Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
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.
I was talking to a pastor last week who had been doing some counseling for a couple that wanted to get married in his church. Actually, they didn’t want to, but the bride’s grandmother was a member and she wanted them to and so they were trying to make her happy. But they weren’t particularly religious and when this pastor asked them about their most deeply held convictions they didn’t have an answer. “Then let me put it another way,” he said: “Why do you think you were born? What is your purpose in life?” But again, they didn’t have an answer. Because you know how it is: when you’re born you don’t have to think at all, and then, when you get a little older, your parents make you go to school, and when you graduate they might want you to go to college, and when you’re done with that you’ll probably try to get a job, and then, if you find the right person, you might want to get married, and if you do you might decide to have kids, and if you have kids that will take up the next twenty years of your life, and one day—in your mid-forties—you will wake up and wonder why you were born. We call that a mid-life crisis. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can think about those critical questions much earlier than that and church is the perfect place to do it. In a recent letter to my brother I wrote, “One of the best things we do in church is to help people find meaning and purpose.”
And then I tried to explain.
I said: “I believe we find meaning by following Jesus Christ, and that the gospel provides us with a metanarrative: ‘a story big enough to live by.’ In Mark 8 Jesus goes so far as to suggest that his way is not only something to live for, but also something to die for. ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’ he says, which may be only another way of saying, ‘Volunteer to die.’ And that is part of his genius,” I wrote. “When we volunteer to die the fear of death loses its power over us. We no longer need to stockpile weapons and hole up in caves. We no longer need to post hateful messages on social media ridiculing the ideology of our enemies. We can love fearlessly and die selflessly just like Jesus. That’s what I’m aiming for. That’s what gives my life meaning. How about you?”
It was a real question. My brother and I had been arguing back and forth for several days over various political issues. I wanted to know what was at the bedrock of his life: what he was living for and what was worth dying for. And then I answered my own question. I wrote, “If I could do anything that would keep people from shooting each other, hating each other, hurting each other; if I could do anything that would help to heal the deep divisions in our land; if I could do anything that would help us welcome the stranger, and love God’s creation, and care for the vulnerable, then I would want to do that. I think the pulpit is a pretty good place to lift up those dreams week after week, and I pray that I will have the courage to do that, even if it costs me my job, even if it costs me my life. I don’t know that anyone will listen, I don’t know that anyone will act, but I wouldn’t mind if my tombstone read:
“Here lie the mortal remains of
James Green Somerville
He died trying”
Now, that’s a long introduction to this morning’s sermon, and I realize it is the third or fourth time I have shared a draft of my epitaph. I’m still working on it. But thinking about what you want to have chiseled on your tombstone is a good exercise. It helps you focus on what really matters. And it might help you understand why we spend an hour on Sunday morning singing songs about Jesus and telling stories about him. It’s because we are trying to follow him; it’s because we believe that his way gives our lives meaning and purpose; it’s because we have found in him something worth living for and someone worth dying for. And so when we have an opportunity like this one to reflect on a passage of scripture together—to look at what Jesus actually did and listen to what he actually said—we want to take advantage of it, because we are all trying to follow his lead, and we can learn not only from him, but also from each other, as we go. So, here we are, in the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, looking at a story about a bent-over woman who was miraculously healed.
Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. Some of you have been to the Holy Land. You’ve seen the ruins of first-century synagogues. You know that the place where Jesus was teaching would have been about the size of our chapel here at First Baptist Church. And you may also know that when someone taught in the synagogue they would sit down to teach. We stand, at the pulpit, but they would sit in what was called “Moses’ seat”—the seat of the teacher—and expound on whatever scripture passage had been read earlier. Apparently that’s where Jesus was sitting and that’s what he was doing when this woman shuffled in.
Luke uses the Greek word idou, which means something like, “Behold!” Jesus was teaching and, behold! This woman appeared. Luke says she had a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” She slipped into the synagogue as discreetly as she could, in fact she may have come in after the service started so she wouldn’t have to say hello to the people around her. But Jesus noticed her, he saw her, and that may be the first miracle in this story. It is so easy not to see people in need, or not to let them see us. I saw a man holding a cardboard sign at an intersection recently and found a way to get over into the other lane and hide behind another car so he wouldn’t see me, so I wouldn’t feel like I had to do anything for him. I’m not proud of it, but it’s what I did. Jesus, on the other hand, sees this woman come into the synagogue and right there in the middle of his sermon stops everything and calls her over.
She must have been mortified to be singled out like that, but what could she do? Jesus was calling; she had to come. And so she made her way through the crowd to where he was and he said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And then he laid his hands on her. Pause for just a moment and imagine those hands on your own back. Imagine what kinds of unclean spirits would be cast out, imagine what kind of healing might occur. This woman felt Jesus’ divine power flowing through her body and when she did, for the first time in eighteen years, she stood up straight.
I’ve been trying to picture that moment, and what I keep picturing is someone tying a rope to the top of a young sapling and bending it down until the top is almost touching the ground and then staking it down and leaving it alone and letting it grow that way for eighteen years, and then coming back with a knife and slicing through that rope so that the sapling—which is now a young tree—suddenly snaps upright and raises its branches to the sky. That’s what this woman did. Immediately she stood up straight. And then she did just what you should at a time like that: she began praising God.
If that were the end of the story this would be the end of the sermon. You would look at your watch and say, “Preacher let us out early!” And I could, except for one little word in the text. It’s the word but and it’s right there at the beginning of verse 14. Luke tells us that this wonderful miracle occurred, the woman who had been healed was praising God, but…“the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath day, 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.’”
Why did he have to do that? Why did he have to ruin that wonderful moment? I’ve been thinking about that all week, and I’ve been thinking that in the same way this woman was afflicted by a spirit of infirmity that kept her bent over and unable to stand up straight, this man—this leader of the synagogue—was afflicted by some kind of spirit that kept him from rejoicing when a miraculous healing took place. What was it? Was it a spirit of jealousy? Did he not like it that Jesus was getting all the attention instead of him? Or was it a need to control things, to make sure that everything in the synagogue was done “decently and in order,” as Paul says.[i] Or did he just love the rules more than he loved people? Is that why he started saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” Because on the Sabbath day no work ought to be done, and curing people, well, that was work, wasn’t it? Ask any doctor in the room.
I’ve been trying to understand this man’s response. I’ve been trying to feel some sympathy for him. I was thinking of how I would feel if Justin Pierson, our pastoral resident, our speaker at next week’s healing service, actually started healing people: if they were getting up out of their wheelchairs, and throwing their canes away, and praising God in a loud voice. “Wait!” I would shout, trying to make myself heard above the hubbub. “Justin was only supposed to speak, not heal!” But later I might ask myself, “Why could I not simply rejoice when people were being healed, no matter who did the healing, no matter who got the credit? What is the spirit in me that needs to control everything, that needs to remind people of the rules? Was I simply jealous of all the attention Justin was getting? Was I simply wishing that people were singing my praises, instead of his?”
Whatever it was, the response of the leader of the synagogue was not the response Jesus might have hoped for. Turning to him and all those others who were shaking their heads and wagging their fingers Jesus says, “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?” I talked about that sapling earlier, that young tree that someone might have tied down for eighteen years, but if you were out walking in the woods and found an ox or a donkey that had been tied up for eighteen days, even eighteen hours, you would set it free immediately, wouldn’t you? You would cut through that rope without a second thought, and you certainly wouldn’t worry about whether or not it was the Sabbath. You would see it as an emergency, and you would do it as an act of compassion, and if someone tried to stop you, you might threaten them with that knife. The fact that this leader of the synagogue didn’t see it as an emergency, and couldn’t understand Jesus’ healing as an act of compassion, says a lot about what kind of spirit afflicted him, and makes me think about what kind of spirits afflict us.
I have to admit: I like it when things are done decently and in order. Maybe it’s because I grew up Presbyterian, where that’s their motto, but maybe it’s because I sit down with the other members of the worship planning team every week to put together a service of worship that we hope will usher you into the very presence of God. We’re thoughtful about it, intentional about it. And when Robert Thompson welcomes you to worship by saying, “something might happen today that’s not even in the bulletin,” I know what he means. He wants you to come to worship with a spirit of expectancy, even excitement. But there is some spirit in me that doesn’t want that to happen. I want everything to go exactly as planned.
But what if God has other plans?
I wasn’t here on that day, but I heard about a Sunday morning several years ago when one of our homeless neighbors who appeared to have been drinking came down the aisle. He was making demands, and making them loudly. Every deacon in the room was on full alert. Security was called in. He said, “Let’s sing Amazing Grace!” But it wasn’t in the bulletin. Someone tried to usher him out, gently, but he insisted, “No! I want to sing Amazing Grace!” And then someone stepped in who was a little more forceful and he was removed from the sanctuary, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. As I said, I wasn’t here and I don’t know what I would have done. I probably would have been right there with everyone else trying to hush him up and get him out. But what if someone had said, “Hey, this guy wants to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ We know how to do that. Let’s do it!” And suppose we did, and that’s how the service ended that day: with that troubled soul standing there at the front of the church, singing Amazing Grace, with tears streaming down his cheeks?
At the end of today’s Gospel lesson, and only because Jesus had his way, Luke tells us that “his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.” May we, too, learn to rejoice at all the wonderful things Jesus is doing,
Even if they’re not in the bulletin.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] 1 Cor. 14:40.