It truly is great to be here this morning, able to offer a word in the middle of a pretty busy time of year for our community. When Robyn and I talked about stepping in one Sunday while Mark was on sabbatical, I jumped at the chance. Then about two weeks ago I realized that I had acted without really thinking it through. This week, the very newly hired Learning Center staff has been participating in Curriculum Boot Camp, as our amazing trainer Bev Briggs has suggested we call it. With three full days of training this week and two more to come next week, we are right in the heart of it. At the same time, this is the time to ramp up for the school year all our Children and Youth programs, like Sunday School, Youth Groups, Confirmation and so on which slow down a little in the summer.
It really is a busy moment for many of the “lower level” staff and volunteers, myself included. So how appropriate is it that in the midst of my leap to say yes first and think about my schedule later, that same action-first message is at the heart of our gospel text too. This text gives us a glimpse at how Jesus’ swift action to heal comes before any concern over breaking rules, or before the leaders had the opportunity to tell him no, and even before the woman asks for healing. This seems like a moment of act first, ask forgiveness later. Or… in this case, act first, call-the-authority-on-the-carpet for standing in the way of someone suffering, later. Not really the same as my analogy, but that’s Jesus for you. The wonderful radical, revolutionary, active Jesus we see in this text and so many others. The Jesus who says, I see injustice in this life and I am willing to do something about it, will you join me?
In our text this morning, we are dropped into the middle of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue, without giving us the context of his teaching. We don’t know if his teaching had anything to do with healing, or rules, or even if the leader of the synagogue was agreeing or disagreeing with his teaching before the interruption. Instead, we are presented only with a real “teachable moment.” I’m guessing you have heard the phrase before, a moment in our lives when the lesson plan goes out the window and instead, we use what is happening in our environment to teach a better lesson than we had planned. In the midst of his teaching in the synagogue on that unknown topic, Jesus finds a woman in need present with him, and quickly switches from the teaching to the reality in front of him, which might be more meaningful than the teaching in progress.
I’ve had many of those moments in my life. In fact, much of my lesson planning is often reactive teaching to what is going on in the lives of my group. When teaching confirmation last year, I tried to use the youth’s lives, school activities, or emotions to help connect with the text we were studying that day. Sometimes, that is easier said than done, and sometimes, it can be real gold.
This summer, I attended Confirmation Camp with four of our confirmands in July. While I’ve been to Lutherwood before for weekend retreats with the youth, this was the first week I have spent at camp with them. I grew up attending camp as a youth, so the pattern and schedule of camp came pretty easy to me. But what was new was that I wasn’t a counselor or staff for the first time in my life. I was sleeping in a cabin with only adults, few responsibilities and had hours of preparation time each day. Being a guest at camp was new. But each morning, I had about three hours of concentrated time with my St. Andrew crew to discuss our own curriculum based on the 5 core care values, to talk about our own issues, and connect that to the Lutherwood curriculum of the week.
What a gift to be able to take these few who knew each other well, and ask them to go even deeper in their relationship building. Each day, in the middle of our time together, everyone at the camp attended worship up in the woods, and then would return to our separate sessions. One day, after talking about Sin and Forgiveness in worship, I took the girls on a hike while we discussed our morning session and the worship focus. I had a destination in mind, but had never actually gone there myself. Neither they, nor I knew exactly where we were going. We just went. I feel pretty confident in my directional sense, and knew it couldn’t be too far, so I knew we wouldn’t get lost. Don’t worry parents, I promise we were safe!
But as we hiked out in this beautiful forest, up a pretty steep hill, I posed questions to the girls, like where does racism and sexism play into sin? Have you ever experienced sexism? What relationship is there between Community Care and sexism? Their answers floored me, and the group’s ability to listen to one person’s answer, and then relate their experience was a gift to the conversation. “Yeah I saw that too!” “I’ve had that happen to me too” And all the while we kept hiking, talking about the forest in the middle of the conversation and spiraling upward higher until the sounds of the other campers couldn’t be heard any more and we reached the highest point, Mountain Village. There we stopped, sat and looked down at the world below us. At the end of our conversation, at the end of our hike, we were presented with this wonderful gift of God’s Creation right in front of our eyes. Better than any lesson plan I could have come up with staying at our normal spot in the field in the field and asking my prepared questions, or reading more sections of the psalm we had been studying, the girls and I participated in an act of gratitude for our surrounding environment and went deeper into our conversation because we let our expectations disappear. We didn’t even have to look at each other when someone said something more personal. And in that known AND anonymous state, more could be shared. We concluded our session with prayer and headed back down the hill to camp and lunch. I can’t say if that hike meant as much to the girls, but to me, it was a real teachable moment, and required that I be intentional about making space for the girls to express their reality to each other in a safe space, while creating enough DIS-comfort for the conversation to be real and valuable.
This too is what Jesus has done here in this text. By creating discomfort in the leader by healing on the Sabbath, by calling into question what is considered work, and who is valuable enough to receive the gift of new life, Jesus is intentional about creating a certain amount of dis-comfort. It is interesting to note that the woman has not asked for healing. The text only says “When Jesus saw her, he called over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Freedom and healing are intertwined here with rules and illness. And it is the human touch that frees her, and us, in our places of pain. The woman is the recipient of the free un-earned gift of healing and her story gives us another insight into the grace we are given so freely, so openly by living as a grace loving Christian.
As in much of the healing stories in the Gospels, it is touch that heals, and there are many reasons for this. Physically, touch can trigger a decrease in stress, or pain, and mentally, touch also puts us immediately into an awareness of community, an important aspect to any of Jesus’ moments of healing. His work here and in many other moments of healing echoes what we heard in the Isaiah passage this morning, repairing and restoring the afflicted to community. And Jesus does the work of restoration in the most personal way possible, touch. Many studies point to the ability for massage, and a gentle warm touch to lower blood pressure and decrease stress in people of all ages, including newborn babies. I am reminded how necessary it is for our development as infants to touch real living skin. And yet, something so necessary for our health can be laden with so many layers of pain and suffering. How many of you can think of times when all you really needed was a hug to break the mental barriers you were holding up?
The text doesn’t tell us anything about the woman’s life before she literally appears in front of Jesus, if she is isolated in her life, if she is crippled by a life of service, an injury or genetics. But we can see evidence of her isolation in the simplicity of her story. She has no one who has come with her, nor is she requesting the miracle. She might even have made peace with her ailment, and her lack of community. We might not know where she comes from, or where she goes to, but we know that her life has been given new freedom and in that, she offers praise!
But the story doesn’t end there. Her newfound comfort and relief is also the specific means of creating discomfort for the leader.
“There are six days… come on those days and be cured.” What a rebuke to the crowd! It is no wonder the crowd ends rejoicing in all the wonderful things Jesus is doing while the leader is shamed. This statement is a slap in the face of the woman who did not ask for the gift, not even spoken to her, but rather generalized toward everyone gathered. It is much like the leader is turning to the crowd and saying “Don’t get any ideas people! This was wrong and I know the rules better than you.” Given that tone, I know I stand with the crowd, rejoicing in Jesus’ rebuke to the hypocritical leader. Yeah! That’s right! Take him down! Take that hypocrite! Ha!
And isn’t it interesting that two weeks in a row we are confronted with hypocrisy in the lectionary readings. I can’t help but be a little grateful that Robyn preached last week on the text calling the crowd, all people, all of US, out on our hypocrisy, while I just have to work anger toward with hypocritical authorities, something we might all be able to relate to. But there is something odd about the pattern of those parallel stories of hypocrisy, and seem almost backward. If I were creating a lesson on this, I might turn them around. We can all get behind calling someone else a hypocrite, placing blame outside ourselves. Then from that stage, confront our own areas of hypocrisy, calling the blame into question as well. But here, we confront first our own issues, and then move back to looking at the world. As I worked with these texts in this order, I have had to question even more my own hypocrisy, which provides me the freedom to have compassion for the leader I might not have otherwise felt.
It is uncomfortable, however, to see the stories in this order. It breaks with what we might see as the correct order for teaching and provides us with another avenue with which to see the integrated moments of grace at work here for all in the text. It is inevitable to be uncomfortable when trying something new. Much like a baby learning to walk, there will be bumps and bruises along the way. Very few of us think the steps through long enough to just stand up and walk -right off the bat. It is the same in stories like today’s which challenge our mental assumptions. The discomfort we feel is indicative of a need to push into the discomfort to better understand what it is that is making it hard to find a comfortable and simple solution to the situation. Maybe there isn’t a comfortable answer, and that reality is incredibly important to listen to. It means something is really going on here.
In the text from Isaiah, we are told, that if you “satisfy the needs of the afflicted, your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” But Jesus certainly does not feel the darkness rise, and is instead shot down when satisfying the needs of the afflicted. He is the restorer of life, and yet is confronted with confusion, discomfort and the continued need to call out hypocrisy. But maybe that just means the story isn’t over yet. This story is told in community, about community, and about leadership as a vocation of stewardship in the community. This leader has been entrusted with the gift of a rich religious tradition, and yet does not use that tradition to bring “light to the world” through the interpretation of that tradition. Instead, he just attempts to contain order. What is the harm that will be done to the tradition by healing on this day if it is equivalent to untying the donkey, giving water to the ox, or maybe feeding the dog? It could be that the leader is reacting out of a fear that if people would come on this day to receive, his job would be harder, that he would end up feeling overwhelmed and working overtime.
And I can certainly understand the need to maintain boundaries around your time so maybe he is just holding onto the rules because he doesn’t know what else to hold onto. But is that the message of Isaiah? Is that the voice of the Hebrew Prophets? There is much more to the law side of the tradition than just keeping rules. The God we can glimpse in Jesus is more concerned with justice than boundaries, and is more uncontrolled and intimate than the rules might allow. This is God who breaks down to rebuild, whose actions speak louder than words, who teaches that LOVE will always trump order and restriction. By worshipping the God of divine abundance, WE can live into a life of abundance, a life of freely given unearned gifts, of grace.
Together we worship a rule breaking God. Who, Isaiah foretells will “guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places…”
We worship the God who Luke presents here questioning a generic set of rules that merely maintain order, who sets us free from the bondage of pain and suffering and invites us into the life of grace available to us here.
How can we go out today, listening for the call to break boundaries and guide the un-named sources of pain in our lives toward freedom and praise? A life of healing touch and community conversation, A life of grace.