Don't Put God in a Box

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, August 21, 2016

In the early 1990s, I was making my choice of which seminary to go to, in order to prepare for ordination in the Church of England. I decided that I would apply to two and see which suited better. I was called for interview at both places, and as chance would have it the two visits were on consecutive days. Both places were relatively traditional and in what one could call the ‘Catholic' tradition of Anglicanism. I duly turned up to the first one and found it to be a highly structured and regulated regime. There were very particular rules about everything, it seemed to me. Attendance by students at everything was expected and, I was told, non-attendance would result in a rather acidic note from the Principal within minutes of conclusion of the non-attendance. Hmmm. That sounds nice, I thought.

Then, the day after, I went to the other place. It had the full richness of the Catholic tradition: the worship, a governance of the community where each was encouraged to participate and play their part for the good of that community. Not so very different in some ways, perhaps, from the day before. But no little typewritten notes for not being at something, no framework of anxiety at the potential consequences of having got something wrong. 

Westcott House, Cambridge, England - the seminary I attended.

Westcott House, Cambridge, England - the seminary I attended.

I remember figuring it out at once, and it helped me to make up my mind. It struck me very clearly that whilst both places strove for instilling a sense of orderliness and discipline, one achieved this through the imposition of authority and the other achieved this through instilling a sense of personal responsibility.

Now I know that this does not do entire justice to these two seminaries, and that things cannot really be compartmentalized in this way, but it did strike me as a helpful lesson for me to learn that the art of self-discipline is so very much more valuable than imposed discipline. 

The crunch is, of course, that self-discipline is also very much more demanding. It requires more thought, more interpretation, more room for mistakes. But it also seems to me that there is a much greater capacity to express love when one operates on the self-discipline model than on the legalistic model. Or to put it another way, when I was a child, my mother was so much more impressed if I did the dishes without without being asked, out of the goodness of my heart, than if she had to ask me (often repeatedly) to do it.
This is not to say, of course, that we do not require laws. We are, sadly, self-serving and self-seeking people and more often than not we cannot be relied upon to exercise our self-discipline, personal responsibility and actions entirely motivated by love, but what I am saying is that we will be better people if we take this more demanding path than if we opt for an uncomplicated and unthinking life of simply being told what to do. To love is to take risks, to think for ourselves, to consider others, to dare to be different, to make the effort to discern a Christ-like response to a situation and not to confine God to sets of earth-bound rules.

Our gospel reading today is shot-through with this, it seems to me. At every turn Jesus questions hide-bound attitudes and bases his responses on love alone.  He teaches us that loving responses supersede the strict letter of the law. 

Jesus healing the woman at the synagogue, by Ottheinrich.

Jesus healing the woman at the synagogue, by Ottheinrich.

We can visualize easily the old woman in the gospel story, bent double through her crippling illness. We can also easily visualize the leader of the synagogue. Our sympathy is clearly with the old woman. Our moral support is clearly with Jesus. Our approval is clearly not with the leader of the synagogue. He’s the villain of the piece, if you will, and that’s the way it should be. 

“Why are you healing this woman on the Sabbath? She has six other days to choose from. Why today?”

Jesus’ reply is, as you would expect, a model both of faultless logic and tender compassion. “You untie your donkey on the Sabbath, and lead him to a drink of water. If it’s OK for you to care for your animals on the Sabbath, why isn’t it OK to care for this woman on the Sabbath?” The leader of the synagogue looks ridiculous for his legalistic attitude, and rightly so.

Thank goodness the there’s no one like that leader of the synagogue these days!

Of course, this is dangerous talk. And complacent, too. If we think that we have some kind of moral superiority over the situation that Jesus was condemning, then we are much mistaken. The context may be wholly different, but for religion to be true, and right, it must, as Jesus teaches, be accompanied by both an awareness of the needs of others and an acting upon those needs. This does not, of course, mean compartmentalizing our religious life and our serving the needs of others. It is not sufficient for our dutiful religious observance to be in one box and our social outreach in another, as if it is a duty that we are performing.  The very ways in which we worship should be imbued with a sense of loving servant-hood.


I have been in and around the engine rooms of churches for enough years to know that we can get obsessed with the mechanics of ritual, religion, regulation and rules so that we can’t see the wood for the trees. Yes, these things have their place, but there is something far bigger than them that ought to be our preoccupation. As soon as the rules stop serving us and we start serving them, then we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and make sure that when we read this story we do not most closely resemble the leader of the synagogue because, after all, the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.

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