Bent out of Shape

One of the hardest things I think we may encounter in life is oppression.  It’s very topical – you only need to watch the news to see reports of people living under oppression or in oppressive regimes.  Oppression is something that can happen at a national level, it can happen at a local or community level, but also at a personal level.  But no matter what level it may happen, the outcome is the same – we begin to see people who are dehumanised or begin to lose sight of their humanity.  There is an expression you sometimes hear in America called “bent out of shape” (it also happens to be the title of one of my favourite albums).  People who are oppressed become bent out of shape; if you look at a spoon that has been badly bent, you get the point.  When it is all bent out of shape it can’t be used properly for anything; certainly not for what it was made.  When we are bent out of shape, we are the same.  We are no longer able to be what we were created to be.

If you want a poignant example of someone living under oppression, someone who was bent out of shape, then we only need to turn to our Gospel reading today.  This woman “had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years”.  Note that Luke says she had been crippled by a spirit rather than simply saying she had been crippled.  All the Gospel writers do clearly distinguish between the physically ill and those who were demon possessed or oppressed by spirits.

Oppression is something that may be rooted spiritually but it may also manifest itself physically, as is the case here.  The woman’s twisted body was “bent over and could not straighten up at all”.  The woman’s condition will have wreaked havoc on every aspect of her life: physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, spiritually, etc.  Her hurts and bondage in some way symbolises all of our hurts and needs too.

Have you noticed how so often today, people blame God for the brokenness of this world?  But the source of brokenness and oppression is not God.  God loves this world he created and he loves us.  The source of oppression, the source of this woman’s pain, is Satan and the sin that follows.

Oppression can not only rob people of their dignity and humanity, but it can also rob people of hope.  After 18 years of living with this terrible condition, this woman must surely have begun to lose hope.  She could not straighten her body, so she could not look upwards or forwards.  Physically she was unable to lift her eyes to the hills and know where her help comes from. (Psalm 121:1-2)  And spiritually she must have felt so battered and challenged.

But let me throw a question out to you…knowing all of this, WHY was she at the synagogue?  A worldly response would be that she was crazy; there was no God, and if there was He had clearly deserted her.  But I believe of all of the places where she could have been, she was in absolutely the right place.  Somehow she persevered, year after year after year.  I wonder if the prayer and cry of her heart was somehow captured in today’s Psalm:

1  In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame.  2  Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me.  3  Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.  4  Deliver me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of evil and cruel men.  5  For you have been my hope, O Sovereign LORD, my confidence since my youth.  6  From my birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb. I will ever praise you.

May that be our prayer when we stumble and fall, and when we have hard and testing times.  We should never think that Jesus is unaware of our situation or unmoved by our tears and cries.  Jesus is not indifferent to or willing to ignore our pain.  We may feel far away from God at times but God is not some far off distant God.  He steps into the brokenness – he always does.  He isn’t hesitant in getting his hands dirty.  If you want evidence for that, simply look to the cross.  Jesus was not indifferent to the oppression, hurt, pain and despair this woman was going through. She did not go unnoticed by Jesus even though we are given no indication that she tried to get his attention. Jesus has an eye for the hurting. He noticed and called the woman forward, over into the centre of the synagogue, from where she had been standing.   He reached out to her in the midst of her pain because He was aware and concerned with her hurts; he is aware and concerned with all of our hurts too.  Jesus reaching out to her at that time and in that place was an incredibly unusual thing for a religious leader of Jesus’ time to do. In a patriarchal society, Jesus invited her into the centre of the room and responded to her need both immediately and publicly.

We may not necessarily understand many things that we go through or have to endure, the challenging times and the testing times…but we can be in no doubt that God notices and cares about our pain.  Our God notices the hurting and has compassion on the bound, the burdened and the broken.

Jesus bound up her brokenness and loosed her to be all that she could be in him; he restored her dignity and her humanity.  He told her that she was “set free from her infirmity.”  Once again, she was able to look upwards and forwards. It was not just her body that was healed, but her spirit as well. Her immediate response was to praise God.

As a body of believers, when we encounter the brokenness, the wrongness in this world, we are called to pray into these desperate situations and into the lives of the people concerned.  We are all called to live with the dignity and value that being created in God’s image and likeness entails.  We are all called to try and see each other through God’s eyes, and not through our own – it is all too easy for our own baggage and prejudices to get in the way. We should not be like the synagogue ruler, indifferent to the hurting or unresponsive to the sorrowful and troubled. When we gather we should take the time to give attention and sympathy toward those in need. When we pray we should care enough to genuinely pray for those who are oppressed, hurting, confused, sick or in pain. These people should not be an afterthought in our prayers or our daily lives rather they should be our first priority.  In prayer and ministry we are called to bind up the brokenness and loose people to live lives of worth, dignity and value just like Jesus did all the time.

As Disciples of Christ, we also have the responsibility to show compassion and mercy; or as our mission statement says to “live out and give out the good news of the love of Jesus Christ.”  I rejoice when I see people, when I see you doing just this.

Jesus rebuked those who ignored hurting people. This synagogue ruler was more focused on religious rules and order than in showing the compassion the Hebrew Scriptures called the people of God to show.  I would like to suggest that that in his own way, the synagogue ruler was also bent out of shape. Some people say that the synagogue ruler perhaps knew the letter of the law but had forgotten the spirit of the law.  I don’t think he really knew the letter of the law; for him the law had become a straightjacket and means of condemnation rather than a releasing into grace.  What was different between the synagogue ruler and the woman was that she seemed to recognise her poverty of spirit.  When everything is stripped away, what matters first and foremost in our faith is the kind of relationship we have with God.  If we have the right kind of relationship with God, we recognise our spiritual poverty and we drink deeply from the water of life.  There are some people who in God’s grace and in their humility call out to God and there are some people who simply do not recognise their need for him in their lives.

Jesus argued that if you could water an animal on the Sabbath (which was allowed) then you should be able to help a woman who was ill; she needed the water of life.  Jesus’ argument is that the Sabbath is a day set aside for people to praise God. If what you are doing praises God, shouldn’t it be allowed?  Jesus was not alone in holding this opinion. Several other Jewish rabbis at that time taught that the Sabbath was made for people’s benefit, and should not be a burden for people.  But the synagogue ruler had no joy, no praise, and no relief at this woman’s healing; there was an absence of the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus was greatly angered by this uncaring, indifferent response.

What can we take away from this?

  • God notices and cares for the oppressed and the broken.
  • God is powerful enough to take, transform and redeem brokenness, bringing hope to the hopeless.
  • We are challenged to look at how we too may sometimes find ourselves bound up by bureaucracy and red tape, and to give ourselves a spiritual health check.
  • When we are bent out of shape, God can lead us through the wilderness to a place of blessing and new life in Christ.

I invite you now to close your eyes as I close by re-reading the Psalm we heard earlier.

1  In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame.  2  Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me.  3  Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.  4  Deliver me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of evil and cruel men.  5  For you have been my hope, O Sovereign LORD, my confidence since my youth.  6  From my birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb. I will ever praise you.

Amen

Community

One of my favourite commentators on community is Jean Vanier.  In case you haven’t heard of him, he is a Canadian Catholic philosopher turned theologian, humanitarian and the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of group homes for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them.  When he speaks about community, I am challenged and feel very moved to listen.

In his book ‘Community and Growth’, Jean Vanier states “A community becomes truly and radiantly one when all its members have a sense of urgency in their mission.  There are too many people in the world who have no hope.  There are too many cries which go unheard.  There are too many people dying in loneliness.  It is when the members of the community realise that they are not there simply for themselves or their own sanctification, but to welcome the gift of God, to hasten his Kingdom and to quench the thirst in parched hearts through their prayer and sacrifice, love and acts of service, that they will truly live community.”

It is a grand quote, a bold statement.  But it is also, in my opinion, absolutely spot on and I love it!  Today I was blessed to be able to welcome people into church for a community event – a production of the musical Annie.  Some incredibly talented children, along with their families, came together for 3 hours on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to demonstrate their talents.

In welcoming people,  I said I was all too aware of all that is required to make these things happen – all the behind the scenes things that are so important, but not always visible.  Parents and community members had been involved in marketing and PR, poster design, ticket design, face-painting, costume design, catering, cleaning, and of course helping the children to learn their lines and know their parts.

It was a pleasure to see community groups join together to make this happen.  It was moving and powerful.  In addition to parents and community members, there was also the community centre, the local school, the church, the city council, and a music and drama company – representatives of which gave freely of their time and talents.

All of the people involved have a uniting passion – community.  Vanier said “A community becomes truly and radiantly one when all its members have a sense of urgency in their mission.”  The people I spoke to yearned for a deepening of community, for its members to know dignity, purpose, pride and hope.  Back to Vanier again, as he says “There are too many people in the world who have no hope.  There are too many cries which go unheard.  There are too many people dying in loneliness.  It is when the members of the community realise that they are not there simply for themselves or their own sanctification, but to welcome the gift of God, to hasten his Kingdom and to quench the thirst in parched hearts through their prayer and sacrifice, love and acts of service, that they will truly live community.”

No one was there for themselves or their own sanctification.  It wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about any other single person – important as it may have been to recognise, acknowledge and thank all the individuals involved.  It was about community and purpose and a group of kids singing and acting their hearts out.

I’m tired today, but a nice tired.  I feel satisfied, peaceful, and humbly grateful to a loving God who blessed this event.  Lord, may you continue to deepen community, to strengthen the connections we make, to make yourselves known to us and lead us into truth, hope and light. And Lord, help those whose lives are filled with all those things that break community – bitterness, resentment, hurts, lost hope.  Amen

Under construction

Even if a church is not a building, but the people gathered, it seems to be part of our humanity that we become deeply connected with spaces and places.  We can see that connection all the time.  You know if you have been away from home for a while and you walk through the door and put the kettle on for a much needed cuppa?  That moment when you sit down with a cuppa and you know you are home?  I’ve been living away from my hometown of Bradford for 15 years; but coming back now it feels like coming home.  There is that saying isn’t there…“You can take a man out of Yorkshire but you cannot take Yorkshire out of a man.”

When buildings are constructed there is often a ceremony that involves the laying of a symbolic foundation stone.  Somebody will quite likely be invited to give a speech, and then lay the commemorative brick or stone.  I think such ceremonies are important; they capture something of the hope for what the new building will be, and celebrate all the hard work of people that had made it possible.

Because these ceremonies generally take place on part of a building site, it’s important that people wear appropriate safety equipment.  Visitors are issued with hi-visibility smocks and hard hats, often with the logo of the construction company involved.    That in itself is not unusual – here is the hi-visibility jacket that belongs to me featuring the name of my former employee in secular employment.

Corporate identity and brand are big things.  Think how much companies pay to advertise their company logos on sports gear and at sporting events, whether it is Formula 1, tennis, cricket, football – the list goes on.  The thing is, when an employee takes off that hi-visibility smock or jacket – which is something that is visible and on the surface, it is hard to know that they work for that particular company.  When a Formula 1 sporting personality gets out of their racing car, and is wearing normal clothes it is hard to recognise what they do.  When I took off my hi-visibility jacket, you would not know that at that time I worked for that company.

But what about Christians?  Christians may wear a cross or a bracelet – but it isn’t as if they are generally clearly visible or on display.  They are often very private expressions of faith that point to something much deeper, something within.  Our reading from the letter to the Colossians uses a language of stripping off our old self and clothing ourselves with our new self in Christ.  Imagine if you will that our old self is like a hi-visibility jacket labelled ‘Sin’.  Before we give our lives to Christ, ‘Sin’ is our corporate identity.  And the reading makes it perfectly clear what being in such a company involves.

When we make a commitment to Christ and invite him to be Lord of our lives, a deeply profound change takes place:

a)    We begin to seek the things above

b)    We set our minds on the things above

c)     We die to self

d)    We are raised with Christ

e)    Our life is now hidden with Christ in God.  We have a new hope

f)      We take off our old self and we put on a new self

g)    We put God first

We set out hearts (or minds) on the things above, we seek to put to death the practices that belong to our earthly nature, and we seek to rid ourselves of those practices that characterised our fallen state.  We have consciously left that company called ‘Sin’.  That deeper inner change that comes from a new life in Christ may result in an outer-working in our lives.  There are former terrorists who have come to Christ and are now ordained priests in the Church of England, there are former drug addicts who could give a similar testimony.  These are people who when Christ came into their life were able to take off that mantle or garment of sin and put on that new garment of Christ’s righteousness.

Building sites often feature a sign which reads “Under Construction.”  If we were to wear any outward sign, I think that might be quite appropriate for us too – “Under Construction” or “Work in Progress.”  Another sign we can wear is the cross of Christ, reminding us of how we too are invited to die to self and take up that new life in Christ.  In giving our lives to Christ, we begin those steps on that journey – it’s like we invite the builders in to make a new building and Christ is like the management consultant who changes the very corporate identity that defines who and what we are.  That journey involves work and effort – continually dying to self, continually taking off our old self and putting on our new self – a new self that is “being renewed in knowledge of the image of its Creator.” We always live in the tension between the now and the not yet – what is and what will be.  God is the master architect; we can trust him to make sure our walls are straight and true….if we put him first.

Through Christ’s death, resurrection and exaltation, we aren’t what we used to be, and because we aren’t what we used to be, we may experience success in becoming all that we can be – all that we were created to be – to reach out and claim that truth for our own.  I give thanks to God for that, and that I am a work in progress.  And we may do that safe in the deep security of God’s love and grace – God tells us that “When Christ, who is our life, appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.”  It is like the grand unveiling. Christ has done everything necessary; we just need to accept the invitation.

Some people of course find it hard to take off that old garment.  The rich fool in our Gospel reading had not had that life changing experience.  He was preoccupied with possessions and material things.  He was building up idols in his life, he was consumed by greed.  He was trying to get God to submit to him rather than accepting that he needed to submit to God.  It is a dreadful thing to be greedy – if you study economics, one of the biggest criticisms of capitalism is that it always wants MORE.  You can never be satisfied and you lose the ability to truly value anything.  The rich young fool wanted everything and gained nothing.  God said to him “‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

If you close your eyes for a moment and think about the things in your life that are like that old garment, an old garment that perhaps you struggle to take off.  You are not alone in that – we all struggle to take off that old garment sometimes.  I would like to invite you to consider what spiritual garments you wear and think about whether you need to have a change in your wardrobe.  As your eyes are closed, just imagine taking that coat or jumper off and throwing it away.  Imagine Christ stood beside you with a beautiful shining garment.  It is yours.  Carefully reach out and take it and put it on.  See how easily it goes on?  It is made for you.  Know that Christ has created in you a clean heart, he has renewed your spirit.  Hold on to that truth that you have been raised with Christ.  Take his hand and walk with him.  He is the author and perfecter, the pioneer and completer of our faith.

Amen