First United Methodist Church
August 21, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
Joy is Found When Just to the Afflicted Takes Priority in Our Actions
A colleague of mine shared the following story with me: (James Elrod)
I ran into Dustin today at Starbucks. Several people left the cafe' as he mumbled on and on citing obscure references and making guttural sounds. He was obviously making everyone uncomfortable, so I decided to engage him. I found out that he is living on a make-shift campsite on the north end of town. He spends his days at the library. His father died when he was young. I asked him the key questions, 'are you safe?' 'do you have any place you could go if you need to?' and have you attempted to access the local homeless shelters? Since many homeless people are homeless because they are either not aware of or they have been rejected from the local resources, his answers, as I expected, were “no.” There are 100's of thousands of individuals like Dustin living in homeless communities throughout the country. I am left empty after this encounter, no answers, no magical solution, only more questions.
My friend’s encounter didn’t resolve any major issue that day. But the very fact that he had it has changed him and caused him to think about this particular homeless man a little differently. Dustin has an identity. There are particulars about him that are different than other homeless people. Perhaps, if there are more encounters in the future, Dustin’s situation might change. Encounters such as this one gives us opportunities to learn more about the people who live lives differently than we do.
One of the things I have noticed about Jesus’ ministry is that he continuously found ways to interact with and engage people who were outside his group of disciples. For him, I think it was essential to have real encounters with people in order to show that God’s love was personal. And it is through his ministry that we are able to see how important it is to be in places where we can interact with others and have real conversations. Because it is through these conversations that we are able to see, hear and touch the Other, and to touch upon the Other’s scars.” (Rivera)
What happens when we do this is that we begin to experience the love of God more completely because we allow ourselves to touch and be touched by the people who have struggles that are different than ours. Ministry with, rather than for others, allows us to experience on a more personal level what others experience daily, and we are therefore more likely to seek justice in the world because we have a better understanding of who people are, rather than simply what they lack.
Therefore, as we approach our gospel today, I challenge you ask yourself some difficult questions. What does our gospel say to us about the importance of justice work for Jesus and the people seeking the Kingdom of God? Are we willing to accept Jesus’ invitation to encounter Others with an open heart? And what exactly is Jesus inviting us to do?
Let’s take a look at our Gospel one more time:
Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman [who was suffering, both spiritually and physically, bent over in pain for eighteen years – can you imagine? Think about that for a minute. Eighteen years of suffering, so burdened that as her shoulders bent closer and closer to the ground, stretching her tortured, crooked spine, she could hardly function.” (pause) Do you know anyone like that? She came to worship. And 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.
If we stop here, we have a beautiful story. But the gospel continues. It says:
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.”
Why do you think the gospel writers included this part?
According to the stories told in the Old Testament, the purpose of the law is to provide us guidance in how to live with each other so that all of us may get more out of this life and world we that share. The law, in short, promotes civility, cooperation, and health. It lends a certain order to our lives, order that creates space in which to flourish and grow.
For all of these reasons, the law is given to the Israelites by God not to help them become God’s people but as a precious gift because they already are God’s people.
But that’s not always how we use the law. Simply because law does, in fact, lend a modicum of order to a chaotic world, we are all too often seduced into thinking that creating and maintaining order is the purpose the law. We forget that the order the law provides is not an end in itself but rather is meant to serve life and health.
Which is what happens here. The original commandment to keep the Sabbath holy and to do no work on the Sabbath was meant to ensure that people who had been slaves for years and never knew rest would finally be guaranteed at least one day of rest a week. It was, in this sense, the first labor protection law, ensuring that employees and servants alike were not overworked. The law of the Sabbath, in other words, was designed to promote life and health.
But in this scene, we see how one charged with keeping the law turns a means into an end, chastising Jesus for bringing life and health to this woman because it disrupts the order we tend to prize above all.
The justice issue that is being challenged here is what? It’s not the law that Jesus has a problem with. It’s the conflict between its purpose and the way it is being used that he is addressing. So, this is what he says in his response:
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.
So we can get hung up trying to decide whether Jesus or the Pharisees are right, who is sinning according to the letter of the Law, and who has the best argument, or we can look at what Jesus did.
He saw a woman in pain and he had compassion. So he healed her. The woman didn’t come to the synagogue to be healed; she came to worship. Despite her pain, despite the struggles she faced daily because of her crippling condition, she came to the synagogue to discover God’s glory. Jesus just happened to notice her, and he chose to free her of her pain. For him, that’s not work. It’s no different than the response any of us would have if we discovered that someone in our family was hurting.
For Jesus, our concern for fellow human beings takes precedence over the work rules associated with our observance of the Sabbath. In last week’s reading, our passage warned us that the new realm inaugurated by Jesus brings divisiveness. That kind of divisiveness is obvious here in the dialogue between the synagogue leader and Jesus.
Jesus’ response echoes the cry for justice we’ve been reading in Isaiah. We should set the woman free of her illness. It is always more important to free up a human being from whatever binds him or her than it is to blindly follow the letter of the law. The crowd who observed the interplay of Jesus, the leader of the synagogue, and the woman rejoiced “at all the wonderful things that he was doing” (Luke 13:17, NRSV). Within this text is another invitation to find joy and here, especially, that joy is found when justice, or doing the right thing, is displayed.
Before we are too hard on this zealous religious leader of Jesus’ day, however, let’s keep in mind how often we insist on keeping the letter of the law at the expense of its intent, and let’s be honest about our own craving for order and stability that makes it difficult for us to imagine “exceptions” to the law that promote greater life and health. Our gospel speaks of healing a woman who is bound by her crippling condition vs. strict observance of the Sabbath, but Jesus challenges us to examine our own hearts regarding the divisive issues facing our church and our country, and there are many. Is the Law, or our conviction, more important than the people who become victims as a result? Isn’t reconciliation more important than the rules that keep us in our comfort zones?
Joy and justice are two sides of the same coin. When we “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17 NRSV), we find joy. Wesley’s General Rules - do no harm; do good; and stay in love with God – encourage us to do the same. There is deep satisfaction of following these simple rules in life. Doing justice in our relationships with our neighbors, community, and country spreads joy around and makes the world a better place for all.
Jesus challenges the letter of the law, even breaks its ordinance, because he remembers the purpose of all of God’s Law. May we find the courage to do the same. Let us pray…
Prayer: Dear God, remind us of your great love for all people, and especially for those who are oppressed in mind, body, or spirit. Grant us courage to take our stand for them each day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.