Fourth Sunday in Lent A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
1 Samuel 16:1-13
On the morning of August 24, 2013, volunteers from Love Wins Ministries in North Carolina arrived at the park at Moore Square, like they had been doing every Saturday and Sunday for the past six years. For six years, with the help of cooperating area churches and volunteers, they provided a hot breakfast and coffee for the poor, hungry, homeless, and anyone who needed it.
Except for that day. That day, as they were setting up for their weekly breakfast, a police officer informed them that if they passed out food, they would be arrested. No reason was given why, after six years, what they were doing was suddenly illegal. They weren’t even told what law they were breaking.
Given the choice that day between doing their ministry and going to jail, or walking away for the time being and trying to figure out what was going on, they chose the latter. Dozens of people that morning left hungry.
The situation of Love Wins is not unique. According to a the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, more and more cities are instituting bans on feeding the homeless. There seem to be two reasons for these bans. The first is a public safety concern, that there is no way to regulate the food being given out.
The second seems to be to motivate the homeless to seek assistance from regulated services—even when those services don’t exist. One of the main reasons Love Wins gave out breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays was because Raleigh’s official soup kitchens or other options are closed on the weekends.
There’s somewhat of a disparity between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.
I had read this story when it first came out, and it came to mind again reading our Gospel lesson for this morning. It is an amazing story of healing and a witness to the transformative power of God working in the lives of human beings. But it is also a story of blind obedience to the letter of the law and all the little rules we have.
It is important to note that the religious leaders in this story aren’t upset that Jesus healed a blind man. Not a single person would argue that giving this man his sight for the first time in his life was a bad thing. On the contrary, the healing itself was nothing but a cause for celebration.
No, what the religious leaders objected to was the fact that Jesus healed the man by mixing mud on the Sabbath.
According to the Sabbath laws, work was forbidden on that day, especially creative work. Mixing dirt and saliva creates mud. Therefore, Jesus broke the sabbath, and that’s all that matters.
This happens to Jesus all the time. In this story, he is accused of breaking the sabbath by mixing mud. In another story, his disciples are accused when they walk through a field and pick some grain to eat. Jesus heals multiple times on the sabbath, usually to the ire of his opponents. They didn’t care that what Jesus was doing was actually healing people. They cared that he was doing work on the day of rest—he was violating the “proper” way of doing things.
There is a word for this type of approach: legalism. According to the dictionary, legalism is the strict adherence to a law, especially to the letter rather than the spirit; or the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws. In theology, the term has come to mean that salvation, healing, and wholeness come through specific works. One of the injustices that the 16th century reformers fought against was the legalistic approach to the saving power of God.
Our society is no stranger to legalism. Because of the letter of the law, a woman who fires a warning shot in her own home to scare off an attacker is set to go to retrial and face 60 years in prison. Or someone who swindles millions of dollars out of people in the stock market can get away with it on any number of technicalities in the letter of the law.
It’s pretty obvious that Jesus isn’t a legalist. There’s a reason the Pharisees and religious authorities keep harping on Jesus—he doesn’t seem to care if his actions are in line with their interpretation of the laws. It’s just not his concern.
What is his concern is bringing healing and wholeness—salvation–to those who need it most.
Jesus has this annoying tendency to do the uncomfortable, the unexpected, yet at the same time, the most obvious, direct, and necessary things. Last week, he intentionally crossed the boundary lines and sought out a Samaritan woman.
We hear stories of him bringing healing and wholeness to lepers, people infected with a highly contagious skin disease, by touching them.
He welcomes it when little kids, rambunctious little balls of energy, come and interrupt his sermon because they want to be close to him.
In the temple, he throws over the tables of merchants and bankers who are willfully and, with the blessing of the authorities, robbing people of money.
No, Jesus doesn’t care what the “proper” procedure is. He is the light that shines in the darkness, and he is not going to wait for darkness’s permission to shine. He has this unbelievably radical idea that those in need should have their needs met. He teaches this absurdly simple notion that if someone is hungry they should be fed; if homeless, they should be sheltered; if poor, provided for.
In Jesus’s eyes, if the rules and regulations we’ve set up are no longer guides that shape our lives, but are instead prisons that trap us, then the rules are wrong, and another way must be found.
Can you imagine if the church was like this? I’ve talked about communities and rules before, and I will affirm again that all communities of human beings need rules in order to function as communities.
Yet I’m sure most of you could think of a time in which the rules, laws, and policies of a church got in the way of the work the church was trying to do. Constitutions, bylaws, boards and committees can just as easily hinder, stall, and kill community projects as they can facilitate them. The last synod assembly I attended, in Michigan, was stalled for nearly a half hour because the voting system was unnecessarily complicated, and even the counters didn’t know how it was supposed to be done.
It is easy to get bogged down in the technicalities—who has the actual authority to do what, who is in charge of this or that, what procedures need to be followed, and of course, that most uncompromising, unbending rule of all, “the way it’s always been done”.
God has as response to our preoccupation with the “proper” way to do things: and it’s called Grace, or “God finds a way”.
When creation falls well short of God’s expectations, God finds a way to salvage and redeem it.
When the law says that a person must suffer for their entire life because of something they or their parents “did”, God finds a way to relieve their suffering anyway.
When the rules say that a person who has sinned is no longer welcome at the table of the Lord, God finds a way to welcome them anyway.
When the books say that a person or people is not worthy of basic human dignities, God finds a way to provide them anyway.
Recipients of grace have one thing in common: they desperately need it.
The only person in the story of the blind man given sight that stands up for Jesus and witnesses to the incredible miracle is the man himself. No one else, not even those who witnessed it, are willing to speak the news.
Those who experience grace are the ones who truly understand the love and greatness of God. In their hopelessness, God finds a way to love them regardless of what anyone else thinks or say.
Nothing can stand in the way of God. Not our own ideas, not our rules, not our boundaries, not our laws. Not even death itself could stop God’s grace.
When Love Wins had to stop feeding the hungry or be arrested, they worried that their ministry in that area might be over. But God finds a way.
A week after the incident made national news, the Raleigh temporarily suspended the ordinance banning feeding the poor in public places. A few months later, the city agreed to build a new indoor facility for Love Wins, so that they could continue to feed the hungry without breaking any ordinances.
Not every story ends this way. But the good news is that, when it comes to salvation, healing, and wholeness: God finds a way.