Sunday, August 21, 2022

When They Stand Up Straight


August 21, 2022 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:10.

She appeared out of nowhere. This woman, whose gaze had been bent down toward the ground for eighteen years, shuffled toward the assembly well after the service had begun. She knew that she did not belong in that place. No one needed to remind her of that. A woman in her condition was, to her peers, the embodiment of humanity’s brokenness, the inherited sinfulness of a people. No one wanted to see her, especially in a holy place on a holy day, so she made a habit of sneaking up to a door or a window to catch a few words of the rabbi’s teaching—a brief chance to feel normal, like she belonged among the children of Abraham, before returning to the reality of her downcast life.

But this sabbath day was different. Jesus saw her. He noticed her. Before she could slip away, right in the middle of his sermon, he saw the woman who for eighteen years had lived an invisible life, and he called her over. From beyond the edge of the assembly, where no one would notice her, Jesus invited the woman to come and stand beside him in the center of attention, where the scrutinous and critical stares of the congregation beheld her. There, before God and everyone in the synagogue, Jesus laid his hands upon her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 

Immediately, the woman stood up straight and began praising God. Her voice, which had been silenced by those who believed that a woman such as her would never have anything worth uttering to the divine, was lifted up in song and praise. This child of God looked up toward heaven, reaching toward her Creator with both body and soul, and spoke words of healing and wholeness for everyone to hear. And the ruler of the synagogue was furious.

Indignant, enraged, grieved, and pained, the man who was in charge of maintaining order within the religious assembly immediately lashed out at the entire 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.” He knew well what would happen if this sort of renegade action took hold within the community, so he did what any good religious leader would do: he reasserted his authority over the congregation and called into question the legitimacy of the visiting rabbi who had done this unholy thing. Invoking the law of Moses, he reminded the people of their sacred obligations. Only if a life were in danger should the sabbath be broken. This woman had carried this infirmity with her for nearly two decades. Why couldn’t she wait one more day and honor God by coming to be healed after the sabbath was over?

But what if the healing she sought—the restoration she needed—wasn’t available after the sun had set and the sabbath was over? What if her salvation had as much to do with confronting the religious leader as with having her spine straightened out?

Two thousand years later, in a thoroughly Gentile Christian community that is largely unfamiliar with sabbath observance, we have hard time recognizing just how right the leader of the synagogue was. Five times in this passage of only eight verses, Luke mentions that it was the sabbath, drawing even a Gentile reader into the heart of the matter. Apart from being one of the ten commandments, why was keeping the sabbath so important? A few centuries before Jesus came to that synagogue, after the first temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, God’s people looked for ways to remain faithful even when they were unable to worship on God’s holy mountain. During the Babylonian exile, household practices like circumcision, keeping kosher, and observing the sabbath became the principal ways that a people remained connected with God and their ancestors. Even though by the first century, when Jesus lived, another temple had been built, gatherings like this one—synagogues in which the community came together in faith on the Lord’s Day—were the primary way that Jewish people lived out their faith. Anyone who threatened that, including an eloquent rabbi from out of town, threatened the very core of Jewish identity.

Are our reactions any different than that of the leader of the synagogue when it’s our identity under threat? What would happen if we allowed religious leaders to bend our sacred traditions until they started to break? What would become of our religion if preachers and teachers, theologians and seminary professors, bishops and convention deputies started to question the very core of our faith—the central practices that we have inherited from our spiritual ancestors? Won’t everything we hold dear start to fall apart? 

If we listen to people like Jesus, how long will it be before we no longer recognize the church we hold dear? How long until this place is filled with formerly bent-over people who now stand up straight? How long until we let women speak in this sacred assembly—even let them preach or preside at the Lord’s Table? How long will it be before women’s voices and stories and experiences and bodies are as valuable as a man’s? What will happen to these sacred walls or the foundation upon which they are built if trans voices were ever lifted up to the heavens in praise of their Creator? What will come of us if we allow the people whom religious society has kept bent down toward the ground for generations to stand beside us and praise the same God who has made us all? Would those who come together in this place still be called children of God? Could we have a church like that and still call ourselves holy?

What if the bent-over woman needed the sort of healing that only a radical, institution-questioning, tradition-shattering rabbi could provide? What if the very spirit that had bound her for eighteen long years—the satanic weight that had pressed her down, bowing her entire existence further and further from God—what if that spirit was precisely the sort of religious oppression that only the Son of God could cast off?

To be clear, the institution that Jesus confronts in this controversial healing is not Second Temple Judaism, the faith of his people handed down from their ancestors. What he confronts is humanity’s inexorable drive to restrict and restrain the unconditional love of God until it conforms to the image of their best intentions. When Jesus rebukes the leader of the synagogue, notice that he does not discard the law of Moses but uses it to expose the hypocrisy of his opponents: if you would loose your livestock every few hours on the sabbath in order to let them drink, he explains, how much more should we loose this daughter of Abraham from the spiritual bond that has imprisoned her for eighteen long years? The problem Jesus identifies is not sabbath observance but the ways in which people use religion to bind others and prevent them from receiving God’s grace. The danger Jesus exposes is how easily good and faithful people like us confuse the liberating work of God with the threatening work of the devil.

If the relationship with God that Jesus offered the world was as universally popular and inviting as we like to make it out to be, the religious and political leaders of his day would not have crucified him. The ways that Jesus spoke about God and God’s reign were that threatening. To people in positions of religious authority today—even and especially those who call themselves Christians—the way of Jesus remains just as threatening. But, in his death and resurrection, Jesus does something that reorients us—that recalibrates the way we know God and God’s will for the world. 

Because God has come among us in the flesh and because in Christ God has suffered and died for the sake of the world, there can be no rule or tradition or best intention that stands in the way of God’s love. Because God responded to humanity’s rejection of God upon the cross by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, we know that nothing has the power to restrict or retrain God’s unconditional love, and we know that anything or anyone that tries to cannot be of God. Although human beings continue to try to twist God’s will and invoke it in ways that bend other people down to the ground, those who look for Christ will always find him raising those people up in our midst.

In his book, The Meaning in the Miracles, Jeffrey John quotes a YWCA Bible study that captures the meaning of this miracle for today:

What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like more and more Bent-Over Women standing up. How can we know if the kingdom of God is actually coming? Why not look around and see if there are any formerly Bent-Over Women standing up? …Brother, if you ever see a Bent-Over Woman beginning to unbend and straighten herself, at the very least you had better give her a little standing room, because that isn’t just another Bent-Over Woman standing up. That’s your sister rising to her full stature—and that’s God’s kingdom cranking up! And sister, if for whatever reason you are still bent over and weighed down, and you think that’s the way it was intended to be or must always be, then know that you have been given divine permission to straighten yourself fully and to stand up. And know too that since it is Satan who wants you to be a slave, only the Devil himself would say that now is not the time or this is not the place. If your spirit is bent over, you are free to rise up! Let it be so, brothers and sisters! Again and again and again, let it be so! [1]

1. Through the Eyes of a Woman, ed. W. S. Robins, YWCA, 1986, p 190, quoted in J. John, The Meaning in the Miracles, Canterbury Press, 2001, p 212-13.


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