Sunday, July 14, 2013

What Do You Want to Be Called? (Luke 13:10-17)

Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for 18 years.  She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight.  When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.”  He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.
The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted.  Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”
The Lord replied, “Hypocrites!  Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink?  Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?”  When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.

A time of transition comes with many questions – How will things be different?  And, how will things remain the same?, but there is one consistent question many of you have asked of me that really cuts to the heart of the matter: “What should we call you?”

I have been called many things in 33 years on this planet, some of which can be repeated in public!  By now, many of you have wisely discerned that “A.J.” is not the name my parents chose for me.  People have often tried to guess what my initials stand for.  Though I was born in Oklahoma, I grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, a good Italian-Roman Catholic community where the most common guess was that it stood for Anthony Joseph.  Since I moved to North Carolina 11 years ago, the most common guess has been for Andrew Jackson.

I blame my parents for the confusion.  At my birth, they agreed that my name would be Andrew Jeremy Thomas, but a disagreement soon ensued as to what I should be called.  Mom wanted to call me Andrew, and Dad wanted to call me Andy.  After a few days, they agreed to call me Jeremy, and my family still calls me by my middle name.  So where did I pick up A.J.?

I began kindergarten at Hyde Park School, and this may surprise you, but I was somewhat shy and retiring as I began my education.  The official name on the roster was “Andrew,” and I didn’t speak up and tell them they called me “Jeremy” at home.  By first grade, I had learned to speak up for myself and told them I went by Jeremy.  When 2nd grade arrived, the school’s gym teacher said, “Well first it was Andrew, then it was Jeremy; what’s it gonna be this year – A.J.?”

So, what should you call me?  Well, if you call me Andrew, I will assume you’re either from the government or a telemarketer.  If you call me Jeremy, I’ll assume you’re a member of my immediate family.  If you call me Andrew Jeremy, I will assume that I’m in trouble.  So please, avoid those.  If you’re comfortable being on very familiar terms with your pastor, you can just call me “A.J.”  You can also call me “Pastor A.J.” or “Pastor Thomas” or even just “Pastor.”

Names are important, because what we call someone is a pretty clear indication of what we think about them.  You see, a name is not just a name.  A name is an identity, often laden with layers and layers of meaning.

So it is for a woman we meet though today’s Scripture reading from the 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  She has come to meet Jesus as he is teaching in the synagogue one Sabbath day.  We only know her as “the broken woman.”  Depending on what translation you’re using today, it may call her “the crooked woman,” or “the bent woman,” but I want you to notice that we never get her name.  Even on the sacred pages of Scripture, she is only known by a painful and cruel label.

Imagine with me, for a moment, what life must have been like for this woman.  Eighteen years ago, a chronic back pain developed.  It got worse and worse; each day of her life was a little more painful than the last one.  As the pain got worse, it became disfiguring – hunching her frame, dragging her down.

She was bent over – had been bent over – for years, staring at the ground, her back terribly contorted, and dragged downward by all those years of pain.  It hurt too much to look up anymore; and the world became increasingly smaller around her.  One by one, friends and family members faded out of the background.  The pain wasn’t just physical.  It cut to every other area of her life, as well.  Defeated by pain that was both physical and social, how long had it been since she had looked anyone in the eye?  How long since someone had cared enough about her to look her in the eye?  It hurt too much to even think about looking up, and by now her eyes were always downcast.  For this broken and bent woman, whose gaze was permanently upon the dirt being trampled by everyone’s feet, most days, that’s exactly how she felt.

The physical pain was bad enough, but even worse was the stigma of the cruel label the world had slapped upon her aching back.

When I moved to the South, I discovered this unwritten rule, a perception that you can say whatever you want about someone so long as you follow it up with, “Bless their heart.”  If you’re like me, you have heard all sorts of ugly things said about someone else followed up with, “Bless their heart,” like that somehow makes it okay!

As the woman in our Scripture entered the synagogue to hear Jesus that day, a few folks may have whispered to their neighbor, “Here comes that bent-over woman, bless her heart,” but my guess is that most of the people there tried not to notice her.  As she came in a few minutes late, no one was waiting for her.  No one was saving a seat for her.  No one said, “Oh, here comes Mary or Martha or Elizabeth or Ruth or Rachel,” or whatever her long-forgotten name actually was, because no one cared.

Except for Jesus.  He was somewhere between points two and three in his sermon when she made her humble entrance and tried to blend in with the furniture at the back of the room.  She wasn’t trying to be noticed, she wasn’t trying to make a scene, Lord knows she didn’t want to be the center of attention that day, but when he saw her, Jesus was filled with compassion for this woman in pain.  Jesus stopped mid-sentence and looked at her, and all of a sudden every eye in the place was upon her.  She looked up for the first time in years and her eyes locked with the smiling eyes of Jesus, who motioned her to come forward.  Jesus laid his hands on her, and she immediately straightened, and she and everyone there that day knew that she was healed.

Now, Jesus has just healed on the Sabbath, and the synagogue leaders don’t like it one bit.  “Flag on the play, Jesus – you can’t perform work on the Sabbath!  I don’t know who you think you are, but we have rules around here, Jesus, and you just broke them!”

This encounter with the religious leaders sets the stage for the second miracle in this story.  Did you know there are two miracles here?  The first and obvious one is when Jesus physically heals the woman’s aching back.  The second miracle is easy to miss, but friends, it is even more important than the first!

Here it is: Jesus calls the woman, “Daughter of Abraham.”  One who, for 18 years, has been known as “the bent woman,” she whose body and spirit have been dragged down by physical and social pain, is called “Daughter of Abraham.”  I am convinced, even if her back hadn’t been healed, when Jesus called her by this new name she would have stood straight and tall, because Jesus has just announced to everyone that she matters in the eyes of God.

So, good-bye, cruel and painful labels! Adios, confining and restrictive names!  None of those define her anymore.  Her life has been re-named as part of God’s great redemption story, and now what was obvious to Jesus is known by others – that she is one of God’s beloved children, she is part of the family of God.

Friends, so it is for us this day.  I don’t know what labels or names may have been put on you throughout your life, who put them there, or how painful they might have been.  What I do know is that those names do not define you.  You’re one of God’s beloved children – that’s who you are!  If you remember nothing else from today’s message, remember this: you are part of the family of God!

I may be new here, but I’ve already done a lot of listening and observing about who this congregation is, about what makes Morehead United Methodist Church unique.  The word that keeps coming up is “family,” and if our church is going to be described as anything, “family” is a great way to go.  There are some churches that describe themselves as a “family,” and they mean it more literally, in that everyone is related somehow to everyone else.  That’s not the kind of family we’re going for in this church!

Let me put it this way.  I have a theory that everyone has weird cousins, a theory not entirely contradicted by the realization that I am also somebody’s cousin!  But, when you’re part of a family, that weirdness is accepted and even embraced.  And so, as a healthy church family, we will love you and accept you no matter what.  We will genuinely love you, we will stick together through thick and thin.  We will embrace the things that make us unique, we will look past differences to find common ground.  We will always have a place for you at the family table of grace.

Most importantly, as members of the family of God, we will look for the family resemblance in each other; we will make every effort to see the image of God within every person and treat each other accordingly.  I would love to see us continue to develop and expand the name we’ve made for ourselves, and since Olive Garden changed their slogan in October, maybe we’ll just use their old one: “When you’re here, you’re family.”

Friends, as your new pastor, my vision for our church is not off in a radical new direction, but one that builds on the best of who you already are: a family.  Not one related by blood or marriage, but a family joined together by grace, and growing – in God’s love.  That’s who I believe God has called us to be as a church: a family joined by grace, growing in God’s love.

And you heard me correctly; I believe this family called Morehead United Methodist Church is called to be a growing family.  We have been deeply blessed by the touch of Jesus in our lives, and by being part of this particular church family.  Amen?  We’re called to bless others as we have been blessed.

A woman’s back was healed by Jesus, and she discovered herself a beloved child of God.  It’s what she always wanted to be called.

All around us are people who need the transforming touch of Jesus in their lives, and are waiting to be welcomed into the family of God.  Let’s bring them home.


  1. Great sermon, AJ! I mean "Andrew", no "Jeremy", no "Pastor Thomas"!

    1. Thanks Kenny, er, I mean, Dr. Loyer! It's good to be here!