We’ve always done it that way

Psalm 118 (Morning)

Psalm 145 (Evening)

Num. 21:4-9,21-35

Acts 17:(12-21)22-34

Luke 13:10-17

Now he 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. (Luke 13:10-17, NRSV)

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus heals a woman with a spirit so crippling that it causes her to walk hunched over. That notion of a crippling spirit catches our attention, because it can be taken so many ways beyond the notion held in Jesus’ day that ill people were possessed by spirits. The Greek words used–Pneuma for “spirit,” and Asthenia for “crippled”–literally connote a spirit of infirmity. One can almost imagine it breathing, when the connection of pneuma with modern medical words like “pneumonia” come into play. There’s actually a loose parallel in our modern medical terminology–Da Costa’s syndrome. It used to be known by such terms as “neurocirculatory asthenia” and “soldier’s heart”–often seen in soldiers on active duty in wartime, it’s characterized by increased susceptibility to fatigue, difficulty breathing, dizziness, chest pain that mimics a heart attack, and anxiety. It’s not exactly like our woman who is bent over, but it certainly gives us some insight in how fear and victimization can breed and beget hopelessness and infirmity.

But, other than the woman’s excitement over being healed, turns out the big drama is that Jesus healed on the Sabbath.

Shades of “But we’ve never done it that way before!”–the fabled Eight Words of Doom in the Episcopal Church (with “But my mother donated that to the church!” running a close second.)

Our Epistle illustrates another apocryphal truism in the church in the story of the Athenians creating an idol to an unknown god, simply to hedge their bets. How many times in our parishes do we keep doing what we’re doing, “because we’ve always done it that way,” and never step back and ask why, or whether continuing to do it helps us grow as Christians and as a community of believers? (I always think of a former vicar who was 6’7″ and had a bad back, so we got in the habit of sticking our hands up in the air as we knelt to receive Communion. I had this vision that 100 years later, people in my parish would still be putting their hands in the air, no matter what the height of the priest, and that they would have contrived some plausible legend as to “why.” “Oh, we put our hands up because we’re praising God and are especially reverent. That’s how we’ve always done it. Everyone else does it wrong.”)

Now, most of these things are little things. “We always do Eucharistic Prayer B during Advent.” “I can’t imagine not having the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper fundraiser, even though no one wants to be in charge of it anymore.” “Choir practice has always been at 5:30 on Wednesday.”

But if we’re not careful, all these little things can be church-cripplers.

If we start to self-identify with too many of these little things as a community, they become just like the deadly serpents in our reading in Numbers today, biting even the most faithful when they slither out among the pews. No doubt–we humans crave a certain amount of sameness (some of us more than others.) It’s very unsettling when new leaders, lay or clergy, enter our doors and start to change things. Unfortunately, the reaction can also be as deadly as venomous snakes. Instead of using the changes as a challenge to delve deeper into the new things we can learn from the changes, instead the reaction can be to bite the person we deem responsible for the change.

Perhaps the answers for how to meet the challenge of change lies in the responses of all three of our readings today. God’s response to Moses was to take the rendering of the very source of our venom, put it on a pole, look at it as an icon of itself, and find healing. Paul’s response to the Athenians’ idol to an unknown God is to challenge them to search and grope to make God known to ourselves by trying to see God in everything. Jesus’ response to the indignant attitude of the leader of the synagogue is to remind him that we water our animals on the Sabbath, why not tend to what our weakened, asthenic spirits cry out for in hunger and thirst?

What crippling spirit can you identify in your life today, where you can apply these three principles?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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