Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Letter and the Spirit

Scripture Reading: Luke 13: 10-17

Let me get one thing straight before we get started here: The leader of the synagogue was right. Jesus was breaking the law of the Sabbath, and in the synagogue in the presence of the faithful, no less!

I mean, it’s really clear--one of the few laws in human history that was actually written in stone. “Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” Exodus 20, verses 9 and 10. Number four on the top ten laws of all time list. Couldn’t be clearer, really, and here Jesus was, breaking the law, right after teaching about it!

When we read texts like the one from Luke that I just read, all too often we read into it two thousand years of Christian interpretations, not all of them good interpretations. We lose the sense of Jesus as a Jewish teacher teaching to Jews, and see him as a Christian, trying to convert the Jews, or condemn them.
But there were no Christians present that morning. Christianity as a movement was born at Easter, and Easter hadn’t happened yet. There were only Jews and more Jews, and Jesus here was very definitely breaking Jewish law.

Perhaps you’re now thinking, “Maybe this Jewish law was just a little too strict. Maybe it needed breaking.”

The problem with breaking a law is that it can be a slippery slope. When is it okay to speed? Or run a red light? Is it okay at three in the morning, when there are no other cars on the road and no one to see? How about at three in the afternoon, outside a public school? If you leave breaking the law up to people’s discretion, how can you trust that they won’t kill somebody? Instead of posting a speed limit, why not just post a sign that says, “School ahead. Use your discretion!”

Perhaps because what some people consider careful isn’t really careful enough?

It is the same with this law about work on the Sabbath. It’s actually a law that makes very good sense. A Sabbath day is not only a day to connect with God, but a day to recover from the rest of the week, to nurture family and other relationships, a day to meditate and focus on what needs to be done the coming week. It gives even slaves and animals some respite from toil.

As we read through the gospel according to Luke, we get the sense that everywhere Jesus went he was accosted by people wanting to be healed. It was non-stop. And this Sabbath morning, the synagogue seemed to be full of more people wanting to be healed. Jesus needed a day off.

And more than that, as the teacher that day, he was providing an example for every person present.

Preachers know about this. No matter whether the minister wants it or not, no matter even if the congregation realizes it or not, the minister is looked upon as someone who should be providing an example worth following. And most of us do our very best to be a good example.

And here Jesus was, breaking the law!

Of course the leader of the synagogue is going to take action and condemn him! Otherwise, the members of the congregation might go home thinking it’s okay to work on the Sabbath, and pretty soon, the synagogue will be empty because everyone is working. And there will be greater incidences of burn out. And families will fall apart because the parents won’t have time to nurture their relationships with their children and with one another. And people won’t have time to volunteer any more because they’re working.

And none of this is conjecture, either. It has happened, it is happening, because many people refuse to take a day off to commune with themselves, with God, and with each other.

That’s what the synagogue leader was worried about when he was condemning Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, and it’s hardly fair to label him as a villain just because he was upset about Jesus breaking the law.

Let’s fast forward two thousand or so. To last week, to be exact. Last week, a boat called the MV Sun Sea was escorted into port in Vancouver. On board were 492 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, and even before the refugees set foot on land the fur started flying.

Canada has an embassy in Sri Lanka, and Tamils in Sri Lanka can and do apply for immigrant or refugee status from their home country. There’s a process, and a line-up that can take years, and these 492 people decided to skip the line-up, get on a boat, and hope that somebody somewhere would take them in. They tried Malaysia and Australia before making the long voyage north to Vancouver.

They were well stocked, and the ship was fitted out, if not in a comfortable fashion, at least in a livable one. Women and children had separate quarters, sleeping and eating areas were separate, there was adequate food on board, and adequate sanitation. Only one person died on the voyage, and it appears that none of the refugees had TB or any other of the communicable diseases that are notorious for arriving on such ships.

This was a well-planned and financed escape, not a spur-of-the moment voyage into the unknown.

The fear is that the voyage was financed by the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group outlawed as a terrorist faction by both the Sri Lankan and Canadian governments. There is fear that even if the refugees aren’t Tamil Tigers, they’ll be forced to pay money to the Tigers in order to ensure the safety of their families in Canada and Sri Lanka. There is fear that these refugees are just the start of a mass exodus and that soon we’ll be over-run by boats from Sri Lanka. Indeed we know there are more boats following. One has already landed.

The refugees jumped the queue, and took matters into their own hands instead of following procedures that are in place to get them here. They also pose a risk to our society that some say is unacceptable.

But today, as two thousand years ago, there’s another side to the story. The law is not the be all and end all that it seems to be, and sometimes risk is necessary in order to ensure justice.

Because our laws today have as their basis the same underlying principle as the Ten Commandments. A few weeks ago, we heard the tale of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the law?” Jesus says.

“You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”

That isn’t a Christian interpretation of the law, by the way. It’s a paraphrase of some verses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

Love is the basis of the law--love for God, self, and neighbour.

And what Jesus was showing and telling the congregation that Sabbath was that NO ONE lives strictly in obedience to the letter of the law. We all understand that not only is it impossible to do so, but that if we do so in the face of the distress of our neighbours, friends and families, we are keeping the letter of the law, but violating its spirit. If your donkey is thirsty, you give him a drink, Sabbath or no Sabbath, because it’s the right thing to do.

Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. It’s true, she probably could have waited another day or two, except that then she’d have to stand in line with the rest of the crowd. Being crippled, she’d probably be pushed out of the way. Maybe the disciples would have overlooked her. It’s possible she might have died waiting.

Or maybe Jesus looked at her and thought, “You’ve waited long enough and suffered enough, lady. I’m going to help you right here and now.”

And wasn’t the Sabbath a great day to set her free? Won’t she keep the Sabbath much more closely now, knowing that it’s the day that she was set free!

Jesus understood that the spirit of the law was the whole reason for the law in the first place, and that if you keep to the letter of the law but destroy the spirit, then the law is worse than useless.

And so I return to our Tamil refugees.

I admit right here and now that I have a somewhat personal stake in this. With the permission of a friend of mine, I’m going to tell you a little bit more about why we should treat those refugees with compassion and respect, and allow them to stay in Canada.

I met Darzian on an internet message board for writers that I’ve frequented for many years now. Two years ago, he posted about what life was like for him as a Tamil in Sri Lanka. Like all citizens of our modern world, he had to carry ID. Unlike Canadian ID, though, Darzian’s ID didn’t say he was Sri Lankan. It said he was Tamil.

This automatically gave the police the right to stop and question him, and detain him at whim. If detained, he could have been tortured, or held without trial or bail. Darzian wrote that typical questioning might include where you live (with further questioning if you live in the “wrong” place), where you’re going and why you’re going there, what your occupation or work is…

Can you imagine our police having such power over a segment of our population?

This is part of an “emergency rule” that has been going on for years. The government tells its critics that they only want to weed out the terrorists. To do so, they also put a larger percentage of the Tamil population in internment camps, which they say they will disband as soon as they’ve determined whether or not the residents are members of the Tamil Tigers. The camps are still in place, years after they were set up.

I’m wondering about this time if anyone here is getting a sense of déjà vu? Perhaps those of you who are old enough to remember, or who have studied history, might be hearkening back to the Second World War.

And maybe you’re thinking, “Is it really THAT bad?”

In May 2009 the Sri Lankan government launched an offensive against the Tigers, and tens of thousands of innocent Tamils were slaughtered because the Tigers were using them as human shields. Neither the Tigers nor the government seemed to care that innocent people were being slaughtered.

Yes, it is that bad.

And the situation that the refugees will return to if deported to Sri Lanka is sufficiently severe enough that we need to look beyond the letter of the law to the spirit.

Darzian writes, “I hope that these individuals are not sent back because they will have no life if they are. They will be detained at the Sri Lankan airport and then tortured in jails. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that any Tamils deported from the boat will not see the light of day again.”

I might be inclined to thing that he’s over reacting, except that both our government and the United Nations have cited the Sri Lankan government for human rights abuses, and everything he says has been substantiated as far as is possible by accredited international observers. Maybe we just ought to take the time to listen to and believe my friend.

It is not the spirit or the letter of our law that we EVER deport people, even people who have been convicted of murder, back to a place where they face almost certain torture or death. And these people have not been convicted of any crime--in fact, even those calling for their deportation admit that the majority are almost certainly real refugees and not terrorists.

Just as the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years jumped the line and was healed on the Sabbath, these refugees today are asking to be let in now, instead of being processed in order.

And Jesus answered that perhaps she had a right to do so, because she‘d waited so long. Our refugees have dealt with the same sort of problems.

Darzian’s father came to Canada four years before he and his mother and sister did. He came first, as the men on the MV Sun Sea did, to get established--to find a job and a place where the family could all live together. Then the remaining family members applied to come to Canada, sponsored by Darzian’s father. It took 1 ½ years. Given the situation in Sri Lanka, that would have been 1 ½ years of constant danger. Eventually, Darzian had to get out--being male, he was possibly subjected to greater scrutiny by the authorities. In addition, he was ready to go to university, and that’s something he couldn’t do in Sri Lanka. He obtained a student visa for Malaysia, and spent one semester there.

One Friday about a year ago, Darzian’s mother got a call telling her to present her passport, her daughter’s passport, and her son’s passport at the embassy on Monday morning. Missing that deadline would have meant months more of waiting, and Darzian was in the middle of nowhere in Malaysia.

They did it. Darzian wrapped up his life in Malaysia in less than a day, and on that Monday morning they were at the embassy with their passports.

That wasn’t quite the end of the harassment, though. Even at the airport, with passports and visas in order, they were detained and questioned.

It took over 1 ½ years even though they had a family member in Canada with a job and a home who would take responsibility for them. Imagine how long it would take, how many hurdles would have to be jumped, if he hadn’t had a father already here. The refugees on that boat are desperate. They don’t want anything particularly special--they only want the chances that we’ve been given by virtue of our residence in Canada.

The ability to leave home and walk down the sidewalk without fear of being arrested for no reason. The chance to travel on public transit without fear of the vehicle exploding. (These are Darzian’s own reflections, not mine.)

In Darzian’s case, the freedom to pursue higher education, with the goal of becoming a doctor.

I invited Darzian and his family to join us here this morning, but he wrote back that he and his family were going to be enjoying another freedom many of us take for granted.

He and his family, far from being a drain on the welfare system that some critics believe refugees to be, have worked hard, and they bought a house. In Toronto. This weekend is their moving day.

When someone jumps out of line, as the crippled woman and the refugees did, our first reaction is to behave exactly as the leader of the synagogue did. “Get back in line! Obey the law!”

But if we enforce the laws without thinking about the reasons behind them, we run the risk of destroying the very things the laws were meant to protect--peace, freedom, and sanctity of person. We run the risk of condemning others to being less than God has called them to be, simply because we are afraid.

And we become, like the leader of the synagogue, a hypocrite who would condemn others for breaking a law that he himself did not keep.

For there is not a person here this morning in this sanctuary who cannot trace their presence on this continent to immigrants or refugees. Even the ancestors of the Native Canadians migrated here thousands of years ago. Human beings are not native to North America.

Each and every migrant came in search of the same thing that the refugees on board the MV Sun Sea are seeking--prosperity for themselves and their children, and freedom from oppression. We are not different from the people who came on that boat. We’ve just been here longer. It would be hypocritical of us to suggest that the Tamils go back to their own country.

An automatic appeal to the rules won’t work in this case, or in other cases where people are so desperate as to risk their lives and take a long, uncertain sea voyage rather than stay in their countries of origin. We need to look at each person as an individual in need, just as Jesus did with the crippled woman, and treat them according to that need, and not our convenience.

And we need to view the boatloads of people arriving on our shores as a wake-up call. If we have peace and freedom and prosperity here in Canada, but do nothing to aid poorer and less fortunate countries in their search for the same things, then the boats will keep coming. We can’t stop the boats by treating the migrants on the MV Sun Sea harshly or by turning them away, any more than Jesus could have stopped the line ups of desperate people needing to be healed by ignoring the crippled woman.

We can only stop the boats by making the voyage unnecessary.


Preached at Trinity United Church, Guelph, Ontario on August 22, 2010

1 comment:

WKEverhart said...

You're a pretty good minister. Thanks for sharing.