Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
August 25, 2019
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to 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.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
Wilma Rudolph was a legendary American track and field star. Rudolph was widely recognized after winning three gold medals in sprinting events at the 1960 Summer Olympics held in Rome. Because these games were the first Olympics televised live, her accomplishments were seen by many and she quickly became one of the most highly visible African-American athletes in the country.
While her athletic triumphs were noted, Wilma Rudolph’s personal story was also celebrated. She was born prematurely, weighing 4 pounds 5 ounces in what is now Clarksville, TN, the twentieth of twenty-two children. Her father worked as a railway porter and in odd jobs and her mother was a maid in many Clarksville homes. Rudolph suffered from many childhood illnesses, including pneumonia and scarlet fever. But her biggest obstacle came when at the age of 5 she was diagnosed with infantile paralysis caused by the polio virus. She recovered from the polio but she lost most of the strength in her left leg and foot and was forced to wear a leg brace until she was 12 years old. She was told that she would never walk normally and certainly would not be able to run like the other children. One doctor noted, “I am sorry but you were born this way and it will always be this way.”
Rudolph’s family did what they could to help. They sought treatment for Wilma at the historically black Meharry Medical College in Nashville. For two years Wilma and her mother made the weekly bus trip for treatment. At home, her siblings gave her legs four daily massages. She was given an orthopedic shoe to aid in her walking. And Wilma’s grandmother became her biggest cheerleader. She refused to accept the bleak diagnosis and took the lead in prayer. Grandma had a simple philosophy, one that stuck with Wilma all through her life. It was this: “Your condition does not have to be your conclusion.” What you are today is not the finished product of you.
Martin Luther once described the human condition with the Latin phrase, “homo incurvatus in se.” Even those of us who don’t know Latin might be able to figure this one out. The phrase roughly translates into “human curved in on oneself.” Luther taught that basically we live in a sinful state, unable to see or to reach out beyond ourselves. We are trapped in the broken condition of seeing only what is us and ours because we are literally “curved in on ourselves.” Salvation then, according to Luther, was an act of God which straightens our back, lifts our shoulders, picks up our head, opens our eyes, and spreads our arms out wide. The curve of salvation is an awareness of something that has happened outside of ourselves that makes us better and whole.
This morning’s Scripture lesson features Jesus teaching in the synagogue again. It is the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest in the Jewish tradition. As Jesus taught, a nameless woman appeared, identified only by her disability. She could not stand straight. And it had been that way for over 18 years. We don’t know what caused her condition. It could have been something physical or psychological or spiritual. But she was bent over.
In C.S. Lewis’ science fiction book Out of the Silent Planet, the main character tries to describe the concept of sin to beings from a different world who do not understand human concepts and motivations. The man attempts to explain why some humans are virtuous and others function from selfish motives. Eventually he settles on the word “bent” to meet the task of defining sin. By “bent”, the character meant misshapen, separated from God, missing a creative purpose, or not functioning in the way we were made to be.
The woman who entered the synagogue was bent over. The writer of Luke says that it was a spirit that crippled her. Whatever controlled her was a burden. It bent her over double. It blocked her vision. It narrowed her horizon. She couldn’t look people in the eyes but rather in the knees. She had suffered a loss of human dignity and freedom for 18 years.
Jesus noticed her and called her over. She was right there, front and center. Suddenly the teaching the congregation received that day was not the Torah or the words of the prophets. This bent over woman was the sermon illustration. Jesus laid his hands on her and immediately she stood up straight. The bent over and crooked body of the woman was released, set free, to look out and up and onward. She held her hands up straight and began to praise God.
Perhaps intentionally, the writer of Luke described a second scene at the synagogue that day. One of the leaders of the temple was furious with Jesus because he had broken a religious law by healing on the Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath commemorates the seventh day on which God rested hence regulations against work on the Sabbath were originally intended to give everyone access to life in the Lord. But Jesus understood that such Sabbath regulations were no longer providing spiritual renewal but were used by the righteous to make difficult judgements that made life even more difficult for other. There was little in those judgements that revealed God’s love. Even though there might have been many in the crowd that day in need of healing, like that bent over woman, the synagogue’s important people believed that they should all come back on Monday, when the timing of healing would be more appropriate.
This wasn’t the first time that Jesus healed on the Sabbath. It wasn’t the first time that he annoyed or provoked the religious leaders. But perhaps these two incidents are in the same story for an important reason. Just as the woman’s bent over stature severely affected her line of vision, the so-called religious leaders are blinded by their rigid and lifeless interpretation of scripture and the law. While the woman could stand up and see salvation in the person of Jesus, and while the crowd around them was able to see the hand of God at work in the healing power of Jesus, it was the so-called religious experts, those certain in their beliefs, those who thought they knew the answers based on their easy judgements and law, they were the ones who seemed least able to see the truth right in front of their eyes.
I remember attending many baseball games at Tiger Stadium at Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit. It was one of my favorite places in the entire world and I have nothing but fond recollections of any time spent there. For me, it was the greatest ballpark ever- better than Wrigley or Fenway or any other that I have visited. But I have to admit that there were a few things about Tiger Stadium that perhaps weren’t so customer friendly. I’m not talking about the bathrooms or the concourses. I’m talking about the stadium pillars or poles that supported the upper deck. Many times these poles blocked your vision of the game. In some cases, seats surrounding the poles were labeled as “obstructed view” and were not sold unless the demand of the game called for it. I recall one day purchasing one of those seats. Obstructed view was stamped clearly on my ticket. I was right behind a large pole. With every pitch and every swing I had to move back and forth just to keep an eye on the action.
In the story of the bent over woman, there seemed to be at least two people with obstructed views of life. They were not seeing all that there was to see. They were missed the very presence of God’s salvation, the clear and present sign of God’s rule in the world and in their lives. The first was the woman with the physical condition, something that blocked her and controlled her and prevented her from seeing the future and from providing her hope. The second was the synagogue leader who wasn’t happy with the healing. He tried to drown out her salvation and her praises to God with his black and white textbook judgements, pointing out that the healing was not done appropriately and that she never should have entered the synagogue in the first place.
There is a good chance that the purpose behind Luke’s account of this story is an invitation- an invitation for us to stand up straight. Jesus wants us to be set loose from our obstructed views and our bent over ways to experience God’s joy and to have a view of how God is working in all of reality. The good news is that salvation is here in the presence of Jesus the Christ. While the powers of darkness and the world’s expectations seem to reign, we can stand up straight and empowered. We can live without the burden of rules and the obligations of expectations and standards and set our eyes forward to possibilities and hope. We can let go of the infirmities of spirit that we’ve been dragging around and experience the transforming power of Christ in our lives. God’s power is that which straightens, which heals, and which inspires.