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Pentecost 14C Sermon
Luke 13: 10-17

August 21, 2016

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

This last week I received word that my seminary preaching professor, Dr. Paul WF Harms, died. He was a larger than life figure, and if you go to the Schoedinger on-line obituaries, you will see a whole litany of his activities. When I was in seminary, Dr. Harms looked not unlike Merlin the wizard, with a receding hairline and a long, white beard – and he was quite dramatic when he spoke and moved. He didn’t only teach preaching, but also a course on reading scripture aloud in worship, and he wrote a manual for Augsburg-Fortress to train lectors in church. He also directed seminary dramatic productions – one highlight of my seminary days was working with him on our senior production of, “Our Town.” He was indeed a larger than life churchman!
Once when my roommate Paul and some friends were returning to our dorm rooms from his “Reading Scripture” class, they were still laughing at what had just happened in class. Paul was sitting in his chair, not really expecting anything to happen – we’ll pretend he is right here – when Dr. Harms approached him saying, “Sometimes when we read a scripture passage, it is like a camera with a wide angle lens, taking in all of the scenery; but sometimes, it is on a really tight shot (and Dr. Harms got really close to Paul’s face) where you can see all of the stray hairs and pores, and every little feature.” It was a bit of a shock … but it was something that they all remember to this day … as do I. Dr. Harms made the scripture come alive in many ways, and I am saddened at his passing.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus does something rather unexpected and shocking, something that everyone in the synagogue will always remember as well. Unbeknownst to this little bent over woman who merely comes to the synagogue on the Sabbath like all other good Jews, Jesus has taken notice of her and is about to intrude into her life in a most surprising way! Now, taking Dr. Harms’ cue on perspectives in regards to reading the Bible, the story begins with a broad, panoramic view of this scene.We see a bunch of good Jews coming to synagogue on the Sabbath, not expecting anything out of the ordinary. I imagine somewhere higher up the leader of the synagogue taking mental note of everyone who is there, keeping track of those who didn’t make it that day. There is a commotion on one side of the synagogue as a well-known, bent over woman is somehow standing up straight. It is at this point that the camera tightens up and zooms in really close. Noticing that it is Jesus in the center of things, the synagogue leader approaches. Infuriated, he scolds Jesus for working on the Sabbath – as if merely saying 8 words and touching her is work! He basically asks the question, “Since she has been in this condition for 18 years, couldn’t she have waited one more day to be healed, so that it is not the Sabbath? And basically, Jesus’ answer is, “NO!” He calls the synagogue leader and his sidekicks, “hypocrites,” which is a Greek word from the theater that literally refers to an actor who wears a mask to portray a character. He asks how many of them will not untie their animal on the Sabbath and lead it to water, then says that this “daughter of Abraham” should be set free on this day from her 18-year long bondage. I cannot help but think of Jesus’ teaching about how beautiful the lilies of the field are, and how much more God will care for you since you are his own children. As a daughter of Abraham, this woman is much more loved than an ox or donkey, so she should absolutely be set free right then and there!
And finally, the camera once more widens its view, panning out while the entire crowd rejoices at this and all of the wonderful things that he is doing. And while he has their attention, he goes on to share a couple of quick but important teachings. These are not in our assigned text for today, but in verses 18-21, Jesus says, “What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone came and sowed in a garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air came and made nests in its branches. And again he said, ‘To what shall 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.’” And with these somewhat cryptic parables, he left the people in the synagogue and went from town to town preaching. But he gave them something to think about: What if being part of the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with how well we follow the laws about Sabbath, etc. and has more to do with God’s intentions for all people to be part of his community? What if we keep the Sabbath by worship and rest for our own good as a response to the grace that God first showed us, and we concern ourselves more with how we love God and our neighbors, which Jesus said is the greatest commandment? What if every time we come to worship, we look for God’s work in and through our little community of Christians, just like his work through Jesus at this synagogue?

God loved this woman and wanted her to be set free on that very day after 18 years being bent over. She was not only able to stand up straight, but she was set free from all of the attitudes and obstacles that still stand in the way of people who are physically challenged today. I heard this week that people with physical challenges are the most excluded group in Christian churches. Part of that is their own disappointment at hearing all of these healing stories in the Bible, wondering why they have not experienced that kind of healing themselves, if God loves them and wants them released so badly. But the other reason is that we able-bodied people design and set things up in our buildings for ourselves as able-bodied people. We often do not think about how those with limited eyesight, hearing or mobility are hindered by our buildings and set-ups.
Recently a building consultant from the Mission Investment Fund of the ELCA visited Clinton Heights to consult on a variety of issues, one of which was the possibility of installing a lift in the building. He also had some suggestions for this worship space which I think we should consider. For instance, when a person comes in the middle door to the sanctuary and all of the middle aisle seats are taken, he or she has to go back outside to enter into a side door to find a convenient seat. Removing the back pews on both sides of the aisle would help make that happen easier, especially for a person who cannot get around well. And we should look at either having cut-out spots on the ends of pews for wheelchairs, or possibly even replace a few rows of pews with chairs which can be re-configured to allow wheelchairs and other special needs people to worship comfortably.
What do all of these things have to do with today’s gospel message? God intends for all people to be part of the Kingdom of God. God wants healing for everyone TODAY. The barriers that we (sometimes unknowingly) put up for people to hear the good news of Jesus are just as serious as the barriers that the synagogue leader put up to prevent healing on the Sabbath. God is about eliminating barriers for healing to happen. As we seek to be faithful in our response to God’s grace, may we put a priority on loving our neighbors and eliminating all obstacles to the message of Jesus Christ so that we are not actors or hypocrites, but the very hands and mouth of God in our community today. Amen.