the Third Sunday in Lent

24 March 2019

Luke 13. 1-9
Restoration through compassion, love, and charity – not retribution phrased as “Repent or Perish” – is the Word of God!

by Fred Behnken, parish lay minister

Many of us here this morning have had the experience of being told that you need to do something different, to change or suffer the consequences. We are all very familiar with living under the rules or “law” of society, culture, work and relationships and the consequences if we don’t measure up. Change your ways or else…. This was my mindset as I read the heading for this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 13:1-5, “Repent or Perish.”

I can just hear the disciples coming up and saying to Jesus, “Say, have you heard the latest from Jerusalem? What about those Galilean disciples in Jerusalem? They journeyed all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem, a difficult obligation and often dangerous journey from Galilea. Those pilgrims came to worship in the Temple for their once a year obligation. Pilate’s army ambushed and gruesomely killed them with the sword. Why? What did they do that we haven’t heard about that deserved such gruesome punishment? Their massacre was so bad that the Temple worship area was contaminated and ruled unclean by their blood. You can’t imagine the amount of work it took to clean it up and restore its holiness.” Jesus heard them. He heard what they were saying between the lines. Hidden in their comments was the assurance that the gruesome deaths were just retribution and punishment for sins known only to God. The conventional thinking of the day among the Hebrews was that if you were good and obeyed the Law and rules of the Talmud, God rewarded you. On the other hand, if you suffered, it meant you had done something bad. God was punishing you. For the general population, this was a way of not asking “why did this happen?” ….it offered no unanswered questions about “why?” God was in complete control…. rewording the faithful and punishing the unfaithful sinners. Those Galileans were slain because they sinned and, therefore, they suffered retribution at the hand of God. Those Galileans had to have been much more sinful than we ever could be, The Galileans who shared the latest news of Jerusalem felt better. Does that sound like anything you may have heard or read recently?

Jesus realized that those who were telling the story of the massacre in Jerusalem worshipped a god of their own making. The expectations of their god’s behavior reflected their own beliefs and behavior towards others. Treat me well and I’ll bless you. Make me angry and you’ll suffer. Jesus tells them to repent, that is “own up to their own sinfulness” by thinking you are better and avoided righteous punishment.

Today these verses are often taken at face value and preached literally here in Midland, Odessa and elsewhere. If you look, you can find numerous verses in the New Testament that emphasize and demand repentance (acknowledging, owning up to our behavior and feeling sorry about the deed). Proclaiming that repentance must precede forgiveness and salvation.

I asked myself as I read this gospel lesson several times. “Is the God that we worship as Lutherans in the ELCA a god of threats and retribution. Is our god wielding a club of retribution? No, this isn’t the God that Jesus reveals to us in his words, life, ministry, death and resurrection. Jesus reveals and lives a truly human life yet reveals our God as a god of the living, a god of restoration, like a healing salve that relieves pain and heals broken relationships.” Like I’ve been told many times if the Lectionary readings don’t proclaim the gospel, then put the gospel lesson in context by reading adjacent verses. And another suggestion, is to preach the Good News of the Gospel anyway.

Lo and behold, Luke answers the question of what our God is like in the very verses after our gospel for today. In Chapter 13: 14 and following, Luke tells us that Jesus interrupts teaching his followers gathered in a local synagogue. Jesus sees a woman walking outside. He notices that she is crippled and he shows compassion. Everyone else may have seen her as a momentary interruption to the important discourse and study of the Torah, Talmud and tradition. They saw her only as an unwanted disturbance. A disruption that took their focus away from study and worship with this new rabbi from Galilea. Jesus saw. He paused and interrupted his lesson to truly see. He recognized her need. He heals the woman by touching her. He says, “Woman you are set free from your ailment.” Jesus shows us what it’s like to be fully human, to see, to recognize that which cripples, twists, distorts, constrains and weakens, even when they pass momentarily through the fringes of our lives. Jesus demonstrates how to live the message of the Gospel of Love. Love has no timetable. Love requires no appointment. Jesus loves, forgives by healing and making whole without a word of repentance or plea for mercy from the woman once crippled, but now whole. She is forgiven. She is restored to live in the community. She experiences healing and wholeness that required no repentance or acknowledgement of being a cripple. She praises God as she straightens and realizes she is whole, no longer crippled.

The synagogue leader sees only Jesus’ disobedience to the rituals and requirements of the Sabbath. Sabbath was a day of rest, a day of study, praise and worship of god, Yahweh. The Talmud or traditions of the elders went so far as to say how far one could walk and still not be “working.” Yet, Jesus worked. Jesus healed. The leader emphatically pointed out that the woman’s healing could have been done any of the six days before or after today’s sabbath. The leader was concerned only about learning, discussing the Talmud and Torah. The practices, traditions of the Talmud and ordinances of Sabbath were more important to him than compassion that required work or healing. Ever being the wise rabbi, Jesus chose an example that would make the obvious point. He said that even the most reverent, holy and devout Jew will, on the Sabbath, still milk his goats or cows, feed them and untie his donkey or oxen, and lead them to water. The devout Jew will care for their animals because they would suffer. Shouldn’t this Jewish woman, this sister of Abraham and Sarah be shown care as well on the Sabbath. Shouldn’t she be untied, set free from her bondage?

Jesus’ powerfully rebuked the overly zealous emphasis on study, prayer and praise of the God of Abraham, Jacob and Moses. If Sabbath observance permits caring for animals, then caring for people is important and permitted, even on the Sabbath. Jesus pointed out that worship of the message of the prophets, the Talmud and the Torah are meaningless unless one lives that message. The prophets clearly proclaimed specifics when the leaders and the community of Israel abused or failed to care for the least of these, to care for the sick, hungry, the lame, the widows and the orphan.

Jesus shows that their worship, study and praise of the Torah blinded them to living the message of Yahweh within the community. Jesus sees, has compassion, and acts to free the woman from crippling disease, pain and rejection. She was shunned because of her ailment. She was pushed and forced to live on the very margins of the Jewish community. Jesus restores, heals and make her whole again. Jesus’ healing restores her to her place within the Jewish community. She was no longer “sick”. she was no longer unclean. No longer being punished and, therefore, was once again accepted into the community.

Looking at the area that we call the Permian Basin, there are numerous congregations which above all, devotedly love and honestly worship Jesus and the promise of salvation. They place the worship and praise of Jesus foremost. For some, the emphasis on personal salvation, focusing praise and worship of Jesus as God’s redeemer displaces the message of the Gospel that Jesus revealed. The emphasis may be upon grand buildings and programs as expressions of praise. Jesus is worshipped, hearts are opened to receive him, but the message of love, charity, grace and restoration outside the community…outside the walls is missing. The Gospel message is not lived for the sake of the other, for the world. The Gospel message as proclaimed in its fullness is meant to be lived, not kept holy, safe and secure within the walls of a building and within their hearts of worshippers.

Worshipping the messenger, means that Jesus’ message is minimized, perhaps never to be lived as love for others, in love and compassion. The word, the proclamation, touches, restores and brings wholeness to those who hear the Gospel message. The proclamation of the Gospel message of forgiveness and restoration opens new eyes of compassion, love and hope.

As a congregation of the ELCA in the Permian Basin, Midland Lutheran Church has a unique and challenging opportunity. We have shed our building but have not lost our identity. We are the Midland Lutheran congregation. We no longer own the buildings at 2705 West Michigan Ave, but we are sheltered. We have stepped away from a ministry and program focused on a place, a building. We are set free from the focus on a worship service within a building that we own. We are now free to explore the call of living the message of the Gospel, the love of Christ. We are in the process of discerning how the Gospel is leading our ministry to live in love. Living the Gospel outside these rented and borrowed walls.

Notice that the last slide on the screen this morning as we end the worship as the sending which says. “Go. Live. Love.” We leave the worship today, bearing witness to the message of God’s love, to live the message of compassion and forgiveness.

Pray and participate as we step into the unknown, living the message of our Lord Jesus. We are being led into paths, yet unknown and untrodden as we are led by God’s restorative love.

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