A sermon preached on August 21, 2016 ~
What needs to be healed in your life, I wonder? Or in the life of someone you know?
We all have our list, right? The recent injury, the long-term condition, the critical illness, the mental or emotional disorder which so hampers daily life. And we know how long it can take for a health matter to be resolved – and I would venture that most of us in this sanctuary are covered by good health care plans. Long waits in doctors’ offices may be a feature, but that’s about as bad as it gets. We don’t live in a remote part of Africa in which virtually no maternity care is available, or in Aleppo, Syria, being bombed so heavily that almost no medical resources at all are left. And yet even we, with all of our health care advantages, understand the value of immediate response. In fact, isn’t one of the Clinic’s main advertising slogans these days that you can get “same day care?” Because “everyone deserves world class care?”
World class or same-day care didn’t mean much for the woman in our story today. We don’t know – was she a young woman, suffering from a birth defect like spina bifida or a lifelong challenge like scoliosis? Was she an older woman, bent down by osteoarthritis? Was she a woman in midlife, crushed by the weight of depression or grief? What we do know is that for eighteen years she had been bent over, bent so that she mostly saw other people’s feet, bent so that she could not do the simplest of tasks with ease, bent so that she was excluded from conversation, from daily household work, from community life.
And Jesus? Jesus is on the road toward his destiny in Jerusalem, a journey that takes up several chapters in Luke, and he has stopped by a local synagogue and received an invitation to preach on the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” – we know that commandment, although we tend to think that we are exempt from observing it – we know it, and so did Jesus’ Jewish community. The Sabbath was a day set apart, a day for rest – because God rested – and a day for celebration – because the Jews had been freed from slavery. The Sabbath was a day of liberation – for God and human beings alike – liberation from the toil that competes for time and saps energy and distracts us from wonder and awe at the beauty and magnificence of creation.
And Jesus, according to the critical leader of the temple, has upset that priority, because he has, upon seeing that bent-over woman, reached out and healed her.
We don’t want to misunderstand the leader. He is not an insensitive or cruel person, indifferent to the woman’s plight. He is simply doing his job as he understands it: protecting the synagogue service and the teaching of faith from disruption. And, perhaps even more importantly in his own eyes, he is affirming the faith given to the people by God by reminding them that they are to keep the Sabbath holy – set aside, reverenced with their time and attention – and accusing Jesus of violating one of the fundamental tenets of Jewish life with God. We are so used to hearing this sort of story from our own point of view that we forget how important the laws of observance were to Jesus’ own people, and how they treasured those laws as a gift from God.
But the synagogue leader is missing something here! He is missing one of the main points of Sabbath ~ the celebration of freedom from bondage. Here is a woman enslaved by her condition, as the Hebrew people were once enslaved in Egypt ~ unable to live into the fullness of life, burdened by a condition imposed upon her and limiting her very movement ~ and Jesus is enacting the experience of liberation right before the eyes of those in the synagogue.
In Bible study this week, someone made a comment right on target about this text. We remember that Jesus said, “I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it” ~ and here he is, the embodied fulfillment of the law, serving and healing someone cast aside as one of the least. Jesus also said that the Sabbath was made for us, and not we for the Sabbath ~ meaning that we were not made for the purpose of being bound to the Sabbath law so that we might be burdened by it ~ as the woman was by her condition ~ but that the Sabbath was made so that we might know a taste of freedom.
Did Jesus have to complete this healing on the Sabbath? He did not ~ he could have waited until evening. What difference would another afternoon have made to someone who had been suffering for eighteen years? That’s the point made by the temple leader: Why disrupt the day, why blatantly pound a chink into the edifice of the law, with an act that would be as effective later that evening?
But Jesus has another point to make. Jesus is not merely on an errand of mercy; Jesus is on an errand of urgency. Jesus is here to launch the kingdom of God, the new creation in which all will be healed and whole, in which we will all be divested of the burdens of sin and completely freed for love. Jesus is here to tell us that the extravagance of God’s love cannot be constrained, even for a few hours, by laws which delay or impose barriers to the healing of the world.
The precepts of Sabbath teaching, the rituals of Sabbath meals ~ all of them are important, all of them serve to ensure that we remember who God is and who we are ~ but in the absence of love for others, they are as nothing. And if on a Sabbath day the opportunity arises to heal another person and we do not make the most of it, then are we not forgetting that the Sabbath was made for us?
Is there a better way to spend a holy day than by offering freedom to another human being? Is there a better way to spend the Sabbath than by offering immediate and complete healing to someone damaged in body and Spirit? Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy ~ remember the Sabbath and love your neighbor. Amen.