This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stand Up! Rise Up!


Luke 13:18-21.
I.
            Jesus makes these comments, these two little parables, immediately after he does something else.  The parables both make the same point about how the Kingdom of God has to do with something starting very small but growing to become very significant.  We’ll talk about that later.
            But first I want to talk about the situation Jesus is addressing when he tells these parables.  You’ll notice that the passage starts with the word “therefore.”  Therefore always refers to something that has happened before.  You can’t start a conversation with “therefore.”  We would be justified in being confused and asking “therefore what?”  It is very annoying to me when the lectionary passage starts with a word like “therefore,” which happens a lot.  “Therefore” means “because of this” or “in light of this,” and it makes no sense unless you know what “this” is by knowing what just happened.
            What just happened here is that Jesus has healed a woman who had some kind of osteopathic disease causing her to be bent over for 18 years.  Luke says she was crippled by a demon; indeed, later Jesus will blame Satan for her condition.  She was unable to stand up.  Her head was always down; all she could normally see were people’s feet and the ground.  If she wanted to face anyone, she would have to twist her whole back and head around and try and look up.  In this way she is cut-off from a lot of human contact.  It is a vulnerable position as well.  And, since it defied gravity, I assume it was also painful.  It also must have been hard to breathe.
            She has had this condition for 18 years.  Everybody in town knows her.  And today she has come to the synagogue.  As a woman she had to sit or stand in the back with the other women.  We don’t know, neither can we conjecture, much else about her.
            Jesus, standing in the bema, which is a raised platform with a desk on it for unrolling and reading the scrolls of the Torah and Havtarah, must have looked up.  Somehow he sees her, even though she is bent over and therefore shorter than everyone else.  And he interrupts his sermon or reading and calls her over.
            This seems simple enough, but synagogues were divided between the women’s section in the back and the men’s section in the front.  If the woman were to approach Jesus as he instructs her to do, she would have to basically go through the men’s section.  Unless Jesus goes back to the women’s section to meet her. 
            He says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Then he puts his hands on her and helps her to stand up straight, for the first time in 18 years.  For a man to touch a woman to whom he was not related was not generally permitted.  For him to do so in a synagogue on the Sabbath could have been scandalous.

II.

            Now, almost every synagogue seems to have had an obligatory sour-puss rule-Nazi.  Many churches do too, as surprising as that might be… present company excepted, of course….   And the leader of this one immediately starts chastising the woman.  “Jesus was here yesterday and could have healed you then.  He’ll still be here tomorrow and you could have come then.  You should not come to the synagogue for medical treatment on the Sabbath.  What were you thinking?  You’re just trying to draw attention to yourself.”
            She doesn’t answer.  Jesus answers.  “You hypocrites!”  he says.  This means there were probably other people complaining as well. “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?”
            Jesus says that the Sabbath is supposed to be about freedom.  It’s about being set free.  It’s one of those laws God gave their people to help them realize their liberation from slavery in Egypt.  It’s not supposed to be a time you are obligated to sit down and shut up!
            Jewish tradition agrees with Jesus.  This is not some radical new teaching.  Healing on the Sabbath was never considered prohibited work by any respectable rabbi I ever heard of, going back to before Jesus.  Sabbath is about release, being set free, liberation, and if you don’t get that, you don’t get Judaism.  Sabbath is not supposed to be a drag or an oppressive institution.  Even animals and slaves and foreigners were given a Sabbath. 
            So he calls them hypocrites.  Their animals – who were worth money – can have Sabbath, but not this daughter of Abraham.  The Sabbath is a day to witness to God’s victory over Pharaoh, and by extension over Satan himself.  It is leaving someone in bondage on the Sabbath that would be the great sin.  That is Jesus’ sermon for the day right there. 
            His opponents were put to shame.  But the people rejoiced.  His opponents were the ones in charge, the rulers, the “clergy,” the estabishment, the maintainers of the religious institutions.  But it is the people, the ones the rulers lord it over, who get it.
            Then, after this reaction, Jesus says, “Therefore,” and proceeds to tell these two brief parables: the mustard seed and the leaven.  The parables are supposed to illustrate and augment what he has just done.  The small things that become large somehow reflect and interpret what he has just done for the bent-over woman. 

III.

            Both the authorities and the people understand very clearly what is going on here.  Jesus makes people stand up straight.  He even makes a woman stand up straight.  Those who are profiting from people being bent over in abject labor, bowing to this or that ruler who threatens them with violence, have reason to be concerned.  If people start standing up for themselves, this whole regime comes crashing down. That’s why those who had turned the Sabbath into a means of controlling people had to find something to criticize in Jesus’ action. 
            I mean, what if everyone started standing up straight?  What if they stopped doing what the authorities tell them?  What if they refused to pay the taxes, and the interest rates, and the prices, and the fees that keep this system going?  What if they refused to stay bent over in hard labor so the rulers can continue to live in the style to which they have become accustomed?  What if it’s not just about this woman?  What if it’s about all of the people, starting at the bottom with the most broken, most rejected, most alienated, most impoverished and exhausted?  What if it’s about them standing up straight?  Then there would be a serious problem!
            Jesus seems to say, “What you have seen today may be insignificant.  One person, a woman, gets healed.  It will be the talk of the village for a week or two.  You’ll congratulate this woman for a while.  But will you then let this memory fade?  Will you fall back into your normal routines and relationships?  You’ll get used to having among you another woman who can stand up straight.  But will you realize that it’s not just about her?  That it’s about getting everyone, all of you, to stand up straight?”
            “But I am telling you that this is not the end.  This is the beginning!  Therefore… what is the Kingdom of God like?  And to what should I compare it?  It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
            “This woman is like that mustard seed.  You can imagine that it’s just about her, and leave it at that.  A miracle; praise God!  Or you can open your minds and realize that she is just the small harbinger of great things to come.  What happened to her has to do with all of us.  The Kingdom of God is where we all stand up straight.  We are intended to be this vertical connection between God and creation.  We are the last creature God made and just about the only one that stands up straight.”
            “To what should I compare the Kingdom of God?  It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
            “This is not supposed to be an isolated event that happened to one woman alone.  The good news of this liberation has to permeate through our whole society and even the whole world.  Just like I called her to stand up straight, so the whole loaf of leavened bread rises up and even overflows the baking pan.”

IV.

              Jesus is saying that it’s not about just what happened to her anymore.  It’s about what happens to you.  It’s about what you are going to do.  It’s about what seeds you are going to plant, and in what ways you are going to serve as leaven in lifting up your world.  How are you going to do the small thing that becomes something huge?  How are you going to stand up straight?  How are you going to rise up?  How are you going to help other people do the same?
            Jesus isn’t asking us to do great things.  He is asking us to do small things, that he will transform into great things.  Be the good news for one person today, or even this week.  Plant the seed of God’s love for the world in one soul.  Let one heart be touched by the leaven of your love.  God will do the rest.  God will raise up an unusually strong community.  That love will eventually, through kneading and heat, and rest, permeate and infiltrate and infuse through the whole world.
            But you have to start with the small thing.  You have to start with the act of kindness and comfort, healing and generosity, blessing and touching, that brings the good news of the Kingdom into someone’s life. 
            A seed, Jesus says elsewhere, has to die before it can sprout and grow into something newer and greater.  The seed that seeks to preserve itself intact will eventually rot and return to the soil.  The people who don’t want to change or be changed, who are content to leave the gospel message inside the shell of their own buildings, will not participate in the spreading of the good news of the Kingdom.
            The same is true for the leaven that stays in the jar or the package.  Unless it is mixed in with the rest of the dough… that is, unless a disciple is integrated into the world, nothing will happen.  By itself a spoonful of leaven is fairly useless.  When the bread comes out of the oven you can’t even find the leaven anymore.  All you see and smell and taste is its benign influence.  The seed and the leaven disappear. 
            In two weeks we are going to be doing our “Be-the-Church” Sunday.  We are going to invest our Sunday morning time in reaching out in mission to three places in our community.  We are going to be planting some seeds and mixing in some leaven.  We are going to be preaching the good news by our actions, as well as our words.
            We are going to be doing some small and seemingly insignificant things.  But because they witness to the liberating power of Jesus Christ, because they invite people to stand up straight, these small actions will have large effects. 

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