21 August 2016
‘How we look on other people and the need for Grace’
Canon David Stranack
I am very glad I never became a politician. And I am sure there are many others especially those who know me who would agree. I would not have been any good at it.
But I do feel very sorry for those who are elected to serve our country in that way, for it seems to me that as soon as they are elected they have to face public scrutiny, criticism from many sides and often blame for everything that goes wrong in the country.
And the media are particularly skilled at researching the lives of every prominent person. As soon as they are placed in a position of privilege or responsibility in society the media immediately start to search for some misdemeanour or some peccadillo of their past. Sometimes it virtually amounts to character assassination.
While we easily deplore their tactics, sadly in our country we are all too easily prone to joining in the sport. The spirit of destructive criticism is very contagious and any of us can easily find ourselves caught up in it.
I remember hearing the wise advice many years ago that if one cannot say something good about a person it is better not to say anything.
In our Gospel reading today we heard how Jesus met two very different people in the synagogue. One of them had certainly been infected by that spirit of destructive criticism.
We heard how a faithful member; an old lady who, with probably some considerable pain, struggled to come to worship at the synagogue; the other person was the leader of the synagogue.
The old lady was bent over. She had a curvature of the spine and was unable to straighten herself up and, we are told, she had suffered this way for 18 years. As she walked along, bent double all she could see would have been a small area of ground immediately in front of her feet.
Every movement was difficult for her and she was probably clutching a stick to support her as she struggled to walk along.
The leader of the synagogue however, was able to stand upright and presumably also saw himself as very upright member of the community. He could hold his head high but sadly he used that advantage to look down on everyone else.
He was quick to point out when people did wrong. He tried to make sure that people kept the rules of their faith and did not stray. He was a law-abiding citizen and it is true we do need such people – the trouble is, he was so unbending and he regarded the law as more important than people.
When the woman arrived on that Sabbath day and Jesus saw her struggling to her place, he invited her to come closer. Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ Then Jesus laid his hands upon her back and she was able to stand up straight. She was once more able to look upwards and outwards.
Jesus had freed her from being in that locked position. And Jesus had enabled her to have a new vision of life. She could look up and see the world around her. The woman was so thrilled that she immediately began praising God.
Now you would think everyone else there would be thrilled too. But the leader of the synagogue was not pleased; in fact, he was indignant. He was annoyed because it was the Sabbath day when Jesus had healed the woman.
By the Jewish Law of Moses, the Sabbath was a day of rest when no one should work and this man considered that by healing the woman Jesus had done work on the Sabbath and had therefore broken the Jewish Law. The man would not bend: to him the law was all important, the law was sacrosanct.
He 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.’ Interestingly, he himself looked like a man who was free but he had in fact become bound with a narrow outlook on what he thought God requires. He was caught up in law rather than love.
The sad thing was that he, and so many of the religious leaders and people at that time were concentrating on the details of their laws and regulations.
They could no longer see the real spirit and essence of God’s Law which was meant to guide the people to love God and to love one another. Instead the rules had become the chief purpose of their devotion and Jesus was boldly challenging this.
In Christianity the individual comes before the system. Indeed it is true to say that without Christianity there can be no such thing as democracy, because Christianity alone guarantees and defends the value of the ordinary individual person.
If ever Christian principles are set aside from political and economic life there is nothing to prevent the formation of a totalitarian state where the individual is lost in the system and exists, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the system.
This may well be the reason why nations that do not cherish or even understand the Christian ethos find it hard to set up or maintain what we would recognise as democracy.
But this is also true for ourselves in our local situation. We have to be prepared to look at our lives and our attitudes afresh.
People today in everyday life can so easily get stuck in fixed routines and traditions and bad habits, perhaps by pursuing some personal interest while ignoring other people around them, or perhaps by refusing to adapt in an ever changing world.
It is so easy to become bound to a certain way of life or to certain attitudes and find we have left no room for flexibility, no room for other people or other issues.
Sometime we need to let go of those things that are holding us back or giving us a distorted view: of the world, of our faith, or of our own way of life.
We have to be prepared to be challenged and be ready to change. To have our lives straightened up by Jesus.
Just as the woman was healed by Jesus and was straightened up and had a new vision of the world about her so Jesus in his mission is urging each of us to accept God’s offer to straighten us up and to give us a clearer vision – his vision – his way of looking at the world about us.
Now up to this point you and I are perhaps tempted to picture that man in the Gospel and lots of other people like him and to say – ‘how could they be so blind and uncaring?’
But let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves – ‘have we ever been tempted to look down on or criticize others because they are not behaving how we think they should?
We are called to be inclusive in our attitude to others, just as Jesus accepted everyone who came to him even those who were considered the rejects of society.
Even if someone is very different from us they are still loved by God every bit as much as we ourselves. Our churches are called to be inclusive, welcoming communities for all and we must never look down on or reject anyone in life.
In the sixteenth century John Bradford was standing in the street as some criminals were being led past to execution. He said, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’. As Christians we know we are offered the grace of God to help us live lives more worthy of God. But that is God’s gift to us not through our own achieving, and we should therefore not look down on those who do not have that gift to guide their lives.
Sometimes, as in today’s Gospel, there are times for rules, laws or customs to be set aside when there is the greater call for love and compassion.
We so easily shelter behind the ways and customs that may have been right in the past but which now become heavy chains that can shackle and weigh us down. If we remain unbending or become inflexible then we can easily shut out others or make them feel unwanted or unloved.
Philip Yancey in his wonderful book ‘What’s so amazing about Grace?’ (which I warmly recommend) begins by telling of the experience of a friend of his who came across a homeless mother who had turned to the very depths of degradation for both herself and her child in order to buy food and drugs. His friend asked her if she had thought of going to a church for help.
‘Church!’ She cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I am already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’
In Jesus’ day it was the destitute and those rejected by society who flocked to him for help. If they do not feel able to turn to us, his followers of today, maybe it’s because we are seen as those who are crippled in our vision.
Sadly so many people outside the church still see Christians as those who are quick to judge, quick to condemn and scornful of those who fail. I believe we are trying to change but there is still much to be done.
We do need to recapture that same attitude of our Lord towards those who came to him for help. His chief aim was to show love and compassion, and to do whatever he could.
In our prayers and in our worship we often use the word ‘grace’. It is such a wonderful word and Philip Yancey explores its meaning in a very helpful way.
Basically God’s grace is about God’s unconditional love and compassion. That is his attitude to each of us. And when we pray that the ‘grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ may be in us, that means we are praying that we too may exercise unconditional love and compassion towards our fellow human beings.
I believe we need to have the humility to ask God to give us the grace to show his kind of unconditional love and compassion towards all whom we meet in our daily lives however challenging that may be for us personally.
And may we have the grace to speak well of people, to counter the temptation to be critical of others and instead to commend that which is good and put people before our own prejudices and intolerance.
I would like to conclude with those wonderful words of St Paul in Philippians 4 (v.8):
‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’
And let us not only think about these good and positive things but also be eager to speak about them and put them into action.