the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Listening to the choir of a great cathedral, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, here this morning, brings a sharp contrast with the simple setting of a provincial, unnamed synagogue in the middle of nowhere in Palestine. This morning’s Gospel readings reminds me too of the Kahal Shalom Synagogue, the last surviving, functioning synagogue on the Greek island of Rhodes, and an elderly woman who gave me a guided tour of that synagogue, not just once but twice during a hot summer’s week in Greece.

The interior of the synagogue follows the traditional Sephardic style of having the tevah or reading platform in the centre, facing south-east towards Jerusalem. Behind it and above is the balcony, created in 1935 as a women’s prayer area.

Before that, women sat in rooms beside the south wall of the synagogue, and could see into the main body of the synagogue, through curtained openings. Those rooms now house the Jewish Museum of Rhodes.

The woman who showed me around, Lucia Modiano Soulam, was bent over and then in her 80s. She was a woman of exceptional bravery with an extraordinary story. She was a survivor of Auschwitz and she spoke Greek, Ladino, Italian, a little French and Turkish and very little English.

Because there are only seven Jewish families left on Rhodes, the synagogue depends on tourists to make up a minyan and to lead public prayers.

As a family, we attended a sabbath service in the synagogue as her guest, and she sat with us, so that there were two women among a congregation in which the minyan was made up thanks to Israeli and American tourists.

I think of her as being captive to Satan in Auschwitz for many years because of the sins of so many men. Now she was old and bent over, but taking her place in a synagogue where once she was seen only in the balcony above and behind the tevah, or behind the screens and curtains in the women’s rooms. In her suffering, Lucia had become, truly, a Daughter of Abraham.

Christ healing an infirm woman on the Sabbath, by James Tissot (1886-1896)

The woman in this morning’s story is unnamed … but then, so too with the town in which the synagogue is located, the leader of the synagogue and the protagonists too. Apart from Jesus, the only other human name used is that of Abraham.

An icon of the Nativity of Christ … the ox and the ass are inseparably linked with the manger, but are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity

Not even the ox and the donkey in verse 15 are named. I am only half-jesting, because the ox and ass may also remind us of the ox and ass at the manger at the first Christmas – even though they do not appear in either Gospel account of the Nativity. Or they may remind us of the colt who is untied so Christ can ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (see Luke 19: 30, 33).

This woman is unique, for no other woman in the Bible is referred to as a daughter of Abraham. Indeed, Genesis records no named daughter of Abraham, and the rabbis argue whether Abraham had any daughters.

There are two men in Saint Luke’s Gospel that she might be compared with:

1, The unnamed rich man in the story of ‘Dives’ and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31), a Gospel reading for later next month [25 September 2016]. This man addresses Abraham as ‘father’ or ‘Father Abraham,’ and he in turn is addressed by Abraham as ‘Child.’ But in this morning’s Gospel story, the child of Abraham is the outsider who has been left waiting on the margins for too long and is brought in. So the woman is more like Lazarus than ‘Dives.’

2, The description of the woman as daughter of Abraham is matched later in this Gospel when Christ insists that Zacchaeus is ‘a son of Abraham’ (Luke 19: 9; 30 October 2016), a point that is also made before of a crowd, a crowd that rejects Zacchaeus the tax collector as a sinner. Think of how this woman’s physical position of being bent over is symbolic in the same way that Zacchaeus is short in stature.

In this morning’s story, Christ shows what it means to be a citizen of God’s kingdom – through his actions. He heals this woman and calls her a “daughter of Abraham,” which makes her, remarkably, a full member of society. Christ is saying the Kingdom is open equally to women and to the sick and to the disabled and to those on the margins.

This woman does not ask to be healed, and no one asks for healing on her behalf. Christ notices her himself (verse 12), and this means he has to turn around when she enters the synagogue while he is teaching. She is behind him, either above in the balcony or hidden behind a curtain. She is invisible to Christ until he turns around.

Christ turns around, calls her down or calls her over, tells her she is free, and gives her a place in the centre of the community where she joins the men in praising God.

This story continues the story in Luke 4, where Christ reads from and teaches from the scroll in the synagogue. He is now putting into action in the synagogue what he has already taught in the synagogue.

Christ sets her free, he unties the woman. But what was she tied to? To her disability and her infirmity? To Satan? To her community’s refusal to accept her? To one interpretation of what could or could not be done on the sabbath?

Christ says to the woman, “… you have been set free” (ἀπολέλυσαι, apolélusai) “from your weakness” (verse 12). It is translated here with the present tense, “you are set free.” This word (απολουω, apoluo) is not usually associated with healing. Its general meaning is “to loose,” to unbind, to release, to send away, even to divorce (see Matthew 5: 32; 19: 3, 7, 8, 9).

It can refer to the bandages used to tie a woman to her husband. It is closely related to a word used twice by Christ in this story (λύω, luo) – to “untie” an ox or donkey (verse 15) and to “set free” from bondage (verse 16).

Is this a story about divorce after 18 years of an abusive marriage?

Is this is a story about controversy and division?

Is this a story about healing, wholeness and restoration?

Or – given the two synagogue settings we have seen this morning – is this a story about the practical relationship between what we believe and what we do – getting the balance right between believing and doing, between being and doing?

One of the areas I teach in is Patristics. In other words, I enjoy reading old sermons and letters from the East Mediterranean, especially when they are written in Greek.

During the past week, I was reading a sermon preached in Caesarea about 16½ centuries ago by the great Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘On Love for the Poor’ (Oration 14, ‘On Love for the Poor’).

It was the late 360s, and the city was in the midst of an outbreak of leprosy. Gregory describes a ‘terrible,’ ‘pitiable’ and ‘unbelievable’ sight of people, dead and alive, with mutilated bodies that made them ‘scarcely recognisable.’

In claiming, in demanding recognition, they called out the names of their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, the names of their families, friends and homes. Gregory noted: ‘They do this because they cannot be recognised by their former shape; they are truncated human beings, deprived of possessions, family, friends and their very bodies.’

But their calls fell on deaf ears. Fathers drove their children away, and those who were physically unrecognisable became morally unrecognisable too. They became non-people, with no human rights, with no recognition of their shared humanity.

Gregory responds by invoking the doctrine of the imago Dei. The lepers can no longer care for themselves or look after themselves. They have lost their human form, yet he declares they have not lost their divine likeness. He tells the people of Caesarea in his sermon:

‘This is how they are suffering … our brothers and sisters before God (even if you prefer not to think so) who share the same nature with us, who have been put together from the same clay from which we first came, who are strung together with nerves and bones in the same way we are, who have put on flesh and skin like all of us … Or rather, if I must speak of greater things, they have been made in the image of God in the same way you and I have.’ (Brian E Daley, Gregory of Nazianzus, Oxford: Routledge, 2006, p 83.)

But Gregory does not stop there. He argues that because these people ‘have been made in the image of God’ the community is obliged to do something. He tells the people listening to his sermon that they must offer relief, give them money, give them gifts, including food, clothing and medicine, dress their wounds, and speak up for them.

From start to finish, his sermon is a call to action. The Church is to include those who have been excluded by society. When we recognise that someone is made in the image of God, then we must include them. In other words, recognition of this truth involves a moral obligation towards those one the margins.

Who are on the margins for me today, those I would rather not see?

• Muslims?
• Women in hijabs?
• The Syrian refugees?
• A child in an ambulance in Aleppo?
• The migrants in the Mediterranean?
• The Mexicans who may be forced behind a wall after November?
• The children in Calais?
• The homeless?
• The long-term unemployed?
• Families in direct provision?
• Those who are bound to dehumanising relationships because of bad or broken marriages?
• Those whose humanity, being in the image of God, is denied by my Church because of their sexuality?
• Those in debt?
• Those from the north side?
• Those from the south side?
• Those with whom I have profound and deep differences, politically and socially?

Once I recognise one of these as a child of God, once I recognise one of these as a brother or sister, once I realise that they too are made in the image and likeness of God, then there is no longer us and them. Then my compassion has to stop being sentimental and has to turn to action. Then it stops being a choice and starts being an obligation. For in Christ there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Almighty God,
who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our creator,
you feed your children with the true manna,
the living bread from heaven.
Let this holy food sustain us through our earthly pilgrimage
until we come to that place
where hunger and thirst are no more;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 13: 10-17

10 Ην δὲ διδάσκων ἐν μιᾷ τῶν συναγωγῶν ἐν τοῖς σάββασιν. 11 καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ πνεῦμα ἔχουσα ἀσθενείας ἔτη δεκαοκτώ, καὶ ἦν συγκύπτουσα καὶ μὴ δυναμένη ἀνακύψαι εἰς τὸ παντελές. 12 ἰδὼν δὲ αὐτὴν ὁ Ἰησοῦς προσεφώνησεν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Γύναι, ἀπολέλυσαι τῆς ἀσθενείας σου, 13 καὶ ἐπέθηκεν αὐτῇ τὰς χεῖρας: καὶ παραχρῆμα ἀνωρθώθη, καὶ ἐδόξαζεν τὸν θεόν. 14 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἀρχισυνάγωγος, ἀγανακτῶν ὅτι τῷ σαββάτῳ ἐθεράπευσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, ἔλεγεν τῷ ὄχλῳ ὅτι Ἓξ ἡμέραι εἰσὶν ἐν αἷς δεῖ ἐργάζεσθαι: ἐν αὐταῖς οὖν ἐρχόμενοι θεραπεύεσθε καὶ μὴ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοῦ σαββάτου. 15 ἀπεκρίθη δὲ αὐτῷ ὁ κύριος καὶ εἶπεν, Ὑποκριταί, ἕκαστος ὑμῶν τῷ σαββάτῳ οὐ λύει τὸν βοῦν αὐτοῦ ἢ τὸν ὄνον ἀπὸ τῆς φάτνης καὶ ἀπαγαγὼν ποτίζει; 16 ταύτην δὲ θυγατέρα Ἀβραὰμ οὖσαν, ἣν ἔδησεν ὁ Σατανᾶς ἰδοὺ δέκα καὶ ὀκτὼ ἔτη, οὐκ ἔδει λυθῆναι ἀπὸ τοῦ δεσμοῦ τούτου τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοῦ σαββάτου; 17 καὶ ταῦτα λέγοντος αὐτοῦ κατῃσχύνοντο πάντες οἱ ἀντικείμενοι αὐτῷ, καὶ πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἔχαιρεν ἐπὶ πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐνδόξοις τοῖς γινομένοις ὑπ' αὐτοῦ.

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15 But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Choral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Dublin, on 21 August 2016.

• Updated 21 August 2016 to take account of alterations as I preached this sermon

1 comment:

Frank Callery said...

Two small words that contain all, 'and' between them the worn and twisted conjunction of their DNA.