Saturday, August 20, 2016

14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year C

Bent Out of Shape

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrew 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

After eighteen years of being bent over in pain, the woman could scarcely remember any other way of seeing the world. To see anything but the ground, she had to cock her head like a bird. Even that twisting of her head caused enormous pain. What an agony it was to be “unable to stand up straight”, to be unable to look another person in the eye. She went as usual on the Sabbath to the synagogue to worship, but this time there was a special excitement in the place. A Galilean preacher and prophet, Jesus, had arrived in town and would be teaching there. She had heard stories about him – not only about his teachings about God’s grace, but about how he went about healing the sick. She tried not to get her hopes up. After all, her life had been one disappointment after another.

As she entered the synagogue, the place was buzzing with excitement, but a hush fell over the place as soon as Jesus began to speak. Then he caught her eye – not an easy thing to do. He had to bend over and turn his head to see into her face. The invitation was unmistakeable. “Come up here with me!” he said to her. Still bent nearly double, she made her way with him to the front of the synagogue.

“Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” Jesus said to her. He put his hands on her broken, bent body. She felt power surging through her. She straightened her back and stood tall for the first time in years. “Praise God!” she said as the whole crowd rose to their feet in stunned silence.

It did not last long. The silence quickly changed to accusations against Jesus. The leader of the synagogue was totally bent out of shape by Jesus’ compassion. “You broke the law,” he said, accusingly. “The law prohibits you from healing on the Sabbath. This woman could have waited until tomorrow to be healed. She is in no imminent danger.” The crowd murmured their consent. The law is the law after all.

“You hypocrites!” Jesus argued. “The law allows people to provide for their animals on the Sabbath. If you can be merciful to an animal, should you not be even more merciful to a human being? Don’t you understand? The liberating power of God cannot wait. What better day to bring freedom than on the Sabbath? To liberate this woman fulfills the purpose of the Sabbath.” Jesus is not saying the law has no merit. Jesus is saying that compassion and mercy take precedence, even over the law.

We can so easily get bent out of shape. Perhaps we suffer from chronic pain or sickness. Or we are bent over with all the worries and cares of life. Or we suffer under a burden of oppression. Or we cannot sense that God could possibly forgive us for the wrongs that we have committed in our lives. Or we are just weary of all that life has thrown at us.

And it is not just physical ailments that cripple us. We can be spiritually blind, spiritually sick, spiritually doubled over. When we are, everything becomes difficult for us. We get so bent out of shape that we cannot relate to God or to our neighbours. We cannot understand the great breadth of God’s loving compassion. We cannot fathom that God’s grace is freely given to us. We think it is earned by following the letter of the law. We dot our I’s and cross our T’s and become indignant when someone we deem unworthy receives God’s grace. We need to get our faith straightened out. We need to get right with God.

Religious systems get bent out of shape. You do not have to look very far to see the dysfunction in the religious system of Jesus’ day. But then we do not need to look very far to see it in our own faith communities. Many see God as the one who upholds the rules and wreaks havoc on those who disobey. It is the kind of thinking that suggests that sickness is punishment from God. It is the kind of thinking that causes homophobia, sexism, racism. It is the kind of thinking that blames victims. For me the real point of the healing of this woman is that God is not a rule maker who takes vengeance on us for every little misdemeanour in our lives. God is the lover who bends over backwards to show us how to live, to help in our transformation as the people of God.

Congregations – good, well-meaning church people – can be just as rigid in their thinking. They can get bent out of shape over the liturgy not being exactly as they want it. Or the clergy not doing things the way they think they should be done. Or members of the congregation who do not seem to them to be “Christian’ in their behaviour.

I share with you a joke I heard not long ago. A man, obviously under the influence of alcohol entered a church just in time for the service. The sidesperson on duty rather reluctantly showed him to a seat near the back. He declined and headed up to the front seat right under the pulpit. As the priest launched into the sermon, the man really got into the spirit of things. “Amen!” he shouted as loudly as he could. “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” after almost every word the preacher uttered. After a few glaring looks from the preacher, the sidesperson came forward to where the man was sitting.

“You’re making too much noise!” he said to him, and taking him by the arm he escorted him out of the church.

“Well brother! I’ve got the Holy Spirit!” the man shouted.

“You didn’t get it here, so you’ve got to leave!”

The shame of rigid religion is that in God’ name it often does no good. The result, in fact is that it does real harm. Jesus models the kind of compassionate action to which a genuine relationship to God should direct our lives. God’s love does not play by the rules of formal religion. Rules do not regulate God.

The writer of Hebrews is reflecting on that same view. He contrasts the Old Testament image of God with the Christian view. He is thinking of the events that occurred on Mount Sinai as Moses received the law. It presents a terrifying image of God, a threatening picture in stark contrast to what is to come. That image of God as judge gives way to the figure of Jesus, one that suggests familiarity, support, welcome, even intimacy. We come to the mountain, not to be stoned to death, but to a place of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of love. Grace has taken over where trembling, terrifying fear once occupied the hearts of men and women in their relationship to God. That allows us to enter the holiest of places without fear.

Jesus’ primary concern was that we should love and care for one another. That changes everything. It is no longer just about following rules. It is about transforming God’s world. It is about love. Love heals. Love forgives. Love sets us free to be everything that God calls us to be. That is amazing grace. So let us bend over backwards to live with a sense of God’s great compassion and love.

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