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.
The woman in today’s gospel was an outcast from her community. Her physical ailment, a horrific bending of her spine, left her stooped over and different from everyone in the village in which she lived. Others had the ability to look up and see God’s creation, to look forward and see where they were going, or to gaze into the eyes of those whom they loved. She could not and all she could do was cast her eyes down at the ground. She was not only defeated physically, she was defeated emotionally and spiritually as well. The reality of her existence probably made it impossible to have any sense of dignity or value. The symbolism of her physical ailment is rich with meaning. How many of us have experienced times in our lives when we have been unable to look forward, to look up? How many of us have said I’m not good enough, I’m not worthy, I’m broken, I’ve done so much that I can’t face it. Eyes turned down, spirit broken, life bound in a prison of devalued humanity.
This cycle of devalued humanity is a symptom of the fallen order of God’s creation. God’s relational intention is fully revealed through the unfathomable love and grace of God towards God’s creation, and the righteous nature of the sisterhood /brotherhood of all of God’s creatures. The heart of God’s relational plan for creation is found in Christ’s summary of the law, “Love God with all that we are, and love each other as self.” When we fail to welcome and accept others, people wind up living in a system of detachment and loneliness, and they feel that they are not a part of the community around them. When attitude and practices prevail that determine who’s welcome and who’s not, people are in bondage to a plight of hopelessness, emptiness, or depression. Regarding Jesus’ healing of the woman on the Sabbath, the leader of the synagogue said to Jesus, “”There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” Delays Delays! He was really saying, “we have our traditions here, we have things we do on this day, don’t come to us with your “turned down eyes, broken spirit, and life bound in a prison of devalued humanity. Come back tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do.” What he was really saying is, “our system of doing things in this community is so important to us, that we can’t let your need for release, get in the way of that.” That’s not the way things have been done in this community of St. David’s.
I believe that we do welcome others into St. David’s and we do accept them as they are. I believe our welcome goes beyond the smile and the handshake. I believe we invite the newcomer to bring their burdens, their brokenness, and their pain. I believe that our fellowship and activities, have no barriers. I believe that our worship is easy to follow and is for the most part, not confusing to the newcomer. Even so, there are some communities out there, which are not as radically welcoming as us. Some demand a certain dress code. Some are not welcoming to children and people of all ages. People at some of these communities won’t leave their seat and commit to the individual across the aisle, who gives every appearance of being new and uneasy in their new surroundings. As hard as it is to believe, there are communities out there like that. But whether radically welcoming or not, we have to remember that the church’s mission is to release others from their bondage.
Stephen Phelps, a Presbyterian pastor asserts in an article from the magazine Interpretation, “When someone ‘suddenly’ appears in the gathering place of a religious community— that is, for the first time in a long time—she or he generally comes as an outcast. For this person, the building itself bears symbolic powers. On the one hand, synagogue, church, or mosque physically indicates that the people within have communication with God. Therefore, what they (the church folk) believe and do will have the power to bend and shape whoever enters.” It is when we gather that we are called to love people more, than that which defines us, and more, than that which may keep others from joining with us. We have to be aware of those things that we may sometimes overlook, that could be barriers to those seeking community. Our commitment to those things that define us, must be the things that open the doors widely for those seeking the love, the solace, the freedom from bondage to which we the church witnesses.
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ communicated to us the ultimate release from the prison of devalued humanity. God accepts us even in our brokenness, God loves us despite our propensity to wonder and walk away, and God desires us despite our lack of desire for God. God through Jesus Christ, accepts us. Our value in the Creator’s eyes is beyond anything we can imagine and for many folks, beyond anything we can accept. The church is called to be a witness of God’s radical acceptance. In all that we are, all that we proclaim, and all that we do, we cannot be satisfied with merely welcoming a few who meet meet criteria, no, we must welcome those whom God welcomes. Our ministry, our mission, our worship, our fellowship, everything that proclaims us as disciples growing in love with Christ, must point to that radical welcome of those hurting, those suffering, those in bondage to the stormy seas of life.
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves, they went out day or night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding areas, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews were trained. The little lifesaving station grew.
Some of the new members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and so poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in an enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they redecorated it beautifully and furnished it as a sort of club. Less of the members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired life boat crews to do this work. The mission of lifesaving was still given lip-service but most were too busy or lacked the necessary commitment to take part in the lifesaving activities personally.
About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boat loads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, some had skin of a different color, some spoke a strange language, and the beautiful new club was considerably messed up. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside. At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal pattern of the club.
But some members insisted that lifesaving was their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the life of all various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did. As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. They evolved into a club and yet another lifesaving station was founded. If you visit the seacoast today you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, but now most of the people drown!*
You may never know when the new person arrives, what brought them. They may be reluctant to come, but when they do, their lives may be broken beyond imagine. Our response has the power to raise them up, to set them free, and to loose them from their bondage. Don’t underestimate what our response can do. Our actions have the power to welcome, heal, and encourage or to defeat and turn away. The risks are high because the seas out there are stormy and treacherous. Because of the risks, we must face the reality, that our discipleship is not about keeping things as they are, it’s about rescuing the least, the lost, and the lonely, by setting them free, as we have been set free.
* Parable of the crude little life-saving station (by Dr. Theodore O. Wedel)