August 22, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Luke 13:10-17
Now he 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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Sermon: To Do and To Don’t List

In Martinsville, Carl Kearns told the story of his grandmother, who said that a Methodist doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t swear. He asked, well what does a Methodist do?

The leader of the synagogue in today’s story was also a person who apparently defined his religious identity in terms of don’ts – in this case, don’t work on the Sabbath.

Let’s consider the details of the story for a moment.

The key elements are Jesus, a woman, a leader of the synagogue, and the Sabbath.

This is one of a whole series of stories in Luke and all four Gospels in which Jesus goes against the social traditions of his day to emphasize the special worth of women, in this case by curing her and speaking of her with honor as a daughter of Abraham.

In a modern context this story has been used as a theme to recruit church involvement in domestic violence programs, from prevention to establishing safe houses to seeking stronger legislation protecting the rights of women and all victims of domestic violence. The woman in our story becomes a symbol of every woman who is abused, controlled, and isolated, and the healing of Jesus becomes that necessary act of outside intervention that brings about change and new life.

I suppose with our mission trip recently returned from the Heifer Project farm, where they did quite a bit of back-breaking work that would be the daily routine in many developing nations – much of that work done by women and children – they might have a different perspective on the bent-over woman. Perhaps they would think of those who have to walk a mile or more to find water and bring it home on their heads and shoulders, and they could suggest ways that the church, through Heifer Project, could act to unburden them and help them stand straight and tall. The bent over woman could easily represent for us all the people of the world whose labor is hard and tears them down and leads to early death.

But I would like to take a little different view of the bent over woman, and see her even more broadly because of the setting of this story – in a synagogue, in a religious institution, the focal point of a dispute between two schools of thought, one represented by Jesus and the other by the leader of the synagogue.

Jesus has a mission, and his mission is a list of dos, not a list of don’ts. According to Luke, he expressed his mission clearly at the very outset of his ministry:
Luke 4:16-19 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In a word, his ministry is about liberation – freedom.

To the leader of the synagogue, the Sabbath was all about don’ts – don’t do this, don’t do that. I’m sure he took his clue from the ten commandments where it says: Exodus 20:8-11Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

But, like so many things in the bible, there is another description of the origin of the Sabbath, and this is in the book of Deuteronomy:
Deuteronomy 5:12-15 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

So the basis of the Sabbath is not God resting on the seventh day, but God liberating the people from slavery in Egypt. And if liberation is the foundation of the Sabbath, what better way to celebrate it than to set the bent over woman free from her affliction.

Another important detail of the story that we might note is that Jesus didn’t just heal the woman and then try and make nice with the leader of the synagogue when he was challenged for his action – he didn’t try and small talk this big-shot or smooth things over. No, Jesus called him a hypocrite and shamed him by showing the glaring perversion of values that his religious practices represented. And his sarcastic, pointed words put his opponents to shame, setting up a conflict that would follow him to the cross.

Jesus understood that religion is a two edged sword. When faith is nurtured in a liberating spirit it can be a great force for good; but when it is twisted and nurtured in a spirit of control and fear, then it bends people over and keeps them from standing tall and claiming their rightful place as children of God in God’s world.

The struggle between these uses and abuses of religion continue today. What are the warning signs that religion has been possessed by a crippling spirit and must be resisted at all costs?

Religion is reduced to a set of rules and restrictions rather than a dynamic challenge to compassion and justice.

Religion becomes a way to define “us” and “them” rather than an awakening to the reality that we are all children of God and brothers and sisters in God’s sight.

Religion becomes like a game of lifeboat, or survivor – winners and losers; who will get in the lifeboat, not who will work to keep the ship afloat?

This results in a religion which allows us to live in a world where some feast and some starve; where some have mansions on the beach while some scratch the dirt for their daily bread. It is a religion which cripples and bends us over so we cannot lift up our heads and stand tall in the light of the gospel and the glory of God. We then, are the bent over woman, and today, on this Sabbath, we come to Jesus to be healed.

I’d like to close with a poem by Irene Zimmerman, OSF, poet-in-residence at St. Joseph Retreat in Bailey's Harbor, Wisconsin and a School Sister of Saint Francis for fifty years.

Though long stripped
of forwardness,
she came forward, nonetheless,
when Jesus summoned her.

“Woman, you are free
of your infirmity,” he said.

The leader of the synagogue
worked himself into a sweat
as her tried to bend the Sabbath
and the woman back in place.

But she stood up straight and let
God’s glory touch her face. Amen.

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