Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
August 26, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
It's a warm summer morning. Marsha stands on the sidelines of the grassy soccer field watching her pony-tailed daughter run in pursuit of a soccer ball in the midst of 19 other 10-year-old girls playing their hearts out for a chance at the weekend tournament trophy.
She smiles with pleasure and yet feels the familiar ache surface. Thirty five years ago Marsha was a 10-year-old pony-tailed girl who loved basketball. She'd play for hours with her brothers in their driveway. But there was no opportunity for her to play in school. Girls weren't allowed to play sports at her school; they weren't even allowed to wear pants. There were no acceptable places for girls to further their athletic talents.
Marsha remembers the tears of frustration as her brothers grew older and joined school teams. She went to their games knowing that she played better than both of them but had to be content with the court on their driveway. She had heard that girls did play in some places. But Marsha lived in a small conservative town in Connecticut. The town was a peaceful one; there were rules; people knew how to act. Many of the rules, though not written down, were how boys were to be and how girls were to be.
The majority of people agreed with the judge there whom in 1971 said, "Athletic competition builds character in our boys. We do not need that kind of character in our girls." There were some people who disagreed but they kept quiet not wanting to disturb the peace of their town, accepting that that's the way things had always been and would likely always be.
Marsha still tastes the bitterness of those lost years where her talent was held bondage to adherence to rules that were based on peoples' prejudices and limited vision. She remembers the outrage by many when Congress enacted Title IX in 1972. The amendment prohibited discrimination against girls and women in federally-funded education, including in athletics programs. There were all sorts of dire predictions how it would shatter the foundations of our country's sports system. But at this particular moment, Marsha smiles, knowing that legislation has made possible the field full of girls she stands watching this summer morning nearly 30 years later.
A part of her still puzzles over how something that seems so natural in today's time could have been viewed as such a threat those years ago.
Two thousand years ago a small group of people was feeling threatened as a radical young man named Jesus lifted a woman out of bondage by healing her on the Sabbath. People were outraged. Here was this man who paid more attention to women than was really necessary or helpful anyway and now he had the nerve to break Sabbath laws by healing her this day. Goodness knows he could have at least done it somewhere else. But, right here in the synagogue, in the holy center of the Jewish religion!
We can imagine the mutterings going on after this event: "Here we are trying to have a peaceful and reverent morning of prayer and study and he's shattered that by this unbelievable action". "For crying out loud, he could have waited till tomorrow to do that after Sabbath's over. She's been hurting for 18 years; don't tell me another few hours are going to make a big difference." "This is the beginning of the end. This disrespect of the law will only lead to ruin." "Clearly, he doesn't understand the importance of honoring the tradition here." An air of unsettledness filled the synagogue that morning. The normal peace had been shattered and people were not quite sure just how to respond.
Jesus detected something unhealthy about the sense of peace that had prevailed in that place. He knew that something rather shocking needed to happen to introduce a radically different insight to people whose minds had become set and rigid about how they interpreted the Law. It would take more than a discussion to move people to a truer understanding of the Spirit of the Law. Their eyes had to be opened in new ways. He chose to put an issue in front of them in a way that could not be ignored.
The response of one of the leaders of the synagogue was not surprising. He was upset and indignant about Jesus' action. We all know what it is to be shocked when someone does something that surprises us. It is disconcerting when their action seems beyond the boundaries of what we deem acceptable or comfortable.
There are times, though, where a little bit of shock can be a healthy thing for it opens our minds to new understanding. Jesus knew his action in the synagogue was sure to get people's attention. How they responded was not much different from how we're likely to respond to similar situations today.
The leader of the synagogue upset with Jesus' action shouts to the crowd, "People should be cured on days other than the Sabbath!" Most of us have responded similarly to something that challenges us. We loudly repeat what we know to be true as if that alone will settle the matter. We resist taking the risk to open up dialogue that might end up going in a direction we find uncomfortable or result in a decision with which we disagree.
Another pattern revealed in the community's response is a familiar one in many churches. The leader who is against Jesus does not address Jesus directly but turns to the members of the synagogue and tries to rally them to his side. Too often we succumb to the temptation to avoid direct confrontation to solve a problem or address a concern and instead work around the edges in a way that is destructive to the health of our community.
Jesus does not shrink from telling the truth: "You are hypocrites!" he says. How they must have hated to hear that charge. For those people, like us, certainly were trying to do what they thought most faithful. This was the reality they knew; it was what they believed was best for them and for others. But, Jesus knew they were held captive by their lack of a fuller vision of the law. He understood they could not see beyond the way things were.
At the heart of Jesus' response to the leader is an awareness of things "bound" and things "set free." He reminds them that they would not think twice about releasing a bound donkey to give it water on the Sabbath and yet they do not even see before them the hypocrisy of keeping this woman bound another day simply to honor a rule.
The heart of the matter for us as people and as church is what is it that is before our very eyes that we are keeping bound. What is struggling to be free that is restrained by our desire to keep the peace? Of what are we in denial because the truth seems to be more than we can handle?
Jesus did not come among us to teach us how to have a peace based on safety but rather a peace based on our faithful response to God's call for freedom for all people.
Once the people in the synagogue understood the different vision Jesus was offering they rejoiced in the wonder of it all. So it is and will be whenever an unhealthy peace is shattered to bring about a healthy freedom.
Of course it's difficult to risk the shattering. Who among us would say we welcome the discomfort of dismantling what we've known? No one wants to admit that they've been hypocritical or in denial.
The power of the gospel is that it pulls us forward towards a vision we may not be experiencing but which God promises is possible. It requires leaping across the safety nets of the reality we know to boldly experience God's transformation in unexpected ways.
These are challenging statements for us as individuals and threatening claims for us as a church if we are honest enough to admit we prefer peace to chaos, calm to disruption, and familiarity to the new. It's not only risky but just plain difficult to see where we should be going next and how to learn to more faithfully answer God's call to us.
Helen Keller, a blind woman with amazing insight said this about people's ability to learn: "Often learning has less to do with facts than with experience. Eyes less conditioned only by the oughts or the shoulds of life sometimes may see more clearly than those preoccupied with confirming old information."
The "oughts" and the "shoulds" keep us bound. Our focus on confirming and validating only old information confines us to automatic behavior leaving no room for new possibilities to come into view. If we look honestly at what we are experiencing we will get clues about where we are held captive. It is then we are called to be courageous and voice to one another and ourselves what outrageous acts we think might shatter the chains that bind us and lead us into the new life to which God calls us. Amen.