Bent Out of Shape

Luke 13:10-17

Here’s a quick recap of today’s Gospel lesson.  One Sabbath day Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when he sees a woman who has been bent over double for 18 years.  Jesus calls her over to and says, “Woman, you are released from your weakness.  He lays his hands on her, and instantly she stands up straight, and starts praising God.  But not everybody is happy about this. Now the leader of the synagogue is the one who is getting all bent out of shape.  He thinks healing and/or being healed on the Sabbath is a violation of the law.  “Now is not the time,” he says.  “Come back some other day.”

Why is it that no matter what good thing you’re doing or trying to do, somebody is going to get bent out of shape about it?

When the whole country was bent out of shape with the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to straighten things out with a whole package of programs called The New Deal.  This package included the Works Progress Administration to provide jobs in a country where 24.9% of the workforce was unemployed and those lucky enough to have kept their jobs had seen their income cut by 42.5%.  The New Deal package also included Social Security to provide a guaranteed minimum income for retired workers or those too disabled to work.  

The well-off people of Roosevelt’s own social class opposed the New Deal.  They said that it was Socialism and un-American.  They said that putting people to work with the WPA would put the government in competition with private industry.  Other critics, like Huey Long, said the New Deal  didn’t go far enough or do enough.  Voices from a number of quarters said it was too expensive for a country suffering through a depression.  “Now is not the time,” they said.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to champion the interstate 

highway system, his critics called it “another ascent into the stratosphere of New Deal jitterbug economics.”  People who were concerned about the stability of the post-war economy said that the country simply could not afford it.  “Now is not the time,” they said.

When President John F. Kennedy declared in his State of the Union address in 1962 that we were going to go to the moon and take on other ambitious goals “not because they are easy but because they are hard” and because they would “organize and measure the best of America’s energies and skills,” he summed up his challenge by asking, “If not now, then when?  If not us, then by whom?”

“If not now, when?  If not us, then who?”  

I can imagine Jesus saying that to the synagogue leader who is upset with him for healing the woman who had been bent over for 18 years by “a spirit of weakness.”  

“You hypocrites!” he says. “You’ll untie your donkey on the Sabbath, you’ll let your ox out of its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water, but you don’t think this daughter of Abraham,  your sister, should be released from her bondage on the Sabbath?  What, 18 years bent over in pain isn’t long enough for you?  Now is not the time?  Well, if not now, when?”

“This woman, a daughter of Abraham,” he said “has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years.  Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?”  

Held in bondage by Satan.  The implication of what Jesus was saying was that anyone who would oppose her being freed from the “spirit of weakness” that had been keeping her bent over would be collaborating with Satan.  

There’s something evil about prolonging someone’s pain when you have the means and opportunity to provide relief.  

There’s something evil about prolonging someone’s bondage when you have the means and opportunity to set them free.  

More than 100 million people in this country are now dealing with some degree of medical debt.[1]  62% of those with medical debt had medical insurance when the debt was incurred but found that their insurance did not cover the expensive treatment, meds or procedures they needed.  Some will experience bankruptcy because of medical debt.  Some will lose their homes.  All of them are in bondage to a for-profit medical system.  But when we talk about Medicare for all or some other form of universal health care like the kind every other industrialized country in the world provides for their citizens, the insurance companies all say in unison, “We can’t afford it.  The economy won’t sustain it.  Now is not the time.”  

There’s something evil about prolonging someone’s pain when you have the means and opportunity to provide relief.  

There’s something evil about prolonging someone’s bondage when you have the means and opportunity to set them free.  

We seem to be perpetually caught between factions that want to bring healing to our over-heating planet and forces who are worried about the costs and the changes that would come with fixing the problems we have caused.   As we talk about funding new infrastructure for producing renewable energy, as we talk about ways to make more electric vehicles and make them more affordable so we can reduce the pollution that produces global warming, as we talk about more mass transit, there is a chorus of voices saying, “It’s too expensive.  The economy won’t support it.  The technology is not all there yet.  Now is not the time.”

When we talk about how we can address the lingering and malignant nastiness of racism, and antisemitism, we run headlong into people who want to remove the books and curricula that teach about these things from libraries and schools.  They don’t want their children to feel bad about the way their forbears treated people who were different from themselves.  They don’t want their children to know about our legacy of slavery, and they really don’t want them to know how de-humanizing and violent slavery really was.  They don’t want them to know about Jim Crow laws and segregation.  They don’t want them to know about all the ways that racism is still making life difficult to impossible for people of color.  “They’re just children,” they say.  They’re too young to be exposed to those things.  Now is not the time.”  

Well if not now, when?  If they don’t learn about the ugly hate and violence of our shared past, how will our children know not to make the same horrible mistakes in the future?  How will they understand the hate and violence they still see today?  

And what about the Black children and Brown children and Jewish children and Muslim children who are still living with the challenge of all that racism.  The redlining may be gone on the map but the neighborhoods it created linger on along with their diminished opportunities and services and quality of life.  These children of God have been held in bondage for centuries.  Isn’t it right that they be released?  Isn’t it right that they be freed from the things that have bent their lives out of shape?  Isn’t it right that in the name of Jesus and in the name of our common humanity we should stretch out our hands and help them stand up straight…even on the Sabbath?  If not now, when?  If not us, then who?

How will our children understand how destructive and wrong it is to treat others as something less human, something less than children of God, something less than their siblings in Christ if they don’t learn about it when they’re still young enough to have some empathy?  How will they understand the brokenness of the world they are inheriting from us if we don’t teach them about the mistakes we made?

Yes, they will feel bad about it.  Yes, it will make them sad.  That’s the point.  That’s how they will be moved to do better.  

Those who don’t want to see us address racism and antisemitism and all the other destructive and violent isms that are tearing our country and our world apart try to disparage and belittle those of us who are trying to create awareness and change things for the better.  They try to dismiss us by saying we’re “woke.”  They say it like it’s a bad thing.  

Do you know what woke means?  It’s a term that originated in the Black community.  Woke means you are awakened to the needs of others.  Woke means you are well-informed, thoughtful, compassionate, humble and kind.  Woke means you are eager to make the world a better place for all people.  Woke means you are aware of the systems we live in and how they can produce unequal opportunities and outcomes.

Jesus told us to be woke.  He told us repeatedly to stay awake.  Jesus told us to read the signs of the times.  Jesus told us to pray for God’s reign of love and respect to become a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  

Jesus himself ran headlong into that all-too-human propensity to defend the status quo.  He was continually challenged by people who were upset because he didn’t play by the rules.  “There are six days of the week for working.  Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.”  But Jesus didn’t think anyone should have to wait for healing or to be set free from bondage.  Not even on the Sabbath.

Today’s Gospel tells us that the things Jesus said to the synagogue leader shamed his enemies.  Nobody likes to be shamed.  But sometimes that’s what it takes to humble us.  Sometimes that’s what it takes for us to learn.  Sometimes that’s what it takes to wake us up.

There is so much that needs the healing, freeing and restoring touch of Christ in our world.  There are so many who need to be freed by the love of God.  When we follow Jesus, we are choosing to do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  When we follow Jesus, we are choosing “to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” for the healing of our communities and our world.  When we follow Jesus we are choosing to let the shame of our history teach us to follow a more generous and loving Way through our present time and into the future.  When we follow Jesus we are choosing to help a society that is bent out of shape to stand up straight.  

If not now, then when?  If not us, then who?

[1] Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2022

Stand Still

Mark 10:46-52

One of the things you can do to really bring stories from the Bible to life and get more meaning from them is to picture yourself in the story.  Read through it slowly and think about each of the characters, then ask yourself, “Who am I in this story?”  

So let’s go through this episode again, and as we do, think about who you might be if you were one of the characters in this narrative.  

Jesus and his disciples are on the way up to Jerusalem.   As they pass through Jericho, there’s a large crowd with them because by this time Jesus has become pretty well known, but also a lot of people are travelling to Jerusalem for the coming Passover.  As they’re leaving town—Jesus, the disciples, the crowd—they encounter Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting at the side of the road.  Very few of the minor characters in Mark’s gospel are named, so we have a clue that maybe we should pay a little more attention to Bartimaeus.  

Bartimaeus hears the crowd shuffling by and when he hears someone mention Jesus, he shouts out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd tries to silence him, but he persists and shouts out all the more loudly, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  

And this is when a fascinating little thing happens in the story.  It’s fascinating, but it’s small, so it’s easy to slide right past it.  It says in the text, “Jesus stood still.”  Jesus hears Bartimaeus over the hubbub of the crowd and he stops.  And stands still.  

Can you picture it?  Jesus is standing perfectly still, so the crowd stops.  They stand still, too.  Everybody stops to see why Jesus has stopped and is just standing there, right there in the middle of the road.  That—that moment when everything has come to a standstill—that is when Jesus says, “Call him over.”  So someone in the crowd calls out to Bartimaeus, “Cheer up! On your feet!  He’s calling you!”  

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, leaps to his feet and sprints over to Jesus.  So now they’re face to face, and Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”  “My teacher,” says Bartimaeus, “let me see again.”  The Jesus says to him, “Go.  Your faith has healed you.”  And just like that, Bartimaeus can see again.

But he doesn’t go.  At least he doesn’t go back to what he was doing before.  Instead, he follows Jesus on the way.

So if you put yourself in this story, who are you?

Maybe you’re a bystander.   You live in Jericho in a nice little house right there on the main road.  It’s a great place for people-watching.  Everyone who’s on the way to Jerusalem goes right by your door.  You see Jesus passing through, and you’re interested.  You’ve heard a lot about him.  You would certainly be willing to engage in a polite conversation with him if he suddenly wandered over to your porch and asked for a drink of water.  But he seems determined to keep moving, so that’s not going to happen.  Plus there are all those other people with him, so even if you felt moved to go over to him, how close could you get?  And what would you talk about anyway?  No, all things considered, it’s easier to just watch the Jesus parade from the safe distance of your front porch.  You don’t need to get in the middle of it.  Better not to get involved.  But wait a minute… he’s stopping.  He’s just standing there.  What’s he doing?  O look!  He’s going to do something about that annoying beggar who’s always just sitting there across the road from your house, bothering people for spare change.  About time somebody did something about him.  You know, there ought to be a law to keep people like that from cluttering up nice neighborhoods like this.  

So is that who you are in this story?

If you’re not a bystander, maybe you’re one of the disciples.  You’ve been following Jesus for quite a while now, so long that sometimes you forget why you’re still with him, especially with some of the things he’s been saying lately—telling you he’s going to be rejected by the priests and authorities and then crucified… What the heck does all that mean, anyway?  He’s got to be talking figuratively, right?  You’d ask him to explain it again, but it’s so hard to get any time alone with him lately.  This crowd is around all the time and it just seems to keep growing.  He talks about getting to Jerusalem like it’s so urgent, but then he’ll stop to heal someone or share an observation about something or debate someone, and the next thing you know you’ve lost half an hour—or half a day.  Maybe after Jerusalem, after the Passover, things will get back to normal…not that your time with him has ever been anything like normal.  You can’t remember the last time you just had a day off to sit in the shade and think.  Every time you try to get away the crowd seems to find you and they bring along everyone who so has so much the sniffles to see if he can heal them.  It seems like you’re spending all your time and energy lately on crowd control.  And even when you’re on the move there are people on the road who want his attention—like that noisy blind beggar over there.   Aaaand, there it is.  He’s stopping.  Huh… he’s just standing there.  Okay, here we go, he’s calling the beggar over to him.  The way things have been going, that guy’s going to want to join the group and follow you.  Just what you need.  Another hanger-on.  Another mouth to feed.  Maybe after Jerusalem you can just chuck it all and head back to Galilee.  

So is that who you are in this story?  One of the disciples?

Maybe you’re part of the large crowd.  You’ve been trying to get closer to Jesus so you can hear what he’s saying, and there’s so much you want to ask him, but every time you think you see a way to squeeze in closer, someone jostles you aside and you’re back where you started.  It’s no fun just being part of the crowd, surrounded by all this noise.  Every time Jesus starts to say something the people right behind you start talking about some mundane thing or another and you can’t hear Jesus over their loud voices.  It seems like everybody just shouts, and the bigger the crowd gets, the louder they get.  Haven’t they ever heard of nice, quiet conversational voices?  Oh great.  Who’s shouting now?  Someone tell that beggar to shut up.  It’s hard enough already to hear what Jesus is saying.  Wait… what’s Jesus doing?  He’s stopping.  He’s just standing there.  Everybody’s stopped.  Hey, this is your chance to get closer to him while everyone’s just standing there.  Oh no.  He’s calling the beggar over to him.  And isn’t that just your luck.  Well, it’s still a good hike to Jerusalem.  Maybe you’ll find a way to get close to him while you’re on the way.

So is that who you are in this story?  Someone who is travelling the same road in the same direction but not really getting close enough to Jesus to get the full picture of who he is and what he’s about and what he means for you?

Are you, maybe, Bartimaeus?  You sit passively by the side of the road as the rest of the world rolls along in front of you, waiting for any little bit of grace or kindness that someone might toss your way.  You would be proactive, making your own way forward, but there’s that one great affliction that stops you, that limits your opportunities and abilities.  And you’ve become so dependent.  If only you could see again.  Or hear again.  Or walk again.  Or think again.  Or laugh again.  Or feel again.  If only there was some light in your darkness, or music in your silence, or strength in your limbs, or clarity in your heart and mind.  You are so tired of being invisible on the sidelines, so tired of the miasma that your life has become.  You hear the crowd ambling by and out of your darkness you ask over and over again, “Anything for me?  Can you spare anything for me?”  And then someone mentions Jesus.  Jesus of Nazareth.  The teacher.  The healer.  The life changer.  You grasp at the straw.  You’re surprised at the force of your own voice as you cry out, “Jesus, Son of David!  Have mercy on me!”  Somebody tries to silence you.  They’re annoyed with you.  They tell you not to bother them—and not to bother the teacher with your need.  With your existence.  But suddenly all the noise stops.  There’s an unnerving silence.  The shuffling crowd is standing still, holding their breath.  Then someone says, “He’s calling you.”  You throw aside everything as you leap to your feet.  Finally, there’s hope for you.  Unseen hands guide you to him until you feel his presence right in front of you.  With you.  And then he asks you the oddest question:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  And part of you just wants to scream.  Can’t he see your affliction?  Can’t he see the great obstacle that’s keeping you from really entering into the fullness of life?  But then it dawns on you…Jesus is not presuming that dealing with your obvious affliction is the thing you most want most from him.  He is treating you like a whole person.  He is waiting for you to tell him what you want most.  And you realize that what you want most, what you need most, is to follow him, but you could do that so much more easily if first he heals you.  So you say let me see again.  Let me hear music again.  Let there be a spring in my step again.  Let my mind and heart be clear again.  Let me laugh again.  Let me feel again.  

So is this who you are in the story?  Are you the person in need at the side of the road?  There’s no shame in that.  Most of us have been that person at one time or another, waiting for our moment of healing.  Is that you?

Or are, perhaps, you’re Jesus?  Don’t dismiss that idea with false humility.  Don’t inflate it with ego, either.  Martin Luther said we are called to be “little Christs” to each other.  Saint Paul tells us that as followers of Jesus on the Way, Christ is in us and we are in Christ.  Jesus, himself, said that just as he was immersed in the life and love of the Father, so we are immersed in his life and love.  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,  I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” (John 17:20-23)

So you could be Jesus in the story.  You could be the one who brings compassion and healing and sight to someone crying out from the side of the road.

Is that who you are?

I think we have all been all of these—the bystander, the distracted disciple, the person going along with the crowd, the person in need.  But for a moment, let’s just stand still.  Let’s stand still so we can hear the voice calling out for mercy.  Let’s stand still so we can see the need that’s begging at the side of the road.   Then from this turning point on the Way, may God empower us to be “little Christs,” bringing attention, compassion, and healing to those who cry out from the side of the road.

In Jesus’ name.

Image © Julia Stakova, Bulgarian artist

A Tale of Two Daughters

Mark 5:21-43

In her book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier writes,  “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”

In today’s Gospel lesson we have a dramatic story of two desperate people from very different circumstances who acted in faith.  They reached out to Jesus because they believed he could help them.  Both of them act on their desperate hopes in public, and take significant risks in doing so, but to understand what’s at stake for them, we need to understand more about two important dynamics in  their culture.  

Ancient Palestine, like most of the ancient world, operated socially as what cultural anthropologists call an “honor culture.”  Sometimes it’s called an “honor/shame” culture.”  This was a highly formal system based on one’s status in society.  Your position and place in society determined with whom you could associate and how you could speak and interact with them.  Male roles and female roles were governed by rigid boundaries and those boundaries were strictly observed.  Shame was the tool that was used to enforce those boundaries.   A person’s reputation and status were vitally important.  One could quite literally take them to the bank,  and if you had any kind of status and reputation at all you were always careful not to do anything to risk your standing in the community.

The other dynamic that’s important in this Gospel lesson is the concept of “clean and unclean” as it was defined by Levitical law in Torah.  I think after 15 months of “social distancing” and Covid-19 precautions we might understand this one a little better than we did in the past.

Most common things were assumed to be “clean” but there were a number of ways to become “unclean.”  Any scaly skin condition made one unclean.  Psoriasis, for instance.  Any discharge of bodily fluids, including menstruation, made one unclean.  Touching a non-kosher animal, touching a dead animal or touching a human corpse made one unclean.  Touching a clay pot that had been touched by an unclean person could make you unclean.  Touching a garment worn by an unclean person could make you unclean.  Unclean was contagious.  So persons who were unclean were isolated.  And persons who were long-term unclean, such as lepers or the hemorrhaging woman in today’s Gospel story, were outcast—they were forbidden to put themselves in any kind of situation where they might “contaminate” others.  

So now with all of that as background, maybe we can begin to see that these two stories, especially as Mark has woven them together, would have been absolutely shocking to those who were originally reading or hearing them.

The two main characters could not be more different, in fact, they stand in sharp contrast to each other.  Jairus is male, wealthy, president of the synagogue.  He is at the top of the “honor” ladder.  For what it is worth, he is one of the few characters other than the disciples who is named in Mark’s gospel.  The hemorrhaging woman is female, impoverished, excluded from the synagogue because of her condition.  She is anonymous. 

But both of them break rules and cross boundaries because they are desperate and they believe Jesus can help them.

When Jairus saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”  Remember those rules of honor culture and social standing?  A man in Jairus position would be expected to bow deeply to Jesus when making a request if he regarded Jesus as an equal.  With the whole crowd looking on, Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs repeatedly for Jesus to come heal his daughter.  In doing this, he puts all his social currency on the line.  If things don’t go well, the crowd will remember how he put his dignity aside and shamed himself.  

For the hemorrhaging woman, it’s another story altogether.  She’s trying to remain invisible, blending into the crowd.  She’s not supposed to be there at all.  But after twelve years of being an outcast, after losing all her money to quack physicians who only made things worse, she had nothing left to lose.  You can imagine her thinking here:  “If touching my clothes can make someone unclean, maybe touching Jesus’ clothes can heal me.”  So she reached out as Jesus was passing by and touched his cloak.

Can you imagine how Jairus feels, what Jairus is thinking, when Jesus suddenly stops.  They’re on the way to his house so Jesus can heal his daughter.  “My little daughter,” he had called her, a term of endearment and affection.  My baby girl.  Time is of the essence.  She is “at the point of death.”  And now, suddenly, Jesus stops and says, “Who touched my clothes?” 

Poor Jairus has got to be going out of his mind.  He must be getting frantic.  He’s got to be thinking what the disciples are saying: “Look at the crowd pressing in on you.  Who didn’t touch you?”  

But Jesus knew that this touch was different.  This touch had faith in it.  And desire.  And hope.  And longing.  And Jesus isn’t taking another step until he knows who it was who reached out to him with all that in her heart. 

“The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came to him with fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”  

Fear and trembling.  Even if she were whole and healthy, it was inappropriate in their culture for her to touch him.  As it was, in her condition, it had been a flagrant violation of the Torah.  Would he rebuke her?  Would he somehow revoke her healing?  Would Jairus, the president of the synagogue demand that she be punished? Would the crowd become indignant and drag her off and stone her?  

Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” 

He called her daughter.  He gave her status and identity.  She would forever be the one Jesus had called daughter.  A daughter of Israel.  A daughter of the kingdom.  A daughter of Jesus.  He told her to go in peace—a word not just to her, but to the crowd in case they had any ideas about punishing her.  He protected her with a word of peace, a safe passage.  He commended her faith and reaffirmed that she was healed.  He returned her to wholeness.  He returned her to community.

And that’s when the bottom fell out of Jairus’ world.  While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from his house to tell him that his daughter had died and there was no point in troubling the teacher any further.  I wonder what he thought, then, when Jesus turned to him and said, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Did he still believe at that point that Jesus could save his little daughter?

When they got to Jairus’ house all the wailing and weeping and noise of Palestinian mourning was already in progress, and when Jesus asked, “Why are you weeping and making all this noise?  She’s not dead, only sleeping,” they laughed at him.  But he shooed them all outside then took Jairus and the child’s mother in to where the child was laid on her bed.  

He took her hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means.  “Little girl, get up!”  And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about. And they were overcome with amazement.

There are all kinds of boundaries that are crossed in these two stories.  All kinds of rules that are broken.  All kinds of traditions that are ignored.

Jesus is on his way to help an important person from the top rung of the social ladder with a life-and-death emergency, but he stops to help a “nobody” who has been removed from the social ladder entirely.  

The hemorrhaging woman touched him, making him unclean.  But he ignores this law and restores her to health, restores her cleanness, and protects her with a word of peace. 

When he takes the dead girls’ hand, he is technically unclean yet again.  Yet again he ignores the whole clean/unclean business.

Jesus is teaching his disciples and teaching us that sometimes for the sake of healing, for the sake of compassion, for the sake of simply doing the right thing, boundaries have to be crossed, traditions have to be ignored, and laws may even have to be broken.  When faith reaches out in hope asking for help, then we do what we have to do, following the example of Jesus.

And that brings us back around to Verna Dozier’s question: “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”

Is your faith moving you to do what needs to be done for those who are reaching out in hope and asking for help, even if it means  you have to cross some boundaries?