A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on August 21, 2022, by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for address: Luke 13
In the Netflix show Frankie and Grace the two title characters, women in their 70s, experience being totally ignored in a supermarket while trying to buy some cigarettes. They try and try to get the attention of a cashier. The staff are looking in their direction, they are only a few meters away, they must be able to hear them but it’s as if they don’t exist. Eventually one young man walks towards them but turns at the last minute to chit chats with a young, beautiful woman. Eventually Grace has a meltdown, she throws down the shopping baskets, she shouts “Do you not see us? What kind of animal treats people like this?” and has to be dragged out of the shop by Frankie.
In the car, Grace apologises for losing her cool.
Frankie lights up a cigarette. “That’s ok” she says.
“You stole those” cries Grace.
“I realised we have a superpower” says Frankie “if they can’t see me, they can’t stop me.”
Eye contact is a key part of our social interactions but it requires two people to choose it. Wheelchair users often report that their experience of social isolation is exasperated by not being at eye level with people. Those who are partially sighted report being ignored in conversations and extra challenges knowing when to break in because eye contact isn’t an option.
The older woman in our gospel today had no opportunity to make eye contact with people.
Eighteen years earlier an evil happened that resulted in her being unable to straighten her spine. She spent day after day staring at the dust on the ground, staring at her feet, at other people’s feet. Maybe she’s in pain. She’s certainly in a huge amount of discomfort. In that society, it is unlikely that she would have got married so there would be no stable financial provision either from work or from a spouse.
Without a society that provided for dignified assistance for those with disabilities, she would have survived through the pity of others. I wonder how strong her ability would have been to make eye contact even if she had the physical opportunity.
And then you wonder how many people saw her. It’s possible she was a regular at this synagogue; there every week. But people don’t tend to see those they perceive to be suffering or less useful. Many people divide others into those who we want to impress, they are focussed on. Imagine if a senior member of the Royal Family was present today (perhaps they are, you never know with St Martins). Every move they made would be noticed, every scratch of the ear, probably filmed with mobile phones, posted online and rewatched tens of thousands of times. Then there are those who are perceived as like us; we notice them out of the corner of our eyes and occasionally remember what they did or said if it made us laugh or think. But those perceived as suffering more than us, those we think aren’t useful to us, are ignored. In scanning a room, many people simply fail to notice they’re there.
Suffering in general is faceless. The demonic powers that caused this woman’s condition, are described with passive verbs. There is no voice to offer an explanation, no reason why it is her rather than another person, just a force that has bent her double for the best part of two decades. She is unable to stand straight. Why does suffering affect one person more than another? Suffering doesn’t have a conversation with you. Suffering doesn’t give you a chance to argue your case. Suffering just affects you. Suffering has no eye contact.
Then there’s the leader of the synagogue. He not only doesn’t see her, when she is pointed out and engaged with, he is irritated. Couldn’t she have come on a less busy day when fewer people would have been around? He speaks to the woman while making eye contact with the crowd.
He keeps saying to the crowd “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, not on the sabbath.” Have you ever met someone who is so adverse to speaking directly to a person that rebukes them, right in front of them but while making eye contact with a crowd? It’s like this is the precursor for Twitter. He keeps saying to the crowd “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, not on the sabbath.” It would be comedic… if it wasn’t so cruel.
But in the middle of this, we have Jesus. Perhaps if we were to have seen this live, the most striking thing wouldn’t be the straightening of a back but the amount of direct connection Jesus has compared with everyone else: the amount of eye contact.
Look back at the first words of this passage with me.
“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then a woman appeared” – with Jesus teaching on the sabbath and suddenly this woman is not invisible. A woman appeared.
He doesn’t just glance at her Jesus REALLY sees her – it’s striking that when Jesus describes her suffering he says “eighteen long years”. Jesus isn’t afraid to see the extent of her suffering.
He is teaching, all eyes are on him, and he stops, speaks to her, calling her to come closer, close enough to reach out to, calling her to come into view of everyone. He speaks to her, he touches her, saying that she is set free from her all that ails her. She is not bound anymore to any force.
She stands up straight and speaks directly to God. She finds a voice to praise God with everyone hearing what she has to say.
Jesus says that this woman is not the labels they have given her but primarily a daughter of Abraham. The religious leaders often refereed to themselves as sons of Abraham when they wanted to assert their lack of need of liberation. This woman, Jesus tells them, is a daughter of Abraham too. Beyond any identity others put on her or even the identities she may have held herself she has an identity of dignity and esteem. An identity of relationship, connection with Abraham, the founder of their people.
Then Jesus defends her actions “Think about your farm animals” Jesus says to him “you untie them and lead them to get water on the sabbath” Even within the Torah there is a principal of compassion. The synagogue leader was focussed on the rule rather than the relationship with God and neighbour.
But perhaps we should look again at our friend the synagogue leader. There are lots of jobs he could have chosen in this society that would have been less hassle. He is trying to hold together a faith community at a time that would have been closer to Nazi occupied France than today. Leaders of synagogues would have been closely watched by the authorities. If the healing had happened on a weekday it wouldn’t have risked a stir… being too visible without liberation was dangerous. It was a hard job being leader of a synagogue that could cause a stir and agitate the Romans. He had needed to learn to keep the peace. He’s not asking her not to be healed, but to come on a day that wouldn’t have been so dangerous. He’s speaking out of fear not hatred. Always in his sight are the violent soldiers who could close down this synagogue or kill its leader on a whim. Perhaps he wondered if God cared enough to watch his people anymore.
This isn’t just a parable about a bent back. The entire Jewish people were bent double under the evils of Roman oppression. As a people group, they were ignored in the middle east by more important political powers.
But when Jesus is teaching they are not invisible. Jesus sees them, Jesus calls them to come into view, Jesus reaches out to touch them and Jesus will heal them, free them from all that ails them so they can praise God once more.
What if Jesus says “eighteen long years” to the woman he’s not saying it because he’s heard someone say she’s been unable to stand up that long, what if he knows it was that long because God was watching and counted the seconds with her. God has been watching and waiting for the long years of oppression of the Jewish people too. Why didn’t Jesus come sooner to this woman or to Israel? I don’t know but we think of God siting on a sofa enjoying life in the waiting. What if God is suffering every second with us? Jesus knew that the years had been long. Jesus’ sabbath teaching is that God’s eyes have not left you, Israel, and that God will return on the Great Sabbath, to call Israel into view of the whole world, to set you free and to liberate you to praise God again. And you will lead everyone in worship.
The Sabbath is the seventh day of the Jewish week, the day they remember God resting from creating the world and inviting us to join in that rest in our working pattern. Each week they, and we are invited to refocus on the sabbath that started the world and the sabbath that is to come, the Great Sabbath when God will return and liberate the whole world. When God will return and there will be no oppressive Romans, no evil ailments, and no need to view people differently depending on if they are useful or not useful to us because everyone has more than they could imagine. Jesus is weaving the idea of sabbath into the idea of the Year of Jubilee, the great year of liberation and plenty promised in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is a re-enactment of Jesus teaching in a synagogue in chapter 4 where he says “The Spirt of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news for the poor, to release the captives” etc. Just like the Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, she embodied the characteristics of their people as a mirror. By coming into the synagogue rather than staying out of sight at home, this woman is an embodiment of her nation. She is saying it’s ok to face up to how we are all enslaved because there is hope of an Exodus. Because of her faith, because of her strength to come to the synagogue on the holy day, not to stay hidden away, her actions have been talked about for thousands of years. She isn’t just a magician’s assistant. She is ready to praise God because she has been constantly proclaiming by refusing to hide away. This woman is teaching in partnership with Jesus. As well as being a daughter of Abraham, she is a prophet.
Their message is Good News for everyone who feels unseen. This is good news for everyone who is ignored. God sees you, God has been watching for all these long years and the day is coming when God will return to liberate you to sing God’s praises again. Maybe it’ll be that great Sabbath at the end of all time, but maybe it’ll be a regular sabbath, rest and restoration in the everyday even in the banquet we have here in our sabbath gathering, today. What we learn from our Gospel reading today is that anytime Jesus is present there might be interruptions.
I’d keep an eye on him.