Homily for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost August 22, 2010

Healing One, Healing All

In my first parish there was a man who had been a prisoner of war, captured by the Japanese and confined for a long period of time in what they called “tiger cages,” which were cages in which a person could not stand up or lie down, but only crouch.  The humiliation was meant to be permanent.  Even though he was liberated from the POW camp at the end of the war, the result was that Bert was never again able to stand upright or anywhere near it – he was bent over severely at the waist and lived with a fair amount of pain.  

He was to me a living symbol of the cruelty that people are capable of inflicting on each other, and the suffering that so many people encounter at the hands of others.  But he was also a symbol courage and perseverance, and of the redemptive dimension of suffering.  

The prophets longed for a day when God’s sovereignty would be established, when “man’s inhumanity to man” would be overcome by the shalom of God; they yearned for the day when the cruel and arrogant would be brought down from their thrones, and the powerful and the weak would no longer live in animosity, but would be brought together, like wolves and lambs, and live in peace.  

I remember Bert, but every day, I see people bent over, whether physically or spiritually, and it is always a painful sight.   Sue and I saw a lady yesterday, labouring along, who looked like she had severe osteoporosis.  It touched both of us.  What is your reaction to such people: pity; frustration; fear; anger; admiration; indifference?  

In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers healing to a woman who has been bent over for 18 years, whether from pain, grief, servitude, humiliation, or self-hatred, it does not really specify.  It says “a spirit” had crippled her.  So it suggests her illness was not merely physical but had a psychological/spiritual dimension and cause – it seems something intangible but real had bent her over physically.   

There on a Sabbath day, in the synagogue, in the midst of the gathering of the faithful, you would think this healing would create an occasion for celebration, a welcome sign of the reality and power of God.  Not for the synagogue leader, whose only concern was that the rules had been broken.   Certainly there are times when the community has to be defended against the careless, self-absorbed behaviour of certain individuals, but that could hardly have been the case with this suffering woman.

The synagogue leader had a point.  It was up to him to maintain order, dignity, and respect for the things of God.  Years ago we had rented out the parish hall and the church to an arts group geared toward children – kind of a VBS for budding Picasso’s.  Partway through the week, I went into the church, which was a beautiful traditional church, and found the kids and paper and supplies all over the place – with pieces of drying art even taped to the front of the altar. Perhaps recalling Jesus clearing the Temple, I pulled the leader aside and gave her a lecture about how the church is a sacred place and not a bowling alley.  My perception was that they were presumptuous and disrespectful of the place as a house of God.  Admittedly, perhaps not my finest moment, but religious people are often set up to be merely defenders of a tradition, rather than representatives of God’s compassion and kindness.  

Christianity, like Judaism, strives to hold together law and grace, accountability and forgiveness.  We like to think that, like the wolf and the lamb, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other (Psalm 85:10). As Christians, we tend to believe that these sometimes opposing qualities are reconciled and integrated in the person of Christ.

We can all too easily end up becoming the upholder of the rules, an ecclesiastical version of Inspector Javert.   So often, people lose perspective on what they are about and instead become preoccupied with trivial things – it is said every great movement begins with prophets and ends with policemen. 

When people are convinced they are right, they can be really dangerous.  There may be lots of other ways of doing things, but they don’t want to hear it.  The Inquisition, and the torture of prisoners of war reveals how far some people will go to protect a system, or an institution.  During certain times, the importance of institutions, or a conception of truth, become so exalted, so distorted, that countless individuals are tortured and sacrificed to defend the faith.  Those who focus too much on the rules and the protection of the system, often suffer a tragic loss of perspective, like the driver who purposely ran someone over and tried to justify it by saying, “She shouldn’t have been jaywalking!”  

The New Testament portrays Jesus as constantly challenging the obstinate blindness of the Pharisees, who were all about the rules, but apparently could be quite callous toward people.  I think it’s fair to say we all have a bit of the Pharisee in all of us (which is also to say that the Pharisees were not across the board “bad guys”).  All of have firm ideas of how certain things “should be,” and get upset when there are deviations from our own sense of what’s normal or proper.  All of us have boundaries and acceptable limits.  But I often suggest to people: pay attention to your “should’s” – your sense of how certain things should be — and try to examine why you feel they should be that way. 

I think of myself as pretty easy-going, but as I pay attention to my own behaviours, I can also still see the anxious synagogue leader.  For instance, I have a little system for loading the dishwasher, certain things going in certain places, and I can be very self-righteous and indignant when that little system is disturbed. 

There’s an old saying: “When people try to be angels they end up as beasts.”  The Church has, at certain times in history, almost totally lost sight of the one who intervened on behalf of an adulterous woman about to be stoned; who extended healing to a woman of a foreign and hated religion; who repeatedly broke the Sabbath laws with the explanation that “the Sabbath was created for human beings; human beings were not created for the Sabbath.”    Let us never forget the fact that Christ was crucified because he was a threat to the legal and religious norms of his day. 

The synagogue leader complains: “You’ve got six days to do stuff like that – why does it have to happen now?  It’s disruptive, it’s disrespectful, it’s disobedient!” 

The point is precisely that in 18 years, the religious system had done nothing at all for her.  She had suffered for 18 years with something Jesus was able to relieve by a word.  So often we have people in our midst, not just in church but all around us, who are struggling, beaten down, and in need of some compassion, some kindness, maybe just the gift of being noticed.  Jesus was never afraid of such encounters, whether with the poor, the sick, the unacceptable, or with the authorities which needed to be challenged.  The Gospel calls us to open our eyes, to notice and find ways to bless and embrace and heal those who move about the margins in their bent-over conditions. 

Technically, indeed, Jesus was breaking the law.  Orthodox Jews still observe severe restrictions on the Sabbath.  But Jesus was obviously peeved by the synagogue leader’s choice to focus on a minor infraction rather than celebrate the healing. God’s Sabbath is meant to bring people relief, release, and freedom, and Jesus saw it as a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the true meaning of Sabbath as God intended it.  You would think the church would be inclined not to be preoccupied by rules and regulations and obligations, because Jesus was so fond of breaking them!  Again and again the New Testament portrays Jesus as acknowledging that he knows what the law says, and then breaking it anyway. 

It’s not that he did not care about any of that – he did.  He didn’t suggest there was no need for discipline and guidelines.  But he cared about people more, and that aspect of his ministry is a warning to the Church about losing the priority of love and grace and restoration and forgiveness, which were the heart of his message and purpose.  

Until recently, divorced people were not dealt with pastorally when they attempted to re-marry in the church.  Instead of being treated with some sympathy for the pain they had been through, and offered congratulations for recovering enough from a bad marriage to be able to attempt a loving marriage again, they were told they were “living in sin,” they were labelled as adulterers, women were sometimes called whores, and instead of being cared for by the Church of Christ, they were driven from it in shame.  

An ancient Jewish saying goes: “To save one life is to save the whole world.”  Sometimes in healing the individual we heal the institution  as well, or at least point to where it is in need of healing.  The healing in the synagogue was a reminder of the suffering and oppression Israel itself was under, and to us might be a directive not to deny the suffering and struggles in our society and within ourselves.  What is going on within us when we try to hold suffering at arm’s length? 

In the midst of all the shining happy people, there are always those who have been beaten down by life’s circumstances – moved to the margins, avoided, shamed or harmed – and they are lonely, and sad and in pain. 

In the beginning, Christianity freed people from the demands of a legalistic religious system that must have seemed at times like a prison.  It is up to each generation of Christians to make sure that it keeps that focus, which was always the focus of Jesus, who never lost sight of the individual or allowed the institution or the rules to become the only thing that matters. 

Today’s Gospel is an invitation and challenge to notice how many people are walking around bent over, and, taking the example of Jesus seriously, try to imagine how we might become agents of healing and wholeness in a bent and broken world. 

The Rev. Grant Rodgers

RCL appointed readings: 

Jeremiah 1:4-10   Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”  Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” 

Psalm 71:1-6  In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me. Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel. For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you. 

Hebrews 12:18-29  You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.”  Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”)  But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.”  This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken–that is, created things–so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. 

Luke 13:10-17  Now he 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. 

   In Addis Ababa I kept wishing that those women and girls who were “bent over and could not straighten up at all” could be freed from their bondage.

           Making a medical diagnosis 2,000 years after the fact is futile. Maybe the woman in Luke had a form of scoliosis. Others speculate about some type of spinal ossification or fusion. Perhaps she had suffered an injury. I wonder if she was just plain worn out from a hard life of manual labor. Like the firewood carriers in Addis Ababa, her condition reflected the complex interplay of vicious causes and consequences — medical infirmity, community indifference, social marginalization, economic injustice, oppressive gender roles, and even religious blame: “Don’t complain, your suffering is punishment for your sins.” Whatever her condition, her prognosis was bleak: “she was bent over and could not straighten up at all.”

           Luke, a physician by training, writes that she was “crippled by a spirit.” Jesus describes her as “bound by satan for eighteen long years.” I can easily imagine myself as a spiritual cripple if I had physically suffered like she had. The totality of her human degradation was greater than her medical ailment. For those who dismiss that diagnosis as a pious and pre-scientific myth, I can only say that it’s just the sort of thought you have when you see a barefoot ten-year-old girl beneath a seventy-five pound load of firewood like a farm animal: “She’s suffering a condition of spiritual darkness and bondage; she herself is not evil, but her condition sure is. There’s something here even worse than the economic exploitation.”

           Interestingly enough, neither Luke’s nameless woman, her family, nor any of her friends (did she have friends?) asked Jesus to heal her. She probably didn’t know Jesus, and maybe had never even heard of him. I picture her going to the synagogue with her familiar routine of doing everything possible to avoid drawing attention to herself. No doubt she kept to herself and kept out of harm’s way in the back of the synagogue; after eighteen years of chronic disabilities she knew her place. But Jesus did not leave her to herself.

            When Jesus saw her he called her to come forward. Watching her shuffle forward, her contorted body bent to the ground, must have felt like an excruciating eternity, like watching an accident in slow motion. I wonder what she felt and thought in the hushed silence, with all those eyes on her. In front of the crowd, Jesus did something that I’m sure no one had done to her for a long, long time, something that violated the gender taboos of the day. He “put his hands on her” and touched her. Then he said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Freed from physical and spiritual bondage, “she immediately straightened up and praised God.”

 That miracle of divine compassion provoked an outburst of religious hypocrisy. The ruler of the synagogue was indignant. Maybe he didn’t like his neat and proper service upset. Maybe he had tried and failed to help this same woman in his own way, or perhaps he felt upstaged by Jesus. Whatever ignited his anger, he cloaked his feelings in terms of religious zeal. Afraid to confront Jesus directly, he complained to the crowd that Jesus had violated the fourth commandment by “working” on the sabbath (Exodus 20:9 and Deuteronomy 5:12–15). Couldn’t the woman and Jesus have waited just one day, when the sabbath would be over? “Come and be healed on those days,” he raged, “not on the sabbath.”

           Jesus exploded at their sanctimony, their human callousness, and their theological hair-splitting: “You hypocrites!” Human compassion, healing, and wholeness are far more important than religious ritual and misplaced zeal. Besides, said Jesus, their own rabbis had determined that brute beasts depended on them for a drink of water: “Doesn’t each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?” If it’s not only permissible but necessary to water an animal on the sabbath, “then must not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the sabbath day from what bound her?” No, said Jesus, divine mercy would not wait one more day to heal a fellow human being.

           Isaiah’s text for this week teaches the same lesson about fasting that Luke does about sabbath-keeping. Isaiah 58 satirizes religious zealots who “seem eager to know my ways. . . . They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them” (58:2). But in this case appearances were deceiving. These believers fasted and prayed, but turned around and exploited their workers, quarreled and fought. Isaiah says that fasting is more than abstaining from food; it’s not the absence of nutrition but the presence of justice:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (58:6–7)

Abstaining from food profits nothing, says Isaiah, when we abstain from mercy and justice.

           When religious rituals like sabbath-keeping and fasting — or our Bible studies, sermons, church attendance, and retreats — are divorced from human health and wholeness, whenever a believer “turns away from your own flesh and blood” (Is. 58:7), then our religion has gone very bad indeed. Conversely, when you care for your neighbor like you would care for your own self, you have fulfilled the deepest purposes of all religious rituals.

For further reflection:

* What have been your experiences of sabbath-keeping and fasting?
* Have you ever known a person with a severe and chronic medical condition?
* In what ways have religious rituals usurped compassion, justice, and mercy in your own life?
* Do we still need religious rituals if we exercise compassion, justice and mercy? Why or why not?
* Meditate on Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Victor Hugo’s story Les Miserables, was about the struggle for liberation and justice and the contrast between divine justice and human justice.  It was a Christian parable set in 19th Century France. The sympathetic character is Jean Val Jean – imprisoned in the first place for stealing a loaf of bread – itself a comment on the pettinesss, cruelty and injustice of a legal system which placed rules over leniency, upholding order over any concern for the struggles and suffering of the poor.

One of the major characters is Javert – the upholder of the law – a prison guard and later a policeman.   While in prison, Jean Val Jean encounters Javert, who embodies the “heartlessness, malice, and mercilessness” of the law at its worst.  Javert is portayed as a modern day Pharisee – the law, the system, is all that matters to him – people and their needs are irrelevant.  The zeal and rigidity with which he deals with ValJean is disturbing – like a man who has entirely lost his soul and operates more like a machine – an automaton, capable of responding only to the instructions in the rule book.

Ironically, he subverts Val Jean’s movement toward redemption.  Val Jean is finally released from prison and begins to make a life for himself, becoming successful in business and mayor of the town.  But he encounters Javert again, who has been assigned as a police officer to the same town.  Javert is at first uncertain but he is so determined to destroy Val Jean, even though he has paid an already heavy penalty for his minor crime – nothing would satisfy Javert more than the opportunity to expose Val Jean and make him suffer even more.  He has broken the law – how many times or what issue does not matter to Javert – in his mind, Jean Val Jean must continue to be punished.– portrays the tension between law and grace – the human tragedy of  an inflexible justice and a personal compassion; between prison and liberationV alJean’s identity is finally exposed because someone else is falsely accused and arrested and risks going to prison.  Rather than allowing someone else to be condemned in his place, Val Jean goes and identifies himself, and is once again victimized by the law.  Again ValJean manages to get free of prison, and yet again he encounters Javert, this time in Paris.  In the midst of a violent uprising in the city, Javert is captured by the revolutionaries and Val Jean saves the Inspector’s life. 

As often happens to the Christ figure among us – Javert envies him; hates him; wants to prove he is not good by revealing to all that Val jean is not perfect –

Unable to believe in redemption, unable to reconcile and integrate grace and law, unfamiliar with the experience of human love, he can’t deal with this act of kindness and commits suicide by throwing himself into the river.   He is so inflexible he would rather die than accept grace at the hands of Jean Val Jean – the obvious Christ figure in the entire story.

Javert can only see him as a criminal because he has no perspective, no compassion, no imagination large enough to comprehend the grace of God.  Snoopy, controlling, obssessed, Javert is one of those “eye for an eye” people – who identifies with his system of law rather than with humanity itself, and as a result, ends up as an enemy of humanity rather than its protector, an evil villain rather than the hero he thought himself to be. 

The story portrays very well the tension between law and grace – the human tragedy of an inflexible justice and a personal compassion; between prison and liberation