Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 22, 2010

2010.08.22 “All Bent Out of Shape” Luke 13: 10 – 17

Central United Methodist Church

 “All Bent Out of Shape”

Luke 13: 10 – 17

Pastor David L. Haley

August 22nd, 2010

“Jesus was teaching in one of the meeting places on the Sabbath. There was a woman present, so twisted and bent over with arthritis that she couldn’t even look up. She had been afflicted with this for eighteen years. When Jesus saw her, he called her over. “Woman, you’re free!” He laid hands on her and suddenly she was standing straight and tall, giving glory to God.

The meeting-place president, furious because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the congregation, “Six days have been defined as work days. Come on one of the six if you want to be healed, but not on the seventh, the Sabbath.”

But Jesus shot back, “You frauds! Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall, leads it out for water, and thinks nothing of it. So why isn’t it all right for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has had her tied these eighteen years?”

When he put it that way, his critics were left looking quite silly and redfaced. The congregation was delighted and cheered him on.” – Luke 13: 10 – 17, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

When I worked as a paramedic, there was a particular care facility that filled us with “extra” anxiety, whenever we got a call there. 

You should know, first of all, that almost every paramedic call is a reason for anxiety. Each call is different, and you never know what you’re going to find until you get there. It might come in as nothing, and turn out to be the worst, or it might come in as the worst, and turn out to be nothing. You have the time from the alarm rings until the time you arrive on scene to think about it.

What made this facility worse was this: it was the Marklund Home, a facility that cares for people with developmental disabilities, including physical deformity. Here were persons of all ages with bodies bent and misshapen, in ways that defy description.  What made it worse for medical caregivers is that physical deformities add a degree of difficulty beyond the usual. For example, with deformed bodies, organs are often displaced, so that even assessing vitals – such as lung sounds – presents problems. Should they have fallen and need spinal immobilization, there was no way, with scoliosis or kyphosis (forms of curvature of the spine) that they could be put on a backboard. As often the case, my favorite paramedic motto (borrowed from the Marines) was my guide: “Improvise, adapt, overcome.”  We gave them the care they needed, with the extra consideration necessary.

The truth is, there have always been people with such disabilities; but our awareness of them has differed according to the place given them in society. 

For their last 20 years, people with disabilities have been able to be out and about in a way not possible before, due to the Americans With Disability Act, signed on July 26th, 1990. Yes, at the time everybody complained, but the truth is that accessibility and curb cuts and automatic doors and elevators and public transportation enabled people with disabilities to be present and visible, such that we are all now more aware of them.  If you don’t remember them out and about in such a way before 1990, it was literally because they couldn’t do so.

Sadly, too many churches (especially city churches) still lag in this regard. Thank this church leadership (and especially Ed Gut) for Central’s provision for accessibility in the remodeling of the sanctuary, which enables people such as Katy Washington and Brian Gut, to name only two, to be present with us.  Because, as Claire Deming, a conference Pastor who died of ALS used to say, for people with disabilities the facilities in a lot of church bathrooms might as well be on the ceiling. 

For those of us born without disabilities, it’s possible to belong to a church for most of a lifetime without realizing how inaccessible it is, until you are recuperating from a stroke or from hip or knee surgery and then look with new awareness and apprehension up long flights of stairs, or maybe even at only one.

Before the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, the situation was quite different. People with disabilities were cared for in public and private institutions, which was not necessarily bad, but, for the most part, were invisible to the public.  Out of sight, out of mind, was the case, unless of course, you were such a person, or someone in your family or someone you knew was, and then you had to go there. How many ever visited such a place?

Before that, throughout history, the truth is, people with severe disabilities were not seen because they died – sometimes even by infanticide, or from complications arising from their conditions. If not cared for by families, or by benevolent groups like temples or monasteries, such people were doomed to fend for themselves, often even mocked and abused publicly. Think, for example, of the hunchback Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Perhaps the woman in today’s Gospel was such a person.  Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and there she was, bent over double, unable to straighten, and had been that way for 18 years. Perhaps she could only look at the ground; perhaps she couldn’t look people in the face, and from the way they stared at her, maybe that was a good thing.

She didn’t call to Jesus, but Jesus called to her. He called her over, put his hands on her, and said, “Woman, you’re free!”

How do you think he did that? Do you think he put his hands on top of her?  Or do you think Jesus got down, maybe down on the floor on his knees, to look her in the face, the only way she’d be able to see him? Do you think he put his hands up on her face, when he said, “Woman, you’re free!” 

Here is the Good News: Jesus – representing the God of the Universe – is so full of compassion he gets down on his knees to heal a poor, nameless woman, bend like a pretzel. At his word, whatever it was that afflicted her, WAS GONE, and – for the first time in years – she straightened up – and praised God.

Believe me, whether you’re a doctor or a pastor or a family member or an ordinary person, if the power to instantaneously heal people were out there, who wouldn’t want it? How many people have we known along the way – who, if we could heal of their affliction either by word or by touch, we would do it. But, even if we can’t do that; we can at least treat them with compassion and respect.

I know, most of us rightfully thank God we’re not like that.  But really, if not physically deformed, don’t many of us feel like we are in some ways like that woman, bent out of shape? That the burdens we bear in our hearts and minds come to in our bodies: the years of suffering that show on one person’s face; the crushing hurt in another’s eyes; our backs bent and our foreheads furrowed under the weight of our fears and anxieties.

Sadly, there are a lot of people out there – some quite likely here today – who, even if not deformed in body, know the pain and oppression of being marginalized and alone, maybe even in church.  Do we notice them and pay extra attention to them, the way Jesus noticed the bent-over woman?  Even more important is the question: Do we avoid them – out of our own fear and anxiety; or do we include them, and treat them with compassion and respect?

Of course, the sad footnote of the story is that the leader of the synagogue then proceeded to get “all bent out of shape,” because Jesus had healed the woman on the Sabbath.

Interesting, isn’t it, to compare the two different ideals of faithfulness? It’s not that the leader of the synagogue was opposed to caring for or healing the woman, it was just his philosophy that today is not the right time, and she should “Come back tomorrow.” (Where have we heard that one before?) Jesus’ philosophy, on the other hand, is evident: “Any time and any place – including the Sabbath and the synagogue – is a good time and a good place to practice compassion.”  In other words, now is the time; the time is now!

      In addition to what I have experienced – as a paramedic and a pastor and a pilgrim – no one has taught me more about respect for special people than spiritual teacher and author, Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, who died in 1996, was a teacher at Harvard and Yale and a renowned author, but gave that up to go live among the poor in Latin America.  As if that wasn’t enough, he then went to live at Daybreak Community near Toronto, a community for the mentally handicapped.  

      Once when asked to speak at the Center for Human Development in Washington, D. C., on Christian Leadership in the 21st century, Nouwen decided that to be true to what he was going to say, he should go in partnership — two by two as the Gospel says — with one of his mentally handicapped friends, Bill Van Buren.  So he told Bill, “We are doing this together.  You and I are going to Washington to proclaim the Gospel.”

      Together they flew to Washington, got settled in their hotel, and went to the conference. When the time came for the address, after being introduced, Nouwen took out his handwritten text and began his talk. At that moment, he noticed Bill had left his seat and come up to the podium, planting himself right behind him. Thought Nouwen, “It was clear that Bill had a much more concrete idea about ‘doing it together’ than I did.”  Each time I finished a page, he took it away and put it upside down on a small table close by.  

      When Nouwen began to speak about the temptation to turn stones into bread as a temptation to be relevant, Bill interrupted and said loudly, for all to hear, “I have heard that before!”

      When Nouwen came to the second part and was reading the words, “The question most asked by the handicapped people with whom I live was, “Are you home tonight?” Bill interrupted and said, “That’s right, that is what John Smeltzer always asks.”

      Then, said Nouwen, “After I had finished reading my text and people had shown their appreciation, Bill said to me, ‘Henri, can I say something now?’”  Said Nouwen, “My first reaction was, ‘Oh, how am I going to handle this? He might start rambling and create an embarrassing situation?’”

      Bill took the microphone and said, with all the difficulties he had in speaking, “Last time, when Henri went to Boston, he took John Smeltzer with him. This time he wanted me to come with him to Washington, and I am glad to be here with you. Thank you very much.”  Everyone stood and gave him warm applause.  

      On the way back, on the airplane, Bill said, “Henri, did you like our trip?” “Oh, yes,” I answered, “it was a wonderful trip, and I am so glad you came with me.”  Bill looked at me attentively and then said, “And we did it together, didn’t we?”

      Said Nouwen, “Then I realized the full truth of Jesus’ words, “Where two or three meet in my Name, I am among them” (Matthew 18:20) In the past, I had always given lectures, sermons, addresses, and speeches by myself. Often I had wondered how much of what I said would be remembered.  Now it dawned on me that most likely much of what I said would not be long remembered, but that Bill and I doing it together would not easily be forgotten.”  (In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri J. M. Nouwen, Crossroads:  New York, 1989.)

      How we treat such people as this poor woman “all bent out of shape”; either with excuses and exclusion, as the leader of the synagogue did, or with respect and compassion, as Jesus did, will not easily be forgotten.  Not by us, not by them, not by God.


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