(A sermon preached on Luke 13:10-17 at the church where I grew up,St. Andrews' Episcopal in Downers Grove IL, the morning AFTER my 20th High School Reunion!)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has 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.” (Luke 4:18:19)
According to the Gospel of Luke, these are the words that Jesus used when he returned to the synagogue in his home town. The Gospel tells us that all spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. However, moments later, those who heard Jesus speak were ready to throw him off a cliff.
Words of warning for any preacher returning to his hometown…
Even those of you who do not know me have likely figured out that I am the son of Kurt & Mary Ann Wiesner, who have been members of this congregation for almost 39 years. I am in town for my 20th High School reunion from Downers Grove North, which was held last night. I am honored to be with you this morning (but would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t a little tired...)
I bring you greetings from the people of All Saints’ Littleton, the Diocese of New Hampshire, and my bishop, Gene Robinson, whose name you may recognize....
There’s always an increase of passion one way or another at my bishop’s mention, and many people want to know what it’s like with him as the bishop. What’s hard for the rest of the world to understand is that for Episcopalians in New Hampshire, he’s just our bishop. By “just”, I mean he is like any good bishop: his primary concern is our joys and struggles as people who are trying to live faithful, communal lives in Christ. He may have rock star status, seeing pictures of him with Obama and Bono makes this clear, but first and foremost, he is Gene, our bishop.
It’s great to be able to preach among friends and family that I grew up with. My first priest was George Williams. George Deatrick led my confirmation class. When, as an 18 year old, I felt a call to ordained ministry, the first person I went to talk to was Jim Leswing. I sang under the direction of Kathy & Karen’s mother, Georgette Reims. And, as a child, I learned what it meant to be a “high church Episcopalian”, dedication to beautiful ritual and the pursuit of social justice, from the slightly intimidating, but truly gentle Ralph Shaw. These are only a few of the many memories I have from growing up among the people of St. Andrews’.
I’m a little nervous morning, perhaps in part from so much past connection, but also due to the many words of warning from Jesus and others about returning to publicly speak in one’s home town. However, that’s not the real reason I brought up the words Jesus used in his home synagogue.
Each Gospel has a theme: an overarching purpose to Jesus’ ministry. For example, in the Gospel of Mark, it’s the Kingdom of God coming near, repentance, and belief in the Good News (Mark 1:15). For Luke, it’s these words from his 4th chapter that I’ll say again:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has 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. (Luke 4:18:19)
It is my opinion that we are to keep these words in mind as we explore the Gospel of Luke. They are the setting and primary back story of every interaction of Jesus’ ministry.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. He sees a woman who is in captivity. Her ailment is not life threatening per se; she has learned to live with it for the last 18 years. Emile Townes writes:
For eighteen years, this unnamed woman must strain to see the sun, the sky, and the stars. For eighteen years she has become accustomed to looking down or just slightly ahead but never upwards without difficulty. For eighteen years her world has been one of turning from side to side to see what those who stand upright can see with just a glance. She is used to this, and no one questions her fate.” (In Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., p. 382)
Jesus, however, sees her, and calls her to him. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He lays his hands on her, and she immediately stands up straight.
What follows is indignation from the synagogue leader. We are told that he is angry that Jesus has cured on the Sabbath. What he does, however, is so classic: instead of going after Jesus, he verbally attacks those who would be healed by Jesus. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”
Perhaps there’s a part of him that is jealous of Jesus, and perhaps his underlying motivation is the question of who has power. However, it’s worth noting a few things. He recognizes that clearly Jesus does have the power to heal, and he also sees Jesus’ interaction with the woman as work. I’d even go further and say that he would call it good work. His anger with Jesus comes not from the healing action, but that Jesus does not follow the established rules.
I think that it’s in our best interest to realize that this synagogue leader is likely not a bad man. It is his belief that he’s doing what is right by following the traditions in place. I can imagine his argument: we have a rule to honor God by observing the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. Work can wait until tomorrow. Sure, we can act in an emergency, but where do we draw the line in granting exception to the faithful following of an observation so that its keeping doesn’t become arbitrary and it loses its power and meaning?
Kate Huey writes that:
“You can feel the tension here between two faithful Jewish men who are both struggling with what it means to be faithful. The religious leader isn't mean-spirited; he's trying to press his case for obedient faithfulness. And so is Jesus. They both want to observe the Sabbath, but they don't agree about how to keep it. Jesus says the time for salvation isn't tomorrow; it's right now, no matter what day it is. In fact, maybe Sabbath is the perfect time for healing!”
We often connect the Sabbath with God’s resting on the seventh day of creation in the opening story of Genesis. However, David Lose suggests that Deuteronomy 5 links the Sabbath to the Exodus; that is, it links Sabbath to freedom, to liberty, to release from bondage and deliverance from captivity.
Lose thinks that this is this tradition that Jesus is tapping into:
(Jesus) reminds his listeners of other instances of when releasing, untying, and setting free is allowed by law and then characterizes the woman's ailment as being "bound by Satan."
Of course it is permissible to set someone free on the Sabbath, Jesus seems to say, for the Sabbath is all about freedom. The Sabbath Day – whether the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday or the Christian day of rest and worship on Sunday – reminds us...all of us, that we too have been captive and were set free, and therefore invites us to look around and see who else might still be bound and waiting for release.”
I think this is what Jesus ultimately means by “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God.
The link to the kingdom of God is actually spelled out in the verses that follow this morning’s passage. Verse 18 continues:
(Jesus) said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:18-21)
Jesus, throughout his ministry, proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God: found in surprising and often ordinary places like the common mustard seed or yeast. When someone…anyone…takes the action needed: the planting of the seed, the mixing with flour, or the setting free of someone in bondage, the kingdom of God draws nearer. Sometimes this happens in the framework of our rules and traditions, but often we encounter the kingdom of God in a way that counters our expectations: challenging our way of doing things. This can be a hard thing to handle, and sometimes good people react badly, like this morning’s synagogue leader.
As the kingdom of God breaks through into our world, encountering places of brokenness and in need of healing, we are called to recognize it as it takes shape in ways we may have never considered.
I believe that this is what God yearns for, and dreams for us. We are all called to actively be part of this vision: to be open to experiencing the kingdom of God, thankful that it is unfolding in both old and new ways, and willing to do our share of the work to make it a reality.