August 25, 2013
I went to Haiti for the first time in the early 80s on a Habitat for Humanity mission trip. Port au Prince was filled with beggars, many of whom were hunched-over women with crippled backs. I learned that they had worked sewing baseballs. Sports equipment, including baseballs was a major export for Haiti at the time. These women held the ball between bare feet as they pulled the single red thread to stitch them – down and up, down and up thousands of times a day. They were paid by the piece not the hour, so women worked as fast as they could. After a few years, their backs could not take the strain, and they were relegated to begging on the streets. I went back to Haiti in the late 90s and saw none of the hunched over women among the beggars. When I asked our host about this he told me that in the political turmoil and embargos following the fall of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the sporting good manufactures had pulled out of Haiti, and the women who had been crippled by sewing baseballs had all since died. I think of these women when I read Luke 13:10-17.
Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 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. 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. 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.” 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?” 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.
Verse 2 says that a spirit had crippled the woman, and in verse 15 Jesus said that Satan had bound her. Yet, Jesus performed a healing rather than casting out a demon. The woman did not ask for healing and expressed no faith. Yet, Jesus called her a daughter of Abraham who deserved to be set free of her ailment (v. 16). Rather than confronting Jesus, the synagogue leader told the people not to come to be cured on the Sabbath day.
The text suggests a boisterous uproar erupted in the synagogue when the woman stood up and praised God. The synagogue leader had to keep repeating his admonition to be heard over the din (v. 14). Jesus called them hypocrites (v. 15), and his opponents (v. 16) were put to shame, both plural. Though they end up rejoicing, Luke called them a “crowd” (vv. 14, 17) indicating some hostility to Jesus.
Luke identified Jesus as “Lord” (v. 15) when he addressed the crowd and asserted that this woman deserved to be healed even more than an ox or donkey deserved water on Sabbath. Just a note about mangers you will want to remember at Christmas. The homes of many common folk had a place just off the family living area to bring in a few animals for warmth and security, not a barn. They threw kitchen scraps in the manger to feed the animals.
Sabbath is the gateway through which Jesus leads us to the freedom to accept God’s wild and wonderful embrace.
Sabbath has many layers of significance, starting with creation when God rested on the seventh day, not because of being tired but because that work was completed. In Israel, Sabbath was a sign that they belonged to God and were in covenant with God. Sabbath taught them faith in the wilderness by collecting manna on six days but not the seventh. When they settled in the Land, Sabbath taught them to trust God even when a storm on Sabbath might threaten their crops. Sabbath established a healthy rhythm of labor and rest, work and worship.
In this incident, Jesus connected Sabbath with the way the Ten Commandments are presented in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Sabbath is the sign that the Israelites were no longer slaves in Egypt. They could rest and do no work one day a week with no fear of a task master cracking the whip on them. Instead of being forbidden to cure on the Sabbath, Jesus said that the Sabbath was the perfect day for this woman to be set free from her ailment, from being bound.
Like many in positions of religious authority in Jesus’ time, the synagogue leader understood Sabbath in terms of what you can’t do. Some of the “blue laws” and Sunday practices of Christians in our time have a similar focus. But when viewed as the gateway to freedom, Sabbath is about what you don’t have to do.
The contrast between avoiding Mt. Sinai and approaching Mt. Zion in Hebrews 12:18-29 gives us another way to see the gateway through which Jesus leads us to the freedom to accept God’s wild and wonderful embrace.
The God of Mt. Sinai and the God of Mt. Zion is indeed the same consuming fire. This is the wild God who encountered Job in Job 38-41 whom God commended for speaking rightly of God (42:7). Now Jesus invites us to approach this wild God and receive the kingdom that cannot be shaken and worship with reverence and awe.
The fans of great roller coasters seek the thrill of feeling swept out of control while being securely harnessed and returning to safety. Jesus invites us to the thrill of being embraced by the God who is a consuming fire, and he personally promises to be our security and safety.
Uproar broke out during worship in the synagogue when Jesus healed the crippled woman. Their disputes were transformed into exuberant rejoicing. Hebrews 12:28 urges us to offer God acceptable worship with reverence and awe. That cannot be restricted to quiet and calm. I appreciate contemplative worship as much as anybody, but Jesus frees us for energetic expression as well.
For a congregation between pastors, the interim journey is also a gateway through which Jesus leads us to the freedom to accept God’s wild and wonderful embrace.
In writing about moral development Lawrence Kohlberg identified growing in periods of disequalibriation in which old ways of understanding the world don’t fit any longer but the new ways are not clear yet. Enjoy the thrill of God’s wild ride taking us somewhere we still can’t see, confident that Jesus keeps us secure.
The Twelve Steps of AA have proven powerful in addressing many addictions and bondages. Step Four calls us to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” I encourage you as a congregation to use this interim journey to make a searching and fearless inventory of the bondages that keep this congregation bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. This time of disequalibriation can also be an opportunity for each of us as individuals to make a searching and fearless inventory of the personal bondages that keep us bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.
Jesus set the woman in today’s Gospel free from her bondage without being asked and without any expression of faith. I take comfort that I am not dependent on myself to be freed from my bondages. But I also want to know how to access Jesus’ freedom. AA’s fifth step points the way. “To admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” This is an exact match to James 5:16. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so you may be healed.” The Prayer Triads that start up in September are not a program but an opportunity to do just this. Wherever this interim journey takes us, the essential issues are spiritual, and not about programs and policies.