Twin sisters Anna and Lisa Hahner finish the 2016 Olympic marathon.
I don’t know about you all, but every night this week (except Thursday night when the Patriots were playing, of course), I’ve ended my day by watching the Olympics on prime time. I’ve been following the Olympics more closely than I have in previous years, including the news stories surrounding the various events.
One story that caught my attention this week is — no, not the fake robbery story — but a different story. This one is about what happened this week on the women’s Olympic marathon course. Twins, Anna and Lisa Hahner, both competing for Germany in the games, did much worse than either of them expected to. As sometimes happens in a marathon, they just didn’t perform like they wanted. Deep in the pack of runners, far from the medal winners, they urged each other to the finish and, in what they insist was a spontaneous mutual decision, they finished hand in hand, making what might normally be a disappointing moment into one that they and their family could cherish.
What should have been simply another heartwarming moment in a week full of such moments turned into controversy when the two were chastised by German officials and accused of treating the Olympic marathon like a “fun run.” (1)
Now, I’m a runner too. I’ve done two marathons and a ton of 5K fun runs.
Marathons are decidedly not fun runs.
Again, the two runners were deep in the pack, far from the medals, far from results that would ever be remembered. Their places were just an insigificant detail. The twins did not intend to make any type of statement. Still, to some, their hand in hand finish was controversial.
The director of the German Athletics Federation said “Victory and medals are not the only goal. Still, every athlete in the Olympic competitions should be motivated to demonstrate [their] best performance and aim for the best possible result.” (2)
Now, I don’t think these officials are bad people. I think they simply value the rules and the Olympic spirit of competition. They want to protect it. That’s a good thing.
But I do think they’re missing the forest for the trees. The rules are meant to bring beauty to the competition, not stifle it, but when we get hung up on the details of the rules, these things happen.
Some say the devil is in the details, after all.
This is a sermon about the details. A lot of folks say the devil’s in the details.
And I think the leader of the synagogue in today’s Gospel reading would totally get what these officials are saying.
The leader of the synagogue, in those days, wasn’t a paid clergy person. He was a leader, a lay volunteer, a member of the congregation in charge of leading it, but he also had a profession outside of the synagogue.
Think of him as the president of the congregation.
So when Jesus shows up on the Sabbath, the leader of the synagogue is no doubt is a bit nervous — this is a new controversial teacher with a huge following. Can you imagine? This is the equivalent of an unannounced new preacher showing up on Sunday morning.
As anyone here who as had any leadership role in a congregation knows, new teachers and preachers and even materials are all always a bit suspect until you’ve put them through your filter and determined for ourselves that they’re alright and in line with who your congregation is and what it believes. And because we love the congregation, sometimes, not much gets through that filter.
We want to protect the congregation, and remember: the devil’s in the details, so you have to pay attention to what new preachers are saying and teaching.
The synagogue leader’s intentions are good. He’s being a responsible leader.
Now, Jesus, for his part, doesn’t seem to notice the leader of the congregation, this prominent figure, at first. Instead, Jesus sees a woman across the crowd who probably feels pretty small and insignificant compared to the others gathered. She’s bent over, unable to stand up completely, and made so, Luke tells us, by a spirit — we don’t know if she’s got some sort of disease or if life has her weighed down in such a way that she can’t even stand up straight. If you’ve ever been so stressed that your back is in knots and you’re in dire need of a massage, multiply that a few times, and you understand.
Entirely without being asked, Jesus calls her over and heals her. Literally, in the text, he tells her that she’s set free from her ailment. Though she felt invisible, like a small detail in the middle of the crowd, freedom came to her without her even asking for it, just because Jesus was there.
But it happened on the Sabbath. The day when Jews were supposed to do no work.
The leader of the synagogue sees this, but he doesn’t confront Jesus about it — he probably assumes that this teacher is just passing through. So instead, he goes to his congregation members and starts to tell them a simple message: if you want to get healed, you’re going to have to come tomorrow — any day but the Sabbath.
Now, I imagine that there isn’t much precedent for whether or not a healing is considered work, but the synagogue leader says that it must be. And work cannot, by the rules, be done on the Sabbath.
Like those German Olympic officials, he misses the forest — the coming of the kingdom of God, a woman being miraculously healed and set free, a memorable moment — for the details. The small stuff. Like the open question of whether it is legal to perform a healing on the Sabbath. What he missed was a big detail: a miraculous healing.
Even though the leader of the synagogue never says anything to Jesus himself, Jesus responds to him by, first, calling him a hypocrite, and second, asking a very simple question: “Don’t y’all give your animals water on the Sabbath?”
It seems like Jesus is being harsh to the leader of the synagogue, but he answers his concern — he essentially says, “You provide relief for your animals on the Sabbath, so, since I’m able, why can’t I provide relief for people?”
In a different passage, Jesus puts this same issue another way: for the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was created to give relief, rest, and respite, not to withhold it, Mr. Synagogue President.
In other words, the rules were created to serve the people; people were not created to be slaves to a set of rules.
The people are, like the woman in this story, set free.
This is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
But isn’t the devil in the details? After all, in other parts of the Bible, one little rule infraction, one little defilement, gets people killed.
But in the passage after this one, Jesus goes on to talk about the kingdom of God in terms of little details: the kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that got planted and grew into a great tree that gave shade for people and a home for birds.
And furthermore, he tells them that the Kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman mixed into flour until it was all leavened.
These two examples are little things, what some would see as only tiny details — a tiny seed, a little bit of yeast — that produce huge results.
Turns out that according to Jesus, it’s not the devil that’s in the details, it’s the Kingdom of God.
There is indeed a new preacher in town.
What’s more, he brings up yeast because yeast was seen by Jewish folks of the time as unclean — yeast defiles. Yeast, in the Bible, is sometimes seen as a metaphor for sin. It gets into everything. Yeast has to be stored in a certain way. It has to be contained, so that it doesn’t contaminate things. One little bit of yeast can ruin everything.
In other words, “the kingdom of God is like yeast” must have come as quite a shock to these folks at the local synagogue.
But a bit of yeast also makes delicious bread. Everyone knows that, and everyone knew that then.
So what Jesus is saying is that sometimes, the little things you get stuck on may in fact be the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. But you’re going to miss that if you’re obsessed with the rules.
Of course, rules have a place in keeping order. The leader of the synagogue probably wasn’t a bad guy, and neither were the officials that got angry about the Hahner twins’ hand in hand finish. Rules help us maintain our identity, our boundaries. They help keep us safe and they help us settle disputes. But sometimes, we cling to the rules because they help us to feel safe and certain, and we cling to them so hard that we begin to nitpick and call out every tiny infraction, every little detail.
Even when the kingdom of God is in those tiny infractions.
People aren’t meant to serve the rules.
People are meant to be free.
Rules do not define our identity as Christians. Grace does. Freedom does. Love does.
That’s why Jesus said that people will know that we are his disciples, not if we follow a bunch of rules perfectly, but if we love one another.
Now, the truth is that Jesus did preserve the integrity of the Sabbath, and the Hahner twins did preserve the spirit of competition. They raced as hard as they possibly could, but both of them had terrible running days. And so they finished hand in hand. They made a memory and a statement about what’s important to do on a bad day — to finish, to remember your family and your team. The offered relief to one another by their company and camaraderie. The fact that they finished intentionally side by side deep in the pack of runners will go down in history as just a small detail.
And Jesus, as Jesus does, simply offered relief to a woman who must have thought of herself an insignificant detail. But to Jesus, she was a beloved child of God who needed healing.
The Kingdom was in the details.
We often think of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God as a huge moment with a trumpet sound and Jesus riding on the clouds. But Jesus is pointing us towards something different, something much humbler, much more unassuming, things that some might even call rule infractions.
So look for glimpses of grace and relief this week. Look for God. Look for ways to give relief. Pay attention to the small ways that God and other people offer you relief, love, company.
And remember, sometimes, it’s not the devil that’s in the details — it’s the Kingdom of God. Amen.
(1) Thomas Kurschilgen, sports director for the German Athletics Federation, as reported in the Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/olympics/2016/08/17/german-twins-criticised-for-finishing-olympic-marathon-fun-run-h/.