Saturday, August 28, 2010

Now Is The Time--Luke 13:10-17

Many have asked for it, so here is the sermon I preached Sunday, August 22 based on Luke's story of Jesus healing a bent-over woman on the sabbath.

I want to start this sermon with a practice used by faithful people for generations: confession. I want to confess to all of you…that I am a procrastinator. I have made an art of procrastinating, in fact. I’ve been doing it all my life. I sometimes joke that since I was born 11 days past when I was due to be born, I procrastinated even from the womb. I was that kid in elementary school who would wait until the day before a big project was due to tell my parents I needed to pick a topic, research it at the library and create a diorama to bring to class. In college, being a morning person, I’d often go to bed at a reasonable hour, wake up early the next morning when a paper was due, and write it the day of. Finding ways to avoid or put off doing what needs to be done is easy for me. Seminary paper to write? Perfect time to clean out the closet in the lounge. Sermon to write? You know, I think I’ll start this sewing project I’ve been meaning to get to for a few years. Research to do? Yes, I think I will bake bread! And on and on.

Oh, I know I’m not alone. In fact, I know very few people who are speaking honestly when they say they don’t procrastinate, people who never put things off until a “better” time, until they’re more prepared, until everything is just right. Psychologists will tell you that procrastination is often linked to perfectionism, which is why people who do it need deadlines—otherwise nothing would get done, as everything would be put off until the person is ready, the research is exhausted, the situation is perfect and there is no chance of failing. Not now, we protest, with any number of excuses; maybe tomorrow will be the right time. Let me do something else and try to ignore what I know needs to be done.

Now Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. Now by this time, Jesus was probably getting pretty well known. He had declared Isaiah’s prophecy about being anointed with God’s Spirit to have been fulfilled in him. He had healed quite a few people, calmed a storm at sea, and told many parables to his disciples and gathered crowds. So we can imagine that if Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, there were probably a lot of people there to hear him. And maybe it wasn’t a service, like we have here, where everyone is gathered in the same place and listening to one person. Maybe they’d had their regular Sabbath service already, and Jesus was simply teaching something extra, so that while many were gathered around to hear him, others were simply going on about their business. And so perhaps that is why this woman just “appears” to Jesus. Certainly as bent over as Luke describes her, she probably wasn’t moving very quickly. But perhaps the crowds just happened to part the right way all of sudden, and there she is, bent over and “quite unable to stand up straight.”

Jesus could have ignored her. He was in the middle of teaching—maybe even right in the middle of a sentence. It was crowded; he could have simply pretended he hadn’t seen her. It would’ve been easy enough to do. As far as we can tell, she wasn’t seeking him out. He so easily could’ve acted like he never even knew she was there. Haven’t we all done that at one time or another? Averted our eyes away from what makes us uncomfortable or what we just don’t want to deal with? Another confession: there were many times on the subway in New York when I’d deliberately put on my earphones and pull out a book to avoid the person coming down the aisle asking for money. If I could pretend I didn’t see the person, I could continue the act and tell myself I hadn’t, actually. I’d been listening to my music, hadn’t heard the story of a lost job, apartment eviction, hungry kids and waiting for benefits. I’d been reading my book, hadn’t seen the outstretched hand. I had an excuse.

Jesus had plenty of excuses, but he didn’t use them. Instead, he stops what he’s doing when he sees the woman. Now Luke puts three actions in one sentence—he sees her, he calls her, he spoke to her—but we know in life things don’t happen quite that fast. He sees her. He calls her over. She, bent over as she was, makes her way slowly through the crowd, trying not to step on anyone, people shuffling to let her pass. Was there silence as they all watched her go to Jesus? Or were there murmurings, wondering what he was going to do? Did Jesus keep his eyes on her, or watch to see how others were reacting? She finally reaches Jesus and he tells her that she is healed. He lays his hands on her, and he immediately stood up straight and began praising God. We can imagine everyone is joyful.

But wait. The leader of the synagogue steps in. My guess is he was worried this would become a regular thing. Jesus heals one person on the Sabbath, now everyone’s going to want healing. “Hold on,” he says. “There are six other days meant for working. Come and get healed on those days; leave the Sabbath alone.” It seems like he was just trying to avoid, to put off, what he knew needed to be done. He was giving an excuse—it’s not the right time. There are rules, he says. He was telling the people to wait a little longer, come back later. Jesus retorts, basically, that it is always the right time for healing, and perhaps the Sabbath is particularly suited for being healed and set free. Immediately after this healing, Luke writes, “He said therefore, ‘What is the reign of God like?’” It is clear that Luke is connecting Jesus’ act of healing the bent-over woman to the God’s reign.

In John’s Gospel, the night before Jesus dies, he gives his disciples a new commandment. “Love one another,” he says. “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” If we are to love as Jesus loved, it’s clear that this story from Luke gives us clear example of how we as a church—as the Body of Christ—should act, as well as a model for each one of us. Kate Huey, part of the Local Church Ministries Team of the UCC, writes, “Every single one of us, in our daily lives, has the occasion to encounter the bent-over woman.”[1]

Who is she?

She is the teenager who endures day after day of ridicule and bullying for not keeping in her “place” at school. She is the middle-school student who is taunted relentlessly for being—or just seeming—gay. 15-year-old Phoebe Prince was new to South Hadley and the U.S., a freshman who apparently had dated a senior boy or two. After months of unrelenting torture by some school mates, she committed suicide in January. 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield was told by his mother that he could do anything, and was on the honor roll, but in April of last year, he decided what he couldn’t do anymore was deal with the teasing at school, and he took his own life. Phoebe and Carl are gone, but there are many more like them. They are the bent-over woman, feeling so alone and so helpless, longing for acceptance in God’s reign.

The bent-over woman is a man who got laid off from his high-pay corporate job, couldn’t pay the bills, and lost his home. He and his family sleep in their car, and try to pretend everything’s ok, while he struggles to find work and figure out how to buy food. He is the bent-over woman, feeling hopeless and longing for mercy in the reign of God.

The bent-over woman is a mother whose 7th grade son needed to see a dentist for an $80 tooth extraction, but couldn’t find one who would accept Medicaid. She took him to the ER, where he was given medicine for a headache, sinusitis, and a dental abscess and sent home. When he got much sicker, he was rushed into surgery where it was discovered that bacteria from his abscessed tooth had spread to his brain. Two major operations and eight weeks of hospital care later (costing about $250,000), Deamonte Driver died. His mother is the bent-over woman, grief-stricken and longing for justice in God’s reign.

Where else do we encounter the bent over woman? Who is she in your lives, in this community, around the world? Tell me. The bent-over woman is… [suggestions included the people affected by the floods in Pakistan, the Vietnam vet asking for money on the corner, the person sitting next to us in church who never says a word].

These are some of the ways people are bent over and pressed down. But they're not the only ones. There are people who are weighed down and bent over by loneliness, grief, worry, anxiety, doubt, and addiction. There are people whose mental illness or physical ailments or business struggles or family conflicts feel like burdens that bend them over and weigh them down.[2] And we, ministers to the world each one of us, are called to love them as Jesus loved the bent-over woman.

It is tempting to put it off our work of healing until the “right” time. Sundays are bad for me, I’m struggling with my own stuff right now, let me wait until I do some research into helpful programs, etc, etc, etc. It is tempting to turn away and pretend we don’t see the bent-over woman at all, isn’t it.

Kate Huey writes these moving words: “It is God who brings the reign of God in God's own time. Sure, today we proclaim it, we witness to its beginning in Jesus Christ and to its coming fullness. But we're called to do more than to proclaim that word, we are called to enflesh it, to become a word of hope for all those who appear before us, bearing burdens, pressed down. Jesus is calling you this day to engage yourself in the great dream of freeing all of God's children, all of the daughters of Abraham and the sons of Sarah from everything that holds them in bondage. We're invited to see our lives, our world, as they can be, for God has given us, according to the prophet Jeremiah, ‘a future, and a hope.’ As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, ‘Let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the children of God.’

Let us not delay any longer. The time for proclaiming, embodying, and struggling for God’s healing and freedom is not tomorrow, or the next day. The time is now.

Let us pray: Holy God, Great Healer, inspire, motivate, and strengthen us to do the work of your reign to which you call us, and help us to see, acknowledge and act towards healing the bent-over women in this world. Amen.

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