Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Our Mother, the Church


St. Augustine advocated reading all Scripture as allegory. In the last several centuries, that interpretive principle has largely fallen into disrepute. In general, allegory allows an interpreter too much latitude, resulting in texts being twisted and misinterpreted to serve the interpreter’s purpose.

Thus, in four plus decades of preaching, I’ve never preached a sermon based upon an allegorical understanding of a text when the text was not an allegory. This morning, however, I want to approach today’s gospel reading as an allegory in spite of the incident’s almost certain historicity.

When I first looked at the passage to prepare this sermon, my immediate thought was that the woman symbolizes the Church.[1] The Greek word ecclesia translated into English as church is a feminine noun. In the fourth chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul identifies Jerusalem as our heavenly mother, another metaphor for church.[2] Identifying the woman with the church is a reasonable interpretation.

When we call the church our mother, we point to three truths. First, each of us initially encountered God through the church. We learn about Christianity from another person, whether directly in conversation, preaching or teaching or indirectly through a Bible, prayer book or online materials written and published by others. Second, the church, analogous to how a human mother shapes her children, shapes our theology, spirituality and liturgy. We are Anglicans, shaped not only by Holy Nativity, but also by the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and its mother, the Church of England, which itself is a daughter of the Roman Catholic Church. Third, the church is our mother because the church sustains us in good times and bad. In Holy Baptism, a person is anointed with oil to symbolize the gift of the Holy Spirit, God with us, who sustains and empowers each person.

The gospel reports that the woman was crippled for eighteen years. In biblical numerology, eighteen symbolizes bondage. Holy Nativity – our church, our spiritual mother – sometimes appears to live in bondage to a negative narrative. We may be in bondage to memories of a congregation that once numbered twenty-seven hundred, filling three Sunday services or memories of a crippling fight over the last rector that hurt emotionally, spiritually and financially.

Jesus healed the crippled woman by summoning her and then laying his hands on her. Our mother the church similarly is a metaphor for the living God who created us as Christians, saved us from bondage to meaninglessness and crippling, self-destructive behaviors and then sustains us in the face of every evil and every difficulty.[3] Hear this morning gospel’s as God speaking directly to you, individually and as this gathered congregation of God's people: Come to me; let me heal you; stand up straight. God is even now healing Holy Nativity’s negative narrative. Healing occurs one person at a time, not in violation of the sabbath, but pointing to a more profound understanding of sabbath as God's claim on us.

Today’s collect reminds us that God calls us to unity.[4] We are one people. Differences – gender, gender orientation, race, physical ability, preference for one rector or one theological perspective, perceptions of what God is calling us to do – all of those differences and others are unimportant. We are one people. Rather than divide our unity, our differences should enrich our unity.

The reading from Jeremiah reminds us that God has called us to ministry and mission.[5] Do not say, adapting Jeremiah to our situation, we are too few or too old to serve. One excuse is no better than another. The measure of a church’s success is not its Sunday attendance or its budget. The real measure of a church’s success is whether the congregation is about God's business. We are literally Christ's body, his voice, feet and hands. Like Jesus, God calls us to seek out the crippled and the bound, confident that God will use our words and actions to heal and liberate them, even as Jesus healed a crippled woman.

The chapel of Belmont Abbey College, near Charlotte in North Carolina, has one of the world’s most unusual baptismal fonts. The font was hollowed out of a huge stone on which African slaves had once stood to be sold to the highest bidder. The font’s inscription reads: "On this stone men were sold into slavery. From this stone men are now baptized into freedom."[6]

May we individually and collectively change our narrative from one of defeat into a narrative of joyful new life in Christ, called to unity and called to heal a broken, crippled world. Amen.

Sermon preached on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2019

Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI



[1] Luke 13:10-17.
[2] Galatians 4:26.
[3] Sallie McFague, Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).
[4] Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 16, the Sunday closest to August 24.
[5] Jeremiah 4:11-10.
[6] William Willimon, "Remember Who You Are," Upper Room, 1980, p. 61.

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