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.
Let us pray: Everlasting God pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and on these words that they may be for us nourishing bread for the journey. Open our eyes and ears to your call to create healing among our neighbors especially when it is not easy or convenient. Amen.
I was having a conversation after worship last week about the ministry of the Tennessee Justice Center and the conversation turned toward one of the most fruitful faith based health ministries in the United States. When I served Holy Community United Methodist Church in Memphis several summers ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Scott Morris. Dr. Morris is a United Methodist pastor and doctor associated with St. John’s UMC in midtown Memphis.
As we walked down the block, one of Dr. Morris’ staff shared the history of the center. On September 1, 1987, Dr. Morris and one nurse saw 12 patients. Through the assistance of community foundations and St. Johns UMC, a dilapidated boarding house was purchased and renovated providing a home base for clinic visits. In the 29 years since, the Church Health Center has grown to occupy far more than a square city block and handles over 44,000 clinic visits every year. Much of this care is provided by physicians in Memphis giving generously of their time and trained services.
The Church Health Center continues to expand into a YMCA like ministry to create wellness among its community through cooking classes, exercise facilities, and health education. In order
to more fully care for its constituents and mission field, the Church Health Center even developed its own health care insurance plan for low income persons.
Dr. Morris edited a book called I am the Lord Who Heals You. The book is a collection of sermons addressing the stories of scripture in which healing, restoration, and wholeness are brought into people’s lives by the grace of God. The title references Exodus 15 when Moses, Miriam, Aaron, and the Israelites depart from Egypt and find themselves thirsty in the desert. When Moses and the people come across the Waters of Marah, the Lord instructs Moses to throw a piece of wood into the water to make it suitable to drink. Then the Lord promises not to bring disease upon the Israelite people as a contrast to the conditions of bondage in Egypt.
In a sermon on this morning’s gospel text in I Am The Lord Who Heals You, Reginald Mallett insists: “The church ought to be a therapeutic community, a place where the walking wounded come to find comfort and healing. The church ought to be a sign of the Kingdom, that the reign of God is already breaking in upon the earth. And we need to thank God for all those who come bringing their bent backs, their scarred lives, and their abject spirits and find renewal and life because Christ is here.
Look out across any congregation and there will be someone there who has a bent back in one form or another. Perhaps it is one who has damaged emotions, a victim of abuse inflicted by those who ought to have offered love..or again, perhaps the affliction is disappointment with all the brokenness of shattered [relationships], hopes and dreams.” (Reginald Mallett, I Am the Lord Who Heals You, pg 66).
On the Sabbath, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and an unnamed woman who was probably unable to look another human being in the eyes for her ailment focused her look upon the ground appears amidst the gathered community. She enters Jesus’ line of sight and he takes notice of her, calls her over and pronounces freedom from nearly two decades worth of a crippling ailment. He placed his hands on her, sets her back straight so that she can stand tall, and she is made free to rejoice in this holy encounter.
But the timing is all wrong. This unnamed woman can’t be healed today-come back when an appointment opens up. Not here. Not now. It must be another day. Obedience to biblical law becomes the focal point because of Jesus’ readiness to free this woman from bondage on the Sabbath day. From Deuteronomy: “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
The synagogue leader is indignant and cries out to draw the attention of the gathered community reminding them of the commandments of the Torah. I can hear his internal monologue as it begins to roll off his tongue. The commandments must be kept! There are no exemptions to working on the Sabbath-the bent over woman must wait!
It seems like a slippery slope-if there is an exception made for one person, then surely someone else will come along insisting their suffering warrants an exception. And once we venture down this road of exceptions and rule bending, we’re on our way to tossing out all of the commandments, restrictions, prohibitions, and if we ease up on obedience to biblical commandments then sooner or later we will not know right from wrong. So the reasoning goes.
Sure, Jesus crossed a line. That’s often the way he moves in ministry throughout the gospels, spending time with those that the religious officials thought he didn’t need to be spending time with. He had close proximity to those who lived in the shadows and in isolation far away from public view because of shame, illness, or some past act that severed community ties. He knew the Torah but he healed the woman anyway to demonstrate that Sabbath observance is not only a day of rest but indeed wholistic freedom from that which enslaves our relationships, bodies, and spirits. He suggests that if a person is willing to lead their draft animal to the nourishment of water on the Sabbath, then surely the greater degree of mercy is to restore the woman to health. Doesn’t the demonstration of grace and mercy to this daughter of Abraham justify the means by which it occurred?
I love that Jesus heals this woman-she is set free from an unimaginable pain and begins to rejoice for what God has done to her present condition. We need more stories of friends, neighbors, and followers of Jesus being set free-from the debilitating effects of alcoholism in families and addiction to painkillers, from a lifetime of shame and judgment that came from poor interactions with faith communities that didn’t know the power of divine grace, or from despair and depression that make it seem like there is no way forward. Being set free to stand up straight is just another way to talk about what God does in the Easter story. Standing again is resurrection.
Anytime there is an experience of being set free and made whole by God’s grace, the church should rejoice! We should always be about the work of neighbors experiencing the transformative grace of Jesus.
But the gospel lesson begs another point as well. How much like the synagogue leader are we? Have we ever cried out to hold on to that which first gave us life but now prevents us from clearly seeing the kingdom of God in our midst? It feels like the synagogue leader fears the
ground moving under his feet with Jesus ministering in this unorthodox way and so he invokes the stability of the Mosaic law.
For quite some time now, especially in state and national conversations beyond the local church, there is a lament of the church that Christianity no longer holds the influence and real estate in people’s hearts and minds that it did decades ago. Our youth and I recently had a conversation about having relationships with friends who have no care for the church. More people than at any point in American history have no experience of faith or church. Or if they did have an experience in church, it was a terrible one and they’ve chosen to set it aside. Blue laws that once prohibited activities and shopping on Sundays are almost relics of another era (except I did notice recently you can’t buy wine at Kroger on a Sunday). Sports teams practice and play on days once strictly reserved for the life of the church and families are more pressed than ever for rest and the growth and sustaining of meaningful relationships, when we have so many opportunities for leisure, work, and entertainment before us. This isn’t a judgment claim-it’s just that the ground has shifted and the church lives in a new reality that is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and rapidly shifting.
If the church is to live in the presence of God in this new reality then it must meet those whose backs are bent from suffering with grace, mercy, unrelenting love, and compassion. The ministry of Jesus Christ will be our model leading us into restorative relationships with our neighbors, probably in unorthodox ways we would not have imagined were it not for the movement of God’s spirit. The Lord declares, behold I am doing a new thing. Will we be attuned to the movement of God’s spirit, following where it beckons? Will we bear the healing grace of God in the midst of suffering? Will we loosen the bonds that keep the church doubled over looking into the ground so that we might grow further life-giving ministry with those that have not experienced the grace of God? I believe we will.
Bless you in the name of the Everlasting God. Amen.