A sermon, from August 25, 2019 Parkwood Presbyterian Church, Jenison MI
Now he [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. Luke 13:10-17 NRSV
There are just seven verses in today’s gospel reading. But as always we have lots to think about. And, as often when the text is familiar, it’s tempting to settle into our familiar interpretations. But careful reading can sometimes unsettle our familiar ideas. So I want to walk through these verses, briefly, and help us, I hope, see them with some fresh eyes.
“There appeared a woman with a spirit, that had crippled her for eighteen years.”
Talk about a spirit causing a disability can make a lot of us nervous. It can make some people, dismiss the Gospel as unscientific and therefore untrue. “Everyone” knows spirits don’t cripple people. Just a bunch of old fairy tales.
Or we may decide to spiritualize the story. Everyone is crippled somehow, bent over, bent away from God. But that turns the woman into a metaphor.
If you are a person with a disability, being turned into a metaphor is not helpful.
There is a third approach and that is to realize that in the ancient world – the pre scientific world- there were two ways, two categories to explain events. Either humans did something.
I cooked dinner. I dropped the cup. Or the gods or God did it. Science as we know it didn’t exist as an explanation.
Thunderstorms? They didn’t have a meteorological explanation. God caused it.
What causes crops to grow and sheep to have lambs? We didn’t do it, must be God.
What causes the sun to rise? We didn’t do it, must be God.
Conversely, when bad things happen, some sort of spirits are involved. They didn’t have a knowledge of viruses and bacteria. Someone is sick, a spirit is at work.
So there’s no mystery here, this is just how first century people thought about things. It’s just that simple.
The Bible is written for us, but not to us. It was written to an ancient people. Two thousand years ago is a long time ago. Two thousand years in the future will be 4019. An impossibly long time to think about. Two thousand years is a very long amount of time. And people thought differently.
But it is difficult for us to step away from science. Almost every commentary I read about this passage felt it necessary to diagnose the woman. They speculate about her condition. Several just declared her to have osteoporosis. All of them ignoring the fact that the text doesn’t say. We don’t know what the specific nature of her condition was. But we want to know. It’s just difficult for us to step out of our science based worldview and into the Bible’s. It takes some intentionality.
“Woman you are set free from your ailment. When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
The language choices Luke makes to tell this story are interesting. He uses words that invoke the very biblical theme of bondage and release. In verse 12 the word “set free” in Greek contains the meaning of liberate, or release- often used about captives, prisoners, debtors. Then in v 15 “untie” is the same word in Greek translated as “set free” in v 16 and both words could be translated at “released”
Release, Release. Release.
And so we are to recall other releases, other liberations. Israel bound by Pharaoh and released. This woman bound by Satan and now freed. Not maybe unlike Zacheus, bound by greed and freed by Jesus. Or the rich young man, bound by possessions and unwilling to be freed by Jesus.
This healing story, seems to be about release and restoration. Being set free from what deforms and impedes our full unhindered participation in life as the people of God.
But this woman is not a metaphor. She isn’t some object lesson for us two thousand years later. She is a real person who wants to be healed. But Jesus sets her particular life in the larger context of Israel’s story.
Another thing we Christians do with healing stories is reduce them to insider/outsider stories. The disabled are outsiders, because they are “unclean”. And because they are unclean they have been pushed out from community. Jesus through his healing restores them to community.
Which isn’t wrong, there is truth here, but we tend to overstate the case. For one thing being clean or unclean had mostly to do with being able to worship in the Temple. With some exceptions, it wasn’t a day to day worry for most people.
But when we frame healing stories to be primarily about insiders and outsiders, we unwittingly normalize the idea of disabled people as outsiders and as people who need to be brought in. We put them outside, so that we can bring them in. Forgetting that in God’s eyes they are already in- without us doing anything for them. What we need to do is open our eyes to God’s reality.
This woman is already and always has been a daughter of Abraham. No physical, mental, emotional, or social status changes that.
If we read carefully the stories themselves tell us that most disabled people were not excluded from the community. Remember how many people go to Jesus and ask him to heal a family member? They’re part of a family that cares about them. Remember the guy whose friends literally took the roof off the place to have Jesus heal him? He has a community. And today’s passage. No one seems upset that the woman is present in the synagogue. That’s not the problem.
The problem in today’s text is that Jesus is, once again, healing on the sabbath. He does this three times in Luke’s gospel. Two of these times in the synagogue itself. It’s not the healing that is the problem. The problem is Jesus’ timing.
“There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured…” The healing isn’t the issue. The objection of the synagogue leader is that Jesus’ actions violate what everyone understood to be appropriate for the Sabbath.
They synagogue leader is referencing what everyone knows. There are six days on which to be healed. There are things that are done on the Sabbath and there are things that are not done. This is a shared community value. It’s a distinctive and unique Jewish practice.
Now here’s another place we Christians need to rethink the text. If we aren’t careful we will misunderstand what is at stake here. Christians tend to have a very simplistic understanding of Torah and how it is supposed to function. We often characterize Torah as a bunch of rules used by Jews to placate God- to manipulate God. We think of Torah as law and not grace.
But we’re better off thinking of Torah as more like a statement of faith. In a world of multiple gods, Torah observance was a way to declare one’s belonging, one’s allegiance to the one true God. This statement of faith was not just something to verbally and intellectually ascent to- although that’s part of it.
Torah is an embodied statement of faith. A lived statement of faith. Because, what we do and how we do it matters. How we eat, how we treat other people, how we spend our time, how we spend our money- all this matters. If our lives are a witness to what we believe then what we do matters.
So the synagogue leader has a point. He is not being a picky rule follower. And he’s not wrong about this.He raises an important question. Think of it from his perspective. Breaking a commandment is a serious thing. Keeping the Sabbath is an important way to honor God.
What does it mean to honor God?
How do we act in a way that shows proper reverence and respect to God?
Jesus’ answer to that question is different than the synagogue leaders.
That’s the issue. What is the Sabbath? And how do we honor God with the Sabbath?
It’s important for us to think about what Sabbath is supposed to be.
Now I didn’t grow up around here. But I understand that in years past there were what we might call, a set of commonly held community practices around the Sabbath, what was appropriate to do and what wasn’t. So some of us shouldn’t be too hard on the synagogue leader. We have our own stories to tell about this. He is trying to help his community be faithful.
What is the point of the Sabbath? Is it a bunch of seemingly arbitrary rules, that following proves our faithfulness? Sometimes I hear people say Sunday is a time for family and friends. Is that it? Is it about going to church for an hour or two?
We need to think about what Sabbath is. We talk about Sabbath rest. The Scriptures say that God rested on the seventh day and set it apart. We rest because God rests. But what does it mean to rest?
Well in the ancient world when a king was at rest, it didn’t mean they were taking a nap or a day off. It meant that the king was at home, on the throne. Not away at war. When a king was at rest, it meant the kingdom was at peace. Life was the way it was supposed to be.
At the top of the bulletin today, there is a quote from Rabbi Donniel Hartman’s book Putting God Second “Every seventh day, Jews are commanded to create a sacred time in which the distinctions between the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the powerless are dissolved.” and the part I didn’t quote there, “Just as God stood with the powerless in the Exodus, the powerful stand with the powerless every seventh day, creating a society in which the powerful and the powerless are equal, even if only for an aspirational twenty five hours a week.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshus Heschel in his book The Sabbath describes it this way.
“The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere.”….“The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.”
Heschel quotes a legend “at that time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, He said to them: My children! If you accept the Torah and observe my mitzvot, I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession.
And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing which Thou wilt give us if we obey Thy Torah?
The world to come.
Israel says, Show us in this world an example of the world to come.
The Sabbath is an example of the world to come.”
We pray for this every time we pray the Lord’s prayer. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We’re praying for Sabbath, then life on earth is life in the kingdom is as it is meant to be. We are praying for Sabbath, but not a time limited Sabbath. Our Sabbath life can and should begin to extend beyond the bounds of a day.
Now, let’s think about what’s going on in today’s text. The synagogue leader has fallen into what Rabbi Hartman calls religion’s autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease is when our own body turns on itself and makes us sick. And our religion, in a sincere attempt to be faithful can turn on itself and make us religiously sick.
One way we do that is what he calls “God intoxication”. In our earnest intention to honor God, we end up not doing what God wants us to do. Our faithfulness, can actually make us unfaithful. Our desire to live in God’s presence can result in an all consuming passion that makes us unable to see the needs of other people.
It’s a paradox.
If we are not careful, the more we focus on God the less we are able to follow God’s command to love our neighbor and to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger among us.
Rabbi Hartman tells this story of a Hassidic master, who was “walking along a cobbled street in Eastern Europe, some two hundred years ago, when he heard the cry of a baby coming from his student’s house- a cry that pierced the night. He rushed into the house and saw his student enraptured in prayer, swaying in pious devotion. The rabbi walked over to the baby, took her into his arms, sat down, and rocked her to sleep.
When the student emerged from his prayers, he was shocked and embarrassed to find his master in his house, holding his baby. “Master”, he said, “What are you doing? Why are you here?”
“I was walking in the street when I heard crying, so I followed it and found her alone.”
“Master, I was so engrossed in my prayers that I did not hear her.
The Master replied, “My dear student, if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer.”
Rabbi Hartman suggests that we honor God most and best by doing the things God wants us to do, caring for the people around us- Remembering our moral and ethical responsibility as the people of God. If that means putting God second to put God’s will first, then that’s what we need to do.
The prophets understand this. You can open any book of the prophets almost at random and see this. Like today’s Old Testament reading. Always the prophets call us to feed the hungry, care for the afflicted. Always they remind us that in our zeal for proper worship we can forget and neglect what matters most to God. And that neglect makes our worship worthless.
So the synagogue leader is mistaken, Jesus, in our text, is not breaking the rules. Jesus is fulfilling them. He is keeping the Sabbath in the fullest way. Jesus brings the Kingdom of God with him. He embodies the Sabbath, the sabbath rest, the palace in time, where the world is aligned with God’s will. A world where there is healing, and food and kinship and acceptance, and all are welcome.
Years ago, like twenty?, I heard a pastor say that when he had the opportunity to ask God a question, face to face. He would ask, What was the church supposed to be? And that is the question, one of the questions, this text asks us as people who live in the 21st century.
What is the church supposed to be?
How do we embody the Sabbath?
How do we create this palace of time where we learn how to surpass our civilization?
Or have we become the home of the God intoxicated? So focused on God that we can’t see the needs of the people around us?
It’s not either/or. I’m not saying don’t worship God. It is important to worship God.
Because God deserves it
And because good worship helps us learn what the kingdom of God looks and sounds like, what it tastes like and feels like.
When we pass the peace, we’re not just saying hello to folks. We are practicing being bearers of Christ’s peace in the world. We may not greet people in the real world saying “the Peace of Christ be with you”. But the way we greet people, the intention with which we greet people can and does bring the peace of Christ into the world. And we learn to do it here.
Another way to think about this. Paul, when he went around starting churches, he didn’t convert everyone in town. He left little communities, outposts of the kingdom. He left communities that lived differently, filled with people who lived different and odd lives. Peculiar people as author Shane Claiborne says. We are founded to be outposts of the Kingdom of God filled with peculiar people.
The church exists to create these palaces of time. To create the communities where everyone is valued. But these communities don’t stop at our doors.
Just as Jesus took the kingdom of God with him everywhere he went, we are to take the kingdom with us. We are to embody it, to surpass the civilization around us. To call the world to the moral and ethical standards God has for it and for us.
We know what that looks like. We’ll remind ourselves of it with the charge today.
Peace, shalom in the Bible is, as you know, more than lack of violence. It is a fully flourishing life for all.
On the Sabbath, we live into that kingdom. We enact it, we embody it. We long for it. We pray for it. We learn what it looks and feels like. And as we do that, we can’t help but notice life isn’t peaceful. It isn’t shalom filled, for us or for others.
Which brings us back to the bent over woman. When we talk about disability or ability, we tend to think in terms of individuals and what they can contribute. For us a large part of being fully human involves our individual ability to participate, to contribute. And we import that reading into the Bible.
We think about what the bent over woman can or can’t do. How is she a productive member of the community? We think of her healing in terms of what she will now be able to do, to contribute. But that’s a 21st century reading with our emphasis on individuality and productivity.
First century people thought of community more in terms of belonging, not doing. The woman is restored to community not for what she could do, but for who she was, a “Daughter of Abraham”. Jesus looks at her and sees someone God loves for herself. Not for what she can do for God. Or for her community. God sees a human being, not a human doing.
If you have never read one of Father Greg Boyle’s books, “Tattoos of the Heart” or “Barking to the Choir”, I commend them to you. Father Boyle has done amazing transformative things with gangs in Los Angeles. He founded Homeboy Industries, one of the largest and most successful gang intervention programs in the world. And what comes through clearly in his books is that he doesn’t consider his task to rescue or fix or heal anyone. His work and the work of everyone at Homeboy Industries is to love the gang members as God loves them, and to love them until they can love themselves.
Once someone understands that, that God loves them, not for what they can do, but simply because they are, because they exist, once they understand that, then they are able to- and want to- and capable of changing themselves.
Father Boyle writes “Homeboy wants to provide a sanctuary for homies until they become the sanctuary they sought here. It is in that setting that we are able to calibrate our hearts and point them in the direction of the welcoming embrace. Here we make a decision to live in each others hearts.”
The thing about Jesus is that he loves people as they are. Because they are people bearing God’s image. They, and we, don’t do anything to deserve God’s love. God is love. And that means God loves us. Without exception. Without conditions.
That is hard to really believe. Society tells us the good news is too good to be true. But if we can begin to believe the good news, that God loves us. Then we can begin to love like that. And that sort of love frees from the doing and the fixing.
It frees us from worrying about who deserves what.
It frees us from worrying about who has more.
It frees us from worrying about having enough.
It frees us from clinging to what we have both physically and emotionally.
And then we can work for justice and shalom, for a world filled with Sabbath, from a healthy place. A secure place. We don’t react out of fear or anger.
We can recognize and name wrong and evil from a place of love, not hate. We can work for restoration, and redemption, not destruction. We build up, not tear down.
The next verses after today’s gospel lesson begin “He said therefore. The “therefore” connects what follows to our story. What follows are the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast.
He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
The churches that Paul planted. The synagogues that Jesus taught in, Parkwood Presbyterian Church, True North Campus Ministry -these are palaces of time, these are the mustard seeds, these are the yeast, outposts of the kingdom. We are the way the kingdom of God becomes real. The way it takes shape, and changes the world.
It’s holy work, but it’s not easy work. Jesus upset some people, some important people when he healed on the Sabbath. He did a lot of other things that upset people. He warned us that living and working for the kingdom of God will cause us trouble- holy trouble. But that is what we are called to do.
The question for us is, what things are we going to heal? There’s a lot in this world that needs healing.
What are you,
what am I,
what are we called to heal?
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.