Sermon: “Bent Souls”

August 21, 2016: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 13:10-17

As Luke describes it, she didn’t come to the synagogue that Sabbath day with any particular agenda beyond the obvious one: to join with her community in worshiping God. Luke says that the curved spine that bent her over was caused by the affliction of an evil spirit. Though that doesn’t match a modern view of injury and illness, it still resonates. There’s this sense of a malignant outside force that presses on us, bends us, won’t let us stand up straight.

Jesus healed this woman. He straightened out the cruel bends in her spine. He healed her, and freed her.

There’s a technique in American politics which is mercifully scarce in Hawai’i. It’s called gerrymandering, and it’s designed to influence elections. A gerrymandered district is drawn in order to include the voters of a particular group, and to exclude other voters, so that the favored group’s candidates can win elections. This is legal, by the way, to favor political parties. Gerrymandered districts can look very odd indeed, snaking through the map like some civil serpent – civil serpent, not civil servant – taking bends around opposition neighborhoods and curves into supporting neighborhoods to produce the desired result.

In theology, there’s a practice that’s called “proof texting.” And no, it has nothing to do with cell phones. It’s lifting a quote, regardless of its context, in order to support the point you’re trying to make. Most religious teachers and pastors have done it – heaven knows I have – and most of us also try not to do it. The easiest way to distinguish proof texting, though, is that as someone works to make a point, watch the bends in the argument as they twist around inconvenient contradictions and run toward unrelated Scriptures that also sound… plausible.

In his novel, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – and yes, that was the title, and bear with me – the late British novelist Douglas Adams created a fictional computer program called “Reason.” It was the successor to other fictional computer programs that you’d give information about a situation and then ask it what your response should be. The problem with these is that it frequently would tell people to do something they didn’t want to do. “Reason,” by contrast, would take all that information plus the answer you desired, and come up with a plausible set of arguments to justify it. In the novel, it allowed its creator to buy, finance, and insure an expensive car despite a terrible credit report and a hopeless driving record. Just imagine all the bends in that argument.

I want to stress once more that this is fiction, but the punchline of the joke, of course, is that the program became the exclusive property of the United States Department of Defense.

That’s a lot of twists and turns and bends.

And then there’s the soul-twisting which this synagogue leader did after Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath.

The prohibition against working on the Sabbath is an ancient part of the faith of Israel. It was never absolute; it couldn’t be, in an agricultural society, and Jesus goes directly to that reality in his response. Tying or untying of knots were two of the 39 basic tasks not to be done on the Sabbath as recorded in the Mishna, a book of rabbinic sayings compiled about two hundred years after Jesus. Yet it had to be done each Sabbath to care for domesticated animals. Other accommodations had to be made to acknowledge the reality that they lived in a place occupied by a foreign power, one which did not respect their customs. Yet that isn’t the soul-twisting this leader does.

He twists right away from confronting Jesus, who is the one who actually did work on the Sabbath (though healing is not, in fact, one of the 39 basic tasks). Instead, he condemns the woman for coming to seek healing from Jesus on the Sabbath, even though it doesn’t seem that she did. But he even twists away from her: he addresses the crowd, not the woman newly standing straight. He tells the people not to come to Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.

While he’s doing so, he lets his passion for his faith twist his thinking and his compassion away from the purpose of the Sabbath itself. A day without work is a release from human toil. Culture after culture around the world has seen the wisdom of regular rest, including the ancient Babylonians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Cherokees, and Hawaiians. Rest and release. Release and devotion, and also release and healing.

Or as Jesus put it in Mark’s gospel, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.

So how do we, in our own commitment to the faith and to the good news of Jesus, avoid warping our own souls into pretzels of insensitivity or condemnation? How do we avoid hearing Jesus’ voice rebuking us, awarding us the title of hypocrites? How do we keep from having bent souls?

One of the things Jesus urged his followers over and over again was to keep sight of the purposes, the goals, of faithful life, and to avoid getting lost in the details. The synagogue leader focused on the specific action at hand, and ignored the context of its place in the full life of this woman, of her family, and of all in her community. He didn’t see the forest for the trees.

As we’ve heard before, Jesus said that there are two areas of vital concern for his followers and friends:

Love God.

Love your neighbor.

If an action is unloving in and of itself – insults, beatings, slurs, injustices, persecutions, selfishness, theft, murder – that’s a pretty good clue that it’s not to be done on the Sabbath, or for that matter any day of the week. We’ve heard – heck, I’ve done it – time and time again: bending the soul to justify this slight, this slur, this assertion of power, this expression of privilege.

The arguments to justify are crooked and complicated. It’s simpler than that to keep our souls upright: Love God. Love your neighbor.

Sometimes those two – loving God and loving neighbor – might seem to be in conflict. The synagogue leader could have said so. He could have said to Jesus, “I understand that this woman needed to be freed. But I also understand that God should be honored. How do I choose one over the other?” If Jesus had heard that question, I doubt he would have called the leader a hypocrite.

But he might have said what he said in the 25th chapter of Matthew: “When you do these things to other people, you do them to me.”

When we love our neighbor, we love God.

As comedian Stephen Colbert put it some years ago, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

There is a third alternative, though, which is: Love and serve the poor.

In this very healing Jesus reaffirmed that the love of God is directed toward freedom, toward release from captivity. When we justify to ourselves the limitation of someone else – “She should show respect.” “He should pull himself up by his own bootstraps.” “Wait. There will be a better time for your liberation.” – then we bend our souls. We shut away the words of Jesus, “Ought not this daughter of Abraham to be set free on the Sabbath day?”

Theologian Karoline Lewis writes: “The world needs to see that the ways of the church mean willing to heal on the Sabbath. To call out the hypocrites. To name evil where you see it alive and well. To release captives even in the face of righteous indignation. All for the sake of those who for too long have been bent over by the systems that perpetuate bondage; to say to them, “Stand up! For you are truly the daughters and sons of Abraham.”

The freedom God desires for us in love is for all people: not just me, but you. Not just you, but me.

The freedom God desires for us in love is for all people: not just us, but them. Not just them, but us.

The freedom God desires for us in love is for all people, at all times, in all places. And on any day of the week.

Jesus can heal bent souls, through forgiveness and guidance and grace. Forgiveness, and the practice of forgiveness as healing, is Christianity’s great gift to humanity. Jesus can heal bent souls, and thank God! Because mine needs some healing.

Still: Why ask Jesus for more healing than required?

Let’s keep our spiritual gerrymandering to a minimum. Let’s avoid proof texting, at least more than I did in this sermon. Let’s follow the guidance of facts and ethics to a conclusion rather than deciding what we want to do and justifying it later.

Let’s keep the spines of our souls as straight as we can – and Jesus can then lovingly, gently, raise our heads the rest of the way, and smile.


The image: This 1811 cartoon satirized the district created to favor Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s party – Gerry’s name furnished the first two syllables of the term “gerrymander.” The district’s shape, which opponents said resembled a salamander, provided the rest.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on August 21, 2016

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