The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Sunday, August 21, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Well, I love it when we get these gospel stories of Jesus in church. In case we forget just how upsetting it could be to be around Jesus, these Jesus-in-the-synagogue stories set the action right in our own context, a worship service. Just imagine it happening here. Here we are, and everything is in order. We know pretty much how the service will unfold today and what it will be like, and just about how long it will take, and when worship is done, off we will go about our day. But what if right in the middle of the prayers of the people the prayer leader called one of you up and healed you, right in front of everybody? Or what if in the middle of the sermon, one of you jumped up and started cursing, and the usher performed an exorcism on you? Or what if I finished reading the gospel aloud and then said, actually, folks, that scripture is really about me? You’d find all that a little unsettling, wouldn’t you? I sure would. It’s hard enough to keep the service going with fans waving and people coming in late and sometimes somebody fainting. How do you keep it going after a miracle?
So I can kind of feel the pain of the synagogue leader in today’s gospel reading. Right in the middle of worship, Jesus restores good posture to a woman who had been bent over for eighteen years. She doesn’t ask for this healing; she has lived with this for so long that probably everyone else has stopped noticing her, the way we tend to overlook people who are stooped over or on the margins in one way or another. But Jesus sees her off there in the congregation and calls her forward, and performs a miracle on her. Really, the synagogue leader must be thinking. Couldn’t you at least wait until coffee hour? Does this have to happen today? We have rules and customs about how to behave on the Sabbath, I have a hard enough time getting people to observe them, do you have to just throw it all out the window for no good reason?
But apparently, Jesus can’t wait. He thinks this healing is something that has to happen right now – right here, on the Sabbath. And so he does it.
There’s another story of Jesus healing in a synagogue on the Sabbath, when he cures a man with a withered hand. That one is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all three. But this story about the woman standing up straight is only in Luke. The fact that it’s about a woman is a clue that it’s not just a story about physical healing. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is always reversing the status quo, bringing people from the margins into the center around Jesus. And women were on the margins, especially women without a man, like widows or unmarried women. So here is this woman, bent over, coming to worship in the synagogue, maybe to hear Jesus teach – and Jesus notices her. And he calls her over and lays hands on her, saying, ‘You are set free,’ and she stands up straight. Now she can see the world at last. And the first thing she does is praise God. Right there in the synagogue in the middle of worship, this woman raises her voice and speaks. She is set free from her crippled posture; she is set free from all that has kept her silent and outcast. This is a big deal. So why isn’t everybody cheering for her? No one seems happy with what has happened, and Jesus isn’t happy with them at all.
This is one of those stories where it’s easy to side with Jesus against his opponents. Yeah, Jesus! You tell ‘em! Stick it to the man! Stick it to the authorities, to the oppressors, the rule-mongers. Jesus as the anti-establishment rebel. We like that Jesus. But it’s a slippery slope. All too often we read these stories of Jesus arguing with the Jewish authorities through Protestant eyes, the eyes of Martin Luther, law vs. gospel – Jesus is here to liberate us from the enslaving rule-based tradition of Judaism. We can easily forget that Jesus was a Jew, and worshiping and teaching within a thoroughly Jewish context. This is an argument about the Sabbath, and about how to observe it properly. But it’s not an argument against the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day when we clear away the clutter enough to spend time with God, and see the world through God’s eyes – a practice we all need to keep. Jesus is reminding the congregation in the synagogue on that Sabbath day to look and see God at work. God’s freedom is bursting through, just as it should.
So the story is a healing story. But it’s more than that. The woman is healed, and is able to stand and see and praise God. And that healing is offered to the whole congregation of people, all at once. But the leader of the synagogue, and all those around him who protest this action, are not healed. They are still crippled and bent, still unable to stand up and see.
It’s not too hard to imagine why. The leader of the synagogue has a job to do. Perhaps he’s hobbled by issues of purity, of needing to keep things decent and in good order. He’s the establishment, it’s his job to keep the system running. The rules clearly state that work should be done on the other six days. Please follow the rules.
The other opponents of Jesus are crippled too. Maybe they’re the scribes and the Pharisees, although the story doesn’t tell us who they are this time. Maybe they’re tied up in their power and social position, unable to see why this old nobody of a woman is being put at the center of the gathering. They like the world as it is. They don’t welcome the in-breaking of the world as it could be, when those on the margins are brought in and God’s people are made whole. In such a world they believe they would lose, and so they resist it.
And the others there in the synagogue that day seem to have trouble seeing as well. For a whole host of reasons, probably. Reasons that might be familiar to some of us also:
+ Maybe it might be their desire for comfort, to go along and get along without too much fuss and drama. The world isn’t perfect, they think, but it would be so much easier if you just leave me alone, over here keeping to myself, staring at my shoes. Standing upright and changing my perspective just sounds too hard.
+Or maybe they’re bent over by self-doubt, a belief that they aren’t worth any better than this, they’ll always live this bent-over way. Too much tragedy and heartbreak to believe it can ever change.
+Or maybe the combined forces of race and gender and age and all the other categories we live with have us bent and twisted, unable to even imagine seeing things any other way.
So many things can cripple us. So many things can bind us and keep us from real life.
And yet, Jesus is showing so clearly, God is up to something. God is at work in the world. God intends freedom. In every way, over and over, God is lifting us up and straightening our spines and showing us the world as it should be. Here in worship on the Lord’s day, and on every day of the week, God is breaking in. Our rules and restrictions and doubt and fear do not need to keep us captive. We can stand, on Christ the solid rock, with our eyes and hearts open to see.
Imagine Jesus calling you forward, and laying his hands on you, and saying, dear one, you are set free. Stand up. Wouldn’t you want to say yes? I think it’s what he’s saying now – and always. Perhaps we can all stand up together – and together affirm our faith.