Sermon on 11 Pentecost C, Lectionary 21: Luke 13:10-17
Preached at Bethany, Escanaba, August 25, 2019 by Pastor Dave Van Kley
At Last, To Stand Up Straight
The crowd that day in the synagogue included a woman with a disability. For 18 years, she had been “bent over, quite unable to stand up straight.” The kind of person you didn’t notice or, if you did, looked away from. Perhaps you were afraid you would catch whatever she had. Or were embarrassed to see someone so deformed. Or had no idea what to say. So you pretended not to see.
But on that Sabbath, Jesus sees this woman. In Luke’s gospel, those words are important: Jesus sees people others do not. Calling her over, Jesus lays his hands on her and pronounces her whole. Immediately, she is healed. Able to stand up straight, she praises God.
On another Sabbath, in another synagogue, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus read from the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” On this Sabbath, Jesus was doing what he set out to do.
But the leader of the synagogue does not rejoice in the woman’s recovery. In fact, it seems as if he still does not see her; he looks and speaks to the crowd instead. “People of God, this is all well and good, but the timing is all wrong. On any of the other six days of the week, healing this woman would be fine. But not today. The Sabbath Day is for worship and rest, not work.”
To which Jesus says, “The law allows us to lead livestock to the water trough on the Sabbath. Is this woman less than an ox? Perhaps to you, she is. For 18 years, she has languished. Today is her day of liberation! That’s what the Sabbath is for. Don’t you see?”
Now I don’t think the synagogue leader was a bad person: he was just a careful person. He valued his religious tradition as he had learned and understood it. He sensed in Jesus a threat to that tradition. He sought to protect it from erosion, from sliding down the “slippery slope” into moral chaos. If you allow Jesus to heal someone on one Sabbath, what will happen next time?
His convictions kept him from seeing this woman’s need. And the amazing grace of God.
One of the clients of Room at the Inn in Marquette gave a temple talk to us at Messiah Lutheran Church some years ago. He described walking down Third Street, no home to go to, no family to support him, his few belongings stuffed into his backpack. People look at you, he said, and then they quickly look away from you. They don’t want to see you. It’s as if you don’t exist.
We may think we know the homeless: they are the addicted, the mentally ill, the irresponsible. Tom was just an older man who’d lost his marriage and his job. He wasn’t old enough for Social Security, too able bodied for assistance. He washed dishes at a restaurant by night and walked the streets by day.
“Nobody will even look at me,” he said.
But when Room at the Inn began, someone did look at him. Through the churches that participated and the volunteers who made dinner and kept vigil at night, Jesus himself was present, healing him, helping him to stand up straight. Eventually, he found housing and enough work to pay for it.
Tom is no longer alive, but during those months, his faith in God and humankind was restored. Someone had noticed him.
See another woman today. A young mother, with two unruly children and an unkempt house. Her teeth are in bad shape. When she speaks, she does not look at you.
I went to her home as a young pastor to plan a baptism. I was fresh out of seminary, and had never seen a home in such condition. I was a little repulsed by it, actually. Slowly, the woman’s story emerged. Abused by her own father, she was married to a violent and abusive man, who would fly into a rage at her and the kids. He would not let her leave the house without him. In fact, he was so controlling that he sometimes would handcuff her to the doors of their closet when he went out. No one noticed her plight—how could they?
We baptized their child at worship one Sunday and not long after that, she took refuge in the women’s shelter in a larger community some miles away. After that, we lost touch.
Years later, when we returned to the UP from South Dakota, Arlene attended a function in that same community, when this woman approached her. Dressed neatly, she was the president of her congregation’s womens’ organization. She held a job, was divorced and had remarried, had raised her children to adulthood. She stood up straight and looked Arlene in the eye.
We in the religious community often do not notice the Dawns of this world. When we do, we may even encourage them to stay in abusive relationships, to give their relationship one more try, because we value the sacred bond of marriage. Our intent may be good, but our judgment is not. Marriage was not meant to destroy people’s lives but to enhance them.
One of the folk songs I love best celebrates the moment a woman leaves an abusive spouse. “She’s takin charge of her life for a change; she’s takin it back that she’s lost. It’s just as clear as a window pane, she’ll survive at all cost. See the wings unfolding that weren’t there just before on a ray of sunshine, she dances out the door, out into the morning light where the sky is all ablaze, this looks like the first of better days.”
Through the folks in that shelter, Jesus saw Dawn and laid his hands on her. The day she left home was the first of much better days.
The woman in the gospel lesson suffered from some kind of disability. People with disabilities live in a world that is not made for them.
On this Sabbath, in this congregation, I think of another woman with a disability. I can’t see her, but you can see her, but I do see where she normally sits at worship. The elevator is her passport to worship. Since the lightning strike, she has been unable to be among us, because she cannot climb the stairs. Do you know her? Have you missed her? Could you reach out to her with a visit, send her a card, tell her that our community is not complete without her?
We all need to be noticed, to be seen.
What keeps us from seeing others who suffer? Our beliefs? Our ethnicity? Our race? Our nationality? What slippery slope are we concerned about? Do we fear having to change our beliefs?
Christ Jesus sees us today. He comes to open the eyes of the blind, to give us eyes to see.
In what ways are we like the woman bent over for 18 years? Are we weighed down by addiction of some kind? Crippled by fears? Bent over with guilt and shame?
Christ Jesus sees us today. He lays hands on us and says, “You are noticed. You are beloved. You are forgiven. You are set free.”
It’s amazing what being seen and touched by Christ can do.
“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” he said; “which starts out tiny, but grows into something great.” The bent over woman, you and I, this congregation—we are the mustard seeds.