Monday, August 22, 2016

Will you choose health or disability?

The Ugly American, a 1958 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, tells the story of an American engineer, Homer Atkins – a man with an ugly face – whom the military sent to Vietnam to build dams and roads. Homer's wife, Emma, accompanied him to Vietnam. She became curious that every woman over sixty in the village where the Atkins lived had a bent back. Then she noticed that after the monsoon season, older people using a broom with a short handle inevitably swept the debris from the streets. Since wood for longer handles cost too must, Emma found a long-stalked reed and planted shoots from this reed by her door. She tended these reeds carefully. One day when neighbors were in her house she cut a tall reed, bound coconut fronds to it and began to sweep with her back straight. When her guests questioned her about the reed, she told them where it grew. Four years later, after Emma and Homer had returned home to Pittsburgh, they received a letter from the village headman thanking them. The letter read: "In the village of Chang Dong today, the backs of our old people are straight and firm. No longer are their bodies painful and bent. You will be pleased to know that on the outskirts of the village we have constructed a small shrine in your memory . . . at the foot are these words: 'In memory of the woman who unbent the backs of our people.'"[1]
In today's gospel reading,[2] Jesus attends Sabbath worship in a synagogue. A woman, who has had a bent back for eighteen years, enters. Jesus recognizes her pain, touches her compassionately, and the woman stands erect, her back healed. I think that most of us would be amazed and grateful to witness a similar cure. Some of the worshipers in the synagogue, however, object. Jesus healing her on the Sabbath violated the Mosaic Law's prohibition against working on the Sabbath. Jesus responds passionately: "You hypocrites! You water your animals on the Sabbath. This woman is much more valuable than any animal." Through his words and actions, Jesus shows us who God is and God's great love for us.[3]
Jesus' passion reflects the depth of his love for his neighbor. Passionate love refuses to accept evil, regardless of its cause, duration, or the person or persons who suffer the harm. By healing the woman on the Sabbath, Jesus both emphasizes the personhood of women and the healing power of God's love.
Luke does not tell us why the woman's back was bent. The story with which I began this sermon about the bent backs of the elderly women of Chang Dong village in Vietnam describes a systemic evil: people could not afford long handles for their brooms and this caused women, who did most of the sweeping, to have bent backs by age 60.. Traditional Vietnamese culture devalued women and consequently the village power brokers, all men, did not prioritize discovering how to prevent women developing bent backs. The gospel's silence about the cause of the woman's bent back leaves open the possibility that she suffered from a medical problem, perhaps had a genetic defect, or was the victim of some systemic evil. Whichever is correct, Jesus' passionate love for his neighbors pierced an ethos of neglect and self-righteousness to straighten the woman's back. God calls Christians, we who try to walk the Jesus path, to love others with a similar passion, to act to end evil wherever or whenever we see it.
The healing occurred in the village synagogue. Village synagogues were small buildings, approximately the size of the open area around the chancel altar. The walls were lined with stone benches on which attendees sat. A wooden cabinet, called the Ark of the Covenant, occupied the position of honor opposite the door. The Ark stored the Torah, or whatever portion of the Torah that the village was fortunate enough to possess. The Ark also stored other scrolls the village owned, such as ones upon which the words of the prophets were written. Synagogue services began and ended with prayer. Then someone would read or recite part of one of those scrolls. A man would then expound upon the text's meaning.
The setting is important. [4] First, most village residents attended. Similar to the way in which their worship represented the essence of the Jewish village, our worship represents the center or essence of our Christian community. Second, synagogue attendees expected to hear God speak to them through their prayers, scripture reading, and teaching. Hopefully, we gather with similar expectations. Third, disagreements over the meaning of the scriptures were commonplace. More than any other major religion, Judaism teaches that vigorously debating a text's meaning sifts the chaff from the wheat, thereby distilling human opinion from God's message for God's people. In other words, Jesus healing the woman and then engaging in a disputation with some of the synagogue attendees about his actions benefitted both the woman and the gathered community.
Finally, Jesus in healing the woman laid his hands upon her. This action, which we preserve in ordaining clergy, consecrating bread and wine during the Holy Eucharist, and praying for the sick, symbolizes both giving and receiving power. By laying his hands on the woman, Jesus dramatically demonstrated God's embrace and acceptance of her as one of God's children. No longer was she an untouchable woman. Furthermore, by laying his hands on the woman, Jesus symbolically transferred the healing power of God's love to her.
Three men were walking by a river and they saw a man walking on the water coming toward them. The first one said: "Who are you?"
"I'm Jesus," came the reply.
"Well, I've got a real bad back," said the first person. Jesus reached out his hand and touched him, and instantly his back was restored to normal.
The second man saw this happen and said: "Jesus, my eyesight is really getting dim. Could you do something about that?" Jesus reached out and laid his fingers on the fellow's eyes and his eyesight was as sharp as when he was a youngster.
Jesus noticed that the third man walked with a limp and asked: "What is your problem my good fellow?"
"Don't touch me!" exclaimed the man. "I'm on disability!"[5]
The choice is ours. Will we, like the woman in this morning's gospel reading, muster the courage to seek healing or will we, like the man in that last story, prefer to live in misery and on disability?



[1] Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1958).
[2] Luke 13:10-17.
[3] James Carroll, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age (New York: Viking, 2014), p. 132.
[4] The various elements important for healing are adapted from Dale A. Matthews with Connie Clark, The Faith Factor (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998), pp. 223-247.
[5] Source unknown.

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