— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
Luke 13:10-17; Jeremiah 1:4-10
Several years ago, I heard about a church-split that resulted in a new church being formed out of the existing church and the remaining members changing their name to better identify themselves. It appears that a healthy discussion involving ethics came about in one of the large classes. The ethical question was this: “If you had to lie in order to save someone’s life, would you do it…would that be the most-godly thing to do under the circumstances…to lie?” Part of the group held firmly to a position that lying was the most-loving and godly thing to do in that circumstance—a situational ethics approach. The rest of the group held to the position that under no circumstances is lying appropriate…that God would somehow honor and protect those who upheld the ninth of the Ten Commandments. For weeks the discussion ensued eventually pulling into the discussion all of the members. Finally, the smaller group holding to the position that under no circumstances is it appropriate to lie decided to leave the others and start a new “purer” church. The new church was named “The Will Not Lie [blank] Church.” Not to be outdone, those remaining in the church decided to change the name of their church—“The Will Lie [blank] Church.” What started out as a healthy discussion ended in disaster.
Situation ethics advocates would have asked, “What is the most loving thing to do?” And that question, in my opinion, is always the right question when facing difficult decisions—not the easiest question to ask yourself, and not just the rule-following approach.
During the past twenty-five or so years, several church consulting groups have done some interesting research on why some Christian churches have experienced healthy growth while others have struggled to stay alive.
Christian Schwarz is one of the larger church development gurus. The results of his ongoing, international study since 1986, includes more than 40,000 evangelical and mainline churches, isolating eight quality characteristics of healthy churches from his group’s research.
Diana Butler Bass’s Lily Foundation team pinpointed ten quality characteristics from their research of mainline-only churches in the United States.
Obviously, today’s lectionary readings have something to do with both Schwarz’s “Eight Quality Characteristics” and Bass’s “Ten Signposts of Renewal.” Both studies would have something to say to the first century synagogue at which Jesus was present and teaching on that Sabbath in Luke’s lectionary reading for today.
While he was teaching, Jesus became aware of a woman whose arthritis was so bad that she was bent over and unable to hold her head up. Pausing during his teaching, as the writer of Luke tells the story, he called her over, laid his hands on her and told her that she was set free from her illness. Immediately, she straightened up and offered praise to God.
Furious because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader began admonishing the congregation and Jesus. “You have six days to do your work. If you want to be healed, come here on one of the six days, but not on the Sabbath.”
Jesus responded, “How is it that all of us can lead our cows and donkeys from the stall on the Sabbath to experience the freedom of drinking water, but you want to prohibit my leading this woman out her physical confinement?”
Luke doesn’t describe a “happy situation” or “loving relationships” in that synagogue—one of the healthy characteristics listed in both Schwarz’s and Bass’s research.
While the terminology is different in the two separate church development research lists, the basic characteristics are present in both. The “loving relationships” characteristic seems to be present in two of the Lilly Foundation’s healthy church characteristics—healing and hospitality, though both contain more than Schwarz’s love quotient. The characteristic of healing within Bass’s 50 churches is best described as inner peace. Those congregations had a desire for harmony in all aspects of life—spiritual harmony, physical harmony, emotional harmony, and relational harmony. Bass’s hospitality characteristic was not limited to those within the congregation. It especially included hospitality toward those who were not in the congregation. Another church consultant, Paul Borden, says, “people are not looking for friendly in a church; they are looking for friends.”
All that the Schwarz group and the Bass team discovered is not new. Jesus said it 2,000 years ago to his group of Twelve Disciples as he played host at their last meal and as he played servant by washing their feet. “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for one another.” (John 13:35 The Message)
What are some of the things we can do to bring health and harmony into our lives and into our churches? When I was a young pastor in my late-twenties, I read an impressive sermon in the “Pulpit Digest” magazine by a Lutheran clergyman and academician who later became the Dean of Harvard Divinity School, then became Bishop of Stockholm’s Church of Sweden—Krister Stendahl.
In her newest 2019 book, Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor recounted Stendahl’s experience soon after returning to Sweden. A new Mormon temple in Stockholm was nearing completion and significant opposition was mounting in this 1985 year. Despite Sweden’s long history of welcoming religious strangers, hostility toward Mormons and their new temple was rising. At a press conference prior to the dedication of the building, Stendahl sought to defuse tension by proposing three rules of religious understanding, which I would say are “three good rules” applicable to understanding people of all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds:
- When trying to understand another religion [ethnic group or race], you should ask the adherents of that [group] religion and not its enemies.
- Don’t compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for holy envy [characteristics you admire and would like to see flourish in yourself].
Barbara’s book title obviously came as an inspiration from Stendahl’s last phrase.
Here are some additional things on my list to bring health and harmony into our lives. Begin with your own spiritual healthiness…peace or harmony. It’s hard to be angry with someone when you pray for her or him. Ask God to forgive you of your unhealthy ways and begin to name them as they come to your mind. Confession has been at the heart of our reform theology.
Emotional peace…feed your soul. Exercise, go for a walk or a run. Sign up for a yoga class. Listen to music that feeds the soul. Psychologists have learned that stringed instruments are normally the most pleasing to the brain—an acoustic guitar, cello, violin, piano… And, if you choose music that has about 60 beats per minute, your heart will slow down and get in sync with the music.
Read a book with a solid moral base. Watch a movie that has an inspiring storyline. Call a lonely neighbor. Do something for someone else. In the process, you will find your life more meaningful.
One of the best ways to overcome discouragement and depression is to focus on someone besides yourself. Find things to laugh about. Learn to laugh at yourself. When Norman Cousins was fighting cancer, he took to watching old Laurel and Hardy movies. Nothing clears the mind like good comedy. Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”
Physical harmony…get more rest, get more exercise, eat healthier foods. Remember that your body is the temple of God. Take good care of it. Jesus’ advice to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength means taking good care of your body. You’re happier when you feel better, physically.
And, relational harmony. Unhealthy relationships can create all sorts of physical and emotional problems. One of the finest compliments that can be said of any church is that “they like each other.” That was Jennifer’s and my comment to each other after worshipping at Nacoochee Presbyterian Church three years ago, prior to moving to Sautee. A church that knows how to love has a far more influential ability than any program of evangelism or outreach can ever have. People don’t want to hear us talk about love; they want to experience how it really works.
Judith Viorst—author, journalist, psychoanalysis researcher and writer of great children’s books, like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day—says, “Close friends contribute to our personal growth. They also contribute to our personal pleasure, making the music sound sweeter, the wine taste richer, the laughter ring louder because they are there.”
So, the next time you read this unhappy story of Jesus at this place meant for spiritual growth, think how happy the story could have ended had everyone had each other’s best interest at heart…had that synagogue had the love quotient. And, consider inviting some new friends over for coffee, dessert, or a meal.
Holy Lord, teach us how to love and enjoy each other as we are loved and enjoyed by you. AMEN.
1 Christian A. Schwarz, Natural Church Development (St. Charles, IL, ChurchSmart Resources: 1996), Website information found at: http://www.ncd-international.org/public/.
2 Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2006.
3 Barbara Brown Taylor. “Holy Envy.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/holy-envy/id1229830097
GOSPEL LUKE 13:10-17
10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And 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. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But 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.” 15But 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? 16And 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?” 17When 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.
First Reading Jeremiah 1:4-10
4Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” 9Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”