GiftsEden On The Bay

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Jesus Sees, Jesus Calls, Jesus Frees - 08/21/2016

You might think at the first run through this story that this sort of thing doesn't really happen any more.

We might hear the story and let it create scenes in our minds and stir up feelings in our guts that shape it as a story of antiquity. We imagine a woman, painfully making her way to the synagogue in her town, cruelly rearranged from the way God created her by some unnamed ailment. Maybe in your mind too, her clothing is rather drab and hanging from her bent frame in strange ways, dragging in the dirt. Those who encounter her on the way to and at the synagogue cannot even make eye contact with her to say hello because she is so bent over, so un-straight. They cannot really see her and she cannot see them. I wonder if she watched her feet in the dust of the road as she made her awkward way with her awkward body from her home to her place of worship.

And the story also fills in the way we imagine another character in this story … the law. In this case it is the law of the Sabbath and somehow, a law that began as a gift from God,Deut 5:12-15 has become something that is nothing like a gift for this woman who is “quite unable to stand up straight.”  It is burdensome and heavy law for her and even though the law is not a person, it has been infused with enough humanity, both good and bad,  that it truly becomes another character in this story … it is a rigid player in the life of this woman and her community that Jesus ultimately ends up bringing into question.

But this story would not happen today. Right? If a person walked in here during our Sabbath time … a person so afflicted by something they were “quite unable to stand up straight” … surely they would not go untended just because it was Saturday night or Sunday morning worship time, and certainly not for 18 years.

But I think this sort of thing does indeed still happen and I'd like to share a couple of stories of things I've witnessed just this summer that bear that out.

The first was something I saw with my own eyes. Larry and I and our niece had the opportunity recently to get tickets for an annual local fundraiser of a sunset cruise around Grand Island on the glass bottom boat. As we were heading down to the dock to board, we noticed that some people were gathered with quizzical looks on their faces, they were pointing at something and talking about it. We couldn't really hear what they were saying and we couldn't yet see what it was they were looking at and I think I expected that when we could see what they were looking at it would be an unusual wildlife sighting or a house pet down by the water or something.

But it wasn't anything like that at all. We stepped on the dock and we could see it … it was alarming. It made our hearts stop and the hair on the back of our necks stand up straight. It was a toddler sitting precariously close to the water on wet, algae-covered steps all by herself. She was one unsure toddler movement away from needing to be fished out of Lake Superior.

As we walked up, another woman was walking toward the girl. Our niece began to follow the other woman instinctively. And I thought the woman was going grab the little girl and pull her up to safety. But she didn't. She got about 10 feet away and was starting to talk to her and then she turned around and began to come back, shrugging as if to say I don't know whose she is or where they are. The woman kind of froze up and didn't know what to do and she started walking back toward the dock.

But my niece didn't freeze up, thanks be to God, and she carefully made her way down to the water. She asked the little girl her name and extended her arms to her. The little girl held her arms up and my niece picked her up and brought her up to safer ground.

And as this was happening I heard the other woman and the people she was with questioning whether perhaps my niece knew the child … maybe that's why she was able to go down there and get the child to safety.

And that's when it hit me … this was just like this story in Luke about the woman who was “quite unable to stand up straight.” In too many cases we've become so overly sensitive about something like interfering with someone's child … so overly cautious about what might just be none of our business, that we can actually freeze up when faced with this very basic need to – as my niece said afterward – “Just get the baby out of the water.”

The second story was one someone told me about a woman who is literally crippled herself and she really needed to be moved into more appropriate, barrier-free housing. Getting around the home she was in was a burden to be sure. Her situation was so bad that in order to get into and out of her door she had to drag herself on her knees, up and down wooden steps.

When I heard this, my mind's eye began to fill in pictures, just like when we read this story from Luke. I imagined this woman faced with this daunting and frankly rather humiliating reality every time she needed to go to the store or the post office or wherever. I thought about what that must be like in the rain or the snow. I wondered if others in her town saw this going on. Could they help her? Did they freeze up? Did they not want to embarrass her or interfere in something that was perhaps none of their business?

Well, again, thanks be to God, there are people who can help navigate government programs and other resources available for people like this woman. If you ever have that need or know of someone in that kind of need, please come see me so we can hopefully help make those connections. For this woman, one of those navigator-like people did come into her life and began to help her get out of that unsuitable housing and into a place that was much more suited to her needs.

But the story doesn't end there because rules and guidelines that were originally put in place to provide safety and order and protection ended up becoming a very heavy  and overwhelming burden to her and nearly prevented her from moving into that more appropriate housing.

You see this woman didn't have anyone to help her move. And when the person who was helping her find a safer and more dignified living arrangement tried to help, they were told that they could absolutely not help with that. Don't even think about it. If anything were to happen, if anyone got hurt, if any property was damaged, they could be fired or smacked with a lawsuit.

The person who was trying to help this woman was faced with a  moral dilemma. “What am I supposed to do?” they said when sharing this story. They couldn't just leave the woman in this inadequate and dangerous housing situation. They couldn't bear to come this far in helping her fix the situation and then just drop it.

In the end, the life-giving choice – the Gospel-centered choice – was clear and I'm relieved to say that this woman is now moved into her new place and I won't comment publicly on exactly how that happened. But again, it was a case of this 2,000-year-old-story, set in some dusty scene outside of a synagogue somewhere between Nazareth and Jerusalem, taking a new shape in 2016.

The underlying situation that Jesus is addressing is strikingly similar in each of these stories. It centers on our relationship with the law.

We need law. We are naturally compelled to create law. It helps us make our communities safe and orderly. In the case of the law of the Sabbath, it's more than simply a way to maintain order and fairness. As I said already, the Sabbath law is a gift from God. When we think about where the idea of sabbath comes from, we often go to our creation story. On the 7th day God rested, and so it is good and healthy to model that behavior.

That's very true and I pray that we all practice this self care. But there is more.

God gave us this sabbath law when we were slaves, to ensure that even as slaves we get a break – a time to rest and recoup. And not just us, but also the beasts of the field and the fields themselves. For us, it's a time also to be with family and friends and to worship and praise our God who desires this for us.

But Jesus also knows that we can go overboard with our adherence to the letter of the law or guidelines and rules or social norms … to the point where how we think we should comply with the law actually undermines the life-giving intent that led to the law in the first place.

So the synagogue leader, whose job it was to help people live in the gift of God's law, ends up inadvertently undermining this woman's sabbath.

The woman on the dock unintentionally leaves a child in danger because she does not know if she should meddle in how that child is being cared for.

The navigator helping a woman desperately in need of safe and dignified housing is placed in a position where they could be punished for serving their neighbor as God would have us do.

It is a balancing act. YES to the law that makes life in community possible and, also YES to love and the courage to bend and question that law when it becomes a rigid player in our lives and hurts what God loves so much.

This is a balancing act that we will always be faced with. But there's even more because the astounding Good News in all of this that never gets old or outdated or ordinary is what Jesus shows us about God in his actions for the woman who was “quite unable to stand up straight.” She may not have been seen by others and she herself may not have been able to see others … or Jesus, but … Jesus saw her. And he called to her and he laid his hands on her and healed her.

We can live assured that while we work through our human strengths and weaknesses to keep the letter of the law and the spirit of the law balanced, and while we sometimes do very well at that and sometimes fail miserably … God sees us, even when we cannot see God. And God calls us by name to this table of life, to a brief order of healing, to love one another …

… and there we are healed of our afflictions and there we are straightened up and freed to praise our law-giving and life-giving Creator. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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