August 25, 2019
Rev. Carla Wilks at Mount Seymour United Church
Last summer for fun and for part of my study leave, I took a week-long continuing education course on an aspect of preaching. It was taught by Archbishop Melissa Skelton, the Anglican bishop of the diocese of New Westminster, which covers most of the Lower Mainland, and she is also the Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Province of BC. It was a really interesting course, and one of the first assignments we had was to randomly be assigned a gospel story, and then tell that story from the perspective of one of the characters in the story. One of the women in my small group of four had the reading that we just heard. She re-wrote it from the perspective of the woman. I found this version, written by Jeannine Brown. It is still written as narrator, but the focus is on the woman’s experience, rather than on Jesus’ actions, as in Luke. It goes like this:
After eighteen years, she could hardly remember any other way of seeing the world. On this particular Sabbath, there was a special excitement at the synagogue, where she regularly went to worship. A Galilean preacher and prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, had arrived in town and would be teaching there. She and the others in town had heard reports about Jesus–how he talked about God’s reign arriving soon and how he healed sick people. She was not sure how many of the rumors to believe, but she was trying not to get her hopes up. Her life already had too many disappointments to count.
When she entered the synagogue, the place was abuzz. As Jesus began to teach, however, the room was hushed. Moments later, his words turned from teaching to invitation. He had caught her eye–no mean feat, given that he had to lean over and incline his head to do so. “Come here,” he said to her. She slowly made her way to the front of the assembly.
What happened next amazed the whole congregation. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When this man, Jesus, spoke those words and put his hands on her broken, bent body, she felt power surge through her. Without hesitation, she straightened her once crooked back. She stood tall and praised her God . . .
Such freedom I hear when I explore this passage from her perspective. Imagine – 18 years – which in those days was half a lifetime – of pain inhibiting her daily health and interactions. She was forced to spend life looking down at the ground, and she couldn’t look people in the eye. Her healing frees her from the burden and pain of her physical limitation, allowing her to feel alive and set free. For the first time in 18 years she can look into her friends’ eyes and look up at the sky. The whole world is now in her line of sight. She can look around at the crowd around her and see Jesus – this teacher who has just given her new life and a new beginning. She may even feel part of the larger group, perhaps for the first time.
And then… the leader of the synagogue addresses the crowd about upholding the Sabbath, thus indirectly reprimanding Jesus for healing on the sabbath. The leader of the synagogue faithfully reads the Torah and understands that the seventh day was set aside as a day of rest. No work was to be done on the sabbath. It was to be a day of rest and renewal, not work.
I can hear in Jesus’ response him saying, what better time to do healing than on the sabbath, to bring freedom and life and renewal to this woman. Seems like a perfectly acceptable Sabbath practice. He reminds them that they would help their animals on the sabbath, so why wouldn’t they take care of a human in need?
At the beginning of the story, the woman is not named. She is just mentioned as a woman with a spirit. But Jesus gives her a name. Jesus calls her a daughter of Abraham, thus including her as an insider in this group of people who are listening to his teachings.
Imagine what this woman might have felt – after feeling so liberated and maybe even a little like she was walking on air with her new-found view of the world, then to hear this from the leader of the synagogue. I imagine that she would have felt instantly shut down, perhaps back to feeling on the margins again.
Jesus counters the leader of the synagogue by explaining that God’s intention for the sabbath is to be free from the burden of work, and to rest. Healing this daughter of Abraham – one of God’s people – on the sabbath frees her and liberates her so that she can truly experience Sabbath time. If the purpose of Sabbath time is also to honour God – Jesus highlights that he is honouring God in this act of compassion on the woman. It is holy work to show compassion on the Sabbath.
God shows up, draws the circle a little wider to let this woman in. Jesus doesn’t reject her, which would appear to be pushing her back to the outside of society… instead he pulls her more deeply into community.
Because Jesus saw her and healed her, this woman is now able to see the world differently. She can see where she is going, she can see what Jesus sees and who Jesus sees and who needs healing like she did. She experienced the mercy, grace and love of God offered without hesitation by Jesus.
Jesus did not allow religious traditions or static rules to get in the way of God’s grace. Jesus operates well within the Jewish tradition of the day – I don’t think he would consider himself a Sabbath breaker – but he is also not one to allow religious traditions to get in the way of people being included in the community and experiencing God’s healing love. Jesus always errs on the side of inclusion and compassion.
What kind of community do we strive to be? Do our practices here at MSUC help us to become that kind of community or get in the way?
When people come here and hear the welcome that we share at the beginning, do they FEEL that welcome through their experience? I have heard yes from the people who are here now – those who have visited and now continue to worship here. People who came here to check us out and never left because this felt like home. They felt like the woman in the scripture that their burdens were lifted and they could raise their hands and look to the sky, praising God for the experience of grace.
It would be interesting to ask the same question of the people who visited us just once and moved along.
Jesus healed the woman by making her feel seen and understood in that crowd. Who are the people in our community who are not being seen?
I had an interesting experience last Sunday after church. During the summer, you may have noticed that a few of the songs are the same throughout the service. This is something we typically do seasonally, or throughout a series. I had a request last Sunday to please not sing that closing song again because they really didn’t like it. I can’t remember if they actually said please – it may have been slightly stronger language than that. And no – I’m not going to tell you who it was. So I thought well, I like the song, but no big deal to me to change it, if it is really impacting people’s worship experience. But then I walked away from that conversation, and the very next group of people I talked to told me how much they LOVE that last song, and how they just LOVE to look around the congregation and see all the joy on their faces and it is just such a wonderful upbeat song that helps us to feel the energy of this place and go out in joy to love and serve, filled with the Spirit of God.
So needless to say… I didn’t change the last hymn. And for those of you who are ready to sing a new song at the end of worship – I think this is the last time you have to sing it for a while – let’s make it count!
Sometimes parts of worship can be like that – provide a block to experiencing the grace of God, but for others, that same part of worship might be the doorway in to experiencing healing and new life.
Is there something in your own life that is getting in the way of you living your best self? Are there some patterns or habits that are preventing you from experiencing the wideness of God’s grace?
Thanks be to God who breaks down barriers, even on the Sabbath, and invites us to stand up and be set free from all that keeps us from living fully.