Getting Things Straightened Up

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
August 14, 2016

Luke 13: 10-17 (CEB)
Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. 12When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” 13He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.

14The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”

15The Lord replied, “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? 16Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.

I experienced something this week that I have never experienced before. I watched and really understood for the first time some of the profound effects of grief in our lives because I spent most of this week with my grieving husband and his grieving family. I’ve lost all four of my grandparents in my lifetime. I remember learning of each of their deaths, and attending each of their funerals. There have been others—great aunts and uncles, colleagues, and so on. I’ve officiated a couple dozen funerals at least. But I haven’t lost a parent. And after my father-in-law’s death a little over a week ago, I started to see how much more profound is the grief that grips us when our loss is a parent; and I can only imagine that it must be similar with the death of a spouse, or a child.

The thing about such grief is that it completely overtakes us, doesn’t it? It frays our nerves. It stresses us out. It sends us into depression. It weakens our immune system. It makes us hyper-sensitive, and even hyper-emotional. We act in ways we wouldn’t otherwise act. We say things we wouldn’t otherwise say. It’s not really that we are changed, but we are facing the reality of changed circumstances; a life that will never be quite the same again because someone we have loved, someone who has been an important part of our life, is not longer with us. Grief like this affects us in such a way that it changes our outlook on life, at least for a time. You might say that it makes us feel a lost, or even broken. And sometimes such life circumstances, grief, or illness, or otherwise, can affect our lives for months, even years. There are so many hardships in this life that bend our bodies and souls, sometimes nearly to a breaking point. Like the woman described in this morning’s gospel reading, I believe there are many of us who are walking through this life “bent over.”

The thing about the healing of this woman in the synagogue is that if we don’t look closely at Luke’s account, we might think that Jesus healed her of something like osteoporosis, or some other physical disease of the spine. While that is certainly a possibility, it’s not what Luke is telling us. The seventeenth century translation says the woman was “bowed by a spirit of infirmity”—which suggests a spiritual problem rather than a physical one. The more modern New English Bible translates the Greek by saying, she was “possessed by a spirit that had crippled her.” J.B. Philips’ translation cuts to the heart by saying that for eighteen years the woman had been doubled over from some “psychological cause.” But what could the problem be? What psychological or spiritual crisis could have this woman bent over for nearly two decades?

Well, we know it might have been grief, but there are so many other possibilities as well. Maybe somebody had persistently abused her, verbally or physically. Perhaps she had been called so many bad names that she had come to own those names—bending from their pressure. Or maybe she had some twisted up emotions that communicated themselves to her body, and she found she couldn’t get herself straight.

Have you ever been “bent over”? Perhaps you feel that way now. The pressures of this world and the realities of this life can take a toll on the psyche. Excessive worrying can weigh on us heavily. Sometimes the most crippling disabilities are those of the spirit; the doubts and insecurities that keep us paralyzed, unable to act, that prevent us from realizing our fullest potential as God-created and God-loved beings. Guilt can also cause backs to bend, as can poverty, or having too much money. Some people are worn out by worrying that somebody is going to steal their stuff. They are worn out by their stuff; buying it, cleaning it, polishing it, and storing it.

The fact of the matter is, there are any number of issues that might have been causing this woman great anguish, bending her spirit. Frankly, we just don’t know what the psychological cause was that caused the 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 been doubled over, probably in a lot of pain, forced to stare at the dirt. She had been walking around looking at passing feet. What a depressing perspective on life! She couldn’t see the smiles on the faces of strangers passing her by. She couldn’t see the green trees in the meadow.

Then, 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. He interrupted his lesson, then and there, and invited the woman to come over. This summons most certainly would have surprised 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 sickness.’ [Then] he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.”

Now, I want you to think for a minute about what Jesus did not do. Notice that Jesus did not say, “I have solved your problem.” He says that he has set her free from the burden that caused it. Whatever it was that was driving her down, Jesus enabled her to overcome it, to live through it, to have victory over it! And this is the way it is with Christ. Problems still surround us. Injustice continues to rage, but through Christ we are given the power to change our perceptions of ourselves, of others, and of the difficult situations in life. Jesus can really help us get things straightened out! Enormous change can come by instilling a little self-confidence in another person. Adding a bit of hope can brighten up any gloomy room. Faith gives life meaning and color! And through Christ, we can conquer anything that comes our way!

We heard earlier a reading from the 11th chapter of Matthew and Jesus summons, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my you yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Are you feeling this morning as if your life doesn’t amount to much? Christ says, “Come to me…” Are you drowning in grief? Christ say, “Come to me…” Are you loaded down by the heavy weight of guilt? Christ says, “Come to me…” Is the world picking on you, trying to steal your very soul? Are you taunted and hated? Has life been “close to intolerable lately”? Do you find it hard to “straighten up at all”?Jesus sees you. Jesus sees deeply into your heart. Jesus knows what is pressing down on you, bending you. Jesus knows what you are, who you are, and what you have done! And Jesus loves you! And there is nothing that can take Jesus’ love for you away; not anyone nor anything!

You know, it’s really 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 humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.”

Time and time again in the Gospels, Jesus declares that he is on the side of those who are bent over. And in one way or another, I suppose that includes all of us. 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, then Jesus heals the person. Sure, there are many other healings on many other days where the sick person does ask for help, yet on the Sabbath Jesus looks for us. And isn’t that a wonderful image for worship? So often, we think of ourselves as coming to church to find God. Yet, in reality, it’s more about positioning ourselves in such a place and in such a way so that God may find us—and heal us, and give us strength to face whatever weighs us down.

This week, I watched grief hit the home of a family that I love. As a result, wife and children were bent and bowled over, their spirits broken. But here’s the promise we have, under which we live: the Son of God came to this earth, and allowed himself to be broken so that we may be able to stand up and live! Praise be to God!

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