Pentecost 14, Proper 16 Year C - August 21, 2016

Preacher: 
The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Allen
Sermon Text: 

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 16, Year C

August 21, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 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." 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? 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?" 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. (Luke 13:10-17)

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When I was in seminary, I went a really tough semester with a herniated disc in my neck, which made it difficult for me to study, or write, or sleep.  If it weren’t for the support of my professors and friends, along with mega-doses of Advil and caffeine, I’m not sure I would have persevered through it.  When it came time for my last exam, I was so strung out that I wrote like crazy for three and a half hours, and when I was finished I realized I had completely skipped one of the major essay questions.  Ever done that?

As you’d expect, I was pretty down in the dumps after that exam, and as was often the case among seminarians, I lamented my sorrow to my close buddies…who were of course very compassionate. And yet, when the exams were returned, I was astonished learn I’d received an A, along with a note from my professor: “You overlooked the second essay question, but your answer to the first was so exhaustive, you answered them both!  Heal up, and we’ll see you in the fall.  He had only docked me two points.   You can imagine my surprise, and my gratitude for this act of mercy and grace, and I couldn’t wait to share the good news with those same classmates who had borne the pain of my previous lament!

Except that one of them wasn’t too keen on my news.  I learned a few weeks later that he’d made a complaint to the professor, for unjust grading practices.  What came as grace to me was seen as a breach of school policy, an unjust practice, by someone I had considered a friend and a confident.  Of course, he did have a point.  But still.

Over the years, I have thought long and hard about this incident.  And what I’ve come to realize is that there are two sides to every story. 

Which brings me to today’s gospel. Because as much as it seems cut and dry who is in the right and who is in the wrong, there are two sides to this story as well.  So, this morning, I think it might be helpful for us to try and sympathize with both the characters with whom Jesus interacts in the synagogue – not only the woman with the bent back, but also the leader of the synagogue.

Let’s start with him. That may be challenging, I know because we are used to critiquing this guy, but to his credit, what he offers is actually a clear and obedient reading of the law. That is, he is right: you are not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath.

For the Jewish people, Sabbath was a day for rest and renewal, a gift of God.  The negative view we take today toward the various “restrictions” associated with the Sabbath would have been very foreign back then. Keep in mind that the law - including laws about the Sabbath - were given to the Israelites after their Exodus from Egypt, where they were slaves and worked whenever their masters commanded them, rarely getting a day off. And so when they received a command to rest - to actually set aside one day of the week to rest their bodies and their livestock and retreat for a time of renewal and prayer - trust me, they heard this only as good news.[1]

You’ve heard me talk about Sabbath before, and it is something I think we’d all be better off taking more seriously. We aren’t slaves, certainly not in the way that the Israelites were or some people still are, but plenty of us would consider ourselves “slaves” to our work – many of us work long hours and sometimes more than one job.  And even more have a harder and harder time disconnecting at all from work - from emails or texts and a 24/7 world that never stops. Might we also benefit from a proscribed time of rest?

Which is what the leader of the synagogue is worried about. Once you start making exceptions for this reason or that, pretty soon no one is really keeping the Sabbath and it’s lost its point altogether. And it’s not just the Sabbath. The whole law, whether religious or civic - is like that - keep making exceptions and it’s not really a law anymore; it’s more like a suggestion, with little or no power to protect and preserve us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that people still stop at red lights!

Truth be told, there are probably aspects of our own lives that we treat the same way as the leader in the synagogue does.  Perhaps not related to the Sabbath, but most of us have rules of life that we think are particularly important and we get nervous if we see people not respecting them. Maybe it’s little things like eating only organic foods, our children’s bedtimes, refusing calls on our day off, or not singing Christmas carols during Advent!  Or maybe it’s a much larger issue, like racial and gender equality, the right to bear arms, or academic standards. Whatever it is, there are some laws we feel you should just keep. Period. And if you don’t, who knows what will unravel next?

And that’s exactly what that well-intentioned, law-abiding leader of the synagogue believed. But of course, his isn’t the only perspective.

So now let's turn to woman in the story.  Bent over for years, she has had to view the world from waist level, unable to look people in the eye, for as long as she can remember. She is also, I imagine, a faithful, law-abiding member of the synagogue. After all, she’s right there that Saturday, in spite of her condition, worshiping with her community.

And who knows, perhaps she, too, had concerns about keeping the Sabbath, and maybe, was quite conservative in her approach to the law. But, whatever principles or resolutions she might have entered with, I have to believe that they all took a back seat to a sense of overwhelming relief and gratitude when Jesus approached and healed her. What were those first breaths of air like, taken in by lungs no longer cramped from stooping over? Whose eyes did she first meet, as she stood up straight for the first time in anyone’s memory?

And then, what happened to all those rules and regulations? Did they fall away, as if of no importance? I don’t think so.  They were just suspended, or temporarily forgotten, in those first few moments of sheer grace and gratitude.

Which is the way it sometimes has to be with the law. Of course our rules, our covenants, matter because they help us order our lives and keep the peace. They set needed boundaries that create room in which we can flourish. And they do encourage us - sometimes even prod us - to look beyond ourselves so that we might love and care for our neighbor.

But as important as our rules are - and notice that Jesus doesn’t set the law aside, but rather offers a different interpretation - they must always bow to mercy, to life, to freedom. Our rules help us live our lives and order our world, but grace is what creates life in the first place, it’s what holds the world together. Our laws push us to care for each other, but grace restores us to each other when we’ve failed to keep them.  Because, above and beyond all the laws ever received or conceived, the absolute law is love: love God and love your neighbor. Or, perhaps, love God by loving your neighbor.

And so of course Jesus heals on the Sabbath. And of course the woman gives thanks. And of course the crowd rejoices. That’s what happens when grace invites us to both value the law and at times suspend it out of mercy, compassion, and love.

So, yes, it is important to sympathize with both of the characters in this story today, because there are, indeed two sides to it.  And with this in mind, I invite us all to look at those people in our lives who see things differently than we do us as children of the very same God.  And to resist the urge to assume we know the rules better than others, to sympathize with those who live with very different realities than we do, and to wonder how Jesus is inviting us even now to release them from bondage and set them free, even if it means suspending or revising our own sense of what is right and what is wrong.

I know this can be challenging. When to insist on the law and when to suspend it? For whom? Will things fall apart if we get it wrong?

And yet, isn’t that the way it is with love?  No guarantees, no assurance of having it turn out the way you thought it was supposed to, no absolutes. Except this: the God who gave the law out of love continues to love us, and everyone else, whether we follow the rules, or not.

Amen

 

[1] I am indebted to David Lose’s 2013 commentary for Proper 16 Year C, for some of the ideas discussed in the following paragraphs, which I have adapted for this sermon.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2699

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