August 21, 2022, Is God a Softie?, Luke 13:10-17 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to the sermon, click the link above.
Can you remember the year 2004? 2004 was the year George Bush was elected for a second term. It was the year Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” opened in theaters. It was the year Mark Zuckerberg launched a new social networking site called Facebook. 2004 was the year of the Washington D.C. sniper killings, the year Colin Powell resigned as Secretary of State, the year Martha Stewart was convicted of a felony and spent five months in prison. 2004 was eighteen years ago. That’s how long eighteen years is.
Eighteen years is how long the woman in the synagogue had suffered with crippling arthritis. Eighteen years unable to stand up straight; eighteen years doubled over with pain; eighteen years doing the hard work women were expected to do as best she could, in a time and place without labor-saving devices or physical therapy or extra-strength pain relief. Her condition was attributed to an evil spirit; there was no help for her. Until Jesus happened to be teaching one day in the synagogue she attended. Jesus saw her in her pain, and he reached out, and he healed her.
When the leader of the synagogue protested against this unlawful breach of Sabbath Law, Jesus responded in exasperation, “You know every one of you takes care of your own livestock on the Sabbath Day. You hypocrites! What better day could there be for setting this daughter of Abraham free from her long bondage?” And the hearts of the common people were filled with joy at everything Jesus did and said.
When I was a foolish little girl, one of the things that I found really embarrassing about my Dad, was that when he saw someone who was disabled, a person in a wheelchair, or a child in leg braces, any kind of disability, it would move him to tears. In the middle of a grocery store, at the zoo – even in a movie or on TV – my Dad’s eyes would fill with tears, his voice would break with emotion. Not loudly. Not even so that the people around us would particularly notice. He didn’t make a show of it or anything. It’s just that it broke his heart to see another human being suffering. As a kid, and especially as a teenager, I found it super embarrassing that my Dad was such a softie. But now I remember that as one of the most Christlike things about my father – that the suffering of another person always touched his heart, and moved him to compassion.
When you hear this story about the healing of the woman with a crippling disease – and except for Loxlin and Azel, we’ve all heard it many times before – what basic message do you come away with? I think we are often so tuned in to the clash between Jesus and the religious leaders that that might be the first thing that strikes you – the way the authorities are so fixated on the minutiae of the law, that they miss the suffering right in front of them. And worse than that, that they are so fixated on the keeping of the law that they’re offended by Jesus’s work of mercy. It’s very easy to come away from this story appalled at their blindness and hardheartedness. It’s always easy and natural to pass judgment!
But have you ever stopped to really consider the eighteen long years of that woman’s suffering? Because Jesus did. When he went in to that synagogue to teach, Jesus saw her – he really saw her – and his heart broke at the knowledge of her eighteen years of bondage to pain and weariness. If we take nothing else away from this story, we should take this to heart: that we worship a God who is moved to compassion by the suffering of his children, whose heart breaks to see their trouble. That our God is what my teenage self would have scornfully called a “softie” – that Jesus was like my tenderhearted Dad.
When Jesus taught at his hometown synagogue, he introduced himself with the words of Isaiah. He took these words as his very own:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Compassion was the Messiah’s job description as well as his nature. And not because Jesus came as a kinder, gentler, God 2.0 as opposed to the harsh, unyielding vengeful God of the Old Testament. No. Jesus came to put flesh on who God has always been, so that we could see who God is – yesterday, today, and tomorrow – in the person of Jesus. Jesus said as much to Philip, when he asked Jesus to show him the Father. “Don’t you recognize me yet, Philip?” Jesus answered him. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” We see it in the refrain that God takes on himself over and over again in the Old Testament, like a kind of divine tag line: “the Lord, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” From Moses to Jonah to the psalms of King David, this was the description God used for himself in his dealings with his people.
There is a Hebrew word, hesed, that encapsulates these qualities of God: love, mercy, compassion, kindness, in a way that’s hard for us to translate adequately into English. When the Book of Common Prayer was being written, the word “lovingkindness” was invented for exactly the purpose of expressing the hesed of our God. So central is this word in telling us who God is, that the word itself, hesed, is found about 250 times in the course of the Hebrew Scriptures. In his first epistle, John is speaking of the hesed of God when he writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Julian of Norwich, a holy woman in the late 14th century, wrote a book of revelations she received from God, called the “Showings.” It is a book of remarkable depth and spiritual insight, and at the end Julian sums up everything she had learned with these words. “I was answered in spiritual understanding,” Julian wrote, “and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For Love…. So I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.”
Every week I stand up here and try, to the best of my ability, to shed some light on the Scriptures that we read in the course of our worship. In our weekly Bible study, too, it’s my job – and it’s a very enjoyable job – to open up the words we are studying and maybe help bring them to life a little more than when we began. It’s really one of the best parts of my job description as a priest. But it is always possible for me to be in danger of missing the main point, and that’s something I never want to do. Because, as Julian told us a long, long time ago, it’s all about love. Love is our Lord’s meaning. And I can explain and define and illustrate and exhort till the cows come home, but if I miss that, I have missed everything.
As Jesus showed the synagogue leader, to keep the Sabbath without love is to fail to keep the Sabbath. So with us. To follow the rules of being a good Christian without love is to be no Christian at all. To hold to a theology of baptism or marriage or anything else, be it ever so clever and full of proof-texts, but without love, is to embrace the wind – there’s nothing there. When Jesus saw the woman in the synagogue who had been suffering and in pain for eighteen long years, it was love that moved him to call her to him. It was in love that he spoke a simple, quiet word, that set her free from her bondage. Can you even imagine the love that filled the woman’s heart, and, I am sure, overflowed in an abundance of tears? I don’t suppose there were very many dry eyes in the synagogue on that day. Love was our Lord’s meaning. All his opponents were put to shame; but the hearts of the common people were filled with joy at the wonderful things that he was doing. +
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