Sunday, September 1, 2013

Unbound and Set Free

Luke 13: 10-17
September 1, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

It has been said that where you stand depends on where you sit.
That’s not a controversial saying – most of us can agree that our position on a given matter depends a great deal on our own personal situation. This is a story about standing up straight, about being unbound and set free. It is always a temptation, when we hear a scripture story like this, to identify most strongly with the character whom Jesus seems to like best. We tend to see ourselves most often in the person who is healed or forgiven, to hear ourselves in the voice of the one who says the right thing. We want to maybe be, not the hero, but at least the one who is doing what Jesus would do. I want to invite you as you hear this story to put yourself in the place of the omniscient observer – the one who is above the fray.

Pull back from the story and try to see these individuals and their interactions without putting yourself in any of their locations just for now. In other words, stand apart from the story for a moment. To help you with that, I’m going to interject some ideas about how to hear this story, as I read it. You may wish to look it up in your Bible and follow along. Now let’s listen for what this scripture might have to say to us today.

We start with a panorama, the view of the location:
10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 

Next, the beginning of the drama – the entry of this woman:
11And 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. 

Jesus sees her, so we assume he interrupted his teaching.
12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 

It may have taken her a little bit of time to come to him when he called her, but the healing was immediate – he laid hands on her, she stood up, and she praised God.
14But 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.” 

So it’s not just one of those miracle healing stories – now there is conflict introduced. The leader of the synagogue is not interested in the woman, or how she has suffered and is now free. He is interested in the rules about what is appropriate on the Sabbath.
15But 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? 16And 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?” 

Jesus isn’t having any of it. Hypocrite! You wouldn’t keep your animals tied up on the Sabbath! How can you not do the same for this daughter of Abraham?!
17When 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.

The scene is set for further conflict with those whom Luke calls “his opponents,” but for the moment, the crowd is rejoicing along with the woman who is healed.

It has been said that where you stand depends on where you sit. Let’s stand in some different locations, this Sunday morning. We’ll start with those Pharisees, who love the Sabbath, and want to honor the day, as God commanded.

[This section was preached from the lectern, on the far right side of the chancel platform.]

“We’ve lost Sundays.”
A friend of mine said that to me at a Christian Education conference. It was fourteen years ago, and I had just begun paid work for a church. In the three years that followed, I learned just how true his statement was. Sundays were lost to us as a cultural artifact, an oasis of rest and Sabbath, observed by everyone. It was within my lifetime that blue laws existed – laws that required businesses to close on Sundays. That law sounds archaic now, doesn’t it? Why on earth would there be a law that says you can buy groceries but not a t-shirt, just because it is Sunday? Many of us remember a time when Sundays were a day set apart. There might be professional sports on Sunday afternoon, but no one would have dreamed of scheduling a swim meet or soccer game for elementary age children on Sunday morning!

I miss those days.
I miss the era when children’s ministries could count on all the kids being there on Sunday, in part because there wasn’t anything else to do. I lament this shift in our culture with my colleagues, and with our church leadership. I miss the good old days. And then I read this story, and I hear this Pharisee saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”  And I agree. Because I really do want it to be all about me, and about my plans and programs, and my church.

Jesus says I’m a hypocrite. And he’s right.

I really do want to figure out how to get people to show up on Sunday. And I do think we lost something, when we lost Sunday. But I don’t think the worst of that is about what we lost in attendance.  I’m thinking about the fact that we lost a day of rest. We lost an observance of the holiness of rest. And the working poor lost the chance at a day off. Because back then, whether or not you went to church, you could at least count on one day when you didn’t have to work, or compete, or open your shop, or commute, or anything. Even the plowhorse and the donkey need a break now and then. So especially on this Labor Day weekend, I want to be unbound from my own ambitions and desires, I want to stand up with Jesus about the importance of Sabbath – to let the laborer bent over with work stand up and stretch, and have a free day, a day to rest.

Let’s move across the synagogue now to join the crowd.
[This section was from the front pew on the left side]

I like sitting here with the crowd, where I can be anonymous. That way I don’t have to take any personal responsibility for this woman. She is bent over, unable to stand up straight. She has been that way for eighteen long years. It must be very painful for her, to be bent over like that. It is probably the result of poor choices she made. Maybe she dropped out of school. Probably she doesn’t eat nutritious foods. She looks pretty unhealthy to me.

And I suppose she doesn’t get good medical care. This is too bad, isn’t it? From where we sit, we in this crowd, we are sympathetic. And we are at a comfortable distance, comfortable enough to avoid facing our responsibility for women bent over so badly by life in this world. If we don’t go very close to her, and bend down and look in her eyes, maybe we won’t feel the need to do something besides feel sorry for her. Maybe if we sit here in this crowd and wait for Jesus to help her, we won’t have to stand up and address the institutional structures that keep women bound in our world. We won’t need to speak out against an economic system that disadvantages women, especially women of color, and older women. The inequality of women’s pay won’t be our issue, either. Or the social stigma of the unmarried mother, or the woman who needs social services like food stamps and free lunches so she can feed her children, or the woman who is in an abusive relationship and thinks she has nowhere to go. Over here with the crowd we can stay at a distance from all that.

But Jesus isn’t going to let that happen.
He calls the woman to come to him, and I think he knelt down and looked her in the eye.
He named her as a daughter of Abraham, a child of the covenant, a woman made in God’s own image. Then she could stand up straight. And I want to stand with her, to be in solidarity with her. I want to stand up for her, and for other women like her, women bent double, in agony for years, women who need to be unbound.

Now that we are so close to her, let’s put ourselves in her place.
[At this point, I walked to the center pews, and stood, bent over, as I spoke.]

Let’s stand where she is standing, bent over as if she has been carrying a heavy load, carrying it for eighteen long painful years. Wherever she goes, she is looking down, down at the dirt and weeds and rocks, at people’s feet and the hems of their garments. Wherever she goes she is reminded of her condition, and she cannot stand, cannot rise up. She is bound by her situation as if she were in chains, as if some cruel villain had tied her down. Jesus has only to speak: Woman, you are set free.

[Here, I stopped, and went up into the chancel behind the communion table.]

Do you see him?
Can you hear him?
It depends on where you stand.
Have you become so focused on the keeping of the law, on the rules and expectations of life, even on the ten commandments, that you are unable to see God’s children suffering?
Jesus is speaking to you – you are set free.
The Sabbath was made for us, to rest and renew.
Jesus invites you to come and rest.

Do you see him?
Can you hear him?
It depends on where you stand.
Have you gotten caught up in the crowd, carried away by popular opinion, or do you hide out in plain sight, where you are just another face, not responsible, not involved, just an onlooker. Jesus is speaking to you. You are set free from the bondage of conforming to the world. Stand up for what you believe. Stand up for those who suffer. Stand up with the one who binds up the broken-hearted and unbinds the gospel to set it free to work in the world and in the hearts of those who stand on the sidelines. Jesus invites you to come alongside him in his work of healing.

Do you see him?
Can you hear him?
It depends on where you stand.
Have your worries and troubles, your sorrows and pain bent you so low that you cannot see him? Have you shuffled into the presence of God, looking down at the floor, doubled over by the weight of your life? Jesus is speaking to you. Stand up.  Raise your arms up, dance in praise, turn and look around you. You are set free from your affliction. You are a child of the covenant.

Do you see him?
Jesus is here, here where we stand, speaking to us.                    
Can you hear him?
Jesus is here, here at this table, speaking to us with boundless love and free grace.
He invites us to stand up, unbinds us, calls us to account, freely offers us the bread of life and the cup of the new covenant. He is speaking to us, saying,
“Stand up. You are unbound and set free.”
You are set free.


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