Well the students are back in town, the corner is buzzing with excitement and anticipation, the yellow buses are out making their morning rounds, Charlottesville feels like its young optimistic self again, and…I…have gout. That’s right, I’m barely 32 and I’ve got gout, that sweet inflammation once reserved for the wealthy, gluttonous, rotund kings of old, but now people like me get to enjoy it. I’ve actually had it a few times now, but not for a year or so, and of course it just happens to pop back up this past week when my family and I were in the midst of moving. I hobbled around, gritting my teeth in pain, hanging my head with frustration and embarrassment, and if you ask my wife, I probably wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around. I don’t know about you, but when I’m in pain or frustrated, stressed, uncertain or angry I just go into myself. I get impatient and my body feels tense, like it’s not my own for a bit, like I’m bound up in some way that I can’t see my own way out of. Many of you can relate to this I’m sure, or at least I know that many of you have felt frustrated or in pain or scared about something that seems to have a tighter grip on your life than you do yourself. We all know what it feels like to be angry and just spent, to need a break or to need some release.
In today’s passage from Luke, there is a woman who has felt this way for 18 years. “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight”, Luke writes. “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.”
Luke tells us that she’s in pain, bent over, that she didn’t journey to see Jesus intentionally but instead just stumbled in, and that her all-consuming pain and curved inward view of the world is being led by a spirit and not by her—that she’s not behind the wheel of her own life. Either emotionally or physically we’ve all experienced something that reminds us of this, of being bent inward, of needing to escape or needing some time alone, but sometimes if we’re not careful over time those blinders we create can become normalized in our lives and we can become bitter or jaded or self-righteous. We can remain stuck in our own little worlds, with little regard for God or others around us. And looking downward, turning towards ourselves and coming up empty can make us feel invisible, it can make us feel hopeless, it can make us feel despair.
In a recent study done by a couple of Princeton professors, the phrase “deaths of despair” was coined. It refers to deaths from drug overdoses, alcohol and suicides that have hit a record high, between 2005 to 2017. There is so little hope and so little understanding of mercy and grace and redemption in our country according to this study that entire generations are giving up, turning into themselves and turning to despair, resulting in actual life expectancy rates shortening in some cases for the first time in a very, very long time.
No matter what your despair is rooted in, we can sympathize with this woman from Luke because while her illness has a physiological expression, Luke is telling us that what ails her is a cosmological disorder, which is a really fancy what of saying that what she needs healing from, just like the rest of us, is sin.
In the 4th and 16th centuries, St Augustine and Martin Luther really ran with a description of sin inspired by this passage. They said that humanity’s struggle with sin is summarized for us in the image of this woman, that what it means to be human, to be imperfect and prone, perhaps even consumed with sin, is to be “incurvatus in se”, to be turned or curved in upon ourselves, unable to see or love or learn from God or anyone else.
Augustine and Luther weren’t concerned with talking about sin in a new and different way to round off the edges of the word sin or to avoid making their audience immediately sprint for the doors. They were simply trying to write about sin in a way that spoke truly to the experiences of their students and parishioners and friends. To describe sin as being curved in on ourselves hits home for me because of the way it describes how sin works in our relationships so well.
A few days ago Courtney and I took our daughter Sarah Grace to Riverside for dinner. A great moment with the three of us out together that didn’t last uninterrupted for long. After we had sat down for about five minutes a middle aged family sat down next to us and the mother immediately engaged us in conversation. She wanted to talk about baby sign language and how important it was that we teach Sarah Grace, and she began to list and give examples of the 300 different signs her children knew as babies. I truly mean no offense to any of you baby signing enthusiasts, but I truly just got really bored with the conversation, and so did Sarah Grace, so we checked out pretty quickly. Thankfully we have pretty similar interests and attention spans, so as Courtney kindly continued to listen to her, we turned away from the stranger lady ate some more fries and danced our heads back and forth to AC/DC’s song “Hell’s Bells” as it came on the overhead speakers!
Maybe you can picture a conversation you’ve had with someone when you’re not actually listening, but instead you’re waiting for your turn to talk, or you’re trying to keep eye contact to convince someone that you’re kindly listening but you’re actually listening to the juicy gossip going on one booth over, or you’re thinking about work or what you’d like to eat or fill in the blank. Listening is difficult because we’re curved in on ourselves and our own immediate interests and desires. Relationships are difficult because of sin, because of the ways we’re turned in on ourselves, only resting our eyes on ourselves and trying to find hope in the mirror. Which can be a problem when we actually can’t even stand to look at ourselves. Relationships can also be hard because sometimes when we don’t see a fool in the mirror, but instead we see a hero, and we think and act from a place of self-righteousness and judgment that can crush the mercy and grace that are necessary to hold our relationships together.
A second important detail about this passage from Luke is that it takes place on the Sabbath. Like the other Sabbath scenes in the Gospels, Jesus heals someone on a Saturday, on the final day of the week that from the time of Moses in the Old Testament had been an extremely important religious and culture identity marker, that all observant Jews would rest and abstain from work, even healing, on Saturdays. Jesus once again angers the Pharisees and Temple leaders who are truly turned in on themselves, who self-righteously think that they have things sorted out and they don’t need to be healed.
Jesus says you fools, you unbind your donkey on the Sabbath and lead it to water, why shouldn’t I unbind this woman from her sickness and sin and lead her to truth and love and me, why shouldn’t I unbind you?
In Luke’s story for us today Jesus is showing us that Sabbath isn’t actually about rest, it’s about death. Sabbath isn’t a rest from these things that frustrate and scare and weigh us down. Sabbath isn’t an opportunity to get better and find ways to improve. And thank God this is true, because the last thing that I need when I’m feeling completely overwhelmed to the extent that I’ve escaped into myself and found myself feeling an even sharper sting of despair, the last thing that I need in moments like this is for someone to tell me I need to rest, to take a little more time to be with myself! No, what I need is for someone to enter stage left, to take up all of things that ail me and feel like they’re wrecking my life and my relationships, what I need is for someone to take up all of my sin in his hands and destroy it.
Days before Jesus would be killed himself, Jesus calls on this woman bent in and bound up for 18 years in anger and pain, and Jesus calls out to her and heals her. He kills the old her, the old Adam, the old Eve. Just days before he will lie dead in a tomb on a Holy Saturday Sabbath day, Jesus will use another Sabbath day to release a woman from bondage and give us a foretaste of the day when he will die for us all, forgive and redeem us all.
The death of the Sabbath is the death of our self-righteousness, the death of the notion that we have anything at all to do with our salvation. Instead, we wander the earth like this woman, curved in on ourselves, AND YET, Jesus calls us to him, Jesus calls us by name, reaches out and heals us through his grace and fixes our gaze upon the way, the truth and the life, upon the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, upon Jesus Christ our savior hanging on a Cross.
On that Cross Jesus was opened up to the world, his hands his feet his side, so that we might be set free and opened up from our bondage, from our sin and from ourselves. On the cross all of the darkness, all of the sin, all of the brokenness, all of the despair and reliance on drugs, alcohol, sex, money, arrogance and pride, all of that was put to death on the cross. All of that was wiped clean by the blood of the lamb and replaced with the cloak of his righteousness, with the status of his chosen and beloved one. It was replaced with the relationship of grace and mercy and hope in someone other than ourselves, in some destiny and in some place other than that which we can create on our own. Because of the cross our hope need not be focused and curved in upon ourselves or upon our community or upon our country or upon anyone or anything other than the God who created us, the God who redeemed us, and the God who sustains us. Amen