This was my sermon on my first Sunday at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Stevenson, WA. – my first call! Glad to have a rich text to begin my journey with these good folks.
10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And 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. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But 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.” 15But 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? 16And 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?” 17When 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.
Dear people of God, grace and peace be yours this day from our loving God through Jesus, healer and savior. Amen.
I wonder how many of you, like me, can really identify with this woman today.
As you know, I’ve been moving in the last couple of weeks. This has been an epic undertaking, as I sort through the final cut of the things that tell the story of my family’s life.
The repetitive motion of moving and opening boxes, and unwrapping items, has caught up with me in the form of tendinitis and nerve pain in my hands and arms. While it is very painful, it is a temporary problem, and I thought about folks who suffer from this sort of thing on a chronic level – like the woman in our gospel story.
On the surface, this story sounds like another healing by Jesus. But if we stop there, we might miss the deeper point.
You see, the powers-that-be didn’t question whether Jesus should heal the woman, but rather when he should heal her. “Why didn’t you wait until after the sabbath?” they ask. “You’re not supposed to work on the sabbath.”
They were concerned with the law. They were concerned with appearances. That was their job. But they made it sound like God’s grace should adhere to our timeline.
I don’t know about your experience, but mine has been that God’s timeline most certainly is NOT ours.
But even THAT is not entirely what this story is about – though we will circle back to it.
This story at its core is about what it means when we say Sabbath. It’s about what Sabbath itself is.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. That’s the commandment, but what does it mean?
In Luke’s gospel, there are seven episodes that occur on the Sabbath, and of those seven, five are healings. The other two are Jesus’ reading from the scroll – basically starting the ball rolling – and the disciples collecting grain.
In each of these episodes, Jesus and his disciples do things that stir the pot. That get folks riled up. And we are reminded of last week’s gospel story where Jesus reminds us that “his coming will bring division.”
Jesus’ ministry in first-century Palestine brings division, because his ministry is the realization on earth of the peaceable realm of God. He talks to the wrong people, he eats with sinners, he says weird things, and now he’s working on the Sabbath. He’s breaking all the rules. How is this the reign of God???
Well, those are all how WE define the wrong people – how WE decide whether something is weird – and how WE are unable to discern between the reign of God and human labor.
And what Jesus is doing in each of these instances is releasing God’s people from bondage.
The woman does not come to him; he goes to her. An echo of our understanding that God moves first. And he lays his hands on her and says, “you are set free.” And simply because he didn’t wait for the end of the sabbath – likely just a few hours away – the kerfuffle begins.
Jesus, like God, acts first and deals with the fallout later. Not because he knew a negotiation about whether this was ok would be futile, but because God’s reign isn’t something that happens according to any human schedule. After Jesus reads from the scroll in the temple, he tells those assembled that “TODAY this scripture has been fulfilled in your presence.”
Not “in four weeks so you’ll have enough time to prepare.” Not “when it’s least likely to draw the wrong kind of attention.”
And that gives us an idea of what Jesus means when he says Sabbath.
Sabbath is a way of living, a way of being. It is living into the fullest meaning of the reign of God. It is being set free from the things that bind you, the things that oppress you, so that you may live freely and fully in God’s love and grace.
That is really the essence of the Reconciling in Christ program – that this place would become a place where folks are set free from church things in the past that might have oppressed them. That anyone who walks through this door will know they are a beloved and cherished child of God – no matter who they love.
And God intends that for us right now. No waiting required.
Martin Luther King’s magnificent “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was included in his volume Why We Can’t Wait. King had been criticized by white Southern minsters who, while sympathetic to his cause, disagreed with his nonviolent action approach. They preferred that he try negotiating (he already had, repeatedly) and to be patient. “These things take time.”
Such words ring mighty hollow for a people who had, at that point, been effectively enslaved for well over two centuries. Their negotiation efforts had been met with betrayal, refusal, and outright violence.
Even though Dr. King does not quote this text in his letter, it is a striking corollary. Where the white religious establishment has fallen back onto claims of order and law, King reminds them of the difference between a just and an unjust law, and how a moral obligation exists to oppose an unjust law: “no one is free until everyone is free.” As Augustine said, “an unjust law is no law at all.”
And so Jesus heals the woman.
Because for the concept of Sabbath to be fully realized, she MUST be healed from her ailment. She MUST be freed from what keeps her bound. The temple laws stood in the way of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God, and so Jesus broke those laws.
In so doing, Jesus is not abandoning Sabbath, not at all. Rather Jesus is returning to the original definition of Sabbath, according to the law of Moses: to provide relief, even if only temporary, from any system that would deny a person or any part of creation a share of rest, peace, wholeness, dignity, and justice.
The synagogue official grumbles to the crowd, “don’t come here on the Sabbath for this, you’ve got six other days.” But Jesus says “actually, the Sabbath is a pretty good day for setting people free. ACTUALLY, the whole point of the Sabbath – that God places major value on wholeness – I think that means I MUST do this now. We can’t wait!”
We can’t wait, because God’s kingdom is among us. It is already, and – AND – it is not yet.
One more day of unnecessary torment – perpetuating injustice – these defile the holiness of the weekly Sabbath day that God ordained. To deny freedom is to offend the God of the Exodus. It’s because of who God is that Jesus can’t wait.
This is that God timeline that has nothing to do with ours.
As Matt Skinner points out in his excellent commentary When Patience Becomes Complacency: Why We Can’t Wait*:
Two different views run through the New Testament, and they are present in Christian tradition more generally. To put it rather simply, one of these views commends patient endurance as people wait in expectation of what God will bring to fruition in the future. The other view expresses a restless desire to see God’s intentions for human society spring into existence now. Both views agree that something new has happened through Jesus, and that God has set the world onto a new course, but both views also know all too well that life continues to be filled with misery, oppression, pain, and loss. The first view says that faith in God makes people content to endure the current miseries. The second view says that faith in God makes it crucial that we can’t wait.
Which is right? Which is the one God ordains?
Well, as Lutherans, we are a both/and kind of people. So I’d say it’s a little of both. Or more accurately, a little of the first and a lot of the second.
And let’s face it, if we’re comfortable, it’s easier to wait. But it’s also something that blinds us to the situation of our neighbor.
And when we are at that place, I think it is well for us to think about the things that bind US. None of us is immune. We’re in this thing together.
What keeps you in bondage today?
What keeps you bent over, unable to stand?
And likewise, how would your neighbor answer those questions?
Dear friends, know that God has set us in this place and time on the road together, to discern where God leads us and to act accordingly. To bear one another’s burdens, and share each other’s joys.
Such is the real meaning of Sabbath. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to wait.
*Skinner, Matthew. When Patience Becomes Complacency: Why We Can’t Wait. Sojourners, August 15, 2016. Why We Can’t Wait