Susan E. Thomas Sermon May 24

Psalm 139
Isaiah 61:1-4
Luke 13:10-17
Ought Not this Woman

Then Jesus answered and said, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham and Sarah…be set free from bondage on the Sabbath day?”  I first experienced this kind of “ought” when my own niece was almost 2 years old and the experience has stayed with me ever since.

You see, it was a hot summer afternoon and my niece was playing in the backyard. Except that her first-time parents made a mistake that probably a lot of first-time parents make—they put her plastic wading pool right next to her sandbox. So that as she toddled back and forth between the sand and the water, soon we were unable to tell which was the pool and which was the sandbox.

Then suddenly, in a burst of need to be hugged and reassured, my niece with arms wide open came running toward her mother. Her little body was covered in wet, sticky sand from her playing. Her mother— watching her daughter run toward her—had for a split-second that horrified look on her face, not sure she wanted to embrace the wet sand mixed in with her child or hold her out at arms length.  But just as quickly, I saw my sister resolve her priorities and hug her daughter without reservation or question.

Later, I jokingly asked my sister about it and her answer stopped me short. She said simply, “I don’t want my daughter to think acceptance and dirt are mutually exclusive.” She said she would rather get her own clothes dirty in favor of responding to the need for a hug— so, rather than turn away her own daughter’s need for a hug of reassurance she decided to forsake adult propriety and cleanliness rules. She had but an instant to judge that more was at stake than her own inconvenience. The need for acceptance, the need for healing and overcoming separation, does not keep time. And Jesus says, ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham and Sarah, be loosed on this Sabbath day?

Well, do you agree with Jesus and with my sister that people take priority over our propriety and cleanliness regulations?  Has the church of your experience resembled Jesus in this regard? Every religion and every church has its rules and regulations that it asks it followers to abide by. But, sometimes, it begins to feel like the purpose of the Christian church, in particular,  is to preserve its religious customs, rules, and rituals—more so than practicing the love and compassion of God. The rules and regulations can take on a life of their own, and preserving them can become more important than doing and being the compassionate ones of God.

It seems to me that Jesus spent much of his ministry struggling to portray a different way of imagining God; a way that more matched people’s reality. Especially in Luke, God is modeled not as an all-powerful Father, but as a  dad running down the road to meet his lost son. The facades of dignity are dropped in favor of compassion and healing. Jesus is the one who sets people free from the thousands of rules and regulations that started to tie people down, whereby religious regulations become more important than compassion and caring. Jesus’ ministry in many ways was about freeing us from all the laws and customs that interfere with helping people praise God and with being more compassionate to one another.

As we look at this passage this morning, I am mindful ‘tho that today is our Sabbath day – our day of rest. The Sabbath, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is rooted in the very fabric of God’s creation as found in the fourth commandment in Exodus.  Since God rested on the seventh day of creation, we are to imitate our Creator by doing the same, being a part of God’s creation without labor and toil.  But the Sabbath was also supposed to affirm that all of creation—men, women, children, slaves, sojourners, animals—all are to participate in the life-giving and gift-giving abundance of God and not just the people who had power whether that was in the faith community or in the government or in the workplace.

So, with this understanding, let us look forward with joy to this morning’s Gospel message about a controversial healing taking place in the synagogue on the Sabbath where the gospel-writer Luke tells us—that an unnamed, bent over woman is present.

As I said, to be in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was Jesus’ practice, was to be at the heart of the Jewish faith. But that religious space was also a social and political place in which any physical ailment implied sin. So that if you were disfigured in some way – like being bent-over, or a hunchback, or lame, or even just pimply – you were presumed to be somehow living in sin and bringing about your own condition. In this religious setting, being bent over was like wearing a scarlet letter. Its obviousness shouted guilt; its pain had no place to be expressed or understood. That she was a woman in such a setting only further submerged her into silence. Presumably, her body— in every way— spoke for her. Because she is bent over, because she is a woman, she must be a sinner.

Now, the healing process, the way to experience God’s freedom and wholeness, begins in this passage with recognition. Jesus sees this woman in the pain of her condition and in recognizing her presence openly right there in the synagogue there is an interruption as Jesus’ recognition of this woman and her condition alters the synagogue program for that day!

Jesus sees her, he calls to her, and speaks to her.  “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  What Jesus says does two things in the same breath. He names her infirmity openly as an infirmity, giving her an open place in the very social space of the religious service. But also, Jesus confirms for the congregation that the woman’s infirmity is not the whole of her, it is not her only identity. She is free, first of all, by recognition and openness, by Jesus’ seeing and by his words of freedom to her.

But saying she is free does not alter anything. She is not yet straightened. She is rather, totally accepted, as both a “person” and as in “pain.”  In that worship service, she is now given time and space to be both those things.

The next thing Jesus does is he touches her. The acceptance is now made physical. It is rendered real by the laying on of his hands. Only then is she changed in a way that is evident. For in the next moment, she herself becomes active. She assumes her place in relationship to her self and her body. Luke tells us that she not only speaks but she praises God, she jubilates – which is a full-bodied articulation of God’s love……One could say that right there in the midst of that congregation  she is now suddenly spontaneously uppity!  Such is the effect of the presence of Jesus on the way things have always been done. Jesus shatters the old roles by his total acceptance of her new self.

Recognition and acceptance, restoring the outcast to wholeness and active participation with the community of believers – isn’t that fabulous, but how come the story doesn’t end right there with the woman’s freedom?…….. And I believe the answer is, by Jesus, it is not just about her freedom, her release. The healing becomes a part of the witness to a larger truth—the release of the whole tradition of the religious community. “Ought not this woman…be set free?”  The word “ought” used here, I am told, denotes an obligation. Jesus’ words and actions let the congregation know that it is their obligation as a spiritual body to show love and to do justice and to bring about healing no matter what time it is. In doing so the whole congregation is set free from petty legalisms and destructive obsessions with regulations about the Sabbath.

At the end of the passage, the entire space of the synagogue has been cleared of its in-firmity – its lack of strength and assertiveness against the powers-that-be – and what happens?— the people erupt in joy!  Through this woman, the religious community gains its own voice and speaks! Note the ending again—all of their opponents are put to shame, all the people are rejoicing at all the things Jesus has done.

The whole community was possessed by a rigid conformity to a set of rules that had long ago lost their meaning, and by Jesus’ words of confrontation and confirmation, the religious order is broken through! Through this woman’s courage and Jesus’ compassion—the Sabbath and the faith community suddenly becomes what it really should be— a spirit-filled gathering where all people are empowered to stand up against separation and oppression and for freedom and reconciliation. Jesus demonstrates for all to see that God’s compassion for people triumphs over our rules and regualtions, and he reclaims the Sabbath for the celebration of God’s great goodness.

You might be saying just about now—all well and good, Susan, but that was then and this is now. How might this look in the church of today? Well, allow me to share with you a true story that happened to a pastor friend of mine from Michigan just a couple of years back. Bruce Rigdon was the pastor of a very large congregation and he tells about a freeing and healing experience that happened to him, that took place right inside the walls of his church once he allowed himself to be open to the Spirit’s leading.

There was this wedding at Bruce’s church and it was the largest wedding Bruce could remember, the church, he said, was packed! The couple chose to begin their marriage by sharing the Lord’s Supper together with their guests. So Bruce gave the usual invitation for those in a Christian church, you know the one that’s in the rulebook—that is, Bruce invited all those who were baptized and who loved the Lord to come forward and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Suddenly ‘tho, he was aware that everyone in the crowd was coming forward. He wondered if he should raise his hand and say, “Stop! You didn’t understand my instructions—only those who are baptized are to come forward.” But he soon realized that was impossible and welcomed all who came to the communion table.

Later at the reception, Bruce was approached by an elderly man and woman. “My name is Jacob and this is my wife, Miriam. We are children of Holocaust families.” They went on to say that they had lived there lives with one rule—never enter a Christian church. But, out of love for the bride they came to the wedding. “When you invited people to the table and everyone around us began to move, we couldn’t remain seated. We know it’s Jesus’ table, no ours. But we were drawn, drawn by some kind of love,” said Jacob, who by now was weeping.

Moments later another couple came up to Bruce and identified themselves as Moustafa and Munir, originally from Lebanon. “So you know what our life has been like and why we are here. You know the pain and the bloodshed. We came tonight because we are close to the bride. We are, of course, Muslim.” They explained that at the communion, their three children got up and moved toward the table, and instead of stopping them, they joined them. “We shouldn’t have been there, but somehow for us, tonight, the war has ended.”

Friends, to Jesus, God is not primarily a rule-maker, rather God is a life-giver. When we take in this understanding of Jesus’ message of what God’s love is all about; that understanding can change our focus from God’s law to God’s love for people and the world. Commandments, rules, guidelines, traditions are all well and good but in the end they are subordinate to God’s love—a love that is forgiving, a love that is healing, a love that is transforming, a love that sets us free to be all that God has made each of us to be.

Friends, each of you is given the opportunity to be Jesus’ ministers in the church and in the world. You are charged to build up all that come to you and honor them, more than they have ever been honored before, as receivers and givers of divine gifts. You are charged to help people claim their own acceptance and healing as a gift from God for service in church and in the world. So, in Chilmark Community Church, let there be rejoicing and fullness of life! We are truly grateful for y’all and your ministry! Amen.