Divine Disruption: A Narrative Sermon on Luke 13.10-17

This was written in a hurry and preached this afternoon.  Among other things I wanted students to see how narrative preaching might work (by which I mean preaching in explicitly narrative mode, not just that is plotted). The basic framework – 3 characters view the same event – is fairly conventional, and perhaps it would have been better read by 3 voices. I also got confused about who was speaking at the end, me or Luke. The Psalm citations are from the lectionary Psalm this week, Psalm 71.  However, for what it is worth:


Sermon: Pentecost 13C

Centre for Theology and Ministry:
20th August 2010

Luke 13.10-17
Psalm 71.1-6
Jeremiah 1.40-10

I


I hate interruptions. The
hour just before worship is precious. It is a time for preparation, for prayer,
and for checking that every last detail of the liturgy is in place. Have the
lectionary readers been appointed? Check. Is the Torah scroll in position?
Check. Are my robes clean, and are the phylacteries securely attached? Check.
So there I was, with everything ready and began to recite the Psalm for the
day:
 


Psalms 71.1In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let
me never be put to shame.
2 In
your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
 incline
your ear to me and….
 

…and then he walks in, as if
out of nowhere. As soon as he said his name I knew who he was. News travels
fast, especially down the road towards Jerusalem.

 
‘Could, I, perhaps, say a
few words in the service this morning?’

 
It was tempting to refuse on
the basis that some people, often the wrong people, thrive on the oxygen of
publicity. But he had interrupted me once and I didn’t want him to interrupt me
again.

 
‘5 minutes’, I said.  ‘You get 5 minutes after the Psalm’. He
nodded, smiled, and left. Little was I to know what would happen next.
 

There was a good crowd. Like
all good synagogue congregations they filled up from the back first, but there
was only a bit of space at the front on either side. As I stood up, I felt
again the weight of responsibility, and the privilege of vocation upon me. I
reminded them that today was Shabbat, and that worship was something serious. I
shared the phrase that had occurred to me earlier that week – rather a good one
I think. Worship of the one true God, Israel’s God was best expressed in the
combination of gravity and piety. Some of them grasped that this meant that it
wasn’t a matter of levity – and stopped smiling.


It was just as the Psalm was being read
that she came in, just as he was about to begin speaking. When he stopped and
waited for her, I felt immediately that something strange was going on. Latecomers
should not be allowed to interrupt the service. Disruption of the liturgy is
disrespectful to the Lord, as my rabbi used to say.
 

But he did wait, as she
shuffled down the central aisle towards the front where there was still room on
the women’s side on the right. He waited and then, as she reached the front row
of people he called her over to his side, on the left.

 

And then he touched her. He
placed his hands on her. He pressed down on her and, as if she were made of
rubber the push down made her bounce back up again and she stood, fully
upright, looked him in the eye and then, after a moment began to recite the
Psalm:

For you, O Lord, are my hope,  my
trust, O LORD, from my youth.
6             Upon
you I have leaned from my birth;
it
was you who took me from my mother’s womb.
My
praise is continually of you.
 

As she spoke the words, you could hear the
buzzing of conversation as some people joined in, and as others began to talk
about what they thought they had seen.
 

I confess, I was angry.  I regret the anger now, but I still
think that my argument is legitimate. I am glad that she was healed, or set
free, or however you want to describe it. But why then, why on the Sabbath, why
couldn’t he have waited a day, why bring everything that is important, serious,
edifying, just plain right – why bring all that to a halt so that she wouldn’t
have to wait one more day. At that moment I felt the weight of my role, my
responsibility, my calling even more clearly. I was the ruler of that synagogue
– so I should say something. I did. I am not sure that many people heard.

 
I still am not sure I understand what happened.
I do know that a service that started with me praying ‘never let me be put to
shame’ ended with God refusing to answer my prayers. As I said, I hate
interruptions.


II


I hate it when people get in the way. I
was late again. I get slower as the years go on, and although I know the way
from house to synagogue well, sometimes when you can’t see ahead, it is easy to
miss a turn in the road.

 
Anyway, although I didn’t want to
interrupt, I did want to hear what Rabbi Johanan was going to say this morning
– I like his teaching – its solid, biblical. So although I was late I went in
anyway. Every time I turned right to find a space to stand, all I could see
were feet. So I kept going, all the way to the front.

As I walked, making sure not to trip and
cause a commotion, I could hear the words of the Psalm being read:

In your righteousness deliver me and
rescue me;
incline
your ear to me and….


They are wonderful words, wonderful
promises. The prayer of David as an old man: how does the rest go: “do not cast
me off in the time of old age, do not forsake me when my strength is spent”.

Then it all went quiet. I kept on walking – not far to go. And then I heard his
voice – ‘sister, over here!’
 

You know the one thing I hate more than
anything is when people stand in the way. I can’t see them until I have
literally bumped into them. I assumed he was directing me to space, but he just
stood in the way – interrupting my progress.

 
And then I felt his hands on me. How dare
he? I felt him touch me. By what right? I felt him push down on me – God, oh
God that hurt. I hadn’t asked for this. This wasn’t what I was looking for. I
had come to worship, to feed my soul. The last thing I needed was a stranger
touching my body – how embarrassing.

 

But then, I found myself straightening. It
was amazing really. It was as if something had been taken away, yes, the pain,
the constriction, but much, much more it felt that something had been given.
Strength, I had been given strength. And yes, in a way that it would need Rabbi
Johanan to describe – salvation. I had been set free, delivered, saved. And
what was most astonishing of all is that I hadn’t looked for it, asked for it,
I am not even sure I knew that I needed it or wanted it – after 18 years you
tend to get used to things.  But
once I had it, once it had been given – well all I could do was echo the words
of David:

For you, O Lord, are my hope,my
trust, O LORD, from my youth.
6 Upon
you I have leaned from my birth;
 it
was you who took me from my mother’s womb.
My
praise is continually of you.
 

The rabbi was furious and maybe rightly
so. I could have waited another day. The dignity of the service was now in
tatters, because of course everyone was talking about it. I don’t really
remember the argument, except for one part of it. He started speaking about
cattle – and then about women: in our village that is a comparison we know all
about. And then he said it, he said it as I stood there, tall, strong, free,
saved, on the men’s side of the hall: he called me a ‘daughter of Abraham’. I
just looked at him and the words came again: ‘For you, O Lord, are my hope … ,
my praise is continually of you.’
It was as if God had come and stood in my
way.


III

I was so glad to be able to include this
little vignette in Volume 1. For one thing it meant that I could go back to the
books that I love. I put Mark and Matthew (yes, I did use Matthew) back on the
shelf and pulled down Hippocrates:
Περί
οστέωνφύσιος
– on the nature of bones
. It was
there I found the diagnosis: she had scoliosis – spinal deformity. Hippocrates
thought that it should have been dealt with by tying the patient to a ladder
and shaking it vigorously. Ancient supersitition if you ask me.

The
story that Lydia told me was custom made for inclusion. In fact it was so good
that I repeat it a little later on but this time I make the cripple a man (a
little literary gesture of mine, all to the worthy end of gender inclusivity).
But I didn’t change the story very much, except for one thing.


I
called him ‘the Lord’ you see – there in v15. I am not the first person to do
this, of course, Paul used to do it all the time. But it felt important here.
The key to the story is not that Jesus interrupted the regular, ordered
synagogue liturgy. It is not that he turns up out of nowhere in this nameless
village to teach. It is not that this woman too appears from nowhere, bent over
and bowed down. It is not that she is healed. Or that her healing generates the
kind of argument over the Torah that, frankly, only Jewish teachers are capable
of. It is not that she moves over to the men’s side it is not the response of
the crowds or the embarrassment of the opposition.

Because
what really matters in this story – what really transforms the narrative, what
interrupts and disrupts what would otherwise be a perfectly ordinary healing
story is this: In Jesus, God shows up and interrupts it all. The God that the
Psalmist prayed to. The God that called the prophets. The God who seems to have
a habit of turning up and turning everything that we had assumed to be decent,
right, and normal upside down. The God, who in Jesus quite simply stands in our
way so that if we want to go forward, we cannot go around him, but must feel
his hands upon our back and his word in our ears. When people read this story,
I want them to see that it is the Lord who has done this.

I
don’t remember the Psalms too well. But I am coming to the end of writing
volume 1 now, almost finished chapter 24 – Jesus shows up again, spoils a
journey to Emmaus, perhaps you know it. For some reason some verses have stuck
in my mind. For those who are interested, they come from Psalm 71:


You
who have done great things,
O
God, who is like you?

You
who have made me see many troubles and calamities
 will
revive me again;

 from the depths of the earth
you
will bring me up again.


I am sorry, I seem to have interrupted
your service.  Please, do carry on.