The Right Way

(sermon 8/25/19)

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Photo by KML. Used with permission

Now Jesus 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.

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So there she was – hunched over, unable to stand up straight for almost two decades, in pain all that time, and you know there are few things worse than back pain – and yet she still managed to find a way to get to the synagogue most weeks. This week, she was running a little behind and didn’t get there until after things started. One person shifted a bit to make room for her to sit down there in the back, trying not to disturb anyone while she got settled in. That one busybody that every synagogue seemed to have looking over at her judgingly because she’d come in late; most people not even really noticing her at all.  But Jesus noticed her, and because he did, this would be the day she went down in history. It’s a shame that we don’t even know her name; we really should, but in any case, on this day Jesus healed her from eighteen years of discomfort and misery. Her pain, her burden, had been lifted. And the story tells us that all the people were amazed and rejoiced at what had happened – except for one.

The head of the synagogue wasn’t impressed at all. For some reason, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees, he couldn’t see the goodness of helping this woman in need for what it was, because of the way Jesus did it. It broke the rules. Things have to follow the rules, or they obviously aren’t right. There was a right way and a wrong way to do things, even good things, and this wasn’t the right way.

It’s a claim that has run down through history to our current time just as much as the story of the woman’s healing itself. It’s been a continuous point of discussion and debate within the church, and beyond the church, for that matter: what is the relationship of obedience to established laws versus breaking them for what’s perceived to be obedience to a higher moral and spiritual law? When do we obey the laws that govern us, and when do we refuse to adhere to them? This has been the center of the debate whether looking at the way the first Christians were supposed to respond to the persecution they received from Rome, to whether it was right to protest and even separate from the church during the Reformation, to whether the Church should support the Nazi regime in Germany or fight against it, to whether it was right for Dr. King and his allies, including our own Stated Clerk at the time, Eugene Carson Blake, to break the law in their protests for civil rights – was a Christian supposed to obey an unjust law out of respect for the established governance, or was a Christian required to disobey an unjust law as being invalid because it was unjust? I remember being a little boy and hearing my family members sitting around at family functions discussing the events of those times, the mid- to late 60s and the civil rights movement, and saying that yes, there should be civil rights and equality, but the protestors had to stay within the law – that they went a literal bridge too far when they disobeyed the law; that was unacceptable. And I’ve been through Blake’s papers. The letters he got, the personal attacks, were brutal, with people bashing him because as the head of the church he’d had the nerve to break the law and get arrested while protesting to desegregate an amusement park in Baltimore. We think that the social media age has made us all meaner and harsher toward each other, but looking at those letters to him, I can tell you the language was the same back then; the only difference is that back then it came with a postage stamp. And of course, we hear this same issue come up in the current refugee and immigration debates, when people say that migrants need to “do it the right way” when entering the country fleeing for their lives and safety. What’s the answer to this question?

From the standpoint of the scriptures, Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” And throughout Christian history, people who have argued for unquestioned obedience to the established order have quoted this passage as a definitive answer – even while they forget that it really can’t be quite that definitive, since the man who wrote this was himself sitting in a prison cell for defying the laws of the government, and who wrote that he was proud to have done so as a matter of faith, and who urged other believers to stand fast just as he had. Even more significantly, it’s no small thing to remember that at the very center of our faith is the crucifixion of Jesus, which was a direct result of his civil disobedience of Roman authority.

But let’s go back to the woman in the synagogue who was healed. Can you imagine what it must have been like to have been there in the synagogue that day? Everyone having come together from all the different events and cares of their own week, all of their problems, all of their setbacks, the continuous stream of bad and bizarre news showing up on their Facebook feeds to the point of emotional exhaustion – and then this. Something pure, and good, and right, happening before their very eyes, giving them hope that despite all the rest, God was with them, and that God was good. Jesus healing this woman was inspiring, joy-causing proof that there was indeed a right way and a wrong way to do things, and when it came right down to it, to do good – to be kind, to be compassionate, to be helpful, to love, is always the right thing, regardless of what any rules or regulations or laws might say to the contrary. Any rule or regulation or law that didn’t help to offer love offers hate, and any rule or law that offers hate is an immoral and invalid law that in God’s eyes doesn’t need to be obeyed; *should not* be obeyed. To always act in this way is, in fact, “doing it the right way.”

In this story, we hear that the people there rejoiced when Jesus healed the woman. In that moment, all the negativity they were experiencing off their shoulders and they felt refreshed, renewed, inspired.

I believe that it’s the same with us, too.  When we’re faced with questions of whether a rule or regulation or law is good or proper and to be obeyed; or whether to disobey it favor of a greater moral, spiritual good in the kingdom of God; when we have to decide what “doing it the right way” really means, all that we have to do is follow the simple theology of Mr. Rogers – “Just be kind.” Always choose to do the kind, compassionate thing, and we will *always* be doing the right thing. We will always be doing it the right way. And we should do it out of gratitude, knowing that God has been kind and compassionate and loving to us in our own lives, even when the rules and regulations and laws have opposed it. So out of that gratitude, we too are called to do things this right way, regardless of what the rules and laws say. Because it isn’t just Mr. Rogers’ theology, it’s Christ’s theology, too, so it should be all of ours as well?

Thanks be to God.

A New Normal (sermon 8/21/16)

normal offramp

Now Jesus 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. – Luke 13:10-17 (NRSV)

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She stepped into the synagogue along with the rest of them, all headed to the same places on the benches that wrapped around the sidewalls of the synagogue where they sat every Sabbath day. She was doubled over, to the point that she could hardly see who was around her, and even though her infirmity would have made her stick out like a sore thumb to a stranger, to most of these people she’d become almost invisible out of familiarity, like a billboard that you pass on the highway every day that you eventually don’t even notice no matter how outrageous the actual advertisement. She didn’t like that fact, but she’d gotten used to it and made do, and there really wasn’t anything she could do about it, anyway. This was her reality, her normal. So like everyone else there that day, she quietly made her way to her seat, just like every other Sabbath.

But we know this story; we just heard it – in fact, this day was different from all the others, because this day, Jesus was there, and even if most of the people around her didn’t notice her, he did, and he called her over. And after laying hands on her, and blessing her, he tells her that she’s healed. And in a scene faked by countless bad TV preachers in the years since, she actually stands up straight, and gives thanks to God.

I wonder what was going through her mind during all this. She’d long ago accepted living with her impairment. Really – she’d undoubtedly heard about Jesus’ reputation as a healer, but when she got to the synagogue that day, she didn’t seek him out or ask him to heal her; he had to call out to her. I wonder if at first, she had misgivings about even going over to him. I wonder, when Jesus said that her ailment was gone, if her first unspoken thought was “Yeah, right.” I wonder if she’d become so familiar with, and accustomed to, life from her own eye level, from her own vantage point, that she wasn’t even sure, after all this time, whether she’d actually even want to have to define a “new normal.” I wonder if she wasn’t even a bit frightened about the possibility of what changes might lie ahead for her.

Still, she’d heard about this Galilean rabbi – that his words stirred people’s hearts, and that he was a miracle worker. So trusting in him, she slowly, cautiously straightened her back, each moment braced against a pain that never came, until she was standing up straight, looking right into Jesus’ smiling eyes.

Now if this story were a movie, it’s at this point that we hear the ominous, foreboding music. Depending on your age, you might hear heavy music out of an old Western, or maybe Star Wars, or maybe even one of the Jason Bourne movies, but whatever soundtrack you hear in your head, you know this music means that the bad guy is about to appear, and that’s just what happens. In this case, it’s the leader of the synagogue, who’s irate that this healing took place on the Sabbath.

Almost every time a religious leader shows up in a gospel story, they’re the villain, which should give pause to every Presbyterian minister and elder, and this story is no exception to that rule. According to this religious leader’s interpretation of the scriptures, of the Law, healing was defined as work, and so it was considered forbidden on the Sabbath, which was supposed to be a day of rest and giving thanks to God, and when work of any kind was prohibited. So he steps in to put a stop to this outrage. And by the way, ladies, did you notice what he did? Or was it so subtle that it went by unnoticed? When this leader of the synagogue step up to criticize what was going on, he didn’t criticize Jesus, the guy who’d actually done the healing. He did what I suppose the men always did – he blamed the woman! And all she’d actually done was just show up for the day. Typical, I suppose.

In fairness to the leader of the synagogue, he really was just trying to preserve the scriptural teachings and understandings that he’d internalized since he was a young child, and which had been the norm for some 1,500-odd years at that time. He was simply trying to do the right thing, based on what he’d always been taught. But Jesus told him that God’s actual intention behind a Sabbath day of rest was something very different, something much bigger than that understanding – and that in trying to uphold the letter of the Law that strictly, that rigorously, instead of listening for its spirit, the religious leaders had actually ended up missing almost the whole point. In a way, the leader of the synagogue was suffering from a limiting impairment just as much as the woman. The comfortable familiarity and acceptance of his limited way of seeing things had made it just as hard for him to imagine any other kind of reality, any “new normal,” as it was for her.

We can get caught in the same kind of thing, too. We can become set in our ways, our familiar habits and thought patterns and expectations creating a default “normal” for us, a set way of seeing and understanding and making sense of our lives. And when something happens to challenge or question those familiar defaults, it can be just as unsettling for us as it was for the woman in the story and the leader of the synagogue. 

But whether we like it or not, God seems to always be calling us to something new, something different; to some broader, fuller way of understanding the Kingdom of God and what it means to live as its people. This is true for us as individuals, in our personal lives of faith, and it’s definitely true for us together, as this community of faith.

So maybe sometime this week, just as a thought exercise, I want to suggest this: Think about some of the habits or assumptions that you hold onto that help to define your default “normal.”   It’s OK, you can start out identifying simple little things, maybe even insignificant things in the grand scheme of things, just to get the ball rolling. Maybe it’s something like that fact that every morning, when you step into the shower, you always start by washing your left arm. Or maybe it’s that every morning, as you’re making your instant oatmeal, you have to shake the measuring cup twelve times – not eleven, not thirteen – to get all the excess water out of it. And yes, if you’re wondering, I just shared two little examples of my own habits and weirdness with you.  So see, I got the ball rolling; now you try it. But after you think of the little things, maybe think about the more serious things, too. Are there default thoughts or actions that are limiting your experience of the fullness of God’s creation and God’s will for your life? Are there similar self-limiting things that we can identify in the life of the church? And then, if we can identify those limiting things, can we, with God’s help, be willing to accept a new normal?

By now, you’ve figured out that’s why I asked you to move from your normal seats this morning, and to sit somewhere you normally never would. It’s just a very small reminder to us to always be open to hearing and experiencing the Kingdom of God from a different vantage point, from a different eye level. And to always be open to new, exciting possibilities that God has in store for us, and for the church, as God moves us forward.

Just remember, if it was a little discomforting to move your seats this morning, it was discomforting for the woman in our story to move from her seat, too. But look at the new opportunities that were opened up for her because she did. Realize that just because Jesus called her to move out of her seat, and she did, we’re still talking about her, and learning from her, 2,000 years later. Just imagine what seemingly small thing might God be calling us toward that might ultimately cause someone to be talking about us, 2,000 years from now?

Thanks be to God.