Jeremiah 1.4-10; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17
Words from our reading from the letter to the Hebrews this morning:
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.
A central religious category is ‘the holy’, the sacred: religion might be characterised as where that which is other, not of this world, the transcendent and holy, is encountered, in all its ability to provoke fear, obedience, awe, fascination. Where that which is not ordinary, not run-of-the-mill, breaks in and makes a claim upon us, demanding change in us.
In our Gospel reading, people have gathered in worship when something happens to disturb and upset the proper ordering of things. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue – he is obviously held in goodstanding there, invited to address them. But then that teaching is interrupted – Jesus sees something that he considers to be more important than whatever he happens to be talking about. A woman crippled for 18 years, crippled by a spirit that causes her to bend double, comes into view. Our instinctive response to those who are afflicted is often, at some level, to think that they are to blame for their predicament. But Jesus sees a woman whose binding has prevented her from her true vocation, the vocation of that whole community: to stand tall and praise God. So that moment when the sermon is interrupted, is not a moment when the teaching stops, but when its focus shifts, to this woman: the one who, rather than being cut off from the community because of her ailment, is the one who is enabled to express the vocation of the whole community. She is brought centre-stage, and released by words from Jesus that liberate her: ‘Woman, you are set free.’ Released to stand tall and praise God.
But the story doesn’t end there of course. The leader of the synagogue does not see a moment of liberation, but a polluting of the holy, a moment where that which is impure invades the purity of this moment; the Sabbath is desecrated – de-sacralised. The congregation have been invited to identify with the outcast and the shunned – to see their liberation and vocation in her. The place of holiness, where it might be found, suddenly shifts to this woman – and the guardian of holiness, the leader of the synagogue, who interprets the rules for where it is usually found, for who has access to holiness, is disturbed. ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured’ – the leader inists to the crowd. Don’t disturb the peace and holines of this moment – this doesn’t belong here.
Jesus response is one we hear elsewhere: ‘You hypocrites,’ he says.
We are perhaps used to Jesus using that word – as well as its popularity in certain sections of our own press. That familiarity may blind us to the fact that it is not a common word in scripture. It literally means, from the Greek, those ‘under (hypo) crisis.’ Outside the Synoptic Gospels it is only used in the book of Job. There, Elihu, the last of those to address Job, talks about him being bound in fetters and afflicted, much like Jesus sees this woman. Elihu is assuring Job that God answers the righteous who are afflicted, those who are bound in fetters and caught in the cords of the afflicted. But there are those who don’t seek God’s help, who hold onto their anger and do not cry for help when bound: these are the godless, the hypocrites in heart, says Elihu.
So when Jesus calls the synagogue leader a hypocrite he is accusing him of being like the godless who no longer cry out and long for help, but sit gnawing away at their own resentment (as Elihu accuses Job of doing). The leader of the synagogue has become so wrapped up in doing what he believes to be right, and wedded to resentment when that is not happening, that he has lost touch with the true vocation of the people of God. The real vocation is to cry out to God for delivery, and through that crying out, to know something of the bonds that bind us, and to also discover that which liberates us into standing tall and praising. Hypocrisy diminishes us, leaves us trapped in our resentments, means we no longer see God at work; no longer enter into the realm of the holy, the holy which moves us from being bound, into the freedom of standing tall and praising.
Into our midst, in the place to which this building directs our gaze, in front of the High Altar, during these Festival weeks, has come a disruptive presence. No doubt some of us have found Vanishing Point, the video installation hanging there, a desecrating presence, an invasion into that which is holy and sacred. On Sunday mornings we’ve lessened the disruption by muting its soundscape, and freezing it on one image. That has allowed you, I hope, to appreciate some of the beautiful images that the piece contains. But if you’ve not had the opportunity to sit in the Cathedral when it is running, then I would invite you to do so, to be caught up in its world. But that does mean being disrupted, put under crisis. For Vanishing Point invites us to spend time with, to contemplate seagulls, and further, to imagine sharing a table, and food with them. What can that teach us about holiness, if our gaze is re-directed there?
I’ve come to appreciate Vanishing Point as a rich work of art, with a whole host of suggestive themes to respond to if we let it work on us. Let me briefly draw out two: first it asks us to reimagine our relationship to creation, to the world out there. That’s a theme, at this time of climate emergency, that has taken on a sharp urgency. It’s a theme we will be exploring further in the season of Creation-time next month. It’s easy to think of creation in terms of beautiful sunsets, or mountainscapes, to think of it in romantic terms. Vanishing Point brings us face to face with the natural world as it is; as it is in our cities, as animals adapt and create a home alongside ours. The artists are interested in those parts of nature which disturb or irritate us, whose insistent presence remind us that this is not just our world to do with as we like. What does it mean for all creation to stand tall and praise God – as that seagull fixes you and your food with its beady eye?
And second, hanging there, in front of the high altar, the Eucharistic resonances of the piece become obvious. At the heart of Vanishing Point is the sharing of food around a table – just as it is for us this morning. We are not the company of the perfect; just like the seagulls we gather around the table as the dishevelled, the wary, the uncertain. We are both proudly beautiful and strangely unlovable. Have we come here this morning to raid the altar table for our little piece of holiness, or does something else happen as we gather round? The shift in holiness that Christ enacts and effects, draws us together into a new community, a festal gathering, as the letter to the Hebrews describes it, a place of joyful gathering, where we encounter Christ, the one whose self-giving blood speaks a better word than the blood of sibling rivalry and violence, the blood of Abel. Christ’s coming has shifted the understanding of holiness from something fearful, to be guarded, to something joyous and saving; a kingdom that cannot be shaken by anything in this world. We are liberated, as part of all creation, seagulls and all, the lovable and the unlovable, to stand tall and praise God, as we are.
It was all too easy for the leader of the synagogue for the Sabbath to become about rest, the ceasation of activity. The equivalent for us might be about thinking of church as where we come to get away from it all, recharge our batteries, find some peace. But that sells us, and more importantly the holiness encountered in Christ, short. Holiness is more disruptove than that – Christ re-directs our gaze to the cords that bind us, that leave us bent double; Christ challenges us to move beyond hypocrisy, and reconnect to our primary vocation: to cry out, move beyond our resentments, look for our release; to stand tall, and with all creation, praise God. Amen.