No Boundaries

No Boundaries

Grace United Methodist Church

August 22, 2010

Luke 13: 10-17 (NRSV)

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And 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. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But 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.” 15But 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? 16And 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?” 17When 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.

A family from a remote area was making their first visit to a big city. They checked into a grand hotel and stood in amazement at the impressive sight. Leaving the reception desk they came to the elevator entrance. They’d never seen an elevator before, and just stared at it, unable to figure out what it was for. An old lady hobbled towards the elevator and went inside.
The door closed. About a minute later, the door opened and out came a stunningly good-looking young woman. Dad couldn’t stop staring. Without turning his head he patted his son’s arm and said, “Go get your mother, son.”

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of us would love to “get a makeover;” to step into an elevator and step back out a new person – younger, thinner, happier, more beautiful or handsome. The bent-over woman in today’s reading was probably feeling the same way. But quite often, there is more to being bent over than a simple physical affliction. Jesus recognizes this, and so his healing work in the synagogue on that Sabbath day did more than just straighten the back of this woman who had been bent-over for 18 years; he healed the infirmity of her spirit. And I think we all know there are a lot of things that can bend our spirit!

Anne O’Brien Prince and Jeremy Prince moved from Ireland to Massachusetts with their five kids last year, in part, so that their children could “experience America.” One of the Prince children was 15-year-old Phoebe, to whom, it seems, America did not give a very kind welcome. Prosecutors say that witness accounts paint an “intolerable” campaign of insults, humiliation and, in the final days of Phoebe’s life—threats. Witnesses say that Phoebe was so terrified she went to school administrators because “she was scared and wanted to go home,” but later told a friend that no action would be taken on her behalf. Court papers describe what investigators indicate was a pattern of abusive taunts, text messages, Facebook postings, threats, and efforts to corner Phoebe, whose reactions are described as fearful, panicked and distraught. Phoebe is quoted as telling a friend on January 13th of this year, one day before she committed suicide, that “school has been close to intolerable lately.” The day Phoebe killed herself one student allegedly threw an energy drink at her from a moving car, calling her names and laughing. This apparently was the last straw for Phoebe, because her younger sister found her hanging in the stairwell of her home later that day. I think it’s safe to say that young Phoebe Prince was a “bent over woman.” Although her principal described her as “smart and charming,” the taunts from her peers bent her and bent her until she finally broke.

I fear there are a lot of us who are walking through this life “bent over.” Perhaps we are bent because of some physical ailment, but it may be something more like what Phoebe experienced. Or maybe it’s extra stress on the job, or trouble at home, or a particularly heavy financial burden. We can’t fathom all the different burdens of this world that would bend our spirits, and we don’t know what caused this woman in our Gospel lesson to have a bowed back. All we know is that it was severe and she had it for 18 years! For 18 years she had a very, unpleasant – shall we say? – perspective on life. She had been walking around looking at passing feet. She couldn’t see the smiles on the faces of strangers passing her by. She couldn’t see the green trees in the meadow.

One Sabbath day she entered the synagogue, and in all likelihood, she was doing nothing whatsoever to attract attention to herself. She probably slipped in through the side door, quietly, unobtrusively. Jesus was teaching the people, and then he looked off to one side, or up in the balcony and saw that woman come in with her peculiar, crippled, bent-over walk. Jesus interrupted his lesson, then and there, and invited the woman to come over to him. This must have come as quite a surprise to the woman; after-all, no one, perhaps, had paid her much attention for a long time. “Could it be?” she may have asked herself. “Is he really speaking to me?” So, she scurries forward in response to Jesus’ command—what else is she to do? Then Jesus’ voice rings out with a note of authority that no one could miss: “‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ [And w]hen he put his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

Jesus didn’t think twice about what he was doing. He saw a woman who was bent over, and he made her well. It’s sad that, after Jesus heals the woman, the leader of the synagogue is indignant. His face turns red, his jowls begin to quake, and playing to the crowd he has a few choice words for Jesus. “It is the Sabbath! No one is supposed to work on the Sabbath!” And Jesus’ response? One translation puts it like this: “You bunch of hypocrites!’ replied Jesus. ‘You would all be quite happy to untie an ox or a donkey from its stall on the Sabbath day and lead it out for a drink! And isn’t it right that this daughter of Abraham, tied up by Satan for eighteen years, should be untied from her chains on a Sabbath day?” And of course, we are told that Jesus’ “opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

For the Pharisees, law observance was of primary importance; it trumped everything! They had set out certain guidelines and expectations about how life should be lived, they followed those guidelines to the letter, and they expected everyone else to do the same! It is no wonder that the leader of the Pharisees gets upset with Jesus when he defies their expectations and heals a woman on the Sabbath…and in the synagogue no less! This leader of the Pharisees understands his role as maintaining proper observance of the Sabbath rather than celebrating the release of the woman from her “weakness.” But the governing law and guidelines of Jesus’ ministry are different from those of the Pharisees. The leader of the synagogue had cited the necessity of keeping the Sabbath, but Jesus emphasized the greater necessity of freeing a human being from whatever crippled, bound, and diminished her. For Jesus, the important thing is not so much meeting certain expectations; in fact, he defies expectations! For Jesus, the important thing is love, sharing God’s love with all people in all walks of life!

Time and time again in the Gospels, Jesus declares that he is on the side of those who are bent over. And as Christ’s church, his hands and feet in the world, we have to be on the side of those who are bent over too! And it’s not even that we’re just on their side. In the case of the woman in the synagogue, she doesn’t even have to seek Jesus out, asking for help. Jesus finds her. And every single incident of Jesus healing on the Sabbath is like that: Jesus sees the person, and Jesus heals the person. Jesus teaches that concern over the suffering of fellow human beings takes precedence over obligations related to keeping the Sabbath. We have “bent-over” people all around us; and Christ calls us to address their need, even if doing so means that we act contrary to certain guidelines and expectations.

How might things have turned out differently for Phoebe Prince if just one person at her school had defended her against the bullies? Look how the bent-over woman stood up straight as soon as Jesus took notice of her and laid his hands on her! For a person bent-double in loneliness, an invitation to church may be the ticket. For a person covered in grief, a compassionate hug may lift the shadow of darkness. For a person drowning in debt, a trip to the grocery store or food bank could provide just the hope and encouragement needed to get back on track.

One of my most favorite Christian songs begins like this, “All who are thirsty/All who are weak/Come to the fountain/Dip your heart in the stream of life.”[1] God in Christ Jesus offers to all persons the healing touch of his love. We don’t deserve it, and there’s no way we can earn it. Christ sees the afflictions of this world, and he reaches out his hand in a healing touch. As Christians, part of being hospitable is participating in this healing work of Christ. Our task is not to change people, but simply to extend the healing hand of Christ into a hurting world. Because, you see, the healings wrought by Jesus are sign and promise of deeper health. And God is the healer, the Great Physician, who restores our souls.

We can be like the Pharisees. We can build boundaries in all aspects of our lives. We can place ultimate importance on following all the rules and regulations; on maintaining the status quo and not “rocking the boat.” And we can end up living bitter and lonely lives as a result. Or we can live our lives more like Jesus did; always alert to the needs of the people around him and ready to meet those needs at a moment’s notice. We can touch the unclean woman, we can invite the tax collectors and sinners over for dinner, and we can heal the burdened on the Sabbath. We can be hospitable in the world-shaking way that Jesus was hospitable. And when we do this we will find ourselves growing as disciples of Jesus Christ, joyous laborers in the harvest field, helping to tear down the boundaries that bend our spirits and keep so many from entering the kingdom of God. Then we will know what it is to truly love and be loved.

[1] Kutless, “All Who Are Thirsty”

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