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August 25, 2019
Today’s scripture reading comes from my favorite Gospel – Maybe my favorite book in the whole Bible – The Gospel of Luke. Luke describes the people around Jesus that makes me realize – “O! They are just like me! I do that. I have those questions. I’ve struggled with that; rejoiced that way; grieved like that. I’ve turned away from love; I’ve been desperate to know God’s care.” And every week, we dig deep into these words, written so long ago – These particular words, from Luke’s Gospel are about 1919 years old. And we don’t know exactly who Luke was, or even if that was his name – We do know the same person wrote Luke and the Acts of the Apostle – The only person who wrote down what happened after Jesus’ resurrection. And whenever we open our Bible, we trust that what happened to people thousands of years ago, and how they tried to make sense of this world, and where they saw God at work, and how God showed up, will also guide us in our faith as we live here and now. God speaks to us, in this congregation, in this town, in this country, in this world, today So, let us hear once again the words of God, from the Gospel of Luke 13:10-17
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.
When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured; and not on the Sabbath day.”
But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day? When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
What is God’s good news for us today? Where do we see ourselves in this account? The stooped over woman? The Temple Leader taking his job seriously? In Jesus looking beyond the rules and customs of his day and culture to see people in need? Because it’s not just the woman here who needs healing.
But let’s start there - with the woman – Who shows up at the Temple, on a Sabbath. We don’t know why she came there – Maybe when you got out of bed and headed to church this morning you weren’t exactly sure what you needed, or what you were hoping to find here, either.
The woman was bent over. She’d been that way for 18 years. Literally, not able to see anything straight ahead, finding her way by focusing on the ground right in front of her feet. And she’s been carrying this burden for a long, long time.
Every single one of us knows what it is to carry burdens, to feel stooped over by life’s heartaches. Sure, it may not be physically and immediately obvious that life has ground us down, but we know the weariness of carrying worries, and anxieties, and fears around, day after day after day. We know what it’s like to barely see the way ahead. And just like that woman, we came here to church today.
We show up, with our burdens breaking our backs and our hearts, and I don’t think we come here expecting healing, exactly. Only, that’s exactly what happens for that woman.
She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t call attention to herself. She doesn’t call out to Jesus, or walk up to him, or touch him. She just walks into the synagogue like every other person, and heads to the women’s section. And Jesus initiates the interaction - He sees her –– He calls her over – He talks to her. He breaks the taboo about strict separation of women and men in the synagogue. And after he announces that she is set free from her ailment – Literally, he says, you are divorced from your weakness – He breaks the rules about touching someone “unclean.” Because after all that, he lays his hands on her.
We show up here, weakened by the week just past. We’re burdened by our email in-box, our piles of laundry and bills, our work list and house list and yard list and school list and kids’ list and grocery list and and and. On top of that, on top of all of that, maybe you are carrying a burden or two that feels more than you can bear. A burden of physical weakness, of mental illness, of disease, of heart-rendering grief, or fear, or uncertainty about the road ahead, or worry about loved ones, or a situation you can’t control or change. Maybe today it’s just ordinary life for you, but you know what it’s like when life is too much.
And she shows up at the synagogue, and Jesus calls her close, and gives her a message, and lays his hands on her. And that’s when her strength comes back, and she stands up straight, and is able to praise God again.
We know what it is to be that woman. To have someone by our side when we didn’t even ask, whose presence and love comfort us and strengthen us, and heal our hearts and ease our burden.
Now some translations of this scripture have added the descriptive title to this passage as “Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman,” but others say, “Healing on a Sabbath.” Because the story doesn’t end there – No, as usual, there are repercussions to being in the healing presence of Jesus.
The Temple leader wasn’t too happy about what was going on. He was uncomfortable with the order of worship – the traditional reading and teaching on scripture being interrupted with something so unusual, and, to be honest, out of his control. Ah, control. We all have our control issues. We don’t like it when folk don’t stick to the script, when they veer off the path that is so familiar and ingrained in us we didn’t even realize there was a path we were following and expecting our loved ones to follow, until they don’t. Of course our best friend will keep our secret. Of course our spouse will put us first, ahead of work and children and other friends and family. Of course our supervisor will see our good work and appreciate it. Of course at church no one will tell a half-truth, or deceive or put their agenda ahead of everyone else’s. All these are the unspoken expectations about the path ahead.
That Temple leader was good at his work, and he took his job seriously – It was up to him to teach the people what God wants from them; it was up to him to teach them what scripture said, and help them understand how to obey it. What’s it matter to make her wait one more day after 18 years of days of carrying this burden? He wants to keep the Sabbath a day of rest, and I get that – Wow, could we all use a day of rest, a day when we put down all our lists and all these burdens, empty our brains of anxiety and stress and worry. It’s not that he’s a bad guy – He’s just the only one who spoke up and said what every other Temple leader was thinking, and what every person there was used to hearing. God worked for six days, and rested on the seventh, and so should we. It says so right in the very beginning of scripture.
It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it – Start allowing healing on the Sabbath, and next thing you know, there’s no difference between the Sabbath and every other day of the week. We get that – Remember Blue Laws, which said no stores could be open on Sundays, then it was adapted to stores closing just Sunday mornings, then, well, stores were open 24/7 and there was nothing inherently special about our Sundays – God didn’t strike us down because we skipped church and did our grocery shopping instead. We didn’t realize it was up to us to keep the Sabbath holy. But that Temple Leader knew. Start chipping away at it – Next thing you know, you’ve lost it all. We know the dangers of the slippery slope well.
And, we also don’t like outright confrontation – Just like that Temple Leader – he was brave enough to speak out, but not quite brave enough to address Jesus directly, and accuse him of working on the Sabbath and thus violating the sacred day. No, he “kept saying to the crowd….” Catch that? He KEPT saying – Which makes me think of all the times we feel desperate and scared and like we’re losing control of a situation, so we just keep repeating ourselves over and over. He’s offering the people good news: This is your one day to rest! Don’t start compromising it!
But even though it’s Jesus he’s upset with, like us, it’s easier to turn to the crowd, who did nothing, and the woman, who did nothing, and blame her for all this – After all, she was the one who showed herself on the Sabbath! Just by showing up, he implies, she was asking for extra attention. Even though we know she didn’t open her mouth or ask for anything. She’s an easy target, a disabled woman. Easier to blame her, even though, she’s the victim here.
But we like our rules, our laws, our norms. It helps us feel like we know how to be good people and live good lives. Start stepping over the lines, making exceptions and excuses, and next thing you know, you’re in deep water. Just one drink, that’s all. It’s been a rough day. Just one flirty text. You want them to know you care. Just one little cover up at work, and you’ll make up for it tomorrow. Just one shading of the truth, telling a partial truth. No one will know.
Or, on the other side, the side of the Temple Leader: hold people accountable. No excuses, no contextual ethics. This is the rule, the expectation, and these are the consequences. And we hold ourselves to those same high standards and expectations. And the Bible supports us, right? To those who have received much, much will be expected. It’s up to us!
Yes, we are the woman, stopped over, weary to our bones. And yes, we are the Temple Leader, trying to look out for everyone, making sure the rules apply to everyone, trying to keep control over a slippery situation running out of control. Yes. Luke describes us well.
And then, into this mix, comes Jesus. Calm even in the midst of teaching at the synagogue. Calm is key: Not anxious or worried about what people will say, or what others will think, or the cultural and temple rules and expectations. Able to see clearly what is going on around him; able to see each individual person. He is calm enough to know not even the Temple’s interpretation of God’s law is more important than being kind. He sees someone hurting, and he reaches out to them, across all sorts of barriers and boundaries, even if it is the Sabbath, even if she’s unclean, and who knows whether she deserved healing or what people will say or think . There’s no day and there is no place when we take a break from being kind. Instead, this is exactly what it means to keep the Sabbath holy. Because he knows the difference a word, a touch, a presence, can be. And he knows the right place and time for the rules. When we are hurting, even when we’re not calling attention to ourselves, even when it’s an inconvenient time, what a difference it can be to have someone who cares by our side, whatever the rules.
And so, the invitation – To stay calm enough to know when the rules are helping, and when they are getting in the way of our humanity, getting in the way of seeing in one another’s faces the image of Christ. To recognize when it’s anxiety and fear making us grasp for the rules. Rules and expectations and laws and guidelines and even God’s word – It’s all there to help us, help us treat one another and all God’s creation with respect and honor and love.
What rules and laws and expectations do you hold near and dear to your heart, which comfort you especially when you are anxious? But also, when has someone broken the rules to show you how much you are loved and cared for? And how can you be there for that person who is stooped over, weary, showing up at an inconvenient time? Kindness has no time limit, knows no boundaries. Love doesn’t show up just when it’s convenient or invited or falls inside the rules. Rules don’t veto love, or kindness, or compassion. It’s tempting to think we start with rules and go from there; Jesus says, start with kindness, and go from there. That is what it is to be keep the Sabbath, and every day, holy.