August 21, 2022

41C Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost 

To Free from Bondage

GOSPEL

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “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?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.  Luke 13:10-17

SERMON

In this morning’s gospel story Jesus moves unbidden, but with a sense of urgency, to free a woman from physical bondage. The body of this daughter of Abraham had been bent over for nearly twenty years.  She could only see the ground beneath her feet, and she was unable to look anyone in the eye.  Can you imagine the awfulness of your own having to walk this way for a few days much less for half your life?

Stories of freeing people from bondage of all forms make regular appearances in the scriptures, as well they should, because this is, after all, the meta-story of the whole of salvation history as recorded in the bible.  

The Exodus liberation event, and the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which are presented in the New Testament, as that Old Testament act of liberation on steroids, define the essence of the story of redemption and specify this as being God’s primary agenda for His people.  What’s it all about?  God’s involvement and loving relationship with us is all about our being set free from anything and everything that would constrain life both now and forever.  God wills and acts to set us free. 

The scriptures again and again invite us to consider the many ways we bind ourselves and bind others, to reflect upon our capacity to become slaves and to enslave others and to repent of our doing so. Not that we might thereby overwhelm ourselves with an appreciation of our sorry state, but that we might submit ourselves to the God who is always both ready, willing, and able to set us free, and the God who is eager to release the other from our inappropriate and destructive domination and control. 

Yes, if we are going to completely honest, we are not only inclined but also able both to make ourselves slaves of our appetites and desires, and also to shackle others to serve those very same appetites and desires.  We do so with greater regularity than we may care to acknowledge and own.  

Is not the whole of our personal, interpersonal, social, economic, and political culture structured in terms of power and control?   Our relationships, on all fronts, are, more often than not, transactional as opposed to loving. We surrender the best in ourselves to satisfy the worst in ourselves.  We take to have, and we give to get.    

The prophet Isaiah cried out, “Remove the yoke of oppression, offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.  Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

                                                                                                                                                                         In response to the blow back He received from the powers that be, because He broke the law in order that He might free a woman from bondage, Jesus effectively said, “To hell with your laws.  They are of no interest to God if they do not grow you into being more deeply human.  As important as it is, you cannot keep even the most important law of Sabbath observance with any integrity if you do not attend to the work of undoing yokes of bondage and setting people free.”

The voice of the prophets, and the voice and actions of the Maker and inspiration of prophets, from the beginning and into the present moment, are clear.  The Torah, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Christian Scriptures all require that we listen to the cry of captives; appreciate the gravity and insidiousness of their bondage; identify and name the agents of oppression; and own our own complicity in the enslavement of people.  It is only from this place that we can rise to our responsibility to set people free, participate in God’s great work of liberation, and in the process be ourselves set free by God’s gracious love.    

To be faithful to our faith, to bear witness to its truth, to embrace our identity as disciples of Jesus leaves us no other option.  To do otherwise is to be, as Jesus pronounces, hypocrites.  It is to say that we believe, but to act as if we have no faith at all.  

Everyone seems to be more keenly aware of both division and polarization these days.  It is acknowledged and spoken about as a lived experience in most social configurations – global, national, political, and even religious.  The atmosphere is rife with division that has ripened to adversarial engagement or disengagement.  

Division and polarization are certainly not new.  But it seems that we are simply less inclined to deny these – as we did in the good old days.  There was no division or polarization in the world of “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best”.  It is possible that things have not gotten worse but that more people have simply grown impatient with the real change that never seems to come.  Oppressed people have always wanted to be set free and have from time to time grown so restless in their chains and so enraged by their bondage that they confront their oppressor and say, no more, no matter what the personal consequences.  

People of color have aways been oppressed, women have always been oppressed, sexual minorities have always been oppressed, those who have not had the benefit of higher education have always been oppressed.  Blue collar workers have always been oppressed.  

Yesterday I went to a used auto parts business in Poughkeepsie in search of a fuse box for a 2006 Dodge truck.  I drove into the yard that was strewn with dead cars and trailers, motors, and transmissions, and made my way to an office that had not been cleaned or organized since this place opened decades ago. A Trump/Pence sign was prominently displayed on the office wall. As I stood there, I wished that I had brought a photo of Mar-a-Lago with me.  I would have loved to have asked that poor guy, who lived in this motor vehicle trash heap, what he thought he had in common with his hero.   

While most think polarization is a bad thing.  I am not so sure.  Does not polarization bring to the surface and acknowledge what has aways been?  The dynamics of greed and power are as old as humanity itself.  There is a significant portion of the population that wills and acts culturally, socially, politically, and even religiously to bind and oppress. 

On Friday evening we had dinner with a dear friend and his wife.  Dave is a retired Reformed minister. At some point in our conversation Dave made a reference to conservative Christians.  I suggested that he might want to consider not using that description any longer, as it is an oxymoron.  You really can’t be religiously conservative and claim a Christian identity. Jesus was a religious radical.  

You cannot be a racist, white supremacist, nationalist, or fascist and claim a Christian identity.  The community of Jesus is essentially boundaryless and borderless, universal, and not tribal.

You cannot deny comprehensive health care to everyone and claim a Christian identity. Jesus, the divine physician healed anyone and everyone without extracting a price.   

You cannot ignore the destruction of the environment and claim a Christian identity.  Jesus is the Word through whom the Father created this world and enjoined his children to care for it. 

In other words, you cannot oppose basic biblical and gospel values and claim a Christian identity. 

There are not Christians on both sides of these issues. To place innocent people into bondage is evil. To set innocent people free is the work of God and God’s work for us to do, and to do with as much energy, passion, and love as we can muster. 

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna                                                                                                                                August 21, 2022