Luke’s Rebel Jesus, Part 3: Set Free From Bondage

Sermon for March 7, 2010; Luke 13:10-17

Today’s sermon is the third and final part in a series I’ve preached since Feb. 21 on the rebel Jesus in chapters 11-13 of Luke’s Gospel.  This rabble rousing, tough loving Jesus—who roars in the face of the religious establishment and the Roman Empire–is someone we need to pay attention to if we are to understand the meaning of Lent (this time of deep introspection) for our lives and faith. Otherwise, we can’t move forward toward the hope that is Easter.

Over these past few weeks, we have witnessed Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees and lawyers for practicing false piety and ignoring the poor and oppressed; and we have witnessed Jesus’ fierce warning that those who follow him will likely encounter conflict with those in power as well as family and friends.  And now in this morning’s scripture, we witness Jesus’ ability to heal and his rebuke of the religious leaders who are incensed by Jesus’ committing this act on the Sabbath.

The text tells us that while Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, a woman, crippled for 18 years by an illness that has left her bent over and unable to stand, appears. Take a moment to look at that woman who is bent over, who for over a decade has painfully looked at nothing but her feet.

The original Greek word used to describe the woman, the word “kyphotic” notes Dr. Jana Childers, a Presbyterian minister and seminary professor, gives a fascinating clue to what Luke wants us to see:

This is a woman who is bent in on herself. It’s a picture of someone who has not only born the yoke but bought it. She is not just a woman with an infirmity but, as Luke says, with the spirit of an infirmity. Whatever it was that had bent her, whatever emotional or physical burden she had born, Luke suggests, ultimately became part of her until her very body was conformed to its image. There is nothing she can do now to help herself out of the spiritual pretzel her life has become.

And yet this misshapen woman comes inside the synagogue, possibly because she’s heard news about this guy Jesus who told crowds months ago that he was anointed to “proclaim release to the captives…and let the oppressed go free.”

Now look at Jesus, who stops teaching and “calls her over” to him. See the woman shuffle toward Jesus whom she can’t set her eyes upon. As she reaches her destination, watch what Jesus does next. He says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment” but not as if he was looming over her, speaking only to her bent back. That would be odd and uncharacteristic of Jesus. Instead he gets “down on his knees, down in the dirt,” as Jana Childers imagines, and “cranes his neck to look into her face.”

Then Jesus places his hands on her, maybe embracing her head or shoulders or possibly the feet, and immediately she stands up straight and praises God! Picture the expression of elation and wonder on her face, tears of joy streaming down her cheeks. Picture the smile on Jesus’ face and the eye-popping, jaw-dropping expressions on the people in the crowd.  This is an incredible sight to behold!

But then the leader of the synagogue, his face bent out of shape, the mix of a scowl and a frown, says indignantly to his congregation: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

And Jesus stares at his colleague with piercing eyes for a moment before letting out a roar: “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 this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

Jesus’ words shame the leader of the synagogue and other opponents, whom are likely Pharisees and scribes.  And the crowd rejoices “at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.” You can see the people shouting words of praise to God, greeting the woman with hugs, and talking excitedly about how Jesus healed the woman and shamed the indignant religious leaders.

It’s tempting for us, at the conclusion of this story, to see ourselves as that joy-filled crowd.  And maybe we can be that crowd. I hope that we can be, but I’m not sure we’re ready just yet. We’re not ready to rejoice until we, as human beings and as Christians, have a better understanding of what we witnessed in the synagogue and how it impacts our discipleship.

We can’t leave this morning’s text and go about business as usual. We have to let the suffering of this woman whose healing by Jesus offended the religious leaders…point us toward a world filled with women whose suffering annoys those in power and is largely ignored by many people who profess belief in Christ’s love.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his book God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, writes:

“When we look around, we see God’s children suffering everywhere. The poor are getting poorer, the hungry getting hungrier, and all over the world you see many of God’s children suffering oppression. You see God’s children often in prison for nothing. All over the world you see God’s children treated as if they were rubbish. You would not be mistaken to call the situation between the haves and have-nots, between the powerful and the powerless, a form of global apartheid. The statistics are discouraging but they can also be numbing. Only when we remember that the people in each statistic ultimately could be a member of our family, are members of our human family, do these statistics come to life.”

Here are some discouraging and numbing stats regarding women and children, “daughters of Abraham” whom Satan has bound for many years–women who need to be set free from this bondage, not only on our day of Sabbath but every day:

***The 2005 Atlanta Mayor’s Report: Hidden in Plain View reports that between 200-300 young girls, between the ages of 12-14, are trafficked each month for sexual purposes across the state of Georgia, with the primary hub being the Atlanta metro area—the inner city as well as suburbia.  Further investigations and studies reveal that the girls are being forced into prostitution regardless of their socio-economic status, education and ethnicity. And officials say the number of young girls who are sexually exploited on a monthly basis is still about 250 as of this year.

On February 18, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that a “Norcross woman pleaded guilty to pimping a 15-year-old girl for money three years ago. Slated for a jury trial, Melissa Fales, 24, instead admitted to her involvement in sordid transactions involving the teen at her Beaver Ruin Road residence between January and July 2007. The victim is related to Fales’ husband, according to arrest warrants. Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Warren Davis sentenced Fales to 10 years in prison for felony pimping, followed by 10 years probation. The charge is a felony when victims are younger than 18.”

***The PC(USA)’s Peacemaking Program has collected information from various studies and police and intelligence agencies that reveals that “after drug dealing, trafficking of persons is tied with arms dealing as the second largest criminal industry in the world, and the fastest growing; approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders, which does not include the millions trafficked within their own countries; and in the U.S. alone, 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked each year, 80 percent of which are women and girls.”

On January 4, President Barak Obama announced that January would be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month with the following pronouncement:

“The United States was founded on the principle that all people are born with an unalienable right to freedom — an ideal that has driven the engine of American progress throughout our history. As a nation, we have known moments of great darkness and greater light; and dim years of chattel slavery illuminated and brought to an end by President Lincoln’s actions and a painful Civil War. Yet even today, the darkness and inhumanity of enslavement exists. Millions of people worldwide are held in compelled service, as well as thousands within the United States. During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we acknowledge that forms of slavery still exist in the modern era, and we recommit ourselves to stopping the human traffickers who apply this horrific trade …”

***According to the Georgia Department of Community Health, domestic violence and sexual assault are leading causes of injuries for girls and women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the state of Georgia.  Reports indicate that 30% of Georgia women in that age group will be abused at least once by their partners during their lifetimes.  Likewise, one in six women between the ages of 15 and 44 will experience intercourse against her will.  Perpetrators in both instances are more likely to be someone the victim knows such as a husband, boyfriend, date, or relative:

In January, a judge ruled that “former DeKalb County middle school teacher will spend three years in prison and pay hefty fines after pleading guilty to molesting a teenage girl in Clayton County.” Charles Thomas McClendon “pleaded guilty in Clayton Superior Court to two counts of sexual assault on a minor under 16 and one count of interference with custody.”

And this weekend, national and local news media reported that NFL superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers is a suspect in a sexual assault of a Georgia College and State University student at a nightclub in Milledgeville, Georgia.

To reiterate the wisdom of Tutu, “The statistics are discouraging but they can also be numbing. Only when we remember that the people in each statistic ultimately could be a member of our family, are members of our human family, do these statistics come to life.”

We have some choices here: We can allow ourselves to become discouraged to the point of numbness, thus choosing to pretend this abuse toward women doesn’t exist—out of sight, out of mind, out of doing anything about the problem. We can become indignant about the perceived rules that you don’t talk about “political” issues in church or speak of ugly, messy things on a Sunday morning when we should always feel good and “lovey dovey.”  Or we can choose to no longer ignore the abuse and exploitation of women and children and say to the world that the dehumanizing the daughters of Abraham, the precious children of God, is wrong!

The latter is the choice the Rev. Scott Weimer, the senior pastor at North Avenue Presbyterian Church, made when he picked up a copy of the AJC in 2005. Seeing the front page headline about the mayor’s report on child sex trafficking in Atlanta was bad enough. But reading the story and discovering that one of the city’s worst corners for child prostitution is North Avenue and Peachtree Street—the church’s location—was much worse.

Weimer immediately felt the pains of injustice stirring in his heart. He knew he had to share the news from the pulpit and speak directly to the congregation “about this kind of darkness— the commercial sexual exploitation of children happening on the same corner where they worshipped. And doing nothing was not an option:

“Once you know of injustice taking place the gospel of Jesus mandates that you preach to release the captives and cry for the oppressed to go free…The words of Jesus suddenly took on a new power and meaning. There was an immediate human response to take action. Older woman came forward saying ‘we’ll open our houses if you need room.’ Young people, singles, couples and college students wanted to form teams and go into the streets.”

Over the next four years, Weimer, the church and folks in the community of Atlanta, formed the non-profit organization “Street GRACE”, described by the AJC as “an extraordinary coalition of Presbyterians, Catholics and nonbelievers, conservative Christians and feminists, Jews and Muslims, city dwellers and suburbanites,” all engaged in the common purpose of the good they believe in: “to eradicate child prostitution from the streets of Atlanta”

Street GRACE, now in its second year, fosters awareness about the commercial sexual exploitation of children and provides resources to agencies and organizations that are: trying to eradicate prostitution; provide aftercare for child victims; support at-risk youth/mentoring network programs; sponsor at-risk communities (in the inner city and suburbs) that will reduce the environmental conditions that foster and harbor child sex slavery.

Street Grace partners with several area churches, the Gwinnett County Middle Schools and Rainbow Village who help create healthy and safe environments that seek to build up the worth of children and equip them with the gifts to avoid situations that lead to them being victimized. Weimer says:

“We have raised awareness of the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Now we are becoming advocates for them trying to change laws. Recently, Street GRACE filled a hearing room at the state capital supporting a proposed bill that would set a minimum age of prostitution at 18. Under current law children under 17 who are arrested for prostitution are sent to jail, there is no other sentencing option. The underage person working the streets gets double punishment, while the person sending them gets no punishment at all. A lot of these kids are from broken homes, runaways from around the country. A high percentage of these kids are immediately approached by pimps, given shelter and food and then forced into prostitution.”

The awareness of child prostitution was raised for the congregation of nearby Perimeter Church when the youth pastor preached it from the pulpit about a year ago. During a phone conversation on Friday, Amy Walters, the strategy and volunteer coordinator for Street GRACE and a member at Perimeter, that following the worship service that day, several women approached the pastor privately. The women, who were 30+ and married with children, thanked the youth pastor for acknowledging sexual exploitation as a vile atrocity toward women. “We were sexually exploited once. Thank you for recognizing the abuse we went through.”

If we as Christians can hug our children or friends, especially our daughters of Abraham, and tell them we love them on a Sunday morning…

If we as Christians can show love and dignity to women of all ages by nurturing their gifts to be church pastors, leaders and teachers of the gospel, then shouldn’t we show love and support for our sisters who are bound in the chains of slavery?  Shouldn’t we demand that they be free from this bondage on the Sabbath day, and on every day which belongs to God?

We see what Jesus does for a woman who was painfully bound and shamelessly tortured under Satan for 18 years. We see what Jesus calls us to do for women who continue to this day to be bound, enslaved, exploited and abused for the wicked pleasure of others.

So how exactly do we loosen the bonds of injustice for so many women and children? The obvious answers are to learn more about the sexual exploitation of young girls and the domestic abuse of women in Atlanta as well as human trafficking and modern slavery; to consider an opportunity to be a partner with Street GRACE; and to be in conversation and prayer with your fellow church members over these issues. Those are good and responsible courses of action that need to be taken.

Before we do any of those things, however, we must first respond to suffering and injustice by coming to this table and participating in the Eucharist. The reason, says author and pastor Rob Bell, is that:

Every time we take part in the Eucharist, we’re reminded that we were each slaves and God rescued us. Our destiny, our future, and our joy are in the Eucharist, using whatever blessing we’ve received, whatever resources, talents, skills, and passions God has given us, to make the world a better place.

The Eucharist is an invitation to be the new humanity. To suffer, to bleed, to open the heart, to roll up the sleeves, to have hope that God has a plan to put the world back together, and it’s called the church.

In the Eucharist, there’s always hope.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus led a Passover meal unlike any other. He took the bread and the cup and connected those symbols with himself. He told them to “do this in remembrance of me.” The “do this” is understood to be the taking of the bread and the cup as the body and blood of Christ.

We take part in this two-thousand-year-old ritual. Some of us “do this” in a church service, some every day, and others with a small group of friends. We “do this” in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of places with all sorts of diversity. We do this in remembrance of Jesus because the ritual moves us, it changes us, it humbles us, it brings us together.

But what if Jesus meant something else—something beyond the ritual? What if he was talking about our actually enacting what the ritual is all about over and over, again and again, year after year? What if the “do this” he primarily meant wasn’t the ritual he was leading…at that moment. What if the “do this” was his whole way of life?

The “do this” part is our lives. Opening ourselves up to the mystery of resurrection, open for the liberation of others, allowing our bodies to be broken and our blood to be poured, discovering our Eucharist. Listening. And going.

Friends, let us gather at this table so we may be reminded of how all of creation is set free from bondage to sin and how we are called to free others from the bonds of evil. Let us rejoice in what Jesus has done, is doing and will do through us to “proclaim release to the captives…and let the oppressed go free.”

In the name of Christ who breaks the bonds and loosens the chains…Let’s “do this.”

Amen.

Resources:

Message by Jana Childers

God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time by Desmond Tutu, 2004

Street GRACE

The PC(USA) Office of Evangelism

PC(USA) Peacemaking Program National Human Trafficking Prevention Month

Georgia Department of Community Health

“Former DeKalb teacher pleads guilty to molesting girl in Clayton County” The Atlanta Journal Constitution, January 19, 2010

“Roethlisberger officially a suspect in Milledgeville sexual assault” The Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 5, 2010

Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell, 2008


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