Interrupted by Grace
The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – August 21, 2016 – Proper 16, Year C: Luke 13:10-17
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
I’m betting that most of us hear this gospel and know that we stand rather firmly with Jesus on this one. Frankly, we can even be a little smug about it so let’s take a minute or two and celebrate. We have plenty of room for things like healing on the Sabbath. It’s just not very often that you hear an Episcopalian be too literal with their interpretation of Scripture or religious law! Unlike other gospel stories, this one is not a trap we tend to fall into very often. Given the choice between healing on the Sabbath or abiding by the strict keeping of the Sabbath as laid out in religious commandment – we’d go with healing on the Sabbath every time. Hands down. And frankly, faithfully, good for us.
Now this approach to faith is a gift we have to give the larger Body because occasionally (maybe you’ve run in to this here and there,) the Body can get stuck on particular passages of Scripture that if taken literally actually conflict with the larger meaning or intent of what we believe God is trying to speak. To use technical terms (and to apply my take to such situations) we help the Body avoid exegetical, hermeneutical disasters. Which is exactly what Jesus was getting at in the synagogue that day.
To review: There was a woman present who had been crippled for eighteen years. She was, “bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight,” Luke tells us. And so when Jesus saw her, he called out, “Woman you are set free from your ailment.” He laid his hands on her and she “immediately stood up straight and began praising God.”
But not everybody was praising God! The leader of the synagogue was “indignant” (“Boo!” we say.) Jesus had cured on the Sabbath and so the leader of the synagogue was telling the crowds to remember that there are six days on which to work, to do things, including healing and not on the Sabbath. No work was to be done on the Sabbath and healing was actually an action that crossed that line. Jesus, on the other hand, was offering a different interpretation, was holding up a bigger picture of God’s hopes for God’s people – he proclaimed that such opportunities for healing needed to always be taken regardless of time or place. Those opportunities trumped a literal reading of the law.
And we seem to get that by virtue of our approach to Scripture and tradition. Episcopalians allow for experience, reason, and the presence of the Spirit to guide our interpretative efforts and we’ve offered this gift of ours (at least we see it as gift) through conversations on issues of social justice. Women speaking in church is one example. LGBT issues another. Slavery another. We know there are interpretations of Scripture and tradition that if taken literally can actually get in the way of healing rather than enable it. And I can preach for hours on that. (In fact if you add it up, over time I have preached on hours of all of that. So see me after church if you want more.) For now, suffice it to say that we’re pretty good at this one! And that’s something to celebrate, something to claim, something to share. We as Episcopalians can be very Christ-like when it comes to breaking the Body open to healing that comes in ways that literal interpretations of Scripture or religious law would block. So good for us.
However, we have do have something to learn here. You knew it was coming. Here we go. . .
While we can prayerfully, mindfully, faithfully work our way through Scripture and tradition to make room for a larger wholeness to happen, there are things that we as a people are not so good at letting go of in order to allow for another or even ourselves to heal. Truth is, we have our idols too.
One of the most common conversations I have with people (including myself) has to do with how hard it is to find time to take care of ourselves. We’re good with Jesus breaking Sabbath, or making Sabbath in order to heal “a broken person,” but we’re bad at breaking in to our own schedules to make time to allow ourselves to heal or rest or even pause. I speak from experience here, people. We’re ok breaking with religious code in order to make room for “the other,” but we’re not very good at breaking in to our days in order to simply be with one another, or invest our whole selves in truly reconciling, genuinely relational sorts of efforts. I think it’s true institutionally, communally too. It’s not so hard for us when the healing needs of another knock on the doors of our church, but when the healing needs of another demand time, or the financial needs of another challenge our personal life plans, or the justice needs of a people poke at our own personal sense of security, or even (hypothetically or not) requests from neighbors put a pause on our plans for more parking – which will happen but in a matter of weeks not days . . . Now that’s all some pretty hard stuff.
But all of that is related to today’s story. Healing takes time. And the need for our healing and the healing of this world interrupts the best laid plans. The leader of the synagogue knew when and how healing should happen. And he knew what Sabbath was for. He had the timing down and the vision down and his tradition was very clear about the means by which they were going to get to that holy promised land. And we fall in to that trap often, individually and institutionally too.
But in the gospel story, Jesus came and in some ways what he said and says today is that the time is now, the time is always now. (How Sabbath is that when you get right down to it?) The time is now for healing, for rest, for reconciliation – so let it in. The time is now for being good neighbors, for listening and responding to the actual, practical needs of “the other,” so let them in. The time is now for letting go of whatever it is that gets in the way of the larger healing to which God is calling us all. Jesus created the time and the space for the holy work of God to be done in that place, among those people, within their means, at a pace that interrupted their plans but saved their lives.
And the same is true for us.
A quick story before I close. It comes from the Olympics. (You didn’t think we’d get through an Olympics without at least one sermon reference did you?) This story comes from a qualifying race in the women’s 5000 meters. Maybe you heard about or even watched it play out. Here’s what happened. American Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealander Nicki Hamblin were running with about 2000 meters left in the race. So they’d just gotten over half way when D’Agostino clipped Hamblin from behind, and they both went sprawling. Hamblin fell hard on her shoulder and while D’Agostino got up pretty quickly, Hamblin did not. And it looked like Hamblin was out. But then an amazing thing happened. D’Agostino helped her up. Now granted it was the right thing to do, but it sort of broke code with how athletic endeavors are supposed to go, right? Instead of moving on, D’Agostino stopped, helped Hamblin up, literally lifting her, and getting her back on her feet. And they were both able to keep going.
Until D’Agostino couldn’t run because something was wrong with her knee and she stopped. But instead of going on with her race, Hamblin then paused and helped D’Agostino. What? “We can do this! Stand up!” they told each other. Again, breaking all unspoken, and some actually written rules of the track not to mention setting records for the slowest 5000 meter races ever run. And yet they both crossed the finish line. And Hamblin, when she was interviewed about the whole experience, said that years from now when she talks about her Olympic days, this is the story she will tell: someone stopped their race, paused, picked me up, and helped me carry on.
Now if you are just back from pilgrimage, this story probably makes perfect sense. ‘Get up and finish’ might as well be a motto of those who travel (especially by foot) to a holy destination. And one of the themes of pilgrimage was essentially “the time is now.” Your intention was to walk, to search and to heal, together every day, every step of the way. You had a destination in mind but the only way to get there was with the help of each other and others who were willing to stop and allow their own lives to be interrupted making room for yours. You had from what I can tell a very meaningful experience of this way of being in the world – the give and take of what intentional discovery and healing looks like. We look forward to hearing more from you all.
It’s the interruption in this gospel story that has something to teach us. May we open ourselves to the surprising ways in which God breaks in, letting go of all that stands in the way. “You are set free,” Jesus tells us, “You are free.”