A sermon preached on August 26, 2007 based upon Luke 13:10 – 17, entitled, “The God of Jesus Christ is Not into Crippling People”
This past Tuesday evening, I went to a meeting of our local youth Soccer Club to plan for the big tournament that Parsippany hosts every October, the club’s big fundraiser, where upwards of 400 different teams from out of town descend upon our town for a weekend of soccer. When I was a coach I was obliged to go to these meeting every year. I’m no longer a coach, but since the coach and the team parent of my son’s team weren’t available, I went in their place to represent his team. Earlier in the day I had noticed the signs of an oncoming cold, but I had promised I would go, so I did.
The two men who ran the meeting are good men, committed to making a contribution to their community. They’ve put in a lot of hard work. They’ve been shouldering this responsibility for a number of years, and you can tell it gives them stress. In what I’m about to say there is criticism of these well intentioned leaders, but my larger purpose is to take note of how organizations in this world routinely function, especially when the system is under stress.
The stated purpose of the meeting was to pass on certain information we needed so that each local team could do their part to carry off the upcoming tournament, and I think that it would be a reasonable estimate to say that that this could have been accomplished in five minutes; ten at tops. But the meeting went on for well over an hour, and that’s because the unstated purpose of the meeting was to motivate us to go out and do our part. To that end, I heard certain tried and true messages that I had heard before at these meetings:
We’re running out of time.
We’re behind schedule; you haven’t done enough yet to get ready for the tournament.
The organizers of this event have done so much more than the rest of us will ever do, and they’ve been doing this for years, and its about time that some new blood stepped forward to do their share.And you’d better do your share or there will be repercussions you’ll be sorry for regarding your team.
In other words, the purpose of the meeting was to get the foot soldiers of this operation moving by inducing within us a sense of guilt and unworthiness, fear and shame. And the reason for this, I guess, is because in terms of short term motivation this works. It is a time-tested technique.
Now I realize I am finger-pointing as I do this, and so by way of personal confession, I admit that when I’m stressed I resort to using these very same motivational techniques routinely with my children and my wife, and so whom am I to point out the speck in my neighbor’s eye? It is assuredly a worse thing to lay this on one’s own children and spouse than to do it to some people you don’t know very well on a committee.
But my point is, this is simply how the world functions, particularly when it’s under stress, and who isn’t stressed these days?
When the meeting was over, I was aware that there was now no doubt that the cold was taking hold of me, and that night I had a fitful, feverish night’s sleep. And whether the fact that coming down with the flu and going to that meeting happened at the same time was just a coincidence, or whether there was some direct correlation, who can say for sure?
Early on in the story we read from the Gospel of Luke, the notion of what we call “the mind-body connection” is stated quite explicitly. Jesus is in a synagogue teaching on the Sabbath, the day of rest,
“And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”
The woman has a spiritual problem, referred to as a “spirit,” but the most obvious manifestation of this problem is in the physical realm: She is bent over. She can’t stand up straight.
Generally speaking, we underestimate the power of the mind/body connection. There is plenty of laboratory and clinical evidence of the power of this connection: stories of tumors growing or shrinking in people in response to nothing other than their belief that a treatment they were receiving was effective — the so-called “placebo effect.” Stories of people experiencing rashes when substances were applied to their skin, because they had been lead to believe that it would produce the rash.
“Hope,” “love,” “gratitude,” “the will to live“. These are spiritual concepts that have direct bearing upon our bodies.
Bill Hudley is dealing with a serious health condition, and for him getting enough nutrition is of paramount importance. He mentioned to me that he has noticed recently that in any given moment he finds himself with, or without an appetite specifically in relation to whether or not he is having hopeful thoughts or discouraging thoughts. What goes on in Bill goes on in all of us.
Consider the common occurrences of a cold and flu. Why does some one come down with the cold or flu? Well, the simple answer is, they are exposed to germs, and that is certainly true, and so washing hands to avoid exposure to germs is simply common sense. But why do some people get exposed to germs and don’t get sick, and others do? Well, we would say, it has to do with the immune system. But there is certainly a lot of mystery to the immune system, and undeniably the immune system is impacted by the spiritual dimension.
If we feel as though our life is a good gift, and we are at peace with our neighbor. ourselves, and our God, and if we are glad to be alive, well the body is getting “live messages.” If we feel like life is a burden, that we are unworthy — a failure, well, we give our body the message of “don’t live.”
Our Gospel story goes on to say something about the impact of the people around us, and of the systems of which we are a part. Jesus heals the woman, and the people marvel, but consider the reaction of the leader of the synagogue. To use a word they wouldn’t have used in those days, the system in which the leader sits at the top is all very dysfunctional. The leader is threatened by Jesus, who he sees as threatening his power and authority, and in response he obsesses about the rules and regulations. But he doesn’t attack Jesus directly. Instead, he attacks the little people, lecturing them about how bad they are to come to the synagogue for healing on the Sabbath when there are six others days they can come.
There is something almost comical about this. The woman has been afflicted with this burden for 18 long years. The leader makes it sound like she could have come any other day over the past 18 years as long as it wasn’t a Saturday, and the healing could have taken place.
But of course, prior to that day there was no healing to be had in that place, because Jesus wasn’t there. Without Jesus’ liberating presence, the system in place in that synagogue community required people in general, and this woman in particular to feel unworthy, broken, needy, rather than whole. The place has been so full of negativity, that up until now it would have been the last place that woman could have expected to find healing.
Jesus is quick, of course, to point out the hypocrisy of all this, and to break the destructive power of the system.
I was reading recently about the research with adults and children who had experienced Near Death Experiences, and I was struck by an observation the researcher made. Now, I know that not everybody gives the same credence to NDEs as I do, but for me, I take them as the real deal — that in that moment of coming to the border of life and death people and permitted to see things that most of the time human being aren’t given opportunity to see — the spiritual realm, heaven, the everlasting light and love of God.
They are, I believe, seeing the real deal — a face to face encounter with that which the rest of us simply speculate about.
Now here’s the interesting observation the researcher made: She said that children who undergo these experiences show an intense desire to go to Church, or to the synagogue, the temple, or mosque, because they get it implicitly that this is “God’s house,” and having seen God up close and personal, they naturally want to be where God is, and so they often drag their reluctant parents to church, etc. It is like the 12 year old Jesus in that famous story in which he left his family behind in order to hang out in the Temple, saying incredulously to his parents when they finally found him, “Did you no know I must be in my father’s house?”
Adults, on the other hand, oftentimes fall away from organized, institutional religion after having such an experience. The researcher didn’t speculate why this was so, but I think she was being polite. I suspect it is because people who have had this direct experience are often disappointed by what they find in Church, or the temple, or the synagogue.
Having experienced the wonder and love of God up close and personal, they are struck by the small-mindedness that often characterizes “organized religion”, where God is put into a box, where rules and regulations count for more than encountering the mystery of the living God. The adults are invariably more sophisticated than their child counterparts: they understand what happens in institutions — how they become consumed with perpetuating their existence and power, resorting to the world’s motivational techniques, and in doing so they put up barriers to people experiencing real intimacy with God.
There is a place for guilt. When we transgress God’s law of love, there is legitimate guilt which comes to us as a gift from God to call us back on course. For instance, if we have been bludgeoning people around us like the leader of the synagogue, we’ve got something of which to repent.
But God never intended for guilt to be a way of life.
So let us finish by focusing on the Good News. Jesus begins his ministry in the Gospel of Luke by quoting from Isaiah, declaring
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He was 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.”Finishing the reading, Jesus immediately announced that everything that he had just read about was coming to pass now in his ministry.
We believe that God is revealed to us in Jesus. And what do we see in Jesus? We see a God who steadfastly desires for people to be set free — healed, blessed, made whole. Throughout his ministry Jesus consistently was about setting people free from the burden of guilt, proclaiming the gift of God’s forgiveness right now — no waiting.
Jesus sees this woman who has been oppressed for 18 long years in spirit and body, and he says to her don’t waste another of the days God has blessed you with by being burdened by a heavy load of guilt — that weight of shame the religious system has been piling upon your shoulders. “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
So let us ask ourselves, who is our God? Are we living with a false God created by some warped religious system that has a perverse need to have people walking around crippled by perpetual shame and guilt? Or is our God the God of Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly?