God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In our gospel lesson this morning, we heard the story of Jesus healing the woman who had been crippled for 18 years. She was bent over and could not stand up straight. All she could see was the ground, the floor, people's feet. She could not look people in the eye.
Notice the setting for this woman's healing. She is in a holy place where the community gathers on the Sabbath. Notice, too, the position of Jesus: front and center, the famous teacher instructing the group. It is a solemn moment. The woman slips in quietly. She is nobody important. For 18 years she has been stooped over, crippled by a terrible handicap, a pitiful figure in the eyes of her neighbors. She comes to the synagogue to listen and to pray. *
Through the crowd, Jesus sees her, really sees her, this woman all bent over, on the margins of the synagogue, on the margins of society, in the shadows. He doesn't look past her, as others did. He looks at her and calls her into the center of the synagogue, where the men usually gather. She does not ask for healing, but because of Jesus' compassion, he heals her right then and there on the Sabbath.
Imagine how it felt for her to stand up straight, to lift up her head, to look around and see people's faces instead of their feet. A whole new way of life has just opened up for her, all because of Jesus' compassion for her. She praises God for showing her love and mercy through the gentle touch of Jesus.
But the story does not end there. Jesus' healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath has set off a firestorm. The leader of the synagogue knows the Jewish law and knows that no work should be done on the Sabbath. It was a day to honor God and to rest, to follow the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation. But the leader of the synagogue considers healing to be work and he admonishes Jesus. He wants to stick to the letter of the law which has a whole list of things that you cannot do on the Sabbath.
Jesus reminds him that people take care of their animals on the Sabbath. They had to be fed and given water and that was work. So why shouldn't this daughter of Abraham be healed on the Sabbath? She has already suffered for 18 years. Why should she suffer one day longer? Jesus has compassion for her and heals her.
The synagogue officials were put to shame. They were embarrassed as the crowds rejoiced at what Jesus had done. We can imagine they were seething inside with anger and hatred of Jesus, which added to the frenzy of disdain for him as he headed to Jerusalem and to his crucifixion.
This is not the first time that Jesus has healed or worked on the Sabbath. In the first of these Sabbath conflicts with the officials, Jesus was criticized for allowing his disciples to pluck and eat grain as they walked through the fields on the Sabbath. On another occasion, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand while teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. And later he heals a man of a disease while eating with the Pharisees on the Sabbath.
Jesus makes the point time and again that the welfare of individuals takes priority over religious obligations, even the observance of the Sabbath. Jesus' compassion for others overruled any laws regarding the Sabbath. And therein lies the rub between Jesus and the synagogue officials. Jesus seeks a social and religious liberation for all who are in bondage, all who are bent over under the weight of oppression - those on the margins of society, those who are ill or disabled, lepers and tax collectors, or those who were considered unclean.
It is very fitting that this woman should be healed on the Sabbath, that she should be freed from her bondage. The Sabbath should encourage, not forbid, works of compassion. The essence of the Sabbath should not be in what it forbids, as the synagogue officials insist, but in what it requires - a focus on God and compassion for others.
To keep the Sabbath means to live fully into who God created us to be. Jesus is calling us out of our bondage, out of whatever holds us back from being who God wants us to be. God brought the Jews out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land. Jesus brought this woman out of the bondage of her crippling disease into fullness of health. Jesus will bring us out of our bondage as well, whatever that may be.
So what is our bondage? What is it that keeps us bent in on ourselves? It could be guilt, or addiction, or hatred, or wanting revenge, or jealousy. It could be self-centeredness or greed or envy or malice. Our bondage is whatever keeps us from loving and serving God and our neighbor. And for each of us, that bondage may be different.
This afternoon at 3:00 PM, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has asked all Episcopalians to join the National Park Service's request for all churches and faith communities to ring their bells for one minute in remembrance of the 400th anniversary of slaves being brought in bondage to this land. It is a time of remorse and lament, of asking God's forgiveness as a people who put into bondage those whose skin color was different than theirs. It is a time for healing and reconciliation, to move forward with grace and love. Our Bishop Susan Goff said, "As we remember the 400th anniversary of their arrival in Virginia, I pray that we will do the hard work of reconciliation that God longs for us to do,". Bishop Marianne Budde, Bishop of the Diocese of Washington said, "With bells tolling across America, we pause to lament the centuries of suffering and wrenching grief of slavery and racism in our land. The first slave trade ship to land 400 years ago planted the seed of sin that spread through the active participation and complicit passivity of nearly every American institution. As we grieve, may we dedicate ourselves to addressing systemic racism and the multi-generational impact of enslavement and discrimination faced by all of the African diaspora."
We will ring the St. John's bell today at 3;00 PM and you are welcome to join us. If you are at home, ring any bells you might have, including bells on your phone. In today's bulletin, you will find an insert with a message from Bishop Susan Goff. Please remember in prayers today those throughout the world who remain in bondage through slavery, human trafficking, domestic violence, and other ways people are held against their will. Pray also for those of us who might be held in personal bondage and find it hard to see a way out.
Jesus healed the woman of her bondage to a physical infirmity. May God grant us the compassion and grace to be healed of whatever keeps us from fully loving God and our neighbor. Amen.
*Taken from "Synthesis", August 25, 2019
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