Out of the Shadow

Sunday, August 25, 2019
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)

Focus Theme:
Out of the Shadow

Focus Prayer:
Merciful God, as we pour out the wealth you have entrusted to us, the parched places are watered; as we cease our evil talk, the rising light of peace dawns in the darkness. So lead us into faithful living that your promises may unfold in us as a woman’s back, long bent, unfolds at Christ’s command, to the praise of your holy name. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 1:4-10 with Psalm 71:1-6 or
Isaiah 58:9b-14 with Psalm 103:1-8 and
Hebrews 12:18-29 and
Luke 13:10-17

Focus Questions:

1. What kinds of healing might we offer to (or receive from) those we may not notice in our places of worship?

2. What does it mean to you to “observe the Sabbath”?

3. Is the suffering of some people easier to avoid than others, or to miss entirely?

4. Have you ever experienced grace coming to you, even when you didn’t have the strength or confidence to ask for it?

5. How do you imagine the bent-over woman’s life was different, the day after she was healed?

by Kate Matthews

It’s a simple enough story: on the way to Jerusalem, while Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, a “bent-over” woman passing by evokes Jesus’ compassion. Does the woman ask for healing? No. Does Jesus seem to care that it’s the Sabbath, when healing non-life-threatening conditions is not permitted? No.

Without being asked, he calls her over to him, and sets her free from her longtime ailment by placing his hands on her, just as one would in blessing. And the woman is blessed, and freed, and has sense enough to recognize the source of the freedom she’s been given at last, freedom from the little bit of square footage she’s been limited to visually for almost twenty years.

A surprising reaction

Now, is everyone amazed and grateful to witness such a thing? No, indeed. The leader of the synagogue is in fact upset by this breach of the Law and tells the crowd, which undoubtedly includes many others in need of healing (aren’t we all?), that they should come back tomorrow, when the timing will be more appropriate for such things as healing. The tension builds as Jesus heads toward Jerusalem and his death, and the lessons for us as disciples continue.

A simple enough story, it seems. But as in all biblical narratives, there is so much more to see. As always, when we consider the setting of the story, and its parallels with other stories, we begin to experience even more of its power and meaning.

This isn’t the only time Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, or healed while teaching in the synagogue (or both). It isn’t the first time he’s provoked the religious leaders, and it won’t be the last.

“Always on a slant”

Sharon Ringe describes the situation of the bent-over woman very well, this condition that could be translated as “a spirit of weakness”: “Her weakness itself is regarded as the power that holds her captive to restricted movement, to the inability to meet another person face-to-face, and to a world defined by the piece of ground around her own toes or looked at always on a slant. The words that effect the healing deal with what has enslaved her.”

Ironically, while this woman’s line of vision has been severely affected by her ailment these many years, she has no problem seeing the salvation standing before her in the person of Jesus, and recognizing the source of her healing. The crowd is also able to see God’s hand at work and to appreciate Jesus’ timing in spite of the objections of the religious leader. In fact, it’s the so-called religious experts in this small but powerful incident who seem least able to see the truth right before their eyes.

Keeping his promises

Remember back in chapter four of this Gospel when Jesus stood in another synagogue and began his ministry with a statement of intent to proclaim release to the captive? Remember the reaction of the crowd then, when they ran him out of town? Remember just a few verses before this passage, in Chapter 12, when Jesus said he had come to bring division (12:51)?

The reaction to this healing is a good illustration of division: the religious leaders may be clueless and outraged, but the people are carried away with joy. Joy versus outrage: now, that is division.

Burdens carried into our churches

Woven into this story are several threads: the healing of a person who is pressed down, held bound by Satan, as Jesus describes her, is the most obvious. Each Sunday, all sorts of burdens are carried into our churches. Some, like the bent-over woman’s condition, are more visible than others.

As you look around your congregation, what do you see? The weight of many years of suffering on one person’s face, the crushing hurt of a new and painful reality in another’s eyes: divorce; the loss of a loved one; financial worries; poor health; a child who has run away, physically or emotionally.

Whom are we missing?

Perhaps there are people in your church who know the pain and oppression of being marginalized and alone in the greater community, if not within the church itself. Do we notice them, the way Jesus noticed the bent-over woman? Is the suffering of some people easier to avoid, or to miss entirely?

Just as important is our response. Our hearts may be touched by the suffering of another, but there is still another step, to compassion, and to action in response to that suffering. What kinds of healing might we offer to those we may or may not notice in our places of worship?

Hindering liberation for the sake of “tradition”?

Then there is the question of self-examination: regrettably, in many ways the church itself may lay burdens on the people. Our ministries with people with disabilities are one response to a long history of not making our buildings, services, and ministries accessible to all of God’s children, regardless of physical and mental limitations.

For example, how many of our chancels are accessible for preachers and worship leaders who may have mobility issues? (The ministry of the UCC Cornerstone Fund in helping churches with loans to make these changes possible is a powerful and practical response to this call for justice.)

A word of judgment?

Is there a word of judgment for us in this reading from the Gospel of Luke? In what ways do we hinder liberation and healing for the sake of rules and tradition, especially when “tradition” is misunderstood as simply “the way we’ve always done things”?

On the other hand, when have we experienced healing and/or liberation from our own burdens? Have we, like the bent-over woman, had sense enough to immediately praise God? How have we experienced grace as coming to us, even when we may not have had the strength or the confidence to ask for it, let alone pursue it?

Jesus and women

A second thread to follow is one that leads to reflection on Jesus’ ministry with women. We see the quiet humility of a woman who has apparently come to the synagogue to pray, asking nothing for herself, and, according to Sharon Ringe, we also see the restoration to the community that Jesus offers in his healing, expressed by the unusual address (the only time it’s used in the Gospels), “daughter of Abraham.”

Perhaps the condition of the woman is a metaphor for the experience of so many women bearing heavy burdens in every culture and time, whether they are hauling water for miles, caring for sick children without needed resources, enduring physical abuse, or treated unjustly in the workplace.

Freeing women and girls from captivity

Jesus repeatedly ignores rules and customs that reinforce such marginalization and injustice, and this story embodies his attitude toward all women, not just one “victim” of “a spirit of weakness.” If Jesus frees her with from the illness that kept her captive, as Ringe says, aren’t we called to free women and girls today from their captivity and burdens, not just to study the oppression of women or to acknowledge it as an unfortunate sociological phenomenon, but to deal with its causes?

One good example of such a witness is the work of the United Church of Christ and many other people of faith who are fighting the good fight against human trafficking, which, tragically, touches most often on the lives of women and young girls.

Timing is everything

And then there is the question of timing. This healing by Jesus was a problem because of when it happened, not to whom or by whom or how it was accomplished. Come back tomorrow, the synagogue leader says, when it’s permissible and proper for healings to be performed. Wait a little longer.

The tension here, according to Richard Swanson’s intriguing commentary, is between two faithful Jewish men who are struggling with what it means to be faithful. The religious leader as Swanson portrays him is not mean-spirited but trying to press his own case for obedient faithfulness. So is Jesus, of course, but both men believe they are keeping Sabbath. (We note, however, that Jesus calls the religious leaders “hypocrites.”)

Before we judge…

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent most of my life thinking of the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the synagogue leaders back in Jesus’ day as uptight, judgmental, close-minded, harsh, moralistic, religious fanatics. (By the way, recent polls show that many young people, alas, see people who claim to be Christians the same way.)

In contrast, Jesus was the outsider, sort of a first-century Clint Eastwood, who would come into town and stir things up by trying to set them right, because obviously the religious types had it all wrong. It was so clear, so simple: religious leaders were the bad guys, and Jesus was the good guy…actually, the best guy of all.

A conversation within a community

However, we can approach these stories about Jesus’ conflicts with the religious leaders of his day from a different perspective. What if the arguments that they had–over the Sabbath (that was a big one, and it’s at the heart of this story), or over which people are the proper ones to eat with, or who counts as your neighbor, or whether a person can get divorced and remarry–what if we saw those conflicts as conversations within a community, among people who shared common sacred ground: a long and holy history with a God who was always, always faithful to them, even though these people called Israel didn’t agree on everything and every way to be faithful.

That’s the thing: the religious leaders, bless their hearts, were trying in their own way to be faithful. Sure, maybe things got out of hand sometimes with thinking that some folks were somehow purer or more worthy than others, or that the way to please God was through religious observance–worship services, impressive buildings, long prayers and fasting, focusing a lot of attention on the law, right down to every technical detail–even though God often told them that all of that wasn’t at the heart of the matter.

What matters most

Indeed, what mattered most and matters even now to God is what’s in our hearts, and how we treat one another, and especially how we treat those in our midst (whether we notice them or not) who are most vulnerable: as the Bible says, “the poor, the lame, the widow and the orphan, the stranger in your midst.”

But still, these religious leaders were folks who got up in the morning thinking about God and how they might serve God better. They didn’t always get it right, but they were sincerely trying. If we think about that for a minute, don’t they begin to sound familiar? Don’t they sound something like us?

The time for grace is now

The story really portrays Jesus as keeping the Sabbath because he sees it differently, and because he has a different sense of timing. The time for God’s grace and healing is now, not some point “still to be determined” in the future.

This is a matter of some urgency. Didn’t Jesus just spend much of the previous chapter speaking about “the hour” and about the ability to see what is really important? This woman’s ailment may not threaten her life, but her life is so precious that each day is a gift and an opportunity to praise God.

How and when to keep Sabbath

According to Barbara Reid, “When the purpose of Sabbath rest is to be free to praise God, Jesus deems it necessary to free a bound woman so as to do precisely that.” What matters to Reid in this text is Jesus’ timing, because “Jesus is urgent that now is the time of salvation.”

So it’s not unreasonable to suggest, as Sharon Ringe does, that the point of all this is not “whether,” but “how” to keep Sabbath.

A problem in every day

This problem, of course, seems to be an ongoing one, Charles Cousar writes, for the religious elites and all who failed to “perceive the clear signs of God’s rule” or to “realize that the present was a time of crisis, a time for repentance and changed lives.”

And this brings us to our own time and our own questions and our own need for healing. We read this text in a world that doesn’t seem to know the meaning of Sabbath, let alone grasp the importance of timing.

“A glimpse of God’s dominion”

Richard Swanson contrasts our modern approach to Sunday (our Sabbath day) and the profound regard that the people of Jesus’ time would have had for the day of rest: “This scene comes out of a world that remembered that Sabbath is different. Sabbath is not just a day of rest. It is a day of promise….”

Swanson uses beautiful imagery for this gift from God: “Sabbath,” he writes, “is welcomed into the house as a queen would be welcomed. Sabbath provides a foretaste of the culmination of all things, a glimpse of God’s dominion, a little slice of the messianic age dropped into the midst of regular time. Sabbath offers a remembrance of God’s promise of peace and freedom for all of creation. It is a good thing, a gift from God….Sabbath had become a symbol of the resistance God’s people offered to tyrants of every sort and every time…Sabbath is a day that lifts people’s eyes to God’s promise in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances.”

Demanding tyrants

What are “tyrants” in our lives that demand our attention, our energy, our spirits? What would it require in our lives to escape such oppression, even for just one day a week? Many of us actually feel anxiety if our time and attention is not fully taken up in an activity or in some type of electronic media.

What would it require for our souls to be at rest in God, here, on earth?

Just begin with Sunday

We are fortunate in many ways in our culture, but we are burdened, too. For example, many children in our society are as pressed down as the bent-over woman with schedules that leave them no time to play or to just “be” with their families, friends, and nature. We adults are the same way. Our health and the well-being of our families, our churches, and our communities are affected.

Perhaps we could just begin with Sunday as a time of peace and rest, but as even more, as a time to immerse ourselves in the promises of God, the promises that sustain us each day, during “regular” time, too. As the bent-over woman’s gaze was “lifted up” to God in praise, perhaps our perspective, too, will be raised and will lead us to new and deeper faithfulness and praise.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Alice Walker, 21st century
“Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”

Anita Diamant, 21st century
“The Sabbath is a weekly cathedral raised up in my dining room, in my family, in my heart.”

Marva Dawn, 21st century
“Sabbath ceasing [means] to cease not only from work itself, but also from the need to accomplish and be productive, from the worry and tension that accompany our modern criterion of efficiency, from our efforts to be in control of our lives as if we were God, from our possessiveness and our enculturation, and finally, from the humdrum and meaninglessness that result when life is pursued without the Lord at the center of it all.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, 21st century
“The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote, “A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity.” By that definition, I have a hard time counting many free beings among my acquaintance. I know people who can do five things at once who are incapable of doing nothing….Since I have been one of these people, I know that saying no is a more difficult spiritual practice than tithing, praying on a cold stone floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row.”

Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
“A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the most joyous day of the week.”


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