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)


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.