The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale (Toronto), on Sunday, August 25th, 2013.
This past week a new exhibit opened at the AGO featuring the work of Ai WeiWei. Ai is a Chinese artist and activist, and much of the work highlighted at the AGO show was created in response to the schoolhouse controversy that grew in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. It wrought major devastation on the area, 70,000 dead for example. Of the dead, over 5,000 were school children who died when their schoolrooms collapsed during the quake. This was a matter which the Chinese government attempted to conceal because of the shoddy work and substandard building codes for the schools. All of the pieces in Ai’s show are quite moving but one in particular struck me. The piece is entitled, Straight, and it is composed of no less than 38 tons of rebar (the steel bars that are used during construction to reinforce concrete). The rebar is stacked one upon the other at varying heights in a space roughly 20‘x40’. This gives it the effect of a rolling landscape, but the two sides are off-set so that the landscape is fractured. However, what makes Straight particularly moving is that the rebar it is composed of was recovered by the artist from the very schoolhouses that collapsed during the 2008 earthquake. Ai had every piece of mangled rebar straightened through a painstakingly laborious process that served as a memorial to each earthquake victim. This massive work is Ai’s response to the government’s unjust refusal to acknowledge the victims and further reflects his anger at the government’s desire to move forward as if nothing had happened.
So, it’s the sabbath and Jesus is in the synagogue teaching, as per usual. “And just then there appeared,” says Luke, “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” (Lk 13.11). Evidently she had some sort of condition whereby this spirit had her bent over and unable to stand up straight. You can imagine this poor woman’s lot, can’t you? She had this condition for eighteen years. Had she been married once? Did her husband write her a certificate of divorce due to her deformity? Perhaps her condition meant that no one wanted her, maybe she never married. Either way, she’s crippled, and she’s a woman, and she’s alone, so she’s not off to the greatest of starts when it comes to social standing. Let’s just say this woman wasn’t exactly sitting at the head of any tables. But Jesus saw her. Here is a sign of Christ’s compassion. Here is this woman, deeply, deeply oppressed. Tangled up and bound by Satan, as Luke tells us. Most probably didn’t notice or care that much, except to see her as some sort of spectacle. This is not so with Christ. She captures his eye. Jesus saw her. He cared for her. And upon seeing her he called her over and the NRSV tells us that he said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” (13.12). The NIV translates it much the same way. However, this way of putting it is not quite true to the original language. For you language nerds, the verb here translated “you are set free” is in the perfect tense and passive voice. For you non-language nerds, this just means that it would be better translated, “you have been freed.” God has made her strong. This has happened to her, and when Christ laid his hand on her, “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God,” (13.13).
This isn’t just the isolated healing of an individual but rather it foreshadows and points toward another reality. It is a sign, in the present, that points to God’s future, when God will once and for all set not just this woman but the whole world straight. It is a picture of the restoration of God’s people, the shalom of sabbath, in which the city of God and indeed the world is rebuilt. Beg your pardon? How do we get all of that from this healing? There’s a few clues. For one, this event occurred on the sabbath. The sabbath has to do with rest and restoration. It also brings to mind Jubilee, a time when captives are set free and things are “re-set”, as it were. Other clues lie in the surrounding portions of scripture. Fr. Ajit preached a couple of weeks ago on the parable of the rich fool. This man is concerned with building up his wealth in the present. What’s Jesus’ response? “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you,” (12.20). Don’t worry about storing things up, everything is about to change! Shortly following that there are a few other sections of scripture just prior to our reading this morning. There’s the bit about the watchful slaves: “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes…” (12.37). There’s also the bit that we heard last week about interpreting the times: “You hypocrites!” Jesus says. “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (12.56). So, what’s about to change? What is it about this present time that calls for a certain alertness?
The Bible sometimes speaks of two ages. There is the “present age” which is under the rule of Satan and characterized by evil, what Paul at times calls the “present evil age” (Gal. 1.4). Then there is the age to come, when God will fully and finally straighten things out. For example, a little later in the gospel Luke will refer to those who, “in the age to come,” (18.30) will receive “eternal life”. The point that the New Testament makes, perhaps more than any other, is that this “age to come” has already appeared in Jesus Christ. For example, Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth describes the early church as those, “on whom the ends of the ages have come,” (1 Cor. 10.11). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews refers to those who have shared in the Holy Spirit, “and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,” (6.5). For the writers of the New Testament, this second age, the age of restoration and rest, the age when God will set the bent world straight, has appeared in Christ Jesus. To be sure, it will not be fully manifested until his second coming, but the way has been opened up to us in Christ. The healing of this woman on the sabbath is a sign that points to this reality. In Jesus, God has touched the world in all of it’s bentness and ugliness, and has set it straight.
Truly, this has happened in Jesus. The words that are here translated “bent over” and “stand up straight” are fairly uncommon in the New Testament. They do appear in an interesting place in the gospel of John, however, that lends to our reading of this episode in Luke. In the eighth chapter of John, there is a scene in which a woman is caught in adultery. The Pharisees grab her and drag her before Jesus, stones in hand. They are ready to kill her. They confront Jesus: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (8.4-5). Jesus does not immediately answer them verbally. What does he do? The scriptures say, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground,” (8.6). Jesus bent down. A little later, from this bent position, the scriptures say, “Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied. To which Jesus responded, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” In taking on human form in Jesus, God choses to be bent out of shape, he identifies with us in our bent-out-of-shapeness and assumes our deformity, so that he might straighten up and we straightened up in him, proclaiming freedom for the captives and life for the dead. In Jesus, God re-forms human creatures out of the rubble of sin and death. It only makes sense then, if this is what God has done in Jesus, that Jesus heals this poor bent-out-of-shape woman. He sets her straight, he heals her, and in so doing reveals that this is the destiny of the whole wide world.
This is all terribly good news of course, and yet it is not received by all as just that. The poor old leader of the synagogue got his nose all bent out of shape at the fact that Jesus had healed on the sabbath. The horror! Of course, the indignity of the synagogue leader towards Jesus simply served to prop up his own self-righteousness. Jesus will have none of it, “you hypocrites!” The woman on the other hand is filled with jubilation. All she knows is that she was bent over and now she is standing up straight! She is overjoyed and immediately begins to praise God! This is reminiscent of one of the earliest Christian images which the first believers adopted from Judaism, that is the Orans (latin for ‘praying’). So, one thing to note about this woman’s straightened out position is that it is a posture of prayer. The other thing to notice is a brief instance later in Luke where he uses the very same word that he here uses to describe the woman standing up straight: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near,” (21.28). This is from a portion of Luke where Jesus is talking with his disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem. They need to be alert, to pay attention to the signs. That is to say, the posture of this newly straightened out woman demonstrates not only her gratitude and prayerfulness, but so too her watchfulness and attentiveness to the changing times, to the coming of the kingdom of God in Christ Jesus. The same is true for you and I. In light of the inbreaking kingdom of God that straightens out you and I, we are invited into a life of gratitude and praise, a life of faith, the only sort of life that makes sense given what God has done in Jesus. And we live this life in anticipation, looking ahead to that great heavenly banquet, when God will have finally and fully straightened out this bent-out-of-shape world.
It’s important to note that Jesus is the main actor here, as the herald and bringer of the kingdom of God. It is Jesus’ touch, and only his touch, that can take this bent up woman and make her straight. And it is only Jesus’ touch that can elicit from her a response of faithfulness. This is no less true for us today. As we pray for our church and for our neighbourhood, as we ask each week that God’s kingdom would come on earth, in Riverdale, as it is in heaven, we must remember that this is primarily the work of the risen Jesus. Yet, he promises us the gift of his Spirit, whereby we mysteriously are united to Jesus, becoming his Body, and becoming participants and co-workers, if I may say, in the kingdom of God. We, like the woman in our gospel reading today, receive the kingdom when Christ touches us, and we enter it with praise and thanksgiving. From this posture, straightened out in Christ, grateful and praising the One who’s kingdom it is, we are in a unique position to be attentive to the ways in which Jesus continues to bring the kingdom all around us and invites us to work alongside of him, and with him, and in him, as he works in us and through us. This sort of work isn’t big and fabulous, there most often aren’t any spotlights or fireworks. There is only the small and seemingly insignificant act of self-giving love. Like the mustard seed which grows into a large tree, or like the little bit of yeast which leavens the whole loaf, it is through small and faithful acts, that have been prepared for us to do in Christ, which God uses to touch and heal others and bring them into his eternal kingdom. And in just this way God uses folks like you and I, real creatures who are capable of acting, to be a part of the straightening out of the world in Christ.
who in Your Son Christ Jesus assumed our bent-out-of-shapeness and straightened us out,
may we receive and enter your kingdom with gratitude and praise, becoming co-workers,
knowing full-well that this is your good plan for the whole wide world.
Here are a few images of Straight: