Monday, August 26, 2013

14th Sunday after Pentecost

Having just moved house, I know what it means to have a pain in the neck.  And the back … after a week of fetching and lifting and carrying I woke one morning to the realisation that I couldn't turn my head and spent most of the day shuffling around and looking at the floor.

Chronic physical pain is often experienced by people who live with it as a great weight, almost literally as a crushing load.  Doctors of course can prescribe pain-killers and anti-inflammatories, but intriguingly one of the vital aspects of the treatment for a person in chronic pain is to learn how to manage and live with the pain.  A colleague and friend, the Fransciscan Anglican priest Fr Ted Witham, who has himself lived with chronic pain for many years, published a book a few years ago entitled 'Living well with chronic pain: 12 spiritual steps to manage chronic pain'.  Like the 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, Fr Ted came up with a program that builds a person's capacity to understand, accept, work through and live with whatever their ailment or condition may be. Not the ability to destroy or overpower, but to overcome through understanding your inner self and how it relates to what you feel.  Fr Ted writes of the challenge of living well with physical pain as being like the challenge of climbing a mountain – the choice he makes to lift his attention away from the unremitting pain to see the wonder and beauty of life.  Having read some grateful responses to Ted's book it is clear his experience has been a practical inspiration to many. [1]

What keeps people bent over, of course, is not always physical pain.  Jesus, in this story describes the woman as 'pressed down, held bound by Satan'.  We all, I think, can recognise that condition when we see it – a person whose face reveals the weight of years of loneliness or disappointment or chronic anxiety or depression – or the crushing hurt of a new and painful experience: divorce; the loss of a loved one; financial worries.  People who know the pain and oppression of being marginalized and alone in the middle of a crowded city, or worse, within the church itself.  To be bent over is to be loaded down, oppressed or held down by realities that dominate and limit who we are and who we can be.

You see, today's Gospel story isn't only – or even mainly - about healing somebody who is sick – we miss the point if we start speculating on whether this poor woman has got osteoporosis and why exactly Luke tells us she's been like this for 18 years (which given the life expectancy back then would be about half a lifetime) – it's actually a story about God's people being set free from what imprisons them.

I think maybe the first thing to notice is that when Jesus comes across this woman in the synagogue – in the middle of God's faithful people - she herself doesn't approach Jesus, she doesn't expect anything from him, even though she's in the synagogue to worship the God who desires human flourishing and wholeness.  This woman challenges us, because if we're honest we recognise her.  The faithful member of God's Church who has spent half her life isolated, weakened and bent over – unable to take any initiative until Jesus takes the initiative for her.  Jesus calls her over to him and touches her – so the first thing this story tells us is that being God's people means we have to be prepared to take the initiative.  If this isn't a place where people reach out and touch one another, if people can come here and still be bent over and alone and in pain, then how do we dare say anything at all about the compassion of God? 

The second thing is this, that for half her life this woman has been known by a false name.  She's been 'the crippled woman', the one who can only see other people's feet because she's bent so far over.  Nobody looks at her face, she has become less of an individual, she has come to be defined not by who she is but by her limitations.  But Jesus gives her a name, in fact, Jesus gives her back her true name, he calls her, 'daughter of Abraham', and by calling her that he gives her back her true identity as a child of God and as a member of God's family.  This actually is the difference between healing and just curing.  To be cured might relieve you of your physical complaint - healing is about being set free from what confines you, for example from a negative self image or a false sense of shame that can twist a person's life out of shape, and restores you to your true identity.  Healing, literally, is about unbending people, about setting women and men free from labels that imprison them, or from decades of fear or failure.  Being God's people means knowing ourselves and one another by our true names.

And the third thing, of course, is that Jesus sets this woman free on the Sabbath.  Actually, you read through Luke's gospel in particular, and you'd be forgiven for thinking Jesus only ever healed people on the Sabbath.  It's one of the things he gets into trouble for time and time again.  And in fact Jesus' argument back to the synagogue official about untying your donkey on the Sabbath to give it water doesn't sound at first like one of his finest come-backs.  If she's had this curvature of the spine or whatever it was for 18 years, another day wouldn't have hurt – whereas of course donkeys need water every day of the week.

Except that it's not really about a medical cure, it's about setting God's people free.  The synagogue official uses the Greek word therapeuo, to cure, but Jesus uses the word apoluo, to liberate, both for the woman and the donkey – the point he's actually making is that the Sabbath is a day for setting free.  If you happen to be Jewish, you understand that point straight away – because we were slaves in Egypt until God set us free – that's who we are, and that's who God is.  The Jewish understanding of God is of a divine rescuer setting people free: free from slavery in Egypt, free from captivity in Babylon, free from drudgery and toil for at least one day every week.  So Jesus is really saying to this religious leader, 'you're a clever sort of chap, you know very well that the Sabbath is the best day of the whole week for this sort of caper, because that's what God is like - what delights God best of all is setting people free'.

Actually, in our Christian tradition one of our less attractive tendencies is to poke fun at the Pharisees and the scribes and lawyers in the Gospels – as though they're a sort of religious equivalent of the Keystone Cops – perhaps forgetting the rich vein of Judaism that underlies our own religion and that Jesus himself was a rabbi who scrupulously observed the Torah – we poke fun at the hapless religious leaders who never get the better of Jesus in an argument but forget sometimes that we're really not all that different – in fact if you've spent your life believing that the Pharisees and Sadducees and synagogue leaders back in Jesus' day were uptight, judgmental, closed-minded, moralistic, religious fanatics – the sobering reality is that many people outside the Church see those of us who claim to be Christians the same way.

But of course the truth of Jesus' scandalous good news is that women and men don't have to do anything at all to earn God's love and God's forgiveness because it's absolutely gratuitous, no strings attached – it's as though the message that God has set us free to be ourselves scares us so much that we have to work extra hard at tying ourselves up in knots again.

We do put conditions and limits on the grace of God, that's the gist of it when we argue that we've got the right way of interpreting Scripture and try to bully others who disagree with us.  When we set up ways of controlling how God's people can worship, who is acceptable and who isn't; when we try to set limits to what is properly Anglican and what isn't – when, in other words, we forget that it's God's Holy Spirit that inspires and directs the Church and start to think it's us.  When we start to think we come to Church to be nurtured and fed, and forget that we're also called to nurture and to feed the ones on either side of us.  When we forget that the very main business of being the Church is to be a place where people can be set free, where people can find themselves accepted and loved, and where people can learn to let go of whatever has been keeping them bent over.  And in the process maybe we forget that we – like this synagogue official – are a bit bent over ourselves, and what Jesus really wants to do for us is to set us free.

The Sabbath is the very best day of the week to do it.  And the very best place is right here.