SERMON 8/25/13 Pentecost 15C St. Mark’s Tampa
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17 Listen (mp3)
We find a glimpse of God’s mission story in today’s gospel reading. As you read through his work, “Luke’s gospel is filled with stories that reflect Jesus’ compassion and mercy for the poor, the sick, the infirm, and the oppressed.”1 For instance, at the beginning of Jesus ministry, “(He) describes himself as the fulfillment of the following verses: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’.”1 This scripture shows us the heart of God’s mission at work in reconciling creation: good news to the poor, release for captives, sight for the blind, freedom for oppressed.
In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus’ mission being manifested in acts of mercy, love, compassion, and healing. The scene is in the synagogue where a woman of low social status, who suffered from some ailment and thus, could not stand up, appears among those gathered. We do not know why she was there at that time. She may have even gone unnoticed by the crowd, but she was not be overlooked by the Master. He saw her plight, called her over to him, and with these simple words, “woman you are set free,” she was healed. She was lifted up. When I think of that story, I try and put myself in the woman’s place. Have you ever carried a huge backpack or if you served in the military, a rucksack? Under that heavy weight, you are stooped over and it is hard to move, hard to see what is in front of you, and it keeps you from being able to move forward. The moment you drop that weight, it can be like pure freedom! You can see people eye-to-eye, your limbs are free to move, and you feel light and ready for action. See, the woman in the story, had not only a weight of physical affliction, she had a social affliction as well. Because of the disorder, her community saw her unclean and defiled and thus, she was treated as an outcast from the community. Jesus freed the woman from her physical ailment and she stood up, but he restored her to dignity and signified that healing by reminding everyone that she was restored to her community. She was “a daughter of Abraham.”
Now the other character in the story is the leader of the synagogue who became enraged over Jesus’ flippant attitude toward tradition and rules; rules that seem to have lost their original purpose, which was to support God’s mission of reconciliation, restoration, mercy, grace, love, and healing. You see, Jesus saw the woman’s plight, her cage of human inequity, her prison bars of social injustice, her walls of communal disgrace and he responded with love, with concern, with healing hands, and all else, including mis-applied tradition would not stand in the way of God’s mission of healing.
I want to be clear here, the leader of the synagogue was not really a bad guy, maybe a little arrogant, maybe a little obnoxious, and maybe a little over the top however, he was trying to be faithful by living out the law. Even so, he forgot the whole reason for the law and tradition which was to set apart a community for blessing and thus, he was blind to the woman’s need for blessing and restoration to the community. The tradition and law were the means by which grace might flow, not the end itself. The synagogue leader needed to come down off his high horse, stoop down to the woman’s eye level so that he, like Jesus, might see that she was his sister, and they shared a common need to care for one another. In Jesus’ acts of mercy and healing, the prophet Ezekiel was fulfilled, “Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low.” (Ezekiel 21:26 NIV) You see, the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of human equity that includes liberation for those held in the bondage of injustice, poverty, and social division.
Many of us, like the woman in today’s gospel reading, struggle with some type of bondage. Our culture pushes us to excel vocationally, financially, socially, and relationally and there are costs for that kind of pressure. Long work hours, anxiety filled schedules, over extended finances, and unfulfilled relationships are some of the pressures with which, many of us contend. It seems that life would be joyful, if we lived a little more simply, if we could shrug off the heavy burden of success drive, and get back to basics. Maybe if we could just get outside ourselves a little, and see the plight of others, and maybe, just maybe in lifting them up, we might find the freedom of God’s peace we so crave.
Some of our sisters and brothers live with a whole other set of pressures, prison bars of another type. Some folks near us struggle every day to put enough food on the table to sustain the lives of their children. Some folks near us are unable to balance the choice between buying needed medications and the basics of life. Some folks near us live in isolation, depression, and loneliness. Some folks near us are like the woman in the gospel today and are seen as second-class residents, merely because they don’t have the right documentation in their wallet. You see, the Kingdom of God is a kingdom where liberation and equity is for all who are held in bondage. Freedom comes to all, when we all move closer to each other, and when we meet each other in our common story.
Stories seem to be what our culture today craves. I think that may be why Reality TV is so popular. I came across a new reality television show on BBC America the other day that starred Gordon Ramsey (UK chef, former football player – soccer for us Americans, a rugged guy, etc.) The premise of this new show was based on Gordon being locked up in the infamous Brixton Prison in London, where he was going to try and set up a catering company to offset the expenses of incarceration. Ramsay recruited from Brixton, some of the nation’s toughest prisoners and taught them to cook on the inside, in order to sell their product on the outside. Everyone Ramsey encountered thought his scheme was crazy; the prison bureaucracy, his friends, the vendors to whom he wanted to sell the prisoners’ creations, and yes, even the prisoners themselves.
Ramsey’s original motivation for this project was based on his frustration with the cost of housing prisoners. He also was frustrated with the prison systems’ ever evolving movement away from its original mission. Despite his early entrepreneurial and sociological motivations, Ramsay soon discovered in his encounters with the prisoners, a deeper, unseen narrative of human, tragedy. Ramsay came face-to-face with a system that had moved from its original mission (to intervene and change a cycle of criminal behavior, addiction, and brokenness), to a broken system that perpetuates lives without dignity, purpose and meaning. Ramsay came face-to-face with the stories of real people for whom society had given up, and those people had in turn, given up on themselves.
Ramsey came up against enormous resistance from prison guards who had given up hope for the prisoners’ rehabilitation. Ramsay experienced the political wrangling of administrators whose adherence to prison regulations was more important than innovative, risk-taking solutions. Despite the resistance, new life emerged for people held in bondage and so, after six months of working on this project, where one man offered hope, love, and purpose to the forgotten, new life emerged for 12 of the prisoners of Brixton prison. Most of them began to understand and embrace teamwork, most of them began to care about the work they were doing, most of them began to experience transformation from a life of anger, bitterness, and lethargy, to a new found release where they experienced joy, pride, gratitude, and hope.
Ramsey, a tough nosed, controlling, loud, obnoxious, “f-bomb” dropping, foodie star, stooped down and entered a prison system and there, met people in their tragic stories. There he offered them hope and in so doing, he too experienced hope, purpose, and meaning in his life, in ways he never imagined. Ramsey actually showed love, concern, confidence, grace, and mercy to people with whom, he would never come in contact in his every day life. Ramsey as well as the prisoners were transformed. Ramsay saw in others something no one else saw, and he became a person of love in action, helping others experienced new life. If we but open our eyes, if we but stoop down, we too can experience stories of mercy, grace, and love, where “the lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low.” We can see in action, the hope we proclaim, the faith in God’s reconciling work in creation, and the salvation for which we give thanks.
Most of us have experienced some form of liberation in our lives. Some of us are still held in bondage, and yet God invites us to drop our baggage, take up the cross, and follow him. The mission of God is “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” as followers, what then is our part in that mission? In the church’s catechism it states that our mission is “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.” It sounds like a pretty tall order, and maybe a little vague at that.
It really is a simple mission, but we may need to ask ourselves some really hard questions. How can we, as a community, be Good News to those suffering around us? How might we bring healing to those in our midst, stooped over by bonds of injustice, poverty, loneliness, and detachment? How can we go into the dark places of our sisters and brothers prison walls? These are people that may be sitting right here beside us living in bondage. There are definitely people in bondage beyond these four walls.
The Church’s mission is simple, we must go and meet the least, lost and lonely at their level, see them fully in the blessedness that Christ sees, and then with love, with hope, with purpose, and with meaning, help lift them up to new life. We really have a pretty uncomplicated mission, if you think about it. The great thing is, we already have God’s blessing to begin it anew every day. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” After all, I know God believes we can do it, because with outstretched arms of love, he showed us how.
1 Torgerson, Heidi. “The Healing Of The Bent Woman: A Narrative Interpretation Of Luke 13:10-17.” Currents In Theology And Mission 32.3 (2005): 176-186. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.