Unbound: Part 1

If you want to train an elephant, start when they’re young.

That’s what you come to church for, right? Good, solid, practical advice! Now, don’t be so quick to dismiss this teaching. Maybe one of you is thinking of starting a circus; perhaps one of you is expecting to inherit your uncle’s prized pachyderm; maybe you think you’ll win this magnificent creature on a radio call-in show. You can call him Stampy, and he can sleep nestled between the cars in the garage. But if not, maybe this advice can still have some helpful meaning for you today.

Many of you have heard this already, I’m sure. But have you ever seen a magnificent elephant at the circus with one ankle bound to a simple wooden stake and wonder why they don’t just rip it out of the ground and go on a stampede? It’s because the trainer starts when the elephant is young. The elephant calf is tied to a steel stake, one that is, in fact, strong enough to withstand their brute force. They learn very quickly that they can’t yank it out of the ground, and seem to be resigned to their fate. Slowly, as the elephant grows, the trainer replaces the steel stake with lighter and lighter materials until what is left is a simple wood stake that could easily be yanked out at a moment’s notice, should the elephant decide so. But by this time, they’ve given up trying. And so the elephant, with a simple trick of the mind, is bound by something that really has no hold on them.

This morning, we begin a new sermon series. In a few weeks, we’re going to start reading this book, Unbinding Your Heart, as a congregation. We already have four groups scheduled throughout the week, and if there is more interest, we will organize more. The overall theme of the book is how is it that we take this faith, no matter how small we think it might be, as it resides within us, and set it free to work its power and wonder in our lives and in the lives of those around us. And so, as we look forward to this study together in September, we’re going to spend the next few Sundays painting a picture of what it looks like to be “unbound”, set free, in our own lives and in our own faith.

Maybe this doesn’t speak to you at all. Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m not even sure that I believe any of this nonsense.” I think you’re probably in good company here today. And if so, then I think these conversations are for you in particular.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s jump back to the gospel lesson for a moment. There is Jesus teaching again in the synagogue. This is the third time in Luke that Jesus runs afoul of the synagogue leaders. And as he’s teaching, he sees this woman come hobbling in. For eighteen years, it seems, she has been afflicted with a crippling kind of scoliosis. And rather than ignore her and keep on teaching, or, indeed, rather than even waiting until the end of the lesson and going over to her, he calls her over and proclaims, “You are set free from your ailment.”

And she was – standing up straight, and praising God!

For Jesus, there was no separation between what he was preaching and what he was doing. He was traveling around the Galilee proclaiming that a new day in God’s creation was already at work – a new way of being for each of us. And so that folks didn’t get too caught up in making this a purely mental exercise, a simple reorientation of an outlook on life, Jesus made it clear that this new way of being, this re-creation, has implications for the way that we live. And on that day, this unnamed woman happened to be the living example of God at work in the world.

The amazing thing is that the conversation that ensues has nothing to do with what has just taken place. No one is debating whether or not Jesus healed, or by what means. Instead, for the synagogue leader, this is all about following the proper ancient protocol. “We don’t heal on the Sabbath,” he says. “This could have waited until tomorrow!” And for the religious teaching at the time, he was absolutely right. We tend to get sidetracked by these arguments. By simple virtue of historical accident, we automatically take Jesus’ side. And we assume that this truth must have been just as self-evident. But the reality is that, in the way that cultural assumptions had aligned themselves, Jesus was fully in the wrong. The synagogue leader was absolutely right.

What Jesus demonstrates in this conflict, however, are two things. The first is the people’s hypocrisy. They already break the Sabbath, worried about the health of their livestock, untying them and leading them to water. And yet they would do that and ignore the plight of this “daughter of Abraham”, this fellow child of God? Those who oppose him are humiliated by this line of logic, we are told.

And there is yet another point to Jesus’ whole approach here. And that’s this: the letter of the law has its purpose; but if we betray the Spirit at work behind that law, then we’ve missed the whole point of it. As he says elsewhere, his ministry isn’t about abolishing the law; it’s about perfecting it. Practicing the rules, as it were, has a point: the desired effect is to lead us to faithfulness.

But if, instead, we follow the rules, and cease to follow God, then we’re way off track. They are no longer tools for our freedom in God, but tricks to bind us and weigh us down.

Which brings us back to the elephant.

Can you see yourself in that image? Maybe there’s something tied around your ankle that, if you pulled hard enough, it would surprise you how easily it came out of the ground. But by virtue of circumstance, you’ve been trained to think that there’s nothing that can set you free. It could be a difficult childhood, an addiction that keeps clawing its way back into your life, assumptions that others or society in general make about you because of your gender or age or race or background or income or life experience.

What you have thought was an iron-clad trap is, in fact, something that would splinter easily, if only you could retrain those muscles to react as they’re supposed to.

We can see some of this freeing at work in the reading from the prophet Jeremiah. We catch this prophet early in his formation, before he becomes this legendary teller of truths to people in power, pronouncing God’s dissatisfaction with the way things are going. And even at this early moment, as God speaks to Jeremiah, proclaiming him as prophet not just to his own people but, as it says, “to the nations”, Jeremiah is already bound. “I’m only a boy,” he says. “I’m too young to have anything valuable to say to anybody.” And in essence, God says, “You’re right, in a way; because it’s not about what you are going to say. I’m going to send you, and I will tell you what to say.”

And that’s the truth about our desire to be free. Perhaps we are captive to our own fears and desires; but we’re not the ones who set ourselves free. Later on, Paul will say to early Christians, “For freedom, Christ has set us free.” It is God working through us that gives us the courage and the desire to be free for the sake of loving God and living out God’s love.

This is the freedom that comes to the unnamed woman in the synagogue, weighed down by this crippling disease. Can we find some connection with her? Or are we too caught up in the literal meaning here? Do we know either in our own lives or in the lives of those whom we love a physical ailment that has earnestly yearned for healing all this years, but has not been cured?

Where is Jesus in the cancer, or the arthritis, or the depression? “I’d like to stand up straight, too,” you may find yourself saying. “Where’s my miracle?”

The truth is that there’s no easy answer to your question, and there is not nearly enough time to address this fully at this moment. I do believe that there are healings that defy explanation. And I have seen them at work. But they are the exception, not the rule. And I have also seen healings that can be explained by virtue of medical science, or counseling and therapy, or medication and good habits of diet and exercise. And these are no less the work of God than anything else we might see.

But let us not get too weighed down by the literal implications to miss the life-altering meaning at work in this lesson. What is it that ties you down? Is it the daily concerns of making ends meet, of a family member or friend that seems to be in permanent crisis? Is it anxiety that cripples, fear that holds you captive? Do you find yourself bound by a deep-seated need to be liked, or to be right? Is it grief for a loss that happened years ago that still won’t heal? Does resentment have a hold on you, a wrong against you that you are still waiting to see righted, or just a general sense of anger at the injustice you see all around you, where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and nice guys and gals finish last?

If any of these things have triggered a nerve within you, then you’ve got good company here today. Everyone of us, I suspect, is weighed down, whether we know it or not. And for many of us, I also suspect, we’re like that elephant, tied down to a stake that really holds no power over us; we’ve just been trained otherwise. If so, then these conversations, this book study, is for you. It’s a chance to engage with a group of fellow strugglers what it means to be set free in Christ, to know that the past, with all its burdens, really is behind us and that the future stands before us, unbound, full of hope and possibility and life and love. Are we willing to give it a tug?