Proper 16C Sermon (2004)

Proper 16 (August 21-27)
Texts: Luke 13:10-17;
Isa. 58:9b-14; Heb. 12:18-29


Did you know that our practice at Atonement of offering glutton-free wafers on the plate for Holy Communion is officially not allowed in the Catholic church? I had no idea. Then, in Friday’s Racine Journal-Times, on the front page no less, I saw this story about an 8-year-old girl, Haley Waldman, of Brielle, New Jersey. In May, she took her first communion, but last week it was declared invalid by the New Jersey Bishop. Little Haley suffers from a digestive disease for which she can become quite sick by eating anything with wheat. She found a nearby parish where the priest did allow for a wheat substitute wafer. But the bishop has since overturned that decision, saying, “This is not an issue to be determined at the diocesan or parish level, but has already been decided for the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world by Vatican authority.” (2)

Wow! Isn’t that an amazing example of someone in the church insisting on following the rules to the extreme? And I must say that I found it surprising to have this story on the front page. Racine’s paper tends to be pretty local in its focus. There’s a lot of important national stories that don’t make it to their front page. So why did this one? My guess is that the Catholic church is ripe for scandal these days.

Our Gospel Lesson this morning concludes, after Jesus words to the leader of the synagogue, that, “When [Jesus] put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and red-faced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.” (3) I wonder if, in seeing his words splashed across the front of many newspapers, the Bishop of New Jersey felt a bit silly and red-faced. I’m sure that the Racine Journal-Times carried the story on the front page in order to have the “congregation,” us readers, cheer at his embarrassing position. It is taking the following of rules a bit to the extreme.

We need to be careful here, though, too, lest some of our own Lutheran rule-following get exposed. Before we get too caught up in laughing at what seems silly among our Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, perhaps we might be wary of some of our own making and following of rules. It is so easy to get caught up in following the pattern of what’s always been done. Anyone here ever heard it said, “That’s the way we’ve always done it”? It’s easy to find rules for the ways it always been done, isn’t it? For example:

There once was a monastery whose abbot had a cat that he loved very much. Every evening he would bring the cat with him to worship. The cat would wander around the chapel rubbing up against the legs of the brothers as they sang hymns and prayed prayers. It was really quite distracting to the efforts to worship God. So at each evening worship service, the abbot began to tie the cat to one of the pillars in the chapel. Eventually the abbot died, but the cat remained at the monastery. Out of respect for their beloved brother, the monks continued to bring the cat to worship and tie it to one of the pillars. Eventually the cat died and the brothers went and found another cat, brought it to worship each evening and tied it to a pillar. Centuries later, whole books were written by the monastery’s scholarly brothers on the liturgical significance of tying up a cat during worship. (4)

I don’t think this is a true story — at least, I hope not! I found it on the Internet this week, and it really fits this theme of rule making and following. It’s good to be able to look at others from the outside and be able to laugh at their foibles. But I have to be honest and let you know that this is only a warm-up for being able to look at ourselves. Taking an honest look at our own rule-making and rule-following might not be quite as funny.

Let’s begin with the episode in our Gospel Lesson today. The congregation cheers Jesus for making the leader of the synagogue look a bit silly and red-faced. But what’s going on here isn’t simply a matter like the monastery we just talked about. The rules around the sabbath for Jesus’ own people, the Jews, is not a trivial matter like tying a cat to a pillar and later building a theology around it. No, the sabbath laws, for our Jewish-Christian tradition go all the way back to creation, to the Genesis 1 story of creation. God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. Therefore, we follow God’s example by working six days and then giving praise to our Creator on the seventh day. That’s not exactly a trivial reason, is it? I think that the introduction to our lesson in the bulletin is a bit harsh in implying that the leader of the synagogue, Jesus opponent in this controversy, is “constrained by a legalistic reading of an ancient calendar.” (5) We’ve just established that this is much more than simply “a legalistic reading of an ancient calendar.” It goes back to the Genesis 1 story of Creation which the ancient calendar is based upon. It goes to the very heart of Jewish theology.

And if we think about Jesus’ response in terms of the rules, it’s not an entirely convincing one. This business about untying your animals to let them drink on the sabbath is quite different than the woman’s situation. The animals’ survival depends on drinking water. The woman’s healing is not a matter of survival. She has lived with her ailment for eighteen years. Would it really hurt to wait just one more day, so that the sabbath rules, so basic to Jewish belief, could be observed? No, on the level of simply following the rules, Jesus’ response is not such a slam-dunk.

The reason why the congregation cheers for his response is that the matter goes deeper. It goes to the heart of what the rules so often do in our hands, namely, they oppress people. The ruler of the synagogue is a person of at least some power, and he uses the power of the rules to lord it over others.

Here’s the point: Jesus’ entire understanding of the Law — of rule-making and rule-following — Jesus’ understanding is quite different. His basic assumption is that God’s will, in the commandments of the Law as elsewhere, is focused on people’s well being. Elsewhere he states: ‘The sabbath was made for people; not people for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). Under the power of sin, however, we human beings tend to turn that around, placing people under the rules in oppressive ways. When Jesus heals the woman, he proclaims to her, “Woman, you’re free!” Her illness not only physically subjugated her, but Jesus knew that it socially kept her in bondage, too. Under the rules of society, she was an unclean, blemished person and so was treated accordingly. Jesus healed her on the sabbath, technically breaking the rules, because he knew how the use of rules was a basic part of her being oppressed. Jesus came not only to free us from disease, but he also came to free-up the rules themselves. He came to fulfill the Law in its God-given intention to work for the well-being of all God’s children. ‘The sabbath was made for people; not people for the sabbath.’

O.K., I think we might be ready now to take a closer look at some of our own Lutheran rules. The one that I’d like to look at first is one that has become very important to me as my own children were growing and as our church was changing. Many of you might not even be aware that our church has been changing on this issue. What I’m talking about is the age for first communion. I know that when I took first communion, it wasn’t until I was confirmed in eighth grade. Most Lutheran churches have since lowered the age to fifth grade, which is still the practice here at Atonement.

But I’d like to read from a document that was approved seven years ago this month at the 1997 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA. It’s a “Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament” called The Use of the Means of Grace. I’ll read you Principle 37, which says, “Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized.” (6) So who’s invited to Holy Communion? “Those who are baptized.” What does that mean? It doesn’t specify any ages, does it? Simply, “those who are baptized.” And, sure enough, it goes through some of the history of the age of first communion in our church before it simply gets to this, “Application 37D: Infants and children may be communed for the first time during the service in which they are baptized….” (7) Raise your hands, anyone, if you knew about this change in the rules for the age of first communion. [Note: not a single person raised his or her hand with me.] In our church we are now open to communing tiny babies on the day of baptism! Quite a shock?!

Well, let me tell you a bit more about how this change came about, because it has to do very much with what we’ve been talking about today, rule-making and -following. As our church began to look into the history of the rules around first communion, we bumped into some reasons that can leave us looking a bit silly and red-faced. First of all, it’s helpful to know that our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox churches have practiced infant communion along with infant baptism for, as far as we can tell, just about the entire two thousand years of church history. They use a tiny spoon with just a crumb of bread and drop of wine for babies when they are baptized. Then, the infants typically don’t receive communion again until they are eating regular food with their families at the table. What’s more, we’ve discovered that that was the practice across the entire church, including our own Western tradition, for the first twelve hundred years! It was only in the thirteenth century that the Western church began to move the age of first communion back a bit. Why? Well, this is the reason that leaves us Lutherans a bit red-faced. The Thirteenth Century is when the doctrine of transubstantiation came into being, a doctrine that specifies how the bread and wine actually change substance into Jesus’ body and blood when the priest blesses them. They may still look like bread and wine, but underneath their attributes as bread and wine, the substance has changed. So the church became more anxious about someone dropping any crumbs or spilling any drops. Young children were no longer communed at all, and no one but the priest was allowed to drink the wine. I say that Lutherans might be a bit red-faced about this reason for not communing children because the doctrine of transubstantiation was one that Luther rejected. He maintained that believing in the real presence of Christ with the bread and wine is a mystery can’t even be explained by a doctrine like transubstantiation.

So how have Lutherans come to continue leaving out children and not communing them until a later age? In my own experience and training, we Lutherans have come up with a new reason: we talk mainly about children being able to sufficiently understand the sacrament before partaking fully. But my first question is to myself: do I adequately understand the sacrament? Do I understand how Christ is truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine? That’s why I told the story about Jessica this morning during the Children’s Time. (8) In some ways, I think that Jessica’s faith in the presence of Christ is more pure than mine. In many matters of faith, our children can lead us; they are not simply our followers.

There is also something very important that children as young as one year old can understand. It is often at about that age that I notice a child’s reaction in their eyes and body language. As I give their mom or dad a piece of bread but then skip them over for a blessing instead, there is a look of disappointment and a registering of being left out. Yes, even at an early age, our children can understand that they are being excluded from the meal. And, as this is the sacrament we call Holy Communion, isn’t inclusion one of the most important things to understand about this sacrament? That in dying for everyone Jesus gathers a new community that welcomes everyone? (9)

To be honest, most kids, after their initial registering of being excluded, get used to being left out of the meal and are happy with the blessing. And our practice of communing at fifth grade can still be very meaningful. But I wonder about the inclusion of children as a matter important for us adults. Do we sometimes tend to think of, and treat, our children as second class citizens of the kingdom? Would inclusion of children in full participation of Holy Communion make it clear to us that they are every bit a part of God’s kingdom as we are — that sometimes they even lead us?

I’d like to conclude with something a bit risky. Our church, the ELCA, is currently struggling with making rules concerning our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. I don’t intend to offer any definitive answers here. But I think we would miss out if we didn’t at least raise this important issue in the context of this passage about rule-making and rule-following. Over the last several years, it’s this kind of passage about Jesus healing on the Sabbath that has raised some questions for me. Here’s the problem for me: I’ve been most sure about issues involving gay and lesbian folks on the basis of God’s intentions for creation. But from where do we make assumptions about God’s intentions for creation? It’s the same passage as for the Sabbath rules, namely, Genesis 1. The leader of the synagogue in this morning’s Gospel is so sure about his following of the sabbath rules based on the story of creation in Genesis 1. Yet Jesus questioned his following of the rules to the extent that he used them to oppress others rather than liberate them. The rules about the sabbath were followed even when they went against someone’s well-being.

Now, I can’t give the answer this morning, but I need to at least raise the question: our understanding of God’s intentions for creation concerning sexuality also comes from Genesis 1, that God created us “male and female.” But when we make rules around that “order of creation” concerning those who may have been created with a differing sexual preference, are we doing so for or against their well-being? I have to say that I’m not so sure anymore about the right answer to that question.

We’ve allowed a role for science when it comes to interpreting Genesis 1. Our tradition of interpreting the Bible allows for folks to reconcile a liturgical picture of a seven-day creation in Genesis 1 with the picture science gives us. Both of these portraits of Creation can be viewed as meaningful and consistent by people of faith in the Creator. Moreover, we know about other cultures and the marking of time. There are many ways of dividing up time and keeping a calendar. A seven day week is only one option among countless possibilities. It just happens to be the way that much of the world has adopted now through the Judeo-Christian culture. And sabbath theology and observances can still be very meaningful even though we know that the seven-day week is an invention of human culture, not a binding, “natural” intention of the Creator.

So do we also leave room for science when it comes to the “male and female” part of Genesis 1? Is “male and female” more a function of human culture or God’s so-called intentions? There are numerous scientific studies that are giving high correlation and probability to the possibility that some people are simply made with a differing sexual preference. Scientists are even discovering this in abundance in the animal world. (10) More importantly, there are the personal testimonies of trusted brothers and sisters in Christ who tell us that that is their experience, namely, that they can never remember not being attracted to the same sex.

So when we make rules that fundamentally have to deal with their well-being, will they be rules that oppress them or free them? I can’t say for sure. But on the basis of a story about Jesus’ ministry, like in this morning’s Gospel Lesson, I feel that it is very important for us to ask. Our Lord himself was tried in court according to our rules and found guilty, sentenced, and executed. The cross itself is fundamentally about our rule-making and rule-following. As we make rules involving our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ over the next several years, are we letting our crucified and risen Lord free us for the well-being of all?

Perhaps the best way to end a sermon such as this is to simply pray for guidance . . . .

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Atonement Lutheran,
Muskego, WI, August 22, 2004


1. The following sermon manuscript has been expanded to some degree from its original spoken form, much of which was extemporized.

2. Quoted in the article “No wheat in wafer? That’s no first Communion, Catholic Church tells girl,” by John Curran, Racine Journal-Times, Friday, August 20, 2004, page 1A.

3. The translation used in the bulletin and read by lector was: The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

4. From the August 22, 2004 digest of StoryShare (which is by subscription from CSS Publishing).

5. Words for Worship 2004, Year C, CD-ROM, © Augsburg Fortress, 2003. Used by permission.

6. The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament. Adopted for guidance and practice by the Fifth Biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, August 19, 1997. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997, page 41.

7. Ibid, page 42.

8. I told, in my own words geared for children, the beautiful story by Sara L. Barwinski about her daughter Jessica, from a past issue of The Christian CENTURY (for which I’ve lost the reference), entitled “‘Come Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest . . .’.”

9. I have not mentioned the verses that have become common to cite when seeking to justify exclusion from the sacrament, 1 Corinthians 11:27-29: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” It is normally assumed that children don’t have enough self-awareness to “examine yourselves.” But what is the context of these verses? Is it not Paul’s scolding the Corinthians for leaving folks out of full participation, especially the poor? So doesn’t this self-examination have precisely to do with not leaving anyone out when “discerning the body”? Isn’t it especially a responsibility of the adult leaders to discern whether everyone is being included?

10. See, for example, the story of two male penguins who ‘raised’ together several orphaned young penguins: “Love That Dare Not Squeak Its Name,” by Dinitia Smith, New York Times, February 7, 2004.

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