A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Church, Barrie, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 21 August, 2020.Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
Note: I’ve preached on and off at St. Margaret’s, this vibrant parish in the north of Barrie, since coming there in 2016 and serving as an honourary priest there. It’s always been my home, it’s where my wife Kay spent the last year of her life, where she had her funeral, where I met Joy and where we were married. As of September 1 I start a new appointment as Priest in Charge of All Saints, Collingwood. I’m grateful to the clergy and people of St. Margaret’s for making me welcome these past six years. MP+
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.
Today’s gospel reading, combines a
healing miracle with one of those frequent debates between Jesus and his
adversaries over the appropriate use of the Sabbath. As preachers try to fill out the context
behind these debates, it’s easy to come away with the impression that Jesus’
opponents were all small-minded, pettifogging legalists, and that there was
something a little ridiculous (to us, at least), about the restrictions of Jewish
law. In fact, my Jewish friends have taught me that there is nothing more revered and
life-giving than the law, the way of life, that God gave to his people. The
debate in the gospels isn’t about whether the law is good and life-giving, but
whether Jesus has the authority to interpret it, to change it, and ultimately
to fulfil it as the Son of God. Specifically, the Sabbath is there to remind us
that God wants to free us from our earthly burdens, and Jesus is the one who gives
us that freedom.
We’ll come back to the law and the Sabbath
in a moment, but as we’re getting to grips with this story, let’s also look at the woman who is the
recipient of Jesus’ healing. You’ve
all heard that people in the ancient world often understood illness as being
caused by demonic possession, but for a moment let’s set aside the fact that we’re
told she has “a spirit”. The other
concrete detail Luke gives us about her condition is that she’s been bent over,
“unable to stand straight”. That might be a description of acute osteoarthritis,
or some other condition like spondylitis, which can leave a person in a
wheelchair. Whatever the cause of her
condition, we’re told that she’s been crippled for eighteen years. Imagine her daily life, in constant pain,
unable to draw enough breath to fill her lungs, unable to care for her family, unable
to properly see the world around her because her head is forced down, and
imagine that, day in, day out, for eighteen years!
Eighteen years is such a specific amount
of time, a detaiil that conveys an almost unimaginable amount of suffering. Some of you, I know, have been on waiting lists
for surgery and relief for pain for many months, and you, I am sure, can
imagine this woman’s life better than some.
Would any of us notice her, this nameless
woman, hunched over at the foot of a wall, or perhaps tottering on a cane, in
the crowd either inside or outside the synagogue. She’s the kind of figure most of us might see
without registering, like the woman in the mobility scooter waiting at the
crosswalk, or the man with the little carboard sign on a sidewalk. How easy for the eye to just pass over such a
person, to barely register their trouble, let alone imagine what such a life
might be like or how long they’ve been in such a condition. But Jesus sees her, speaks to her, heals
It’s noteworthy that in this miracle,
there is no dialogue between them. Unlike
some other miracle stories, the woman does not call out to Jesus, she does not
ask for healing, there is no display of her great faith. Was she there that day to see Jesus? Did she have any hope that he might help
here? Luke does not say one way or
another. Perhaps, as seems likely to
me, after eighteen long years of suffering, she had very little reason to
believe in miracles. I suspect her life
had become nothing but one long day after another, trying to find a way to position
her body so it did not hurt too much, trying to get one good breath, hoping for
a scrap of bread and a few hours of sleep without any pain.
If you’ve known times like this, when
you’re at the end of your rope and you can’t go on, you just want the hurting
to stop. You just want someone to take
it away from you and set you free. Or,
at the very least, you want a short rest.
A period of rest and respite can make a difference to a parent of a
severely autistic child, or to the caregiver of someone far gone in dementia. Interestingly, rest was one meaning of the
There are two accounts of God giving
the Ten Commandments to Moses which are relevant here, and two different stories
about the Fourth Commandment. In Exodus,
the Sabbath is explicitly described as a day of rest. Just as God made all things in six days and
rested on the seventh, so should God’s people observe a day of rest on the
seventh day, when “you shall not do any work” (Ex 20:8-11). This understanding of the Sabbath seems to
explain the objection of the leader of the synagogue to Jesus’ healing the
woman. It’s not that he denies Jesus’
power of healing, it’s just the timing that he objects to.
We can imagine that while this man is
listing his objections to Jesus, the woman in question isn’t listing too carefully. She’s busy rediscovering how good it is to
fill her lungs with air, she’s looking around and seeing people’s faces where
she used to see their feet, and she’s realizing that, for the first time in
years, things don’t hurt. Is she laughing? Crying?
Both at once? We don’t know, but
we can be sure that after eighteen years, this woman is as free as if she has
been released from a dark prison cell.
The woman is experiencing freedom and
freedom is the greater meaning of the Sabbath. There are two accounts of God giving the Ten
Commandments to Moses. I’ve already
mentioned one, from Exodus, which centres around the idea of rest. However, the other account, from
Deuteronomy, goes further. After
specifying that the Sabbath is to be a day of rest for everyone, no matter how
humble or lowly they may be, Deuteronomy adds this:
that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a
mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath
day (Dt 5.15).
In other words, the rest of the
sabbath is not just a day’s respite from wearisome toil, it’s also a reminder
that God wants to set his people free.
Just as the Jews were freed from their slavery in Egypt, so does God
want his people to be free from the things that burden and oppress them. Jesus declared this goal at the very
beginning of his ministry, when he told his home synagogue in Nazareth that he
had been sent “to proclaim release to the captives … and to let the oppressed
go free” (Lk 4.18-19).
Who are the ones that Jesus sees
today? We can think of many. Perhaps a woman in acute pain, who had been
on a surgical waiting list for many months.
An indigenous person who has lived for decades with addiction and shame
from their time at a residential school.
Parents on an endless waiting list for proper treatment and therapy of their
severely autistic child. A single
mother and her children, waiting for a safe subsidized housing spot to open for
them. Wherever the resources of care and
attention are short, wherever dignity is neglected, wherever people are
regarded as expendable, we can be sure that Jesus is there, his keen eyes
seeing everything. And if Jesus sees
them, we need to ask ourselves, do we see them?
Do we care for such people? Do
we act to help them? Do we advocate on
Whatever we do for others who suffer
is a way of honouring the Sabbath, and, as scripture tells us, the Sabbath is
about rest and is about freedom. Now, rest
is good. Ask the exhausted care-giver
if they want a few hour’s respite from a spouse with dementia or a special
needs child, and they’ll gladly take it.
Yes, rest, is good, but freedom from such burdens is better.
Sabbath-time, Sunday time, is about
rest AND freedom. The seventh day is
God’s time, it is God’s presence in the transition from week to week, reminding
us that all time, like all creation, belongs to God. Sabbath time, Sunday time, is a taste of freedom,
a reminder that the God who brought his people out of slavery hates all things
that oppress his people.
The sabbath scandal of the gospels
wasn’t just Jesus doing stuff on the Sabbath, it was Jesus saying, in word and
deed, that he is freedom – freedom from pain, freedom from guilt, freedom from
loneliness, freedom from death. We,
God’s beloved people, always need to remember this and always need to look to
Jesus when our burdens seem intolerable.
A woman I knew once told me about her
father, whose name was Bob. He was a
good and faithful man, but as he aged, he became crippled by rheumatoid arthritis,
which bent his spine to the point where he lived in a perpetual hunch. Perhaps he had the same condition as the woman
in today’s gospel. His daughter had a
favourite story of how Bob showed up for a work party to paint the church
hall. The men protested that he didn’t
need to do this, but Bob said that he could stand well enough to paint a strip
a few feet wide, and by golly that’s what he was going to do.
Bob died, far too young, from the disease
that bent his spine. I wish I could say
that he had been miraculously cured. I
like to think that he took that paint brush to serve his church and his lord,
because he knew that in Jesus he would find peace and freedom. I believe that Jesus certainly saw Bob as he
worked, and in time welcomed him to a place where he could stand straight and
free from pain. My prayer for us is
that in our times of affliction we have the faith to see Jesus as the one who gives
us freedom, and the faith to remember that Jesus, in his great power and compassion,
surely sees us.