Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 22, 2010
May our lives be endowed with God’s creativity, enhanced by the imagination of the Holy Spirit, and visited by Christ’s peace. Amen.
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. She is there in the Gospel for everyone else who has been given labels. You know them well. I’d venture to say that, in the course of your life, you’ve either ascribed such a label to someone or been the recipient of one. Kids are notorious for doing this. I wonder where they learn that knack?
“Stupid,” “fatty,” “sissy,” “retard,” “four eyes,” “shrimp,” “fag,” “geek,” “loser,” “just a drunk,” “blind as a bat, deaf as a door nail,” “dumb as an ox,” not to mention those nasty ethnic descriptions. Labels. We use them, we’ve been awarded them. They are painful. They box us in, pigeonhole, and stereotype us. They demean us and narrow our entire
being down to that one aspect of the other’s ridicule. I think the woman in this Gospel is there for everyone who wears or has ever worn a label.
This is a primarily a healing story. The faithful have gathered for a peaceful Sabbath service. All is calm and kosher, until Jesus shows up. He sees the suffering of this woman, probably imagines the social stigma with which she has lived on top of her physical pain, reaches out and touches her. For the first time in her life, she is able to stand up straight, to look straight ahead, to know some sense of normalcy in life, and, especially, to cast off the label of “cripple.”
But, in spite of the wonder of this healing, the leader of the synagogue is indignant because Jesus has “worked” on the Sabbath. At first reading of this, we might cut the guy some slack. He is simply defending the tradition of rest on this one sacred day in the week. In the first reading today we heard great praise for the Sabbath. “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,” the prophet Isaiah writes, “from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your ways….then you shall take delight in the Lord and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.”
We all need Sabbath time, a time and place to escape the craziness of our lives and pay attention to what we should hold most important in life.
When I was growing up, Sunday was reserved for church, rest, a leisurely ride, family dinners, and visiting. There were no stores or gas stations open. And, no cell phones! We really did take a day of rest. Not so any more, but Sabbath time is especially important as it affords us the opportunity to recognize the beauty around us—be it here in worship, in music, in the diversity of people who gather, or in the wonder of all creation around us.
So, at first glance, the leader of the synagogue is merely upholding the tradition of the prophets and of Jewish religious law.
But wait. Notice that this angry man doesn’t address Jesus directly with his complaint, but rather addresses the entire crowd. It’s an old tactic but one still employed today. It’s called “triangulation” and it plays out, particularly in churches, when someone who is upset with the clergy or staff member tell their friends rather than talking directly with the person with whom they have a gripe.
It’s an unhealthy, unconstructive way of communicating and does not help resolve the issue and most astute clergy, like Jesus, can smell it a mile away. What really disturbs Jesus, however, is that the synagogue leader takes him to task over restoring health, liberating this bent over woman, but would not think twice about taking care of his farm animals on the Sabbath.
Rules are easy to make but it is hard for some people who worship the rules to understand when they need to be broken. 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.
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 this suffering crippled woman, challenging the legal order when justice has been disregarded and mercy is desperately needed.
Notice that Jesus does not want to make this woman a professional victim nor does he want her disability, her tag line, to define her entire life. How does he address her? As a “daughter of Abraham.” No longer is she merely “the crooked woman” but a daughter of Abraham. Abraham, the one to whom on a starry night (and we read this story just a few weeks ago), a solemn promise was made that through Abraham God would bring forth a great nation a nation through which all other nations would be blessed. This bent over woman is an heir to this blessing. She is destined for much more than cruel, limiting labeling. She is meant to be a part of God’s plan of deliverance and restoration of the whole world. Jesus had renamed her entire life.
Forces that distort and cripple people’s lives are still among us today. We still tag people with labels that limit them and oppress them and bend and contort their lives, and religion has played its part in doing this as well as society at large. That day in the synagogue Jesus proclaimed that this one lone woman’s life was sacred and so he invited her to be healed and to stand up straight so that her voice could be heard by all. This story, and others like it, is the hope of the world and we have been given it so that we can tell this tale and, in the hearing and the telling, bear witness to the reality of the true and living God in our midst.
This morning, Jesus means to name you as well. He 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 daughters, you are sons of Abraham. Your life is meant to count as a blessing. You are called to the wide stage of God’s great drama of ushering in God’s reign, God’s economy, God’s kingdom. Jesus gives us the gift of this icon of a ridiculed, labeled, bent over woman as a sacred symbol and sign of what it is possible to imagine for your life and, in the imagining, what it is possible to become. So stand up straight and claim that blessing!