08/25/13 Sermon (August 25, 2013)

posted Sep 3, 2013, 11:43 AM by David Hawkins   [ updated Sep 3, 2013, 11:43 AM ]

08/25/13 Sermon (August 25, 2013)

Luke 13:10-17 (Liturgist)

Now he 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.

Sermon: “Sabbath Freedom”

She had been a member of the church since she was a child. She had grown up in the church, she had been taught in the church, she had given to the church, she had lived her whole life in the church.

And for the last 18 years, she has come to the church faithfully every week, hoping against hope that this was the week that she might be healed of a terrible weakness, a weight that presses down on her, every moment of every day, a millstone that bows her back, that hunches her shoulders, a burden that keeps her head down, unable to gaze at the skies, or to meet the eyes of those around her.

As a woman, she was already an afterthought in her time, in her society, a second-class citizen at best, and with her infirmity, she is damaged goods, without any value whatsoever, an unclean, unwanted drag on the community.

And yet she comes to church, looking for a miracle. Hoping for healing, yearning for the chains that drag her down to be lifted from her, if only for a moment, that she might once again look into the faces of those she loves , to perhaps even lift her face to heaven.

And today, something new is happening. A stranger is in town, and he is teaching in the church. He’s drawn a crowd, and there are some whispers that this might be the one she had heard about, the miracle worker from Galilee. But there is no way for her to get near him. He is surrounded by the men, the Rabbis, the leaders. The are testing the stranger, quizzing him, challenging him. They don’t seem to like his answers, and the questions become aggressive, even angry.

But in the middle of one particularly heated argument, the stranger looks out at the crowd, and sees the woman, watching. She struggles to lift her head to return his gaze, and he immediately realizes the pain she is in. And it cuts him to the core. He shrugs off his questioners, and goes immediately to her side.

He bends over, so that she can see him, and he speaks to her, a teacher, a rabbi, speaks to her, this crippled woman. And he says that she is healed. That whatever was wrong with her is taken away, that she is free of the pain and the weight that had broken her body for so long.

But that isn’t the strangest thing. He doesn’t just speak to her. He reaches out, and he puts his hand on hers, puts a supporting arm around her shoulders. This holy man, breaking the taboo of touching a woman in church, a woman with an unclean spirit of weakness, right there in the church, right then, putting his hands on her on the Sabbath.

It is unheard of. She has never been treated with this kind of gentleness and respect from someone in the church. She has been relegated to the sidelines of church life, pitied, ignored, and forgotten. She has grown to accept the judgment of the community, that she was sick because God was punishing her, she was sick because she had sinned, she was sick because there was something wrong with her soul, she was sick because she was not worthy of being well.

But today, something changed.

No longer is the woman an outcast, an untouchable. No longer is she pushed aside, marginalized by her gender, by her illness. In fact, it was these very things that caught the stranger's eye, it was her very brokenness that got his attention. She had done nothing to deserve his touch. She had not admitted to any sin, she had not performed any good deed. She had not prayed any particular prayers for salvation, she had not offered any sacrifices.

She was simply there, hurting, unnoticed, without any hope of receiving healing, or even encountering common kindness.

And this is what the stranger reacts to. In the midst of all the theological debate, in the midst of the arguments about whose interpretation of scripture was the right one, the stranger stops, and puts his hands on her, and tells her that her long nightmare is over. The pain and the shame that had been her lot in life is lifted from her, and she need never feel its weight again.

And she realizes that for the first time in a long time, she can straighten her back again. She realizes that she can stand up, with her head held high, and meet the eyes of the stranger, as one would with an equal. She realizes that he has returned to her more than just her body. He has returned her dignity, her rightful place in society. He has not just freed her from her prison of pain, he has freed her from the uncaring jail cell of her own people, those who had written her off, those who had ceased to care one way or the other about her.

She was free, not from from illness, but from the unconscious cruelty of a society that had assumed that she was beyond saving, that she was not worthy of attention, or blessing, or mercy, or love. She was free of the casual callousness of a society that had no use for her.

And as she looks at the stranger, and then looks out at the crowd, she realized that everybody there knows it.

It comes to them slowly, as they watch the stranger minister to this woman. They know how they had forgotten her, how they had put her in a box, and wished she would just go away. They know how they had judged her, how they had simply given up on her.

And this simple gesture of the stranger, a simple physical touch, brings hot shame to their faces. By putting his hand on this woman’s arm, he reminds them of the way they had done everything they could to distance themselves from her. By bending low, and speaking to her, he reminds them of everything they had done to denigrate, and isolate her.

And the leader of the church is especially outraged. How dare this man come into his church, and shame him, and his congregation? This will not stand. This cannot be allowed. The stranger has not just broken social taboos. The stranger has not just come into their house and pointed out their callousness in front of the whole community.

No. There was something else that the stranger has done, and this will be his ruin. The stranger has broken religious law. Forget all his high sounding words, his idealistic thoughts about love and forgiveness, whatever ti was that he was talking about earlier on. When it comes right down to it, he has gone against God’s specific law, given to us in the Ten Commandments.

And so it doesn’t matter how much this stranger cares for this broken woman. It doesn’t matter that he has liberated her from her slavery of pain. It doesn’t matter that he has reached out to this woman, and lifted her out her pit of misery and shame, brought her back into full communion with the town and with the church.

Because the stranger has no business doing all this on God’s Holy Day, the day of rest. It’s right there in black and white, God’s word is absolutely clear on this one, no work shall be done on the Sabbath. If the woman wanted to be healed, and the stranger was willing, they should have worked out something on one of the six other days of the week. Not this one. Not this day, of all days. This one is supposed to be set aside.

And if the stranger was any kind of holy person at all, he should have known that. He should have known that it was wrong to do work on the Sabbath. He should have known better than to directly contravene God’s Word. Because if we can’t keep God’s laws, than how can we call ourselves God’s people? What do we have, it it’s not the law?

The woman watches as the church leader speaks about the Sabbath and the law, and the importance of keeping the commandments, and following the rules, and she is terrified to see the crowd seeming to agree with him.How could they so quickly the crowd had turn from the healing and reconciliation that had taken place, and instead focus on whether or not it had been done correctly?

It seems all backwards, somehow, that rather than sharing in her joy and freedom, they are more interested in whether or not the letter of the law has been followed. She can’t understand it. She can’t understand how the church could become so stuck in it’s own ways of looking at things that they can’t see the work of God being done right in their midst.

And she could tell that the stranger is dumbfounded as well.

“What are you all talking about?” he asks them. “What kind of religious people are you, that you would rather see a woman stay in pain than be healed, that you would rather let a woman wither away and die among you than risk breaking the rules? What is Godly about forcing anyone to bear unnecessary burdens one moment longer than they have to, just in order to satisfy your own sense of what is right and proper?

“Let me ask you a question: If your horse, or your ox, or your dog or your cat was thirsty, which of you would not take the time, even on the Sabbath, to lead them to water? How is it possible that you would bind this woman to her misery, and not lift a finger, nor allow a finger to be lifted to aid her in her plight? How on earth can you reconcile this sort of hypocrisy? It seems like your laws are flexible enough when they come to you, but God help those who are not on your side.

The stranger doesn’t stop. “This woman is a daughter of Abraham, she is an heir to the covenant that God has made with all his people. She is just as deserving of God’s love and mercy as any of you. The Sabbath is that day that God has given to us in remembrance of our exodus from Slavery in Egypt, and I have done nothing but share with her that very same freedom. Yet you would rather she remain in chains.”

It was not God’s will that the woman should endure one more minute of agony on that day so long ago. It is not in God’s will that any of us should endure one more minute of carrying burdens that are not ours to carry.

I have heard so many sermons about what we’re supposed to do on the sabbath. That it is to be set aside for prayer, for worship, for holy stuff. But I’ll tell you, that sometimes those well meaning sermons have just been more bricks to put in my backpack. They were simply more rules on how to live the perfect Christian life.

And this is especially true when it is simply not possible to rest on a Sunday. For those folks, like farmers, for example, for whom the seasonal demands of their work make it impossible to simply take a day off because that’s what they were supposed to do, these well meaning sermons simply add another layer of guilt and shame for coming up short in God’s eyes.

And so the last thing that I want to do is to add a burden to those who are already working so hard, for their families, and for our community. I do encourage all of us, however to take rest when we can find it, and not feel guilty or unproductive when we do.  This is the gift of the sabbath: freedom from meeting the expectations of a demanding world; Permission to rest in the grace of God. Not just a bunch more rules. Not just more requirements about what to do, what to eat, what to wear, what to think, how to live.

Sabbath rest is the liberation from those things that tie us down, those crippling weights of endless work, worry about our jobs, guilt, shame, fear of not being good enough, that break our backs and our spirits, that prevent us from looking heavenward, from looking to Jesus for support and relief.

The law of God was never intended to be a prison. It was only, and always intended to be an instrument of relief. Relief from endless work. Relief from the jealousy and envy that poisons our souls. Relief from a life that bases its worth only on our own work and merit. Relief from the world’s expectations that the only way to get ahead is to steal, to take, and climb over the bodies that get in our way. The law is a gift, and a blessing, not a curse and a jail cell.

Of course the reality is, we live in world filled with bad people, who do bad things. Sometimes, it can seem that the only thing that prevents us all from completely flying apart as a society are rules that we all agree upon, rules that we all follow, or at least, try to follow. And I would be the first to admit that if we do not enforce the laws that protect the powerless, the voiceless, those who have no other resources, we are not acting as good stewards of the responsibilities that are placed on us, and the whole idea of justice begins to lose its meaning.

But here’s the thing. The law of God was meant to be a good guide for us, not an arbitrary system by which we are judged and judge others. It was meant as a benefit, not a litmus test. The law was created for us, not against us, and we abuse the right use of the law when we insist on its application, even when the result is cruel and unjust.

Because there will be times in each of our lives when we will find ourselves, or our loved ones at the mercy of the law. And I’m not talking about the times that we might find ourselves in the courts of one of our judges. I’m talking about those times in our lives when we discover that we ourselves are unable to live up to our own expectations for our lives.

And in those times we may have to struggle to lift our heads to look for grace. We may be bent so far double by the weight of the law that we might not even be able see the presence of Jesus in our lives.

But it is at that moment that we will feel his arm around our shoulders, that we will hear his voice inviting us to stand up straight again, to look in his face, to remember that we are indeed healed, beloved, and welcome, and forgiven.

And it is on that day that we will understand, like the woman in the story, the meaning of Sabbath, and we will know what true freedom feels like.

Thanks be to God. Amen.