Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 25, 2013
May our lives be endowed with God’s creativity, enhanced by the imagination of the Holy Spirit, and visited by Christ’s peace. Amen.
I think Jesus may have been a Gemini. I know, I know we celebrate his birthday on December 25 and that would make him a Capricorn. Of course, that isn’t the real date of his birth. To reframe the observance of the pagan Saturnalia holidays, the church claimed the December date as the Nativity of Jesus. He may have been born in March or April or maybe even June.
I’m sticking to my opinion because we so often get two sides to Jesus. For a number of Sundays this summer we heard Gospels in which Jesus took us to task about faithfulness, generosity, greed, forgiveness, and care of our neighbor. Some of his words were pretty direct and uncompromising. Jesus can be an intimidating prophet. He challenges us more than we would like.
Yet today we see the other side of Jesus; the tender, compassionate, loving Jesus recognizing the pain of one of God’s oppressed children. This is the side that we prefer – the Jesus who breaks the rules and norms of the day to reach out to someone who would otherwise be ignored.
She doesn’t have a name except, perhaps, the name given by her peers because of her disability. I’m sure you can imagine the possibilities. So, in fact, she has not really been named but labeled. When the townsfolk saw her creeping down the street, body bent, eyes attempting to lift up from the ground, they didn’t say, “Here comes Sarah or Judith.” They said, “Here comes that crippled woman.”
How would we like to be immortalized in Scripture as the bent old woman? This woman was stooped over, no longer able to stand erect because of eighteen years of severe physical, mental, spiritual, social, political, and economic oppression.
She is there in the Gospel for everyone else who has been assigned a label in life. You know them well. I’d venture to say that, in the course of our life, we’ve been the recipient of some label or ascribed one to someone. “Stupid,” “fat,” “old man,” “sissy,” “retard,” “four eyes,” “shrimp,” “fag,” “geek,” “loser,” “baldie,” “gimp,” –not to mention those nasty ethnic descriptions we will not utter.
Labels. We use them. We’ve been identified by them. They are painful. They pigeonhole and stereotype us. They demean us and, ignoring the rest of who we are, narrow our existence down to only one aspect. I think the woman in this Gospel is there for everyone who wears or has ever worn such a label.
Yes, this is a primarily a healing story and yet it is much more. All is calm and kosher on this Sabbath Day, until Jesus shows up, sees the suffering of this woman and the social stigma and physical pain with which she has lived and reaches out and touches her. For the first time in her life, she is able to stand erect, to look straight ahead, to know some sense of normalcy in life, and cast off those pejorative labels: “Old, stooped, crippled woman.”
The leader of the synagogue is indignant because Jesus has “worked” on the Sabbath. This is not the first controversy that Jesus stirred up around Sabbath observance. He also caught flack for allowing his disciples to pluck and eat grain as they walked through the fields on the Sabbath and healed a man with dropsy while dining with the Pharisees. This is now old hat for him.
What most disturbs Jesus is that the synagogue leader takes him to task over restoring someone’s health but would not think twice about taking care of his farm animals on the Sabbath. And just as Jesus spoke out against empty religious rituals that disregarded human need, the Prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Scripture today makes a similar distinction between true and false piety. Rules are easy to make but it is hard for some people who worship the rules to understand when they need to be broken for the good of God’s people.
The Gospel is full of such stories and violations: eating with the wrong crowd, touching the unclean, turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple, healing on the Sabbath, challenging the legal order when justice has been disregarded and mercy is desperately needed.
In both the church and in our society we have witnessed thoughtful occasions when gutsy people have expressed their opposition to rules that are just blatantly unjust by doing exactly what Jesus did – breaking them. We’ve done some of that here at St. Paul’s.
But the breaking or re-interpreting of rules and traditions must always be to expand the capacity of God’s work in the world, which is easily identifiable because it restores, renews, heals, and makes people whole again – able to stand up straight and be proud of the person God created them to be.
Stories of healing in the Gospel are not just for the pages of an ancient script. They are not just for the people healed. They are stories that speak of possibility. They are stories for us.
Notice that Jesus addresses this woman as a “daughter of Abraham.” Abraham, the one to whom on a starry night God made a solemn promise that through Abraham God would bring forth a great nation, a nation through which all other nations would be blessed. To God in Jesus, this woman was beautiful, even and especially in spite of her oppressed condition. Jesus renamed her entire life. She is meant to be a part of God’s plan of restoration of the whole world.
People still get slapped with labels that limit them and oppress them and contort their lives, and religion and society have played its part in doing this. During World War II, triage referred to the policy by which medical assistance was dispensed to wounded. It was up to the doctors to “color-tag” or “color code” the wounded, placing them in one of three categories according to their condition. One color meant hopeless – nothing could be done to save them. A second tag meant they’d make it whether they got help or not. The third color-tag indicated a doubtful prognosis – the person’s chance to live depended on medical assistance. Since there were severely limited medical supplies… assistance was being given only to this last group.
A soldier named Lou came to the hospital badly wounded, one of his legs nearly blown apart. The doctor who examined him made the decision that Lou was a hopeless case and tagged him as such, leaving him to die. But a nurse noticed Lou was conscious and began to talk with him. They discovered they were both from Ohio. The nurse just couldn’t let him die. She broke all the rules and changed the color-tag on his gurney. She changed his “label.”
Lou ended up on a two-day trip in the back of a truck to an army hospital and spent many months there, but he survived. He met someone in the hospital whom he married and, even minus one leg, he led a full and happy life, all because a nurse broke the rules of triage and changed a tag.
What a different world it would be if we all did the same: just changed the labels and gave one another back hope for the possibility of wholeness, healing, and restoration. Changing the tag can save a life.
This morning, Jesus casts off the labels the world may have given you – either in your youth or in your adult life or in your aging. You are free! You are daughters, you are sons of Abraham. You are the beloved children of God. Your life is meant to count as a blessing for the world. So stand up tall and claim that!