Daughter of Abraham

Passage: Luke 13:10-17
Date: August 25, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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In August of the year 1619, a Portuguese ship carrying twenty people kidnapped from the west coast of Africa landed on shore near Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia. Those twenty people were sold to the colonists, and so began the horrific history of slavery on this land that would become the United States of America.

Many organizations are commemorating the 400th anniversary of this slavery, and to engage with any of the articles or shows is a sobering, condemning thing. The New York Times Magazine of August 13 dedicated the issue to this subject, and perhaps the most jarring thing for me was an image of a pair of iron shackles sized for a child.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I do not think that we as a nation will ever recover from the sin of slavery. That human beings were traded and sold as property, that for the first century as a nation our economy depended on slave labor, that the fear and hatred of people of brown skin persists today, are all part of the fallout of this institution that was not so much peculiar as it was evil.

Men, women, and children were kidnapped from their homeland, forced into the dank holds of overcrowded ships, stripped of their families and names, and forced to take on not only the names given to them by the slaveholder but also to adopt the Christian religion. When Jesus gave the commandment to baptize the people of every nation, I don’t think this is what he meant.

But for some of those slaves, the stories that grounded the Christian religion became meaningful and a source of hope. Then and now, the story of Exodus, the second book of the Bible, became a narrative that gave those enslaved hope that someday they too would be freed from Pharaoh who took the guise of the slave owner. Stirring spirituals sang of Moses telling Pharaoh to let God’s people go, of crossing the Jordan to the promised land of freedom, of peace like a river.

The story of Exodus is the story of how the God’s people formed their identity over their forty years in the desert, of how they learned who they were once they were no longer the slaves of Pharaoh. In that formation, God gave to them ten commandments that would shape their communal life. One of those commandments was to observe the Sabbath, the last day of the week when the people would refrain from work and reflect on the gifts they had received from God. That was tied into their identity; enslaved people don’t get a day off, free people do. Sabbath rest was a gift for these newly freed people. And it was a cornerstone of identity for the Jewish people – then and now.

So when we look at today’s story about a woman healed on the Sabbath, we need to remember that Sabbath was foundational for the leader of the synagogue who was responsible for ensuring a proper observance of the Sabbath, for the bent woman who came to worship on the Sabbath, and for Jesus who healed on the Sabbath.

I love this story and I love teaching about this story. There is so much to it, and at least a dozen sermons, but this morning I’d like for us to think about this as a story of a woman freed, and how that calls us to think about freeing those who are captive to any number of things.

So let’s take a look at this woman. Did you notice how she is not named, how she is known only by her disability – the bent woman? Jesus calls her a daughter of Abraham, a title used only here in the whole of the New Testament. In calling her that, Jesus links this woman to all those who received the promise God made to Abraham – that God would be their God. In the time of Jesus, people with any sort of physical infirmity were set apart. They were considered unclean, untouchable, not worthy of the full benefits the community had to offer. Simply by calling this woman Abraham’s daughter, Jesus affirms her right to be a full member of the community.

Despite the restrictions put on her by society, she is faithful and comes to the synagogue to worship God on the Sabbath. The text never says she comes seeking healing – that is an accusation put on her by the leader of the synagogue. She simply comes to worship, but after her healing she stands up straight and the first thing she does is praise God.

That must have been an extraordinary physical act for her – to be free of her immobile spine, to be able to stand up, raise her arms, look people in the face, look up to heaven. Before she was healed, all she saw was the dirt of the path, the stones in the floor, people’s feet – never the horizon with all its long perspective.

We don’t know why she suffered, but eighteen years, in those days, would have been about half her life. Maybe she was crippled by some virulent form of arthritis; maybe it was spinal stenosis. Maybe she was someone who engaged in back-breaking work, bending over in the fields to pick grain, lugging heavy jars of water until it broke her back. Rather than being the recipient of compassion and kindness, the woman is stripped of her name and shunned by the community. Until that day she shows up in the synagogue and is freed.

But rather than rejoice that this woman was made well, the leader of the synagogue gets his nose bent out of shape, because in his view, Jesus broke the Sabbath law. He worked on the Sabbath. And yet, if we understand the deep meaning and gift of Sabbath, what could be a better acknowledgement of the gift than to free someone from their burden?

So what does this mean for us, if we consider the larger idea of Sabbath as freedom – freedom from pharaohs, freedom from slavery, freedom from whatever prevents us and our fellow human beings from full life. What is keeping any of us or all of us bent over with limited view, unable to see and experience the fullness of life?

Hate and fear can weight us down, carrying that burden of distrust and enmity, and yet we see hate and fear playing out in our politics, in the way we treat each other, and in that social fabric I talked about last week. We’re losing the ability simply to have a conversation with those who hold a view different from our own, and we state our case as though it is the undeniable truth without a smidgen of humility that whispers we might have something to learn from someone who sits on the other side of an aisle.

Hate and fear are at play in our response to what’s going on at the border, in the rising presence of white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys, in the murder of transgender women of color. Hate and fear have become inbred in those threads of our social fabric that have allowed racism and racist policies to infect housing, policing, education, and employment.

So what do we do?

It’s easy to hate from far away, to hate the blurred outline of someone that looks like they could be the enemy or the hostile stranger. It’s harder to hate close up. But when we’re bent over by the burden of prejudice we can’t see straight, we can’t look the other in the eye. And talking up close, with a goal of erasing the hate, with the goal of bringing some humility and openness to the conversation, is really hard.

The Reverend Jan Edmiston is the former co-moderator of our denomination and currently serves as executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Charlotte, North Carolina. I read her blog every day and want to share with you some of her thoughts about all of this.

She had attended a talk by Bryan Stevenson who is an American lawyer, social justice activist, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and a clinical professor at New York University School of Law. Blogging about his talk, Jan writes, “He started by saying that we could talk about issues of injustice all night. But he wanted to talk – instead – about solutions. Talking about injustice weathers us. Talking about solutions gives us hope.”

So she gets to solutions. “We read and hear news stories about ‘them’ and we believe we know who they are. Actually we have no idea who they are. We only learn the true stories about people when we are close to those people. Proximity is everything.

“Sadly, … we want to move far away from anybody who makes us uncomfortable. But this is the opposite of what Jesus did….I’m not say[ing] that we need to move out of our comfortable homes or refuse to stay in nice hotels on vacation. What I’m saying is that each of us needs to make choices to become more proximate to the very people whose lives we fear or condemn.

  • If we are angry about immigrants coming into our country from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador we have a holy and civic duty to meet people in this very demographic….
  • If we fear young Black and Brown men in hoodies, God is calling us to get to know such men and hear their stories.

“I’m not talking about one and done conversations here.I’m talking about relationships. If all our relationships are with people who look, speak, and live like we do then we have missed the point of Jesus. This is the most important thing I can say this morning…. We can’t love people we aren’t willing to know and be in proximity with.” (A Church for Starving Artists: Proximity Is Everything)

You and I are not able to go back in time and change things, to sink those slave ships before they even reached the African shore, to write into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that slavery was illegal from the get-go.

But we can live differently today. We can admit our own racism and prejudice, the fear and hate that prevent us from seeing the world and each other fully. We can make different choices. We can remind ourselves that one-on-one, most human beings aren’t that scary, and that hard conversations are difficult to start but so worth it in the end.

At the end of July, my extended family gathered, as we do every year, to talk about the property we own together up by Mt. Rainier. There were about thirty of us, and in that thirty we span the spectrum on views about all the hot button issues – abortion, guns, the death penalty, politics in general, and religion.

We don’t talk about any of those things.

But I have known these people my whole life – my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and their kids. We are family. We share DNA, and we share a love of this particular parcel of land. In some ways, these folks would be the easiest people to talk with about race or guns or politics. I know them and I love them, even if I don’t agree with them. I’ve seen them up close, from the time they were squirming babies to now, as we all wrinkle a bit and sport gray hairs.

Initiating that conversation will be so hard, but if we’re going to get anywhere, if we’re going to ease each other’s burdens and free one another, we have to do it. So let’s talk.