Joy and Wholeness
August 21, 2022

Joy and Wholeness

Passage: Luke 13:10-17

Joy and Wholeness
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On August 21st, 2022

Luke 13:10-17

Today we continue our summer sermon series on joy—how we express it and experience it and where we can find it in the midst of troubling times in life—by examining the connection between joy and the experience of wholeness, or healing. In our passage for this morning, we encounter a woman who has been unable to stand up straight for 18 years. Pay careful attention to what Jesus does when she appears in the synagogue, and how the leader of the synagogue reacts to the situation, and then to how the crowd responds. Hear now God’s word as it comes to us in the Gospel of Luke

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
There is a moment in David Kamali’s recent novel Poemless Nights, in which the author’s soul—portrayed as an ex-lover whom he meets after some years apart—speaks life-altering words to him. In just a tiny little snippet, he relates what she said and how he responded. “I’m not looking for perfection anymore, I prefer wholeness,” she said. “Her words calmed my heart and made beauty of this whole mess.”

I’m not looking for perfection anymore, I prefer wholeness.

What if that were the key to knowing joy? Not looking for perfection, but preferring wholeness—a wholeness that acknowledges flaws and imperfections in oneself and in others and in the messiness of life in a world like ours. What if the key to knowing joy is to know and perceive that at the heart of the living divine there is a wholeness—a unity—that is able to take what is and make beauty of it?

Like most things that matter in life, looking for and working towards wholeness rather than perfection is easier said than done, of course. Take it from a recovering perfectionist.

Let’s look at today’s text from Luke’s Gospel to see what it might have to say about that.

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and it’s a sabbath day. Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus is teaching, but given the sorts of things Jesus says elsewhere in Luke’s narrative, it probably (spoiler alert) has to do with love. The one who began his ministry by saying the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and release to the captives, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor—the One who lived that mission—is probably going to be talking about love. He’s going to be talking about how God cares about those who are regarded by society as the least, the last, and the lost. The ones who don’t look the part. The ones who are so often on the outside, looking in.

Just then, a woman appears.
She’s bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.
Afflicted, Luke says, by a spirit that has crippled her for 18 years.

On a purely physical level, there are lots of reasons people can become bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Deteriorating disks in the back, rheumatoid arthritis, issues with joints in the hips and knees, atrophied muscles. There are all sorts of reasons why someone can wind up bent over and unable to stand up straight. We needn’t introduce evil spirits into the equation to explain the issue. The fact that Luke, who is a physician by the way, suggests that a spirit has something to do with it, may have more to say about his rudimentary understanding of human physiology and psychology than about the true root cause. That said, there are three additional things worth noting here:

1. Regardless of what caused her condition, the bent-over woman has the sort of physical infirmity that would have caused people both then and now to avert their eyes—to look down or away rather than right at this human being right in front of them. It is our all too human tendency to look away from such brokenness, imperfection, and need, perhaps because it reminds us of our own vulnerability. It reminds us that we ourselves could, and maybe one day will, be in that same position.

2. The body, the mind, and the soul are inextricably interrelated. Spiritual and mental and emotional factors can and sometimes do play a role in the development of physical conditions. You know this to be true. I don’t have to convince you of it.

3. There are all sorts of other ways beyond the physical that human beings can find themselves bent over and unable to stand up straight. We can be burdened with the pressure of unreasonable expectations, or with a sense that we can never achieve enough to be loved. We can carry grudges and resentments that cripple our souls. We can be weighed down by external voices that keep us from standing up for ourselves or for what we believe in. The bent-over woman who appears in the synagogue could serve as a physical representation of all the ways we and others might be hampered from being whole and standing up straight.

Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed is all about the ways people, and specifically women, are hampered from being whole—including people pleasing and pursuing some sort of unattainable perfection. After naming much of the messiness of life, how it is brutal and beautiful and all too often broken, Glennon writes: “If this is our shared human experience, where did we get the idea that there is some other, better, more perfect, unbroken way to be human? Where is the human being who is functioning “correctly,” against whom we are all judging our performances? Who is she? Where is she? What is her life if it is not these things that we, too, share?”

Have you noticed that one of the things people often say when they hear or read something that names their experience, is, “I feel seen”?
I think that’s a response Glennon Doyle probably gets fairly often. Speaking of being seen, that’s what happens with the bent-over woman in today’s text. Jesus sees her. God only knows how many people spent their lives trying not to see her or judging her by her infirmity rather than viewing her as a whole person worthy of being loved and noticed. Jesus sees her.

It's amazing what can happen when people feel seen, even just a little bit. On Friday, when I stopped for coffee at the 7-11 on my way home from my early morning workout, I saw Tony out front. I’ve talked about him before. He’s there every so often, sitting on the ground until someone tells him to move along. Perhaps because of a sermon I preached long ago, I always make it a point to address him. I call him by name, and remind him of mine, and give him some money, because I know he can use it. Every time I call him by name, Tony lights up like a Christmas tree—and we exchange blessings. Seeing Tony is a tiny thing—there’s nothing heroic about it, it ought to be commonplace. But so many people don’t see Tony. I believe I have taken the time to see Tony because of all the scripture texts I’ve read, including stories Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel about the Good Samaritan and the rich man and Lazarus. Tony’s not a model of perfection; he’s not the example of the guy who has it made; I don’t necessarily aspire to be just like Tony. What he is, is a fellow human being. To the extent my soul isn’t looking for perfection, but instead for wholeness, I’ll see and get to know more and more Tonys.

And I’ll see and acknowledge more and more of myself and my own brokenness, my own character defects and imperfections, my own unhelpful tendencies—or to put it in good Presbyterian terms, Liz, my own sin. It’s seeing and acknowledging those things which can help make me whole. Pretending like those shadow sides of me are not there, acting as if—to use the framework of the old Westerns—that I and my group always wear the white hats and those people over there always wear the black hats, that’s what will guarantee that I’ll never live a life of integrity and integration.
Carl Jung was on point when he wrote: “Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integration of the contraries.” That’s true in individual lives, and it’s true in communities, and it’s true in countries, and it’s true in the world.

The more we seek to cut people off, to regard them as less or other than, rather than being able to see them in their totality as a mixture, like us, of what we might consider the positive and the negative, the less likely we are to find joy and a way forward in this world. Which, by the way, is a good reason to turn off any media that depicts people with whom you disagree as anything less than human, or as anything less than people who love this country. It’s also a good reason not to ban books, or to carefully curate the history we teach so that we ignore the more unfortunate aspects of it. We need to look at ourselves and others in their totality. The “good” parts, the “bad” parts, the whole mixture.

Some of you know that I love to wear different themed socks. Often, on Sundays, I will now wear one or the other of these two pairs of socks. The one I have on now has an apple—and it reads: A reasonably good guy. I think I’m a reasonably good guy.

The other pair of socks that I often wear in the pulpit lately is a pair that I found in New Orleans. It says: Imperfectionist. I love that. I am a reasonably good guy who is an imperfectionist.

What if I began to regard others as people who, for the most part, really are trying their best with the tools they have? That might be a way forward in this broken world of ours. But you are not likely to hear that from a lot of the media we consume, whether it’s on the right or the left.

But back to the woman who was bent over. Jesus sees her and she’s made whole, able to stand up straight again. You might think the reaction of the synagogue leader would be joy. “Wow! Wonderful! And to think that this happened on a Saturday, when everyone is gathered for worship! What a great thing to have happened!”

But that’s not the reaction of the synagogue leader. Instead, irate, he berates the crowd. “There are six days,” he says, “on which you can come for healing. Come on those days. Don’t come on this day. This is the Sabbath. Don’t come on this day.”

One of my favorite rabbis, aside from Jesus (and Amy Schwartzmann) is David Wolpe out in Los Angeles. He started a service recently by saying “I love the sound of children making noise in the synagogue”. I miss that sound, don’t you? Then after he said that “Now, it really is okay to be quiet.”

What if the reaction of the religious leader is joy at healing and wholeness and a child being able to stand up straight or a woman being healed? But that’s not the man’s reaction. Why? Why?

I wonder if he’s a little jealous that Jesus can heal, and he can’t. I wonder if he’s threatened by the power of this rabbi. I don’t know. But Jesus response to him is “You hypocrites! If your ox or your donkey fell into a pit on the sabbath, wouldn’t you pull it out? What about this woman, who has been delivered from her brokenness? Why are you not rejoicing?”

The man is caught up in the rules and he’s caught up in the judgments and he’s caught up in making sure he’s keeping order and making things just right. More than that, he’s unable to acknowledge that if the woman were his wife or his daughter who were in need of help, he might have a different perspective. He’s not a recovering perfectionist yet.

The story ends with people rejoicing at the wonderful things Jesus is doing—including, I think, that Jesus has put this man in his place.

That is not a satisfying ending for me. It’s the kind of ending that I might hear consuming one or the other brands of media. Finally, we put that guy in his place! Finally, we put that person in her place.
A more satisfying ending to the story might be the one that I imagine in the story that Jesus tells in Luke 15. You remember that story. People know this story. If they know very few other stories in the Bible, they know the story of the prodigal son.

The prodigal younger son goes away. He spends all of his inheritance. He comes back, with his tail between his legs. The father runs out to greet him. Says, “Let’s kill the fatted calf and prepare a feast and throw a big party.”

The older brother, the one who has been on the farm the whole time taking care of things is standing outside of the party, with his arms crossed, saying, “Why does this guy get to have a party and I’ve never even had a young goat prepared for me?”

What I like to imagine is that at some point, that older brother decides it is time to come in and join the festivities. I like to imagine that he has a little taste of the fatted calf, and maybe he gets out on the dance floor, and maybe his dad gives him a pair of socks to wear with his sandals. The socks say on one side a reasonably good guy and on the other imperfectionist and the older brother experiences a wholeness that has never felt before. In Jesus’ name. Amen.