Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Unbound - A sermon about Luke 13:10-17

A frog goes into a bank, and hops up on the desk of the loan officer. ''Hi,'' he croaks. ''What's your name?''

The loan officer says, ''My name is John Paddywack. May I help you?''

''Yeah,'' says the frog. ''I'd like to borrow some money.''

The loan officer finds this a little odd, but gets out a form. ''Okay, what's your name?''

The frog replies, ''Kermit Jagger.''

''Really?'' says the loan officer. ''Any relation to Mick Jagger?''

''Yeah, he's my dad.''

''Hmmm,'' says the loan officer. ''Do you have any collateral?''

The frog hands over a pink ceramic elephant and asks, ''Will this do?''

The loan officer says, ''Um, I'm not sure. Let me go check with the bank manager.''

''Oh, tell him I said hi,'' adds the frog. ''He knows me.''

The loan officer goes back to the manager and says, ''Excuse me, sir, but there's a frog out there named Kermit Jagger who wants to borrow some money. All he has for collateral is this pink elephant thing; I'm not even sure what it is.''

The manager says: ''It's a knick-knack, Paddywack, give the frog a loan; his old man's a Rolling Stone.''[1]

Give the frog a loan.   That might seem like gratuitous humor, but it’s not. A loan then becomes a debt, a burden, something to which one is bound.

Jesus came so that we might be unbound.  Jesus sets us free from whatever burdens us or binds us. We find this release by turning to and trusting him, and we are called to help others find this freedom.

That’s what we learn from the story we read today from chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel.  We may have heard this story before and not paid much attention to it.  I have at times dismissed it as “just another healing.”  But this story has a lot going on that we might easily miss. 

In this story, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue.  This is not unusual for Jesus.  While he is teaching, he sees a woman come in who is stooped over, and he heals her.
Healing is not unusual either.  Jesus often sees people in need of healing and he heals them.  The synagogue leader gets upset at this healing because it is the Sabbath.  It’s not the first time that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, and not the first time a synagogue leader has gotten upset about it.  But there are aspects of the story that are unique.

One of these is that Luke tells us the woman is crippled by a spirit and so Jesus does not say “you are healed” but rather “you are set free.” The language Luke uses here is same as he uses to tell us about the scene later on in which Pilate asks the crowd about releasing a prisoner. (Luke 23) He says, “Shall I release Jesus or Barabbas?” Which one shall be set free?  The crowd chooses Barabbas, and so Jesus remains captive and goes on to be crucified, bearing all our burdens so that we could be set free, so that we could be unbound from our sins and our shortcomings and our fears.

This is what Jesus announced that he came to do during his earlier teaching in the synagogue from Luke 4.  In that story, we hear Jesus reading from Isaiah 61:
the Lord has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed.

Jesus came to bring release and freedom.  He was bound so that we might be unbound.
One of the ways people were bound in Jesus time was by the Sabbath laws.  Scholars say it’s not entirely clear which of those laws Jesus was breaking,[2] but the synagogue leader clearly is upset about what Jesus was doing.  Jesus points out that the law allows them to untie an animal so they can lead it to water.  Why isn’t ok to do the same for people?  People come to God and therefore to church looking for healing and release.  What more fitting time for God to act?  Sabbath means rest and Jesus brought this woman rest that she hadn’t had for 18 years.

Jesus came to bring freedom and release.  He came so that we might be unbound.
This is a hybrid healing – it’s both a physical healing and a spiritual healing.  In verse 16 Jesus names Satan as the one who has kept this woman bound for 18 years.  We tend to dismiss Satan as superstitious or symbolic, but the word Luke uses here is not a euphemism.  In other places in the gospels, some translations say “Satan” where the Greek actually says something like “the deceiver” or “the accuser.”  Here the Greek actually says Satan.  Where we find the euphemisms, it might be that people in Jesus time were hesitant to use the name, just like people today.  I learned this week of a name for Satan I hadn’t heard before: “Old Scratch.”  Have you heard that one?  I’ve seen it before but didn’t realize it was referring to Satan.  Mark Twain uses it in his stories.  So does Charles Dickens.[3]

There are a variety of opinions about what to think about Satan.[4]  Some say there is no such thing.  Others place great emphasis on Satan as the source of all evil.  If Satan exists, he certainly is not worthy of such great emphasis, but I am hesitant to dismiss the idea altogether. We must be careful not to go beyond what the Bible says or to become superstitious. In our understanding of this story from Luke, I think we miss some of the import of what happens if we totally dismiss the idea of evil spirits.  There is more than just physical healing at work in this story.  We can just leave it at this: There is a realm that is beyond our understanding fully, as Paul explains in Ephesians:
Put on the full armor of God, so that you can make your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this world's darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:11-12)

--It’s like the recurring refrain that one of the characters keeps saying in the movie Shakespeare in Love (1998).  In one scene, two men are angrily asking questions about the theaters being closed.  The theater owner explains that it’s ok because these things always seem to work themselves out.  “How?” They ask.  He replies, “It’s a mystery.”  He trusts in providence, the hand of God, and more often than sometimes we would like, so must we.

--As Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes – trying to figure these things out can be like chasing after the wind.

We do see God’s work of spiritual healing at work in this story, and in that we are reminded of the importance of prayer.  We may not always fully understand what’s at work in our situations.  Even illnesses with an obvious physical cause have impact on us emotionally and spiritually.  We cannot divorce our physical selves from the other aspects of ourselves.  We do not fully understand all the ways that prayer helps us, but we know that we need God’s help. 

We are often much better, though, at holding up other people in prayer than we are at asking God’s help for ourselves, or at asking people to pray for us.  We tend to try to handle things on our own, and we don’t need to.

 – Even Jesus asked God for help with his burdens.  We see this most vividly when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is anxious about the pain and suffering ahead and asks God to take it away.  He surrenders to God when he says the words, “Not my will but thine be done.”  Whatever happens, he’s in God’s hands.

Something else we see in Luke’s story about the stooped over woman is that there are a variety of ways to respond to Jesus. We read last week in Luke 12 that Jesus said there would be division. In what we read today, we are seeing that division – between those who are indignant and those who rejoice.  The woman responds with gratitude and praise.  After 18 years of being bent over, we can imagine what a joyful response that must have been.  Some suggest that her response might have been like Psalm 103 which says:
I bless the holy name of God with all my heart. Yes, I will bless the Lord and not forget the glorious things he does for me.
He forgives all my sins. He heals me. He ransoms me from hell. He surrounds me with loving-kindness and tender mercies. He fills my life with good things! (TLB)
Such a beautiful response!  And such a sharp contrast to the response of the synagogue leader.  He gets mad because this isn’t proper. “Come during the week for your healing, not the Sabbath.”  He is oblivious to the greatness of what Jesus has done, to the fact that God is in their midst, and he’s oblivious to the beautiful joy of the woman.  Rules have been broken.  He’s losing control.

How would we respond?

Imagine for a moment that someone has just come in and taken a seat in the back of the room.  After a few moments, they are suddenly so inspired by the Holy Spirit that they start singing, praising God because they just can’t hold their joy inside? 

Does the Holy Spirit do that?  Absolutely. 

Would we join in and share their joy or tell them to shush because it wasn’t the right time to sing?  We may say that would be fine, but how we respond may actually give the message that it’s not.

The third thing we can learn from this story is that we too may need to ask for help in a way we may not always think to ask.  We too may need to be unbound.  We too may have burdens that we are carrying.  We may have chains that bind us, much like Marley in the Dickens classic story “A Christmas Carol.”  Marley shows up as a ghost covered in chains, and he tells Scrooge, “These are the chains I forged in life.”  In death, Marley carries the burden of his focus in life – money, debt, profit, business.[5]  Scrooge is on the same track Marley was, and over the course of the night has visits from three ghosts who help him see how he pushed people away and isolated himself.  Before that night, Scrooge is saying, “Bah humbug” about celebrating Christmas or spending time with family.  Take a day off?  That’s laziness.  That gets in the way of making profit.  But after his night with the ghosts, Scrooge has a new understanding of the importance of cultivating relationships with people and of the value of kindness and grace.

We all carry burdens at some point – history, emotional baggage, ideas that weigh us down, worries, guilt, grief, regret.  These burdens can be crippling emotional and physically.   Imagine if all those burdens were bricks in a wagon that we were pulling up a hill.  We’d be bent over as we worked on pulling that.  What if we didn’t need to take all that will us and could let go and stand up straight and praise God?

There is an old legend about three men and their bags. Each man had two bags, one tied in front of his neck and the other tied on his back. When the first man was asked what was in his bags, he said,

"In the bag on my back are all the good things friends and family have done. That way they're hidden from view. In the front bag are all the bad things that have happened to me. Every now and then I stop, open the front bag, take the things out, examine them, and think about them." Because he stopped so much to concentrate on all the bad stuff, he really didn't make much progress in life.

The second man was asked about his bags. He replied, "In the front bag are all the good things I've done. I like to see them, so quite often I take them out to show them off to people. The bag in the back? I keep all my mistakes in there and carry them all the time. Sure they're heavy. They slow me down, but you know, for some reason I can't put them down."

When the third man was asked about his bags, he answered, "The bag in front is great. There I keep all the positive thoughts I have about people, all the blessings I've experienced, all the great things other people have done for me. The weight isn't a problem. The bag is like sails of a ship. It keeps me going forward. "The bag on my back is empty. There's nothing in it. I cut a big hole in its bottom. In there I put all the bad things that I can think about myself or hear about others. They go in one end and out the other, so I'm not carrying around any extra weight at all."

What are you carrying in your bags?[6]

Jesus invites us to cut a hole in the bags we’re carrying, to let him carry our burdens.  He came to set us free from the things that bind us, so that we might be unbound.  And we are called to share this good news with the world, so that others may also be released from their burdens and unbound by Jesus….so that we can all stand up straight and praise God together.

[2] Darrell Bock, The NIV Application Commentary: Luke (Zondervan), 374.
[3] E.g. the book title “Reviving Old Scratch” by Richard Beck.  It’s on my “to read” list.
[4] Some good discussion of Calvin and Satan here: http://archive.churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_105_4_Hallett.pdf  Calvin does not write Satan off altogether but sticks closely to the evidence in scripture.

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