Proper 16c, August 21, 2016

August 22, 2016

Another Teachable Moment

Luke 13:10-17


10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 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. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 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.” 15 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? 16 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?” 17 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.


I think some of you saw the picture on my facebook page of the mattress strapped on the back of my truck as we set out to take Lucas’ large items to his apartment in New York City. Some of you might even have seen the second picture we took after my brother-in-law topped off the mattress with a small rocking chair – which seemed particularly fitting. You could almost hear bluegrass music playing in the background. It’s no small undertaking to deliver a mattress 1250 miles. I’m particularly aware of this because I once lost a mattress as I was driving down a freeway.


It was at the end of my first semester in seminary and I was in the process of moving. The last thing I needed to relocate was a mattress. It was getting late in the day and rain was on its way and I only had some lightweight twine on hand (ok it was kite string, but it was strong kite string). What came to my mind was that image of the small Liliputians keeping the huge Gulliver tied to the ground with many tiny ropes, and I decided to utilize that same concept. I know it’s a fictional story, but the cartoon version of the story looked entirely plausible. I had a small Chevrolet LUV pickup with a camper cover on the back, so I put that mattress on the top of the camper, and I ran that kite string back and forth over the top of it many times.


It was right at dusk as I took off, and it had begun to sprinkle as I got on to the freeway between Durham and Chapel Hill. I was moving at a pretty good pace when this car pulled up beside me and started pointing to the rear. I instantly knew what they meant, and when I looked in my mirror I saw my mattress over on the shoulder of the road. I don’t always make quick decisions, but I don’t even think I slowed down when I saw that the mattress was at least off the road.


That’s what you call a teachable moment. I immediately realized I had made a huge mistake. I should have cut my kite string in to about 25 pieces and tied each piece independently of each other. That’s how the Liliputians did it. Instead, I just went back and forth with the same continuous line about a dozen times and when that line broke in one place the whole system collapsed.


Some would say there’s another lesson I should have learned, and I did. I did not use kite string to tie the mattress on my truck as we struck out on our trip to New York. I’ll see a mattress on the side of the road every once in a while, and when I do I always wonder if someone found that experience to be as instructive as I did.


I hate teachable moments – at least when I’m on the learning end. Of course we all need them, and teachable moments are actually good things. Educators speak of teachable moments as those moments in which a unique, high interest situation arises that lends itself to discussion of a particular topic. Good teachers are always trying to find those special moments when their students might be the most open to understanding a new concept.


There was a high-school math teacher in Queensbury, New York, who was always trying to show the actual relevance of math in life, and he realized he had a very teachable moment when Oreo came out with their Double Stuf Cookies. He had his students measure and compare the amount of white cream filling in a regular Oreo Cookie with the amount of white cream filling in a Double Stuf Cookie, and in the process they unearthed a scandal. They determined that an Oreo Double Stuf Cookie doesn’t have twice as much filling – it only has 1.86 as much white cream filling as a regular Oreo Cookie!


I don’t know if they changed their advertising or their formula, but the results of their findings got reported in the Wall Street Journal and on NPR – which is where I heard it. This turned out to be a teachable moment for those students and for Nabisco. If you are going to claim something you better make sure it’s the truth. We’ve got a lot of fact checkers in the world today and they all have twitter accounts.


Teachable moments are great – and horrible. They are great if you are the teacher, and you see an opportunity to help your students grasp a new concept. They are horrible when you are the one who has come to discover that you only thought you knew what you were doing.


I think what we have in this morning’s scripture is a snapshot of a teachable moment. The very first verse in this morning’s scripture says that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and I’m thinking that one of the reasons God prescribed a Sabbath day for the people of Israel was to enable ongoing learning. God wanted to establish a regular teachable moment in the life the Jewish community. We generally think of the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but it also involved this tradition of coming together for learning. And I think we all do our best learning when we take a step out of what we are doing every other day of the week and to take a good look at ourselves.


If you never stop you never contemplate how you might do things differently or dream of how things can be better. Asking large questions is an exercise that requires some leisure – some stepping out of the work mode. Of course good things almost always turn in to far different creatures than what they were established to be, and this seems to have been the case with the keeping of the Sabbath Day. It had become more of an institutional requirement than a day set apart for spiritual development. It had become so fiercely regulated it probably generated far more distress in people’s lives than it created the opportunity for reflection and rest.


Jesus was trying to teach, but he was probably having a hard time getting people to understand what he was saying until he saw an opportunity to show what he was talking about. When he saw this poor woman who had been crippled for eighteen years he realized he had a teachable moment. By using his power to repair the life of this woman who had been so limited for so long he was able to reveal what it is that God wills for all of us.


The act of healing this woman was not just an act of benevolence for one person – it was an action designed to heal the sickness of the community. And this was a sick community. They didn’t understand what God’s intentions really were. The religious leaders of the day thought God intended for them to simply maintain traditional rules at the expense of human life and dignity. This was a very teachable moment for the leaders and the community. It wasn’t as pleasant for the leader of the synagogue as it was for the people who were hungry for relief from their religious oppressors, but it was good for everyone.  We don’t know if the leader of the synagogue was set free from his crippling teaching, but when Jesus asked him whether he would untie a donkey and lead it to water on a Sabbath I’m guessing he felt the sting of the truth.


The point of this passage isn’t hard to get. It’s a clear portrayal of the way in which religious institutions and religious people can be at odds with the source of their faith. Speaking as an official religious leader I must say that this passage grabs my attention. In fact it sort of grabs me by my religious collar and gives me a shake.


I don’t think I’m a person who is overly legalistic about insignificant matters, nor do I think that’s what our church represents, but we’ve got some religious regulation conflict brewing in our denomination.

I’m guessing most of you know that our denomination is undergoing some significant institutional stress. The battle line is over our policies regarding human sexuality, and it’s very likely that our denominational structure is going to get reshaped within the next few years – and when I say few years I mean 2 to 4 years.


Nobody knows what this means, but it’s hard for anyone to see the way in which we can maintain our current structure. On one side, there are people who are offended by people who blatantly violate the rules within our Book of Discipline. And on the other side there are people who find those rules to be untenable. A commission is currently being established to produce recommendations for how we can move forward.


I don’t say this to create alarm about what’s going to happen, but I think you should be aware of what’s going on. I also think it’s important for all of us to be aware of how we deal with people who have different opinions about what God intends. This passage reminds me that the primary intention of God is to repair our brokenness, and I’m thinking one of the great temptations of our current denominational conflict is to demonize whoever it is that we happen to disagree with. It’s so much easier to establish blame than to seek understanding, and I think this is the case regardless of what you think is right or wrong. I think this same tendency can be seen playing out within our national political situation.


I’m not saying it’s wrong to have opinions about what needs to happen in any giving situation. I even think it’s important for people to engage in the work of advocacy for what you think is right or wrong. It’s good to care about what’s going on in our world and in our community, and in our denomination. And it’s important to work for what you think needs to happen, but none of us should ever be surprised when we end up on the learning end of a teachable moment.


Sometimes we find opportunities and ways to help someone else see some truth that had formerly escaped them, but we all have our blind spots, and it’s always good to get exposed to the truth – even when it lands like a blow to the head.


Fortunately, none of us as individuals are charged with fixing the United Methodist Church, but we are all engaged in our own truth/untruth struggles. We are all called to be advocates for the truth and lovers of God, and I dare say that is a significant challenge for each of us. None of us are always going to get those things right, but God will always provide us with new opportunities to see what’s right. Teachable moments will never stop coming our way, and if we are more interested in being faithful than right, we will continue to grow in our knowledge and love of the One who Jesus Christ so perfectly revealed.


Thanks be to God!




One Response to “Proper 16c, August 21, 2016”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    A lot more has been learned in my life on the playing field not cheering or booing from the stands. There have been injuries involved but also lessons learned personally.

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