Year C, Proper 16, The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
August 21, 2022
Year C: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
For years there’s been a debate about the value of a liberal arts education. Better to go the route of engineering, business, or some other tangible education that will add value to one’s work life, especially economic power.
Surely, you’re wondering what that has to do with today’s Gospel.
I’m a proud liberal arts graduate. All the courses I took allowed me, at least I hope they did, to think critically about issues from sociological, psychological, political, economic, and even theological perspectives.
Those perspectives take me to a somewhat different reading of today’s Gospel than I might have focused on. Power, conflict, and control, albeit in the context of healing.
Hugh O’Doherty knows something about power and control. Raised in Northern Ireland, he has taught leadership and conflict resolution at the University of Maryland and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. O’Doherty says that all conflict is about power and control; in fact, much other human activity involves power and control in one way or another.
Our gospel reading today bears out this reality.
One of the central issues in today’s Gospel focuses on applying the Sabbath rules – is it forbidden to heal on the seventh day, the day of rest? Ancient Sabbath restrictions did not include a ban on all work. In Luke, we hear about caring for animals on the Sabbath – ensuring they were watered and fed. Acting to save human life was a permitted exception. So, was the compassionate act of Jesus healing the woman with a crippling spirit acceptable on the Sabbath? I’d say it was, and Jesus certainly thought so.
But such a technicality is not the essential point of this encounter between Jesus and religious authority. Instead, it is about power and control and following rules. It is about how the synagogue leader tried to use Sabbath rules to discredit Jesus, regardless of the good he had done. He made a power move against Jesus (it didn’t turn out so well, did it) as he indignantly and repeatedly insisted that Jesus was wrong in not waiting for another day to cure the woman.
Perhaps we can better understand some context about this story if we consider a widely shared story that appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post. Fritz Sam is an Uber driver in New York City. Moments into his second ride of the day, his morning took a terrifying turn. Headed to LaGuardia Airport, and anybody who’s ever been there knows you want to get in and out as quickly as possible, he noticed a fire, and the second-floor window was engulfed in flames.
Fritz had a job to do. He had a passenger he had agreed to take to the airport. He could be fired for failing to do that job. Knowing his passenger had a flight to catch and might well miss it, Sam turned to her and said, “Can we stop and help?”
“Obviously!” was his passenger’s response.
The long and short of the story is he ran into a burning building twice to get people out of it.
He could have just driven on, but he didn’t. So the Uber rules be damned, he was going to do something to help people.
Perhaps the leader of the synagogue thought he might lose control of his congregation and, as a result, would be left with diminished power. So he ignored the benefit to the woman and instead focused solely on a literal interpretation of the law in an attempt to control Jesus and protect his own institution.
The use of power and control is not always harmful. It can be an essential protection when we are in harm’s way or a way to promote justice and defend those who cannot protect themselves.
We saw in our gospel reading that when Jesus finds the suffering woman, her healing is much more important than the presumed Sabbath rules. Jesus acts on grace and mercy while other stand up for rigidly following rules. We shouldn’t be surprised when Jesus sees her, knows her pain, and sets her free. Jesus moves beyond the rules that bind us to healing and wholeness that will liberate us.
Although power can be used for good, we are called to resist the use of power purely for the exercise of control and look to Jesus for how to use power.
The Gospel story provides an example of a way to use power. We witness Jesus acting out of compassion for the bent over woman’s plight and employing the most extraordinary power in the universe, the power of love, for her benefit. He used that power not to control but to help and heal and give life. Jesus used his power – the power of the Holy Spirit – the power of compassionate love – to heal the woman. He drew a circle large enough so it would not exclude anyone or seek power against anyone. Instead, he used the power of love to unlock the God within each of us, a power through which we can follow him in giving ourselves away and caring for others.
In healing the bent-over woman, Jesus is pointing her and all of us to a full life, complete in the love of God, particularly when we acknowledge the bent-over people, people in need, we are offering that full life in Christ.
When have you been bent over in pain? When have you needed the healing, powerful touch of Christ in your life? Have you received it? Have others offered it? Have you seen people bent in pain and offered God’s love?
When we are bent in pain and attacked by the spirits that keep us from Christ, it takes honesty, acceptance, and courage to accept that we are loved and healed through Christ. Remember, Jesus came to heal us – and he paid the price for healing us – and he rejoices with us, with that woman who stood up straight, and with every healing of a person, a relationship, a community, or a world.
God knows we need healing in the world. Jesus is telling us that we are all God’s children and that God is at work among us at all times. It takes honesty, acceptance, and courage to recognize that Christ is calling us to acknowledge the broken among us and to help people stand up straight. It takes honesty and courage to ensure that people are fed, clothed, housed and cared for when sick.
The spirits we face today are particularly stubborn and complex. People fall in love with their anger and the status they fear losing. If anything changes in our society for one group, another group inevitably fears losing power and control. Jesus assures us there is plenty for all.
The image of the church, our communities, or our families being bent over by a crippling spirit offers us the opportunity to examine our own situation. How might Jesus’ healing hands and words call us to stand up straight and glorify God? What tools might we use to ask for God’s healing grace in each of them? What is the vision of the Gospel toward which we strive?
I can’t help but recall that forty-eight years ago last month, on July 29, 1974, three bishops in the Episcopal Church, representing the hands of Jesus, laid hands on 11 women for ordination to the priesthood. Two weeks after the ordination service, the then Presiding Bishop convened an emergency meeting of the House of Bishops, where it was initially declared that these ordinations were invalid. One of the bishops present objected and told his colleagues they had no theological grounds to declare the ordinations invalid. The ordinations may have been “irregular,” but they were not “invalid.” The Sabbath rules were not broken, and their ordination opened the door for new life and renewal in the church.
The Gospel always opens us to a broader vision. In Beckford Parish, we cannot, we do not know what the way ahead holds, but we can know that Jesus heals us. And we know this because of how our Gospel ends: “The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.”
 Luke 13:17, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)