A sermon preached on August 21, 2016 based upon Luke 17:10 – 17.
As he travelled throughout Galilee, wherever he was Jesus, good Jew that he was, would go to the local synagogue on the Sabbath. The community would gather and he would be invited to teach. On one such occasion, as Jesus was teaching his attention was drawn to a woman who was standing off to the side. She was bent over, unable to stand up. Jesus stopped teaching and called the woman to join him in the center of the room. The woman had suffered for 18 long years with this affliction, and somehow Jesus knew this. And Luke tells us that an evil spirit was responsible for her affliction.
Nowadays we would be inclined to see this woman’s affliction strictly in physical terms. There was some kind of medical condition that needed to be addressed, some surgery or therapy required, some medicine prescribed to address the condition. To speak of her suffering as having to do with an “evil spirit” would likely strike us as outdated, misleading, unhelpful.
And yet the truth that the Bible expresses when it speaks of evil spirits is that we human beings are never simply physical beings. Our wholeness, or lack thereof involves various interconnected dimensions: we are physical beings, but we are also spiritual beings, and we are social beings, living out our lives in the context of communities, whether they be loving or unloving. Each dimension impacts the others.
If we ask what we mean by “evil,” I think the answer is suggested by the curious fact that the letters of the word “evil” written backwards spells out the word “live.” Evil is that force in the world that actively turns back life — diminishes life. It is anything that works against the wholeness that is God’s intention for creation. So in this sense there are no shortage of “spirits” in this world that are “evil” and they can take hold of us, individually and collectively as communities, diminishing our will to live, our capacity for loving relationships.
So the question becomes, how is evil at work in this woman’s life?
Let’s consider this woman. For 18 long years she had lived her life bent over, unable to stand up straight. Consider what this means. Rarely, if ever, would she have the opportunity to look directly into the eyes of another person.
There is something very powerful about being able to look eye to eye with another human being. There is truth to the notion that “our eyes are the windows to the soul.” When two people look directly into one another’s eyes, instinctively a connection is made.
The destructive aspect of the internet involves the fact that it cuts out face to face interactions between human beings, without which the capacity for the evil that is within us goes unchecked. When you can’t look into a person’s eyes, let alone listen to their voice it becomes so much easier to objectify that person, to fail to appreciate their humanity, and in turn to lash out in cruelty. Just ponder the comments in response to any controversial subject.
When people are seeing eye to eye we say that they are on “equal footing”. No one is up, no one is down. When the evil of racism was simply an accepted part of our culture, if a black person passed a white person on the street and dared to make eye contact, they were considered “uppity.” They were refusing to accept their place at the bottom of the social order. There could be severe consequences.
So this woman was not able to look into the eyes of the other people in her community. So even though she lived in the midst of the community, she would have felt painfully disconnected. She would have been rendered, in a certain sense, invisible to her community.
She is a woman, which in that society already put her below men, and in a culture in which the only roles open to women were that of wife and mother, her long-standing disability likely precluded her from taking on those roles. This meant two things. One, she was at the very bottom of the social strata. And two, she likely had little sense of a purpose to her life. She must have felt hopeless.
It is also safe to assume that in the course of her adult life this woman had rarely been touched, caressed, hugged. Human beings need to be touched. Babies who are not routinely touched with tenderness simply do not grow. Their immune systems break down. They wither away, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And although as adults we don’t need to be touched as often as babies do, we still need loving human touch. (Our need for touch is one of the reasons we have unusually long “passing of the peace.”)
This woman was starving for simple human touch.
So to say there is an evil spirit at work in this woman’s life is to point to all the ways in which her will to live was diminished — all the ways that she was led to feel alone, disconnected, hopeless, without purpose and meaning, unworthy of standing up straight and tall in her community. Did her physical affliction lead to her spiritual depletion and isolation, or did a growing spiritual void lead to the physical affliction? It’s a little like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. The two are inseparable.
So Jesus sees this woman who has become invisible to her community. He calls her to come from the edge to be with him in the center of the room. And he declares to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” It is an odd thing to say, given that she is still bent over, but Jesus sees the hidden wholeness that neither this woman nor the community can see. And in declaring her liberation from the powers of evil, the woman is infused with hope. A new possibility arises.
And then he touches her. Jesus often healed people without touching them. He touches this woman not because it is required for him to heal her. He touches her because touch is part of what she needs. So simple, yet so powerful. And as he does she rises up, stands up straight, looks directly into the eyes of Jesus where she sees the very love of God for her.
Now the response to this healing is quite telling in regard to the nature of the evil that has oppressed not just the woman, but the community itself. You would think that the leader of the synagogue would be delighted to see this member of his community made whole after 18 years of suffering. But he isn’t pleased at all. Indignant, he lashes out at the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day!”
The leader of the synagogue portrays himself as being motivated by the noblest of reasons: he is being obedient to God’s command to keep the Sabbath day holy. What Jesus has done here is a form of work. No work is to be done on the Sabbath — says so right there in the Bible!
He says this, maybe he even believes what he’s saying, but the truth is his supposed faithfulness to the Bible is cover for what is actually classic bully behavior. He is upset that his own standing in the community has been diminished by what Jesus has done. He needs to have people beneath him, people to look down on, to feel superior to so he can feel powerful and important, so he bullies the people.
You may have heard the expression, “the canary in the mine.” It dates back to when miners would take caged canaries with them down into the mine shafts. The canaries were more sensitive to the presence of poisonous gases than the miners were. So if the canary suddenly fell over dead, the miners knew to high tail it out of the mines because there were poisonous gases present that they had not yet sensed.
A great many people in that synagogue community felt their lives diminished by the intimidation of the leader of the synagogue and his cronies, but this bent over woman is the “canary in the coal mine” — the sensitive soul who has been most affected by the toxic environment that has become their community.
For the past 30 years the number of people committing suicide have been steadily climbing. They, too, are the “canaries in the coal mine”, the sensitive souls that show the increasingly toxic quality of our society. A 13 year old boy in Staten Island took his life two weeks ago because he couldn’t endure the bullying he was subjected to. He surely wasn’t the only one suffering from a spirit of bullying; he just happened to be the most sensitive soul. It used to be that young people could leave bullying behind when they went home. Now it is there, even worse, when they go on the internet.
The person who the leader of the synagogue was really upset with — the one who most directly threatened his power over the people — was Jesus, but interestingly he didn’t lash out at Jesus, because he was intimidated by Jesus. So he bullied the people, those he knows he could intimidate. As I said, classic bully behavior.
But Jesus called him out on his hypocrisy. “If your ox or donkey needs a drink on the Sabbath, you surely would untie them to take them to get a drink. You’ll do this for your animals on the Sabbath, but you would withhold liberation to this woman — this ‘daughter of Abraham.’” Which was to say, in spite of all the messages that the people in charge have given this woman that she didn’t measure up, she truly was a full-fledged, equal member of God’s family.
So Jesus took down the bully, and Luke tells us that all the people present rejoiced, confirming that the woman wasn’t the only one who had been oppressed by the bully. To some degree they all were. Even the leader himself is oppressed — this evil spirit has a hold of him, leading him to feel like he has to bully others, that to feel good about himself he needs other people to feel inferior. Surely that’s not what living a truly whole life looks like, either.
So this morning, five of you affirmed your faith and became members of this church. \
One of the central reasons you are here is that you recognize your need for community, for connection. We need other people, but increasingly, life in our society is becoming more and more isolated, disconnected. There are so many lonely people in our world — more lonely people than ever before.
Marriage and the family is breaking down like never before, and contrary to what some Christians say, this has nothing to do with the fact that families often look different than they did in the past. It has to do with the fact that the nuclear family has become a kind of idol. It is seen as this little island cut off from the rest of humanity on which we expect all our needs for human connection to be met, an unreasonable, impossible expectation that places incredible stress on the family.
Families are important, but for families to be healthy they need the support of a larger community.
Recently I read this article by David Brooks describing a phenomenon that took place in this country back in the 18th century. In those days communities of settlers from Europe lived side by side with Native American communities. “Over time,” Brooks writes, “the settlers from Europe noticed something: No Indians were defecting to join colonial society, but many whites were defecting to live in the Native American one. They struck them as strange. Colonial society was richer and more advanced. And yet people were voting with their feet the other way.
The colonials occasionally tried to welcome Native American children into their midst. But they couldn’t persuade them to stay. Benjamin Franklin observed the phenomenon in 1753, writing, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated with our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.
During the wars with the Indians, many European settlers were taken prisoner and held within Indian tribes. After a while, they had plenty of chances to escape and return, and yet they did not. In fact, when they were “rescued,” they fled and hid from their rescuers…
Sometimes the Indians tried to forcibly return the colonials in a prisoner swap, and still the colonials refused to go. In one case, the Shawanese Indians were compelled to tie up some European women in order to ship them back. After they were returned, the women escaped the colonial towns and ran back to the Indians.
Even as late as 1782, the pattern was still going strong. Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”(“The Great Affluence Fallacy”, David Brooks, New York Times.)
They were beginning to value things more than people. They were striving for self sufficiency over interdependence on their communities. They were building homes that were islands unto themselves, fortresses that kept others out, with plenty of distance separating them from their neighbors. Children were being cared for, raised up inside these fortresses without the support and nurture of the larger community.
Could it be that the communities of the European settlers were becoming oppressed by evil spirits in a way they didn’t even realize? They were beginning to value things more than people. They were striving for self sufficiency over interdependence on their communities. They were building homes that were islands unto themselves, fortresses that kept others out, with plenty of distance separating them from their neighbors. Children were being cared for, raised up inside these fortresses without the support and nurture of the larger community.
The European settlers just assumed their culture was superior, and we have largely inherited that assumption, but were they? People who experienced life in both communities seemed to recognize that the European culture was spirit killing in the way the Indian culture wasn’t.
One of the reasons the Europeans assumed their culture, their way of life was superior to that of Indian culture was that they were Christians and the Indians were not. But maybe Jesus was in fact more fully present, hidden in disguise, within those Indian communities.
So you have come here because you sense you need community, but you also know that not all communities are the same.
There was a community that came together in that synagogue. It provided a kind of connection, but there was something very destructive to this connection. There were evil spirits at work that kept people from being fully alive, from being whole, from standing up straight and tall.
That is, until Jesus showed up and took possession of the center of that community.
You might have noticed that in opening questions I asked you in the liturgy, the theme of “evil” was front and center:
On behalf of the whole Church, I asked you: “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”
And you responded, “I do.”
I asked, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” And you replied, “I do.”
There is a struggle taking place in this world between good and evil, and the struggle isn’t just taking place out there somewhere; it is taking place inside each one of us. The leader of the synagogue didn’t want to look at the evil that was within him; he wanted to believe that evil was out there in others — in people who weren’t keeping what he thought to be God’s rules.
So to keep our community healthy and whole we have to continually humble ourselves and acknowledge week in and week out our ongoing struggles with evil: our destructive pride and self-righteousness, our tendency to love stuff more than we love people, our inclination to put others down so we can feel up.
And after I asked you about evil, I asked you about Jesus:
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
And you said, “I do.”
It is only the presence of Jesus, our savior, our Lord that allows us to say there’s always room in the circle. It is Jesus standing in the middle of our community that allows us each to stand up straight and tall and look directly into one another’s eyes.
Jesus loves us, this we know, for the Bible tells us so.