Nonconformity

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Nonconformity

A sermon preached by Rev.
Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC August 28, 2016, the fifteenth Sunday
after Pentecost.

Text:  Luke 13:10-17

Now Rabbi Jesus was teaching
in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

 

And just then there appeared
a woman with a spirit that made her doubt whether she was welcome since she had
doubts and questions about some tenets of the faith. She was hunched over, unable
to see (without craning her neck) how important she was in that place.

 

And just then there appeared
a man with a spirit that made him cynical about everything, including himself.
He struggled to trust, to hope, to believe that things might ever be better. He
was hunched over, unable to see the beauty and positive changes happening in
spite of constant struggle.

 

And just then there appeared
a woman with a spirit that made it difficult to manage the anger she felt at
the reality of suffering and injustice. She was hunched over, unable to see
that she didn’t have to manage her anger alone, that there was a whole
community with whom she could lament, rage, and engage in acts of solidarity
and change.

 

And just then there appeared
a genderqueer person with a spirit that told them that they were crazy and
broken. They were hunched over, unable to see that the mystery and beauty of
humanity includes a variety of God-given, created natures.

 

 

And just then there appeared
a man with a spirit that told him that he was a disappointment, that he was not
a man, that he couldn’t be a faithful disciple, because he was gay. He was bent
over, unable to see the strength and gifts and vision that he could uniquely
offer because of his orientation, not
in spite of it.

 

And just then there appeared
people with spirits of grief, guilt, fear, despair, loneliness,
self-righteousness, numbness, mental illness, addiction, exhaustion…

 

Now Rabbi Jesus was teaching
in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

 

And just then there appeared a woman
with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and
was quite unable to stand up straight.  And
Jesus saw her and called her and set her free from what, in the original Greek,
is described as a spirit that causes weakness. 
And the woman praised God at this unsolicited grace!  But the leader of the synagogue was not
having any of it—this is the sabbath after all. 
He directs his words to the crowd, but is really preaching to Jesus who
has just made the mistake of healing on the wrong day.

 

In the two versions of the
Ten Commandments found in the Bible (Ex 20:1-17 and Deut 5:6-21), the only
commandment with a significant variation is the fourth one—regarding the sabbath.  In Exodus, the sabbath commandment is
grounded in creation, recalling God’s own creative activity and subsequent rest.  In Deuteronomy, sabbath is connected to
liberation, with the reminder that God led the people out of slavery in
Egypt.  Taken together, we learn that
Sabbath keeping has to do with both creation and redemption:  delighting in the creation such that we are
ourselves re-created and remembering with joy that God frees us from all that
is enslaving and harmful to our life. 

 

Sabbath understood in this
way makes Jesus’ encounter with the bent-over woman perfectly appropriate.  So why does the leader of the synagogue get
so bent out of shape?  Well, evidently,
over the years, the one clear prohibition in the fourth commandment—no
work—required some further definition; a policy if you will.  In time, according to one commentator, 613
additional rules and regulations were attached to that simple admonition.  The result is that a commandment originally
meant to provide a day of enjoyment and renewal became a fearful thing—leading
folks to worry all day long that they might mess up and actually do something
that could be construed as work.

 

I confess that I feel for the
leader of the synagogue.  Like him, I
want to get it right and to follow God’s teaching.  I am a huge fan of following the
rules—jaywalking makes me nervous as does walking into a place when the sign
says “closed” or not using the blinker when changing lanes.  I am a team player—and, having played sports
for years, I know that when people don’t know or follow the rules of the game, the
whole thing falls apart.  I know through
experience that without shared commitments to agreed-upon norms, community breaks
down.  I feel for the synagogue leader
and can feel the sting when Jesus speaks the word, “hypocrite,” that most
painful of words when directed at those of us who are trying to be faithful, to
get it right.

 

But part of being faithful is
a willingness to receive correction, an openness to learn that we might be
getting it wrong.  Jesus points out that,
according to the current state of things, an ox has a better chance of being
treated well than does a human being; this, due to a provision written into the
Sabbath policy that allows for livestock to be given water on the seventh day.
Perhaps another amendment is called for.[i]  After all, if an animal can be untethered in
order to be cared for on the sabbath, cannot a beloved daughter be set free as
well?

 

In this story, we see Jesus
breaking some of the finer points of the synagogue’s Book of Discipline for the sake of a woman with a spirit that had
crippled her life for eighteen years (what if she is only 18 years old?).  In this case at least, it appears that what
is called “nonconformity” by the religious institution is actually much more
conformed to the heart and intention of God’s Law.  Jesus’ acts of “nonconformity”—in addition to
showing love and mercy—were meant to liberate the faith community from
hypocrisy and from a harmful application of God’s law.  Jesus wasn’t trying to destroy his Jewish
faith tradition or to cause schism. //  “Nonconformity”
has been a word flying around a lot in our United Methodist denomination over
the past months particularly with regard to those of us who stand and act in
defiance of the discriminatory language and rules against LGBTQ people.  My participation in acts of so-called nonconformity
finds inspiration and justification in the story we have heard today and others
like it.  That is, I believe I am
following Jesus.  But, if I am taking
this passage of scripture seriously, I must remain aware that I stumble into
the sanctuary each and every week with some spirit or another from which I need
to be liberated. I need the healing touch of Christ.  And I also need to come open to a word of
challenge, of correction, of conviction. 
I need to be open to Jesus who can see me and what in me needs to be…fixed
and released…

 

We all come to this place in all
sorts of shape, some of us feeling strong and some of us feeling weak and some
of us uncertain and some of us more certain than we, perhaps, ought to be.  We are here to worship or to find a place to belong
or to hear a word of hope or challenge or to confess or to be healed or without
really knowing why we have come.  But you
are here.  Now.  And, thank God, Jesus will not conform to even
well-meaning human rules that would keep him from seeing you and extending
whatever you need to live more fully and to see more clearly.  It may sting, but even that is for the
greater purpose of love and liberation.

 

Now Rabbi Jesus is teaching
on this Sabbath and says, “You are set free.” 
Praise be to God!

 




[i]
I am indebted to the work of Scott Hoezee, Biblical commentator for the Center
for Excellence in Preaching, for the information on Sabbath referred to in the
sermon.  Center for Biblical Preaching at
Luther Seminary, ©Luther
Seminary.  The information was confirmed
by my colleague, Rabbi Steve Weisman of Temple Solel in Bowie, MD.