Synod 2016: Opening service – Sermon

Text of the Sermon by Rev. Gianni Genre, pastor of the Waldensian Church in Pinerolo (Turin), Luke 13: 10 – 17

«Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her: “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people: “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, to be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.»

Dear friend, I turn to you, my brother, my sister, to say straightaway that here is a word for someone (even if not for everyone, and not for just anybody). The word of Christ which we have before our eyes today is a word for those who, like the woman in the story, are aware that they are bowed down by the many heavy loads of daily life. I want to address two different audiences, even if made up of the same people: the churches which gather for this Synod meeting; and you, my fellow human beings.

To the churches and those who represent them here, those who participate in their life, who work hard at every level I say this: our churches, as far as I can see and understand, seem often bowed, their eyes to the ground, for a variety of reasons. Not that our churches are alone in this European context, but we are here to look at our own situation. My impression is that there is often a dominant sense of weariness, of disenchantment, of relational difficulties, of a lack of vision or imagination.

And then this word for today is addressed also to you, my sister, my brother, whatever church or group you belong to. If, quite simply, you have your eyes looking only to the ground, I understand your feelings, your condition! Faced with this text I thought straightaway of the many people I remember, and know, who have a face and a name, who feel condemned by life, by grief, by injuries which will not heal, by a sense of irrelevance, by loneliness, by a sense of guilt, or failure; people condemned by the daily grind which fails to produce good fruit; people always, or almost always, with heads bowed, believers and non-believers alike, who are dear to me, whose posture has been like this for years, seemingly for ever.

Let us look at this text, and let us start with a detail about the condition of this woman in our story. The text says that she had ‘a disabling spirit’; in actual fact, the Greek original says that the spirit made her ‘weak’, or ‘deprived of strength’. This ‘astheneia’ is not a physiological weakness which is noticed when major effort is required, but is constantly present. Its origins may be muscular, or neurological, or psychiatric. It may cause progressive paralysis. Its symptoms include a lethargy which increases to dangerous levels. It is a weakness, a weariness which deprives the sufferer even of the ability to cry out for help. So the woman cannot appeal to Jesus, unlike what happens so often in Gospel stories. This woman is absolutely passive. She can hope for nothing, and certainly not for any exit from her situation. She feels she cannot even raise up her head – a situation which we often think of as our own: it is our destiny and there is simply no alternative. For a church, or for a person, there is no greater danger than this: to fear that there can be no life lived to the full, nothing to smile about, nothing or no-one to love, no chance of being loved.

Now to our second detail: Jesus tells us that the woman was not only bowed down by her ‘astheneia’, but that she was tied or bound there by Satan. Jesus doesn’t ‘pull his punches’. It is evident that, in those days, distinction was not made between ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’ but between ‘physical’ and ‘demonic’. Well now, I wonder if the ‘demonic’ dimension may not require a little re-evaluation in our own day! Look, for example, at ‘Brexit’: it seems to me demonic that the future of the United Kingdom and, at least in part, of Europe as a whole, was not decided by the younger generation but by the older generation – filled with fear, because its own ‘future’ is pretty clear! Or what about the corrupt social and economic ‘underground’ networks which constantly pollute our country, day after day? Are they not ‘demonic’? And then what about the fact that I happened to be in Nice on July 14th, and was forced to follow, from close at hand, that terrible massacre on that well-known and beloved Promenade? You know, despite all the analyses which I have heard and read, something about all that happened that day escapes me: how could that place have been turned into a scene of bloody and putrefying corpses, which somehow became the source of ‘personal’ (or even ‘collective’) ‘redemption’ for this ‘jihadist’? Demonic?

But the ‘demonic’ is not seen only in these noted events, which produce mass fear, suspicion and hatred. No! It is seen also in the small things which we don’t understand inside ourselves, in the relationships we live, within the life of our churches, where you don’t just feel bowed down, curved in on yourself, incapable of lifting up your head, but, as it were, tied down, as though pegged into the ground. This is the devil’s work, who, unfortunately, seems to be in excellent health and who hides himself in all the heavy weights of our daily life. He wants to convince you that your hopes in life must be limited to what you can see with your ground-facing eyes; that there is no possibility of a new life or a future; that God has been utterly eclipsed, that you must live without God and without hope.

Even our small churches in Italy, so astonishing in their determination to resist in adverse circumstances, seem to be bowed down in weakness. The image which we manage to give to others of our reality here in Italy is one which provokes interest, often through our diaconal, cultural and political efforts; and indeed, many Italians give us their ‘eight per thousand’ because of these things. But we run the risk of camouflaging our ‘astheneia’. Through our image of ourselves we risk living an illusion: the illusion that we are ‘stronger than we seem’, that is, ‘not so weak’ – and this is the worst and most dangerous of all weaknesses, for it leads us to forget that our witness, our life, depends exclusively on the Word of God! Beyond and besides the service which we owe to that Word, and only through that Word to our neighbour in need, we have no future.

Notice, however, that in our story Jesus calls, even names, the curved woman and her ailment. It is the ability, and the will, of Jesus to look at his surroundings which provokes this event. The woman does not ask for anything, as we have already seen. This is the ‘good news’, the ‘gospel’ in our story. We are all here today because we know that Jesus notices (takes on board) our situation, even when we have not even the strength to ask anything of him.

With a single action – the laying on of his hands – Jesus snaps the cords which bind this woman to the ground. And now the woman, who was condemned to a life of suffering, is no longer bowed down, no longer tied to the ground. And all this because the Sabbath, for Jesus, is the day of liberty, the day in which our liberty is affirmed and lived. This is a liberty which brings with it a sense of urgency, which cannot wait for tomorrow! The woman now stands straight and tall; and this allows her to understand what has happened; it allows her to live in ways which she may now determine, depending on the situations in which she will now find herself. She has been freed for the life for which God intended her.

Jesus, in speaking to and touching this woman, re-establishes contact with a woman who was isolated, estranged, both in terms of her womanhood and in terms of her illness. This is an extraordinary liberation, for it is total: indeed, if the origins of the word ‘religion’ are in the idea of being ‘bound’ to a certain way of life, this action of Jesus is the end of ‘religion’ itself, and especially of that religion which too often dictates ‘holiness’ (and its opposite) to others. With Jesus, to the contrary, we are free, no longer tied down. We are all now children of Abraham. Jesus, with a single phrase, breaks down the frontiers of ‘religion’, including the frontiers between male and female; for liberation is either total, or it is not liberation!

In conclusion, therefore, we are here as much as anything to ask Jesus to restore to us the dignity of being free people, to restore to us the ability to discern what it is to have the joy of those who learn once again to glorify God. Let us seek to do this during this Synod! But also to you, as an individual, I want to say that Christ is calling you, even if you seem to have no power to believe that your situation might change. It is he who will do all; it is he who will break the bonds that tie you and separate you from others. Jesus wants you to be healed and free; he wants your life to have a new direction, and, despite all the very real difficulties which you have lived through and which still confront you day by day, you need to know that life is a gift, a splendid gift, to be lived to the full – unmerited though this be – in a conscious and aware way. Because of this, because life is a gift from God, joy is possible.

May it be so for you, my brother, my sister. In your questioning and in your doubt, may your Redeemer open your eyes, your mind and your heart to the wonderful discovery that the life he gives is beautiful. May it be so!

August 21, 2016

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