Tomorrow’s sermon from Luke 13:1-6; and featuring Psalm 76:1-6
Antonio Francisco Lisboa was a colonial Brazilian sculptor born in the town of Ouro Preto, which means black gold, in the state of Minas Gerais, where I grew up.
His beautiful baroque art is well-known in Brazil, not only as great accomplishments of architectural prowess, but as inspired works of passion and determination; nothing short of miraculous.
This is because most of his crowning work was accomplished despite a debilitating disease, probably leprosy or scleroderma.
He is best known in Brazil by his nickname, Aleijadinho, which means “little cripple.”
His illness caused him to eventually lose his fingers, and the use of his legs.
His most inspiring works, religious in nature, are housed at a church, the Sanctuary of Good Jesus, in Congonhas in Brazil.
On either side of the stairwell leading up to the sanctuary, are 12 life-sized statues of the Old Testament prophets, which Aleijadinho carved from soapstone with a chisel and hammer strapped to his fingerless wrists.
Also on the grounds of this church are 6 pavillions, each containing a scene from the Passion of the Christ.
66 figures figures, intricately carved of wood, depict Jesus’ last days leading up to his death; beginning with the Last Supper and ending with the Crucifixion.
The crucifixion pavillion was always my favorite, even as a child. It is the only one that comes to life every several minutes.
The ground quakes, lights blink on and off in such a way that suggests rain, and there is cracking lightning and loud thunder. It is both wonderful and horrifying.
The tragedy of Aleijadinho is that, despite his artful connection to the scriptures exemplified in his sculptures that can be found throughout Minas Gerais in Brazil, he did not seem to have peace in his life.
He was so lacking in peace that in the deepest throes of his ailment, he longed and prayed for death.
Like the psalmist in the beginning of this morning’s psalm, the sculptor spent his last days praying for deliverance and rescue; longing for a healing encounter with Jesus, like the one between Jesus and a woman, crippled for 18 years.
On a cloudless Sabbath day, the faith community begins to gather together in the synagogue for worship.
Worshippers gather together to spend time with each other, and more importantly, to hear the rabbi’s teaching; being mindful to leave an unobstructed and inconspicuous place open.
Jesus is the visiting rabbi that day, and the place is packed. As the gathered worshippers wrap up their singing of the Shema, Israel’s call to worship that says “the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” an older woman walks in.
She’s always a little late, which is why there is always a place reserved for her.
Her gait is slow and shuffly, and she is bent over, almost to the ground.
She has been this way for 18 years. Long enough to become accustomed to only being able to see the ground; long enough to forget what it’s like to gaze up at the stars through the tree tops on a cloudless night.
Every time she leaves her home, she risks falling because, while someone who is able to stand upright can assess their surroundings with a few glances to the left or right, she has to physically turn her body from side to side to see to the left or right.
It makes traveling take twice as long, and the journey by foot at least twice as unsteady.
She probably walks with a cane to help her keep her balance, and probably has more days than not of swollen joints and debilitating pain.
Today, though, despite swelling and pain, she has made it to the synagogue where Jesus is about to start preaching.
She slips in inconspicuously, and makes her way to the spot reserved for her.
Even in the midst of everything happening: having traveled from afar to this synagogue, assisting with leading in worship, and despite the huge gathered crowd, Jesus sees this woman, and calls out to her.
She is well-known in the community. The synagogue’s women’s group have a rotating schedule for who will bring food to her each week, and who will help with chores.
As she shuffles to her feet with the assistance of the ladies around her, Jesus declares her free of her ailment.
Immediately, her bones crack into place, and her muscles snap to life.
Her back unfurls itself from its hunched position and her hands unfold from fists into open hands raised toward heaven as she lifts praise to God.
The onlookers are overjoyed for her. Well, most of the onlookers. However, the synagogue leader and his minions are less than pleased.
“How dare you heal on the Sabbath?!” He says, indignant. “Listen up, everybody.
There are six other days in the week. You can come to get healed on any of those days, but the sabbath day, this day is reserved for God.”
Now, Jesus is a good Jew. He knows and keeps the law, after all, he is a rabbi. He knows about the sabbath, God’s commandment to remember the seventh day and keep it holy.
On this day, the people are to do no work; they are supposed to rest from all their work and remember God.
Initially, the Sabbath was designed for the people of Israel, once enslaved, to have a reprieve from their toil, both physically and emotionally.
And this care of the physical body and the emotional mind translated into a spiritual well-being as well.
The Sabbath day was for them to remember how they were slaves in Egypt and how God had delivered them.
It was a practice of rest that was designed to bring peace to life, balance between work and rest; true rest.
It was meant to be a holy practice to nurture wholeness in their lives.
Over time, and especially in the hands of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and the synagogue’s religious elite, the practice of Sabbath became a woodenly narrow exercise in rule-following.
The Pharisees prided themselves on being the best rule followers of all time; and used the sabbath law to craftily oppress and manipulate the people under their spiritual care.
Jesus knows the sabbath is more about restoration than it is about commandment keeping.
He responds to the synagogue leader by appealing to the religious leaders’ penchant for finding loopholes to talk their way out of sticky situations.
“Now wait a second,” he says, “if you’re going to quote sabbath law at me, consider that the law allows for the owners of livestock to untie their animals who are not carrying burdens or cargo and lead them to water.
If the law provides this kind of exception for an animal, why not to a member of your faith community?
Doesn’t this woman, this daughter of Abraham, this member of your community deserve to be untied from Satan and unburdened from her disease? Especially on this day reserved for the praise of God?”
Speechless, the synagogue ruler seeths, and he and his religious leader pals, steeped in embarrassment, slip out of the synagogue, grumbling all the while as they hear the crowd join this unnamed woman in lifting joyful praise to God.
We could probably name a million things in our lives that keep us from enjoying Sabbath as God intended us to enjoy it.
In any stage of life, there is always something to get done. If we waited for everything to get done before taking time to rest and be at peace, we’d never ever do it!
It doesn’t even have to be a physical sabbath; a physical ceasing of doing things.
Sometimes, we need a mental sabbath; a break from worry. Again, we could name a million worries that occupy our mind at any given time.
The delicate dance of finding balance is in knowing that while most of our worries are legitimate concerns, we can take them to God and have God’s healing help to shoulder the burden.
Things like falling and breaking a bone, financial ability to handle a health crisis, what a decline in health will look like for us and our loved ones are not unreasonable worries or irrational fears; these are realities that we do or will face.
God’s sabbath commandment is not so much a rule that says you must stop occupying every second, or stop worrying over every little thing you can’t control.”
God’s sabbath is an invitation to quietude.
Just like we center our hearts every Sunday before worship, the commandment to honor the sabbath and keep it holy is an invitation to put other things aside for a time and focus on the presence and goodness of God.
I wonder if worries keep us just as bound as this unnamed woman from Luke’s gospel?
What if worry makes us just as fearful as the synagogue leader; filled with a fear that makes us cling to anything that is familiar and comfortable?
Like the woman, when we get wrapped up in our worries, we become bent over under the weight so that all we can see is the ground beneath us.
So hunkered down with life’s heavy burdens, we almost miss out on Jesus’ healing and wholeness.
Like the synagogue leader, when fears threaten us, we want to cling to what’s familiar, resist change, seclude ourselves for self-protection: and we miss out on the change to extend grace, to offer healing and wholeness to someone else.
In his mercy, Jesus sees us, bent and broken and calls us to him. “Give me your burdens, and be free from your ailments” he says.
“Hide yourself in the Rock of Ages, and let me carry your fears for you; and be free to offer my healing and wholeness to the world around you.”
Wholeness, and the search for wholeness is something that resonates with people across the lifespan.
What wholeness looks like in each individual life may be different, but the truth remains in each of our lives that need for wholeness can only be filled with Christ’s healing touch.
It’s this healing touch that our ministry hopes to continue bringing to the lives of isolated elders.
We are playing an active part in cultivating wholeness in the community around us, and this is very exciting.
At my conference two weeks ago, a presenter was talking about needs, and mentioned seven fundamental needs that everyone has, but in the context of the conference and of our ministry, these Seven Domains of Well-Being were particularly applicable to isolated elders.
The 7 Domains of Well Being are: Identity, Growth, Autonomy, Security, Connectedness, Meaning and Joy.
In the healing of this woman, Jesus restores all of her domains of well-being.
He gives her an identity as a daughter of Abraham, and takes away her uncleanliness so that she can attend the synagogue and grow in her spiritual life without shame.
He restores her autonomy in that she will now be able to do her own cooking and housework.
Her security is re-established; physically in that falling is not a looming threat anymore, and she is re-connected with her social community.
No longer unclean from a debilitating illness, she can have meaningful and life-giving relationships where there was once a life-sapping loneliness.
Her joy is restored in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s love for her, God’s acceptance of her, and in the fact that Jesus touches her,
with his hands, extending the reach of the kingdom even to her, a woman, with an isolating condition.
With his words to the synagogue leader, to do the right thing for the benefit of someone else, even and maybe especially on the sabbath, Jesus calls us to do the same. To offer Jesus’ gift of grace and wholeness:
Wholeness that liberates troubled minds and broken hearts to find joy in Christ.
Wholeness that frees us to look for opportunities to extend grace.
Wholeness that laments circumstance and grieves losses; and at the same time, accepts the grace of Christ’s presence as a gift during the storm.
Wholeness that invites others to join us, to join this woman, to join the psalmist in standing up straight and immediately praising God.
This is the kind of wholeness that matters.
This is the kind of wholeness the sabbath was designed to create: wholeness that brings rest to mind, body, heart and soul.
When we find rest in God, true rest in letting Jesus take our burdens; all the things that weigh us down, and we are able to sit quietly in the presence of a mighty fortress, a caring liberator, we can know this wholeness of mind and body, and heart and soul.
As the psalmist said, our hope and trust are in God, our strong fortress and rock of refuge; in whom we find our healing and wholeness.
We give thanks to God today for this grace. May our praise flow continuously from our lives as an offering to God, and as a gift to others.