“Healing Anytime” Colchester Federated Church, August 25, 2019, (Luke 13:10-17) Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Right now I’m reading a book called Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Riess.  In the book, Riess tries a different spiritual practice each month for a year in a quest to become saintly.  Her spiritual practices include fasting, lectio divina, contemplative prayer, gratitude, generosity, sabbath-keeping, and so on.  It’s a down-to-earth book about Christian spirituality in part because she fails at just about everything.  What emerges is a story about spiritual failure and what we can learn from failure.

In the chapter on keeping the sabbath, Riess decides to do her best to keep the sabbath the way that some Orthodox Jews do.  The guidelines she discovers are quite strict and difficult to manage.  She explains, “However things are when the Sabbath begins are how they need to remain until the Sabbath ends—no washing, cutting, cleaning, painting, or the like.  I’m not supposed to change anything from its original state.”[1]  There’s a list of thirty-nine categories of things to be avoided on the sabbath and it’s very specific, including activities like: carrying, burning, extinguishing, finishing, writing, erasing, cooking, washing, sewing, tearing, knotting, untying, shaping, plowing, planting, harvesting, selecting, and so on.[2]  So for a strict observance of the sabbath, one cannot boil anything, bake anything, or even toast bread—because all of those ways of cooking change food from its original state.  Now perhaps we think of these restrictions as too much, but all of them are designed to honor the example of God.  God, who created for six days and rested on the seventh day—making that day of rest a holy day when no work must be done.  And let’s not forget that God commanded that we remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.

Today’s Gospel text from Luke’s 13th Chapter concerns a conflict between Jesus and a fellow Jew who happened to be a synagogue leader.  It’s a conflict that revolves around the observation of the sabbath and their differing views on the matter—how to remember the sabbath day and how to keep it holy.  Jesus heals a woman who had been bent over and crippled for eighteen years.  Jesus sees her, calls her over to him and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”[3]  He lays his hands on her and she immediately stands up straight and begins praising God.

Luke tells us that the leader of the synagogue is indignant.  Not because Jesus heals this woman it seems, but because he healed her on the sabbath.  That’s where this passage gets especially interesting with the synagogue leader declaring, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”  So it appears that he’s even more upset at the woman than he is at Jesus.  He’s mad at this woman who came to the synagogue while Jesus was teaching on the sabbath.  She shows up perhaps hoping to be healed, but not outright asking Jesus to heal her.  It’s Jesus who sees her, as he often saw those whom others ignored.  It’s Jesus who calls her over.  It’s Jesus who declares her free from her ailment and lays his hands on her to make it so.  But the synagogue leader is especially indignant that this woman (whose name we will never know) dared to show up for healing at the synagogue on the sabbath itself.

Jesus isn’t having it.  After healing her and this woman getting put down by that religious leader, Jesus answers him and speaks to anyone who may be holding similar views in their own hearts: “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 bondage on the sabbath day?”[4]  This is one of those mic drop moments of Jesus’ ministry.  The crowd rejoices for the wonderful things that Jesus is doing (they obviously find no violation of sabbath observances in this healing) and his opponents are put to shame.

It’s helpful to view this passage as showing a conflict within a specific religious tradition.  One of our Jewish guides (Jared) told us when studying in the Holy Land that he’s observed over the years that Christians tend to argue with each other about orthodoxy (right beliefs.)  We do.  We even burned one another at the stake in the past for different theologies over Communion, Baptism, and Ecclesiology.  Jan Hus (a Protestant Reformer who was active in church reform movements in the early 1400s in what is today the Czech Republic) was burned at the stake for heresy against the doctrines of the Catholic Church.  Jan Hus is often considered the first Church Reformer as he lived before and influenced Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others (though we hardly ever hear about him!)  Jan Hus remains a good (and disturbing) example of what Christians have done to one another when we fight about right beliefs, lest we get too high and mighty about people of other faiths having conflicts with one another.

Christians tend to argue with one another about orthodoxy (right beliefs) still to this day.  Whereas Jared told us that Jews tend to argue with one another about orthopraxy (right practices.)  This is exactly what we see in our Gospel text this morning with Jesus and the leader of the synagogue (both Jewish men) arguing with one another about how to observe the sabbath.  They are not arguing about their beliefs about the sabbath (or whether or not the sabbath is important to observe).  They are getting into the specifics of how to properly observe the sabbath.  Work is prohibited on the sabbath, and is the healing that Jesus performed considered work?  The synagogue leader would say yes.  Jesus counters this argument by stating that oxen and donkeys are untied on the sabbath and led away to water.  If animals are set free from their bondage on the sabbath, shouldn’t this Jewish woman (this daughter of Abraham) be freed from her bondage on the sabbath?  The leader doesn’t appear to have an answer to Jesus’ point here.  The crowd goes wild with rejoicing because Jesus just freed this woman for new life, and they witnessed the miracle right before their eyes.

Arguments about right beliefs still happen in Christianity and arguments about right practices still happen within Judaism.  Here’s a modern example within Judaism—the holiest religious site within Judaism is the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  It’s the last remaining part of the Temple that wasn’t destroyed when the Romans sacked Jerusalem.  Because it’s such a sacred site, there’s high emotions when Jews come there to pray.  The wall is divided by a low fence and men are permitted to pray on one side and women are permitted to pray on the other side.  The men’s section is large, and the women’s section is quite small.

A movement began in 1988 called Women of the Wall.  It’s a group of Jewish women from around the world who seek equal rights to pray at the Western Wall.  These women seek the right to wear prayer shawls and to pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud.  The goal is to make the Western Wall a holy site where Jewish women can pray freely (even though this public worship remains within the small women’s section of the Wall.)  Unfortunately when these women go to the Western Wall to conduct services, they are met with resistance.  Because some of the Jewish men present (from Ultra-Orthodox groups) are offended by their worship.  Physical fights sometimes break out.  Nevertheless, they persist.

If one were to read up on the movement on the Women of the Wall website, here’s where these Jewish women find themselves now, “As of today (2018), women of the Wall hold a prayer service every Rosh Chodesh, except for Shabbat and Rosh Hashana at the Women’s Section of the Western Wall. This prayer is a demand for equality at the Western Wall. WOW’s mission is for women’s right to pray freely at the Western Wall, including singing, putting on tefillin (phylacteries) and tallit (prayer shawl) and reading out loud from the Torah Scroll.”[5]

While these rights may seem understandable to us (Christians looking from the outside in), they aren’t understandable in the minds of some conservative folks within the Jewish tradition.  And so the arguments about orthopraxy continue, just as they did when Jesus argued with the synagogue leader about how to properly observe the sabbath.  Just as Jesus argued that the sabbath is a perfect time to free people from whatever holds them in bondage and others didn’t share his view.  Because in their minds, healing constituted work and work is forbidden on the day that God gave us to rest.

The truth is that there are any number of issues that religious folks don’t see eye to eye about, whether we are arguing about right beliefs or right practices.  There will be differences of opinion within religions.  There will be different ways of living out one’s faith.  There will be times when we simply cannot understand why another person feels that way about something when we may feel the exact opposite.

Though Jesus took a stand.  And let’s be honest, he even threw in an insult by calling people who disagreed with him hypocrites!  He did so because Jesus was standing up for what he believed in his heart to be right.  He was standing up for a person who didn’t demand healing and got blasted for Jesus healing her on the wrong day anyway.  Jesus was standing up for the idea that God desires freedom for all of us, and that was worth the conflict with those who disagreed with him.  Sometimes we must stand up for what’s right, especially when it comes to protecting the vulnerable.  Knowing that when we do—we are walking the path that Jesus himself walked.  And may we remember that God desires freedom—that we will be free to be who God created us to be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor.
[2] “The 39 Categories of Sabbath Work Prohibited by Law,” Orthodox Union, July 17, 2006, https://www.ou.org/holidays/shabbat/the_thirty_nine_categories_of_sabbath_work_prohibited_by_law/
[3] Luke 13:12, NRSV.
[4] Luke 13:15-16.
[5] Women of the Wall, https://www.womenofthewall.org.il/the-first-years/