Sermon
Luke 13.10-17
August 21, 2016
“Suffering”
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.

When I was young, naïve and arrogant, I had the experience of praying for someone very ill and that person was restored to health. I felt pretty good about what I had done. I took credit for the healing. The next person for whom I prayed, in a similar situation, died. I did not feel very good about that. In fact, I questioned my faith. I had been taught the same things most of you have learned: if I have faith as small as a mustard seed I can move mountains. Jesus told people that their faith made them whole. My favorite stories were the ones where it appears that the faith of friends is the source of a healing miracle. How could I go from having a faith so powerful that my prayers brought about healing and a week later my prayers did not work? Had I lost my faith? Maybe I had not prayed correctly.

It took a bit of work, some consultation with those much wiser, for me to realize that the miracle of healing is not about me. Whether or not healing takes place has less to do with my prayers than it has to do with God. And that is the mystery. I believe in the power of prayer. I also know that prayer is not a means of controlling God. I do not believe that God counts prayers, like popularity votes, to see who gets a miracle and who does not. One of the subtle lessons from our Reformation doctrine on the priesthood of all believers is that saying the words of the ritual exactly correctly, does not invoke the presence and power of the deity. It is a pagan belief in magic to think that the words hold some power over God. It is just as heretical to believe that my weak faith is the cause for someone else’s illness or tragedy. Sometimes Christ comes to heal us of what ails us and sometimes Christ simply stands with us in our pain. Both the healing and the quiet, sustaining presence are aspects of God’s mercy and love.

Whether we receive from God miraculous works of healing, or whether we stand at the foot of the cross in our pain and bereavement, God is with us, merciful, full of compassion and that is a miracle. One of the problems many modern folks have in accepting God is that God does not fit their definition of the way God is supposed to be. When we come at God with the philosophical questions, “How can I believe in God when there is so much innocent suffering in the world?”  How can there be a God who allows children to starve or hurricanes and tsunamis to randomly kill thousands of innocent people? If God loves peace, then why is there so much war? If God loves us as children, then why does God not stop the violence between us? You probably have your own list of questions.

Can you see how framing the question of suffering prejudices the discussion is such a way that the Christian church is bound to lose?  When we begin with this question, we begin with the assumption that God ought to be like we want God to be and is therefore worthy of our faith. Then when we look at the suffering in the world our conclusion is that there must not really be a God. Suffering and injustice do not fit our definition of God. What we are really doing when we allow our thinking to run in this direction is to believe that we are more sensitive to the suffering in the world than God is. The logic is inescapable. How could anyone believe in a God who is less sensitive than I am?

But what if we begin our search with a story? We could begin with our own stories. Perhaps the scarier place to begin is the suffering of our children. But better than our stories, we ought to begin, not with our standards of what God must look like if God is to be worshiped by thoughtful, sensitive folks like us, but rather with the story of the Gospel of God who comes to us as a crucified Jew from Nazareth.

This is not necessarily the God we wanted; it is certainly not the God in whom we have believed. American religion, the Prosperity Gospel does not have time for a suffering God. The Gospel of success does not like a God who is a failure. Obviously crucifixion as a common criminal is not success. All of these other Gospels are our clever attempts to avoid being found at the foot of the cross. If we carefully read the Gospel story then we already know that sooner or later Jesus will meet us there, at the foot of the cross. Jesus is not going to say, “I was only kidding about all that suffering and dyeing.”  What Jesus says to us is, “Take up your cross and follow me.” 

In 2013 many residents of Birmingham, AL were invited to join film maker Spike Lee and watched the documentary film “4 Little Girls.”  The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. The letter of the white clergy from Birmingham urging Martin Luther King to be patient, to “go slow,” that change will eventually come; was the reason for King writing the “Letter from the Birmingham jail.”  It is to be expected that those in authority will urge caution and patience when it comes to change. Think about it: when the next generation wants to change something, anything, it is taken as a threatening statement of failure by the older generation. Of course there is resistance to change. That is exactly what the synagogue leaders are doing with Jesus. It is what the session of a Presbyterian Church would do. What do we expect the session to say when some young kid, about 50 years old, suggests that we paint a room a different color? What about having a different style of music in worship? Or, heaven forbid, dancing down the aisle.

The synagogue leaders’ response to what Jesus did was understandable. They knew the law. It was acceptable to save a life on the Sabbath. The Sabbath keeping laws were for a reason. The laws were not crazy. But the crippled woman in the synagogue was not in any imminent threat of dying. She was only bent over. Jesus’ claim is that he freed her from her bondage.

Some commentators on the passage suggest the 18 years as half of the life-expectancy of a woman in First Century Palestine. I wonder if Jesus saw his mother in this bent over woman. We know a great deal about post-menopausal calcium loss. Jesus’ mother and her contemporaries did not. Whether from the constant stoop of bending under the burdens carried, or from genetic calcium loss and scoliosis, it was a common scene. It is easy to suggest patience when there is no personal connection. Rules seem reasonable when they do not affect the enforcer. What if Jesus did identify with this bent-over woman? What if her disfigurement were his own? Or his mother’s?

Have you had the experience of watching a rule keeper relax the rules when the rule presses down on someone close? When the rules exclude someone we love our eyes are opened to see injustice and unintentional cruelty that we might have recently supported. If the stakes were not so high and so costly in human suffering the recent debates over rules in the church would be funny. Some in the church want rules regarding the place of women, while others believe the most important issue facing the church is homosexuality. Pope Frances is loved by many liberal Protestants for his remark about homosexuals, which he referred to as “gay,” when he responded to a question with, “Who am I to judge?” The Pope also disappointed just as many when he reaffirmed the Church’s position on not ordaining women to the priesthood. If given the option of choosing one over the other, many conservative Presbyterians would choose ordaining women over ordaining homosexuals.

Jesus sees the woman, calls her over and declares, “you are set free.”  Jesus touches her and she is liberated. Luke makes no mention of the woman’s faith or of the faith of others. An important lesson for those who think we need to multiply the prayers or turn up the volume of faith.

The story of healing the woman in the synagogue is followed by two short sayings. One begins with Jesus asking, “What is the kingdom of God like?” In the next one Jesus asks, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” Luke anticipates these questions with the story of the woman in the synagogue. The story is a picture of what the reign of God will be like. Where Jesus is, the kingdom is. Where Jesus is, things begin to be made right.

It is not all right yet. There is work yet to do. Jesus calls us to follow his example in his steps.

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