COVENANT NETWORK CONFERENCE 2003
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC
Sermon – Thursday Worship, November 6, 2003
The Church Isn’t Jesus
I have been moved by this woman, stooped by a spirit, for a very long time, and, in recent months, she and I have grown quite intimate as I have contemplated what she reveals to us of God in her encounter with Jesus. I can’t tell you exactly why I selected this text last spring for us to reflect on this evening, except to say that there is something about her that touches me deeply, that makes my heart well up with compassion, the one thing, I believe, that makes us one with God and marks us as true sisters and brothers of Christ. And there’s something about the story that illustrates where we are today in our ongoing reformation of ourselves as the church.
She has been bent for eighteen years, and we might wonder what invisible spirit bent her spirit, her body. In the thirteenth chapter of Luke, the gospel writer most bent on inclusiveness, she stoops between a passage about a fig tree, fruitless for three years, yet given one more year to mature and produce, and a passage about the commonwealth of God that compares it to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree large enough to give sanctuary to the proverbial birds of the air. The stooped woman is caught between a tree that produces nothing nourishing and a tree that provides sanctuary. She does not ask for relief, but we do know something of her faithfulness, as she is clearly in attendance for Sabbath services; and, when healed, she immediately praises God.
I invite you to stand if you are willing and able. For those unable to stand, you may still participate in the proposed exercise. I invite you to lean over 45 degrees to have a sense of the woman’s predicament. Feel the strain on the back, the burden on the shoulders. Then look with your eyes to see how this bend limits your vision of what lies before you. Your perspective is shorter. Stooping, you cannot easily look into the faces of those around you, you can’t be on the same level with anyone, you can’t see the whole church. You cannot easily look toward the horizon to see a glorious sunrise or sunset. Vistas of God’s wondrous works on earth in daylight and views of God’s awesome stars at night do not come readily. You are stuck in a humble and humbling position. For the ignorant you are the butt of derision and cruel jokes. The intelligentsia of the day see you as deformed by sin, by a spirit of Satan. You deserve what you get. In the view of many, you are a disabled human being, rather than a human being with a disability. And yet here you are in a synagogue, worshiping Yahweh anyway, hearing the stories of how God liberated your people from oppression, from being bent by Pharaoh. You may be seated.
The controversy in the story is not over the woman’s worthiness or morality or audacity, as in other stories of women who touch or are touched by Jesus. The controversy in the story is over timing. Jesus not only interrupts his teaching. Jesus heals on the sabbath, during the weekly sabbatical, when only the worship of God is to be done. The leader of the synagogue is indignant. But he doesn’t repudiate Jesus directly. Instead he tells the assembly, saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Notice he seems to blame the woman or reprimand his congregation (“come on those days and be cured”), though his object is Jesus. This timing issue is a recurrent theme in many healing stories, suggesting its centrality to the early followers of Jesus, thus linking it to the historical Jesus.
The scholar Bernadette Brooten has written an extraordinary historical analysis of ancient times entitled Love Between Women which is of a character and kind that it should be placed on your bookshelves right alongside John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. She teaches classes on Christianity at Brandeis University, a historically Jewish school. She tells me she has learned a lot from her Jewish students. They have asked her about this timing issue. “Why didn’t Jesus just wait a day to heal, instead of stirring up so much controversy by healing on the sabbath?” they question. That does seem reasonable.
In the case at hand, the woman’s back had been bent for eighteen years. Couldn’t she wait just one more day? What difference would it make? If our brief exercise had been prolonged, we would have come to know that even one more minute in that position could have seemed intolerable. But we don’t know what the woman felt. She doesn’t tell us. But then, it’s not her timing. Jesus is the one to blame, not the woman. Why couldn’t he wait one more day? Jesus’ response is clear: what difference does it make if you heal on the sabbath or if you lead your animals to water, as he says in our text, or if you save your child from a well, as he says when he heals a man with dropsy in the next chapter. What better time to do good, to speak for what’s right, to do what’s right, than during the sabbath? In another context Jesus declares the sabbath made for us, not us for the sabbath. To me, this is another way of saying our religion and our religious institutions are made for us, not us for them.
I look across this sanctuary and see many, many faces I have known for a very long time. Few of you have hesitated to heal on the sabbath, to speak justice from the pulpit, to proclaim liberty to those captive by religious conformity or political expediency or economic depravity. Many of you have met with controversy over your timing proclaiming women’s ordination, African American civil rights, peaceful solutions to armed conflict. You often did so at the risk of your own livelihoods, at the risk of causing church division. You are what prompted me to become Presbyterian. You inspired me, long before I could accept myself. I’m not sure what motivated each of you, but my own concern for rights and peace and justice for others grew from my private knowledge and subsequent public disclosure that I too was bent by a spirit of oppression. It was not my timing that, thirty years ago, prompted me to stand up straight and proud of how God created me. Jesus touched me. Jesus touched me through the Presbyterian Church. Jesus touched me through you. And Jesus touched me through people like you who have passed on and still surround us tonight as a great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on from God’s eternal love. But, though spiritually I may stand up straight, our Presbyterian polity keeps me bent. I’ve been bent by our policies for thirty years. I need you to know that I will not be bent for another thirty years; I’m not sure I can wait another three years.
Viscerally I identify with the woman of the parable Jesus told his disciples that they might not lose heart, the parable of a persistent woman who repeatedly insisted that an unjust judge give her justice, quite a contrast to the woman in our text who doesn’t ask Jesus for a thing. The judge didn’t care much about justice or the woman’s plight; but he gave her justice just to get her out of his hair. Yet that’s not enough for me. I want to change the judge’s heart. I want to change the whole system, not just get my little piece of justice. When you’re bent, you can’t always see this bigger picture. And I realize that we’re all bent to some degree. Some of us are bent on unity. Others are bent on justice. All of us need the touch of Jesus to stand or sit up tall, to see the bigger picture and work together on a strategy that brings justice not just to the few, but to the many; not just to us, but to our posterity; not just to the oppressed but to the oppressor. Peace without victory, as Ephesians describes the blending of Jews and Gentiles in the early church; recognizing that Jesus’ touch welcomes us into a spiritual community that welcomes the varied gifts of our multiple cultures.
Those bent on unity might recall the cry of many who opposed the civil rights movement, “You can’t legislate love.” But that’s not what the civil rights movement was about. It was about equal treatment before the law, it was about equal opportunity. Yet love can best happen between equals. This is true in the Presbyterian Church: not even dialogue, let alone love, can happen when a whole segment of the church is stooped by an unjust law. Those bent on unity must know that this unjust law causes painful division within those called to serve the church, within families, within relationships, within congregations, within the denomination. “Unity” has feet of clay. Those bent on unity might recall the passion that fueled our earlier quests for justice for women and racial minorities, when we did not always heed Jesus’ practical admonition to be “wise as serpents, and gentle as doves.”
Those bent on justice might recall the mercy that always accompanied Yahweh’s righteousness, God’s saving justice, the forgiveness extended even to those “who know not what they do.” We might recall the mercy we extended ourselves when it took us so long to accept ourselves, to come out of the closet, to support the movement toward full inclusion, to participate in the reformation of the church. We wanted to come out in our own good time, not be outed by someone else’s often hostile agenda. We might also recall we have nothing to prove as God’s beloved children. Whether the General Assembly votes with us this year or two years from now, we know that Jesus has already touched us on the sabbath, has helped us stand up for ourselves and for others, despite the indignation of religious leaders. And though we have nothing to prove, our annual defeats take their toll on those among us who are not yet sure of themselves as well as those of us who are—tolls of doubt, grief, and anger. Sometimes the toll taken is in human form, those newer to our movement who are devastated by their first loss at a General Assembly and drift from the church altogether.
Both of us—those bent on unity and those bent on justice—find ourselves at odds with those bent on purity. It’s interesting that those bent on purity tend to be those who define “purity” along lines that include themselves and exclude others. That’s why Jesus would have none of it: not what goes into a person is spiritually vital, he admonished, but what comes out of a person’s heart; not who one is, but who loves God and neighbor is already Jesus’ sister and brother, already experiencing the commonwealth of God in their midst. Not who goes into a pew or a pulpit manifests God’s will, but what comes out of that congregation’s heart.
Though the church may think of ourselves organizationally and, on occasion, mystically, as the Body of Christ, in our story tonight from Luke, the church isn’t Jesus. The church is the woman stooped with an invisible burden that prevents us from envisioning God’s future. The church is the religious leader who resists what Jesus is doing. We stand on either side of Jesus, who is willing to risk the brokenness of his own body to bring us together in his body and thus bring us together in God, whose awesome, gracious, loving presence dissolves notions of separation into a commonwealth, a spiritual wealth common to all, so that, our opposition of one another rather than our opposition might be put to shame, and together we might rejoice at all the wonderful things Jesus is doing.
Jesus: touch us, heal us, set us free.
Copyright © 2003 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit duplication with attribution.