Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from August 21, 2016. Listen along here.
The gospel according to Luke, the thirteenth chapter:
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 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. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 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.” 15 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? 16 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?” 17 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.
Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.
She didn’t come looking for healing. We can pretty safely assume she was at the synagogue to pray—to pray for her grandkids, to pray for her friend living with cancer, to pray for the local soccer team, to pray for the peace of the whole world. Though it was a painful nuisance, the truth was that she had gotten used to her crooked back. Like an old weeping willow tree, her back had curved over a period of many years. Now, in her eighties, her face parallel with the ground, she conversed not with faces but with feet. One sharp theologian says, “[This woman] recognized people by their bunions.”[i]
Too many preachers over the years have led us to believe that this woman was “less than” because of her differing physical abilities. I want to be really clear, right off the bat this morning, that this woman was a beloved child of God from the start of this story. When she slowly shuffled into the synagogue that Saturday morning, God loved her just as much as God did when she later strode out into the sunshine. The miracle we see take place doesn’t make her better or more faithful or more worthy of salvation.
After all, my friend Nancy Eiesland, who died a few years ago, often reminded me that we Christians worship a disabled God. Nancy used an electric wheelchair to get around. As a theologian, she was always pointing to the story that comes a little later in Luke’s gospel, the one where Jesus invites his disciples to touch his wounds. She writes, “In presenting his impaired body to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. God remains a God the disabled can identify with, she argued—Christ is not cured and made whole; Christ’s injury is part of him, neither a divine punishment nor an opportunity for healing.”[ii]
Nancy also thought we’d all have a more faithful understanding of God and the world if we imagined that God used a “puff” wheelchair—you know the chairs that individuals who are quadriplegic can operate by blowing into a tube.
In today’s story, then, while he was teaching, Jesus saw the woman come into the synagogue to pray. The text says she is “crippled by a spirit.” You and I know this spirit well—it’s active in our communities, too. It’s the spirit that causes us to grow uncomfortable around people who are different from us. It’s the spirit that makes us look away from bodies that don’t work quite like ours. It’s the spirit that drives us to move to the other side of the street to avoid someone that society says is unseemly or dangerous. It’s the spirit of the people that cripples the woman, because it names her “other” and separates her from the rest of God’s people. // Her back? // She had gotten used to that. It was the community’s response to her that made her spirit sick.
The community had named her “other” but Jesus draws the circle wide when he calls her “daughter of Abraham.” And he says that it’s time to do something about the woman’s back in order to get after the bigger problem of the community’s spirit. Like any good first century religious authority, the synagogue leader objects to Jesus healing the woman on the Sabbath. He’s not against the miracle; he’s against the timing of it. “Just wait another day,” the leader says.
Luther Seminary’s Matthew Skinner writes that “Jesus’ response to the synagogue leader is as scathing as it is succinct. The Sabbath—nor any tradition, nor any theological principle—is no excuse for willfully extending suffering and delaying wholeness.” Skinner continues, “There’s a deeper, unstated logic at work in Jesus’ words: the purpose of the Sabbath actually expresses the reason why Jesus should restore the woman now…The Sabbath, at its heart, offers a weekly reassertion of how much God values freedom and detests injustice.”
Here, I think it’s helpful for those of us who haven’t spent much time in Deuteronomy 5 lately to hear the Sabbath command again:
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Skinner says that “the original intention of the sabbath, according to Deuteronomy, is to provide relief, even if only temporary, from any system that would deny a person—or any part of creation—a share of rest, peace, wholeness, dignity, and justice. The synagogue official says, “Wait just one more day.” Jesus answers, “No, eighteen years is long enough, thank you very much. The Sabbath is a pretty good day for setting people free…We can’t wait.”[iii]
We can’t wait because God’s vision won’t wait. God’s vision for this beautiful and injured world is continually unfolding among us. Unfolding like the first rhubarb leaves in spring. Like a baby’s hand reaching out to her mother. Like the arms of the man in the hospital waiting room opening to embrace his husband. Like the woman’s back on a sunny Saturday morning at the synagogue. There is an unfolding, an unfurling of creation of which we are a part, but that, ultimately, God inspires.
This past week the contractors started the excavation work on the east side of the church building. [Praise the Lord. The permits came through.] With their Bobcats and backhoes they peeled back dirt that has been piled high for, oh, about a hundred years. I watched the scene unfold—scoop by scoop, they opened up a new possibility for this community—that is, the possibility that someone with a body like the woman in today’s gospel story will someday soon be able to enter this building without assistance. If my friend Nancy Eiesland were still alive, she wouldn’t mince words; she’d say that this project will allow the God she worshipped—the God in the “puff” wheelchair—to enter this building for the very first time. As the earth was pulled away from the church’s foundation, God’s vision for joy and justice unfolded before my eyes.
Some translations of Luke’s story say the woman was miraculously “made straight.” Preacher Barbara Lundblad jokes that it was only her back that was made straight.[iv] And when that happened she began praising God. Herein lies the real miracle: The woman connected the unfolding of joy and justice in her life with God’s persistent presence in the world. She had the wisdom to draw the line between her newly granted freedom and God’s unfolding vision for the whole community. She came to pray that morning—pray for her grandkids, her friend living with cancer, the local soccer team, the peace of the whole world. When she arrived, God granted her a share of rest, peace, wholeness, dignity, and justice. And we are told that the whole community rejoiced.
May this same vision unfold among us.
[i] Barbara Lundblad made this observation at the 2016 Minneapolis Area Synod Assembly.
[ii] Read Nancy Eiesland’s obituary here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/us/22eiesland.html?_r=0. She died at the age of 44, and we miss her.
[iii] See Matthew Skinner’s full commentary here: http://www.onscripture.com/why-we-can%E2%80%99t-wait. Emphasis is mine.
[iv] Again, I heard Lundblad make this joke at the 2016 Minneapolis Area Synod Assembly.