Sunday, August 21, 2016

Phil Kniss: To walk unbent

"This is a story full of love...You are set free"
Luke 13:10-17; Isaiah 58:9b-14

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I wonder what picture you saw
    when you heard the Gospel story.

Maybe you’re not one to see a vivid image
    when you hear a story told.
But even if that’s not normal for you,
    I’ll bet—at least if you were listening
        to the story today from Luke 13—
        I’ll bet this time you saw something.
    Because this story is written to evoke a picture.

It describes, three times, what this woman looked like
    that Jesus met and healed in the synagogue.
    She was crippled, Luke said, for 18 years.
    She was bent over, Luke said.
    She was quite unable to stand up straight, Luke said.

And then Jesus called her over.
    Called her over.
    Did not go to where she was,
        but asked this bent over woman
        to get off her seat in the synagogue,
            and walk over to where he was.

We’ve all known persons with similar conditions.
    Some of you may deal with it yourself.

In the most severe cases,
    just observing it engenders sympathy.
It’s a picture of pain and struggle,
    not to be able to stand up straight, to walk bent.
    It often requires some equipment to help the person walk.

We understand, mostly, what causes this.
    It’s a spinal condition called kyphosis.

Some persons with the condition, can,
    by putting forth immense effort and energy,
    stand up straighter, at least momentarily.
        But they cannot sustain that.

    Anymore than you or I can hold our arms out straight
        for more than a few minutes.
    Soon, we are worn out with the energy required
        to keep going against the force of gravity.

I say all this to help us grasp the kind of ailment
    this woman truly suffered from,
    before Jesus touched her and freed her.

The Gospel writer, of course, doesn’t diagnose her condition
    as a chronic spinal kyphosis, as we might.
He describes her as
    “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.”

I won’t try to explain exactly what that means,
    because I don’t know.
I do know the world view of the Gospel writer
    included an understanding that the spirit world
        played an active and interactive role with the physical world.
    And I’m inclined to think that we modern westerners
        generally have an underdeveloped view of the spiritual realm.
    But I’ll let it go at that, except to say . . .

I think this woman’s physical condition
    had to have a profound impact on her spirit,
        her mind, her emotions,
        her relationships, her way of looking at the world.

Imagine if you can,
    living for 18 years without naturally being able to make eye contact,
        looking down at the ground,
        being unable to constantly survey your physical surroundings.
    You might have read how posture can impact emotions & attitude.

Experts suggest that simply striking a confident pose—
    shoulders back, hands on hips, chin tilted up—
    and holding it for three minutes,
        can have a profound impact
        on how confidently you think and act.
    They suggest you strike such a pose for a few minutes,
        before going into an important job interview, for example.

        Don’t know how well that works.
        I haven’t done a job interview for 20 years now.

But can you at least imagine how your whole being
    would be shaped by 18 years of being bent over,
        unable to stand straight?

    Can you grasp how that would profoundly impact
        the way you feel about the world?
        how you see your place in that world?
        how you might wonder if you even belong?

    This was a deeply burdened woman
        that Jesus met in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
    Deeply burdened. With multiple burdens.
        Her physical posture was, in all likelihood,
            a symbol for her whole life and way of being in the world.
        She was weighed down.
            Pushed down not only by gravity,
                but by the way others treated her,
                and by the way she saw herself.

    This is not pure speculation on my part.
        Yes, I know a chronic physical ailment
            does not always define one’s life.
        But the Gospel account specifically describes this ailment
            in terms of oppression.
            She was not only physically bent.
                She had a spirit that bent her.
                Whatever that means, exactly,
                I don’t think I’m speculating
                    to say she was bent over, and burdened,
                    in more ways than one.

And then Jesus met her.
    Jesus, the one who saw things differently than those around him.
        Not only could he see the world
            in ways this woman wasn’t able to see.
        He saw it in ways that other able-bodied, strong-spirited
            people around him were not able to see,
                or at least were not willing to see.

    This is a wonderfully-told story,
        that puts all the tension and conflict that surrounded Jesus
            directly into focus.

    Here Jesus was, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath,
        all eyes on him,
        all ears on him who already had a reputation
            for being a rabbi who saw things slant,
                who acted slant,
                who didn’t seem to value protocol.

    And the first thing to notice in this story,
        is that Jesus noticed the bent-over woman.
    This is significant,
        in that there is typically a segregation of men and women
            in Jewish worship.
        The temple had a physical and visual barrier,
            and so do orthodox synagogues, to this day.

    Further, not only did Jesus notice and take heed of her condition,
        he called her over to him.
        Presumably, he was in the position of the teacher,
            near the center,
            all the men gathered around.
        And Jesus asked this bent-over woman to get up,
            and walk over to him.
        Whether I’m entirely accurate, I don’t know,
            but my mental picture has this woman
                slowly hobbling toward Jesus,
                the crowd of men parting to let her through,
                until her interaction with Jesus is at the center,
                purposely being put on display by Jesus.

    His words were simple, and to the point.
        “You are set free,” he declared.
    His words were a performative speech act.
        That is, his words not only described a reality.
        They changed the reality they were describing.
    Upon his words, the woman straightened her back,
        stood upright,
        looked Jesus in the eyes,
        and gave praise to God.

    And from the other rabbis and synagogue leaders,
        Jesus got the reaction he expected,
            and maybe even, hoped for.
    I think Jesus wanted not only to cure this woman of her oppression.
        He wanted to see his people,
            his own community of religious leaders,
            cured of their tendency to oppress.

    The reaction was that the synagogue leaders
        shifted immediately into damage control.
    In their indignation over Jesus clearly breaking Sabbath law,
        they didn’t even address Jesus.
        They addressed the crowd of worshippers:
            “Look people,” they said.
                “There are six days for work.
                    So come and be healed on those days,
                    not on the Sabbath.”

    In other words,
        rather than confront Jesus directly,
        they took out their frustration on the people
            who were there hoping for Jesus to free them, too.

    But Jesus didn’t play their game.
    He didn’t continue the passive-aggressive indirect communication.
    He turned to the leaders directly.
        “You hypocrites!
            You are trying to prevent this woman, and anyone else,
                from being freed of their bondage on the Sabbath.
            Your treat your own donkeys with more compassion.
                When they are tied up on the Sabbath,
                    you untie them, and set them free to find water.
            But this woman, tied up by Satan for 18 years,
                you object to her being set free on the Sabbath?”

    And Luke ends his story with these words,
        “When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated,
            but the people were delighted
            with all the wonderful things he was doing.”

For Jesus, this is the measure of what is lawful and right:
    Does it set people free?
    Does it allow persons the freedom
        to live the life they were created to live?
    Or does it add to the weight they are carrying?

I suggest that is still good criteria for discernment.

The prophet Isaiah seemed to point in the same direction,
    in the O.T. passage we heard today.

Isaiah challenged Israel to “remove the yoke from among you.”
    Remove the yoke!
        Take that instrument intended for a beast of burden,
            that instrument that forces the wearer to bend at the neck,
            and get rid of it.
    And what is this yoke, according to Isaiah?
        It is the “pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil.”

A spirit of condemnation is not of the Spirit of God.
    Rather, God’s agenda is to free us all to be and become
        the persons we were created to be and become.
    Read through Isaiah 58,
        and look for those words that describe
            the yoke that burdens and oppresses,
        and look for those words that describe
            what frees and satisfies.
        It’s all through the passage.

        And, Isaiah addresses the issue of the Sabbath itself,
            the very concern that tripped up the synagogue leaders
                in Jesus’ day.
        The Sabbath, Isaiah reminded,
            was a cause for delight
                and (quote) “riding on the heights of the earth.”
                Talk about freedom!  Riding on the heights!
        The Sabbath is expressly not for
            serving your own interests,
            or going your own way.
        It is to be lived outwardly, and joyfully—
            exactly as Jesus was living it,
                by freeing people of their burdens on the Sabbath.

    God is pleased when we live in a way that honors
        our created purpose.
        And of course, discovering that purpose
            is a lifelong process of discernment.
        We won’t always agree what freedom should look like.
            And that produces some struggle as we figure it out.

    But God is still all about helping us walk unbent,
        unburdened by the condemnation of others,
        or any condemnation we heap on ourselves.

May these scriptures speak freedom to us today, as well.
    Because, Lord knows, we are bound, in many ways.
        Many of us, though physically we stand upright,
            we are walking through life bent over,
            weighed down by a spirit of condemnation
                that is not of God.

    I venture to say,
        we are living in a season of greater burdens than usual,
        more condemnation than is good for our spirits.

    Maybe we are not personally being condemned,
        or condemning ourselves,
        but we are swimming in a sea of condemnation.

    It may be our loved ones or dear friends who are being condemned.
    It may be a political cause or religious conviction
        we are passionate about, that is now under fire.
    It may be a group of people we are passionate about supporting—
        immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ persons,
        “Black Lives Matter” movement, or others.
    The condemnation we feel may be indirect.
        When inflammatory things are said
            about certain people or causes we care about,
            we end up carrying that burden ourselves,
                sometimes without even telling anyone.
        I confess that it is a daily discipline for me—
            and I am not always successful—
            to lay down my burdens,
                and bear what is mine to bear,
                and not bear what is not mine.

    Even apart from burdens that result from condemnation,
        there are so many other burdens weighing us down
            as a church, as a nation, as a world.

    We can barely get our minds around the lives lost,
        and the massive loss of property
            in the flooding in Louisiana,
                that will never be able to be recovered
                either by insurance or government aid.
    There are families who lost entire homes and all their belongings,
        and may get $10,000 . . . or less . . . in total relief.
    The utter devastation of the California wildfires overwhelms us.
    The chaos and violence in the Middle East and Africa.
    The millions of refugees and displaced peoples.
        These are also burdens we carry with us,
            to varying degrees,
            and they add to our heaviness, our despair.

    And then on the personal front,
        we have a whole other level of burdens—
            relationships strained or broken or abusive,
            chronic or terminal illness—our own, our loved ones,
            the continuing darkness of grief and all that goes with it,
            material loss or financial distress,
            loneliness and isolation,
            or something entirely different.

I simply want to name and acknowledge
    that no one here is removed from the impact
        of burdens we carry,
            our own,
            or on behalf of others.
And I want to name and acknowledge
    that many are here this morning bent over
        with the weight of it all.
    That many of us are not far removed
        from the experience of the woman in Luke 13,
        who Jesus noticed, and called, and freed.

Jesus also calls you, to come over, and be set free.
    It’s what God wants for you.

So I conclude by inviting the other pastors to join me at the front,
    and for Virginia to come, play some healing, freeing music.

Any of you are invited to come for prayer,
    and anointing with oil, if you desire.
    Bring whatever burdens you are carrying—
        whether they are your own burdens,
            or you carry them on behalf of another.
        whether the burdens are personal or communal or global
            if you are bent over, and need prayer
            for the freedom to walk unbent,
                you are invited to come,
                and we will have a brief prayer with you.

Come as you as willing and able.

—Phil Kniss, August 21, 2016

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