This sermon was written in April 2017 for a Homiletics course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This sermon is the root of the later sermon “Set Free from the Contagion,” delivered at the begining of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was inspired to share this sermon after reading chapter 3 of my seminary homiletics professor L. Roger Owens’ new book, “Everyday Contemplative: The Way of Prayerful Living.” This text is one of the suggested texts for sacred reading. If you are looking for a spiritual refresh, I highly commend his book to you.
When we hear the words of Scripture, it is easy for us to assume that we are hearing a word from a long time ago in a world very different from 21st century North America. It’s true, our present context is far removed from the synagogue where Jesus healed this unnamed woman from her ailment. When we see someone who is disabled, we do not assume that their ailment was caused by an evil spirit. Yet, in the world of our text, it was assumed that anything negative was caused by Satan and everything good came from God. Or, consider Jesus’s response to the synagogue leader. None of us have donkeys or oxen. What could this ancient text possibly have to say to us today?
The most challenging question for me when I read a miracle account in the Gospels is, “why has God stopped performing grand miracles like these in our midst?” There are many today who are in bondage, physically or spiritually, who need Jesus’s healing power. Where is Jesus today? What is he doing?
The theological and practical questions of this text may cause our minds to wander as we hear from the Gospel this afternoon. We are, after all, seminary students who have been trained to ask difficult questions and exhaust a text of all its possible meanings. Yet, what if we set those questions aside for a moment and imagined ourselves as part of the story? What if we had gathered with the people of God on that Sabbath all those years ago?
Which character in the story would we be?
We might imagine ourselves as the leader of the synagogue. All of us are, in one way or another, religious leaders who are keepers of the faith and representatives of the church. We have many different roles as church leaders, and sometimes our role is to interject when something is happening out of order and say, “wait a minute, I think our church policies require that we do things differently.” Serving as a United Methodist pastor, I turn to the denomination’s Book of Discipline to make sure the local church follows the policies that they have covenanted to follow. Sometimes those rules are unpopular. Individuals would rather do things their own way. Like the synagogue leader, it is sometimes my role to correct well-meaning people who are unaware of the rules. Other times, it is the role of a colleague or supervisor to correct me regarding rules or guidelines I have neglected.
Most of the time, the rules we have are good! They help protect us against a whole host of problems. Even more importantly, the rules the synagogue leader was referencing had come directly from God. He was not quoting mere human rules and regulations, but the very law of God. In Deuteronomy 5, Moses gathered the people and told them what God requires of them, saying “observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” Perhaps we can understand the synagogue leader’s point. “Any other day would be suitable for healing, but our Scriptures and denominational regulations prohibit healing on the Sabbath,” we might say. “Come back tomorrow.”
Yet, perhaps we don’t think of ourselves as the synagogue leader because we know better. We know that the point of the Sabbath was not to restrict the power of God to heal, nor was it merely given as a prohibition of work. Sabbath is a wonderful gift from God! In Egypt, the people of God were slaves who had to endure continual work without rest, but in the Sabbath God had given them rest. God had delivered them from the shackles of evil into a new day of abundant life, joy, and peace. How fitting would it be for Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, to liberate this woman who had been in bondage for eighteen years on the Sabbath? How wonderful it was for him to provide this woman with a reason to praise her God on the day of rest and liberation!
See, we know better than to ignore the person who is suffering right in front of us. Surely, we would not tell anyone, let alone Jesus, to cease doing good works on the Sabbath. After all, we live under grace, not under the law. Yet, we might label other people as the Sabbath leader—those who we think focus too much on regulations and not enough on the grace of God. Perhaps we look at those in holiness churches who are strict Sabbatarians with contempt. “They are like the synagogue leader,” we might say. “They don’t understand the point of the Sabbath. But we are more like Jesus in this story: proclaiming a message of liberation in both word and deed.”
We have good reason to follow Jesus’s example as we serve as ministers of the Gospel and ambassadors for Christ. In the sending of the seventy in Luke 10, Jesus sent out his followers to proclaim peace and heal the sick. In the great commission of Matthew 28, Jesus gave authority to his disciples that they might live out his teaching. And in John 14, Jesus told his disciples that “whoever believes in me will do the works that I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” We see these texts as commandments, not just to Jesus’s first followers, but to us. We long to embody the oft-repeated saying that we are “the hands and feet of Christ” in the world.
We easily identify with Jesus in this story. We don’t just denounce the legalists who get in the way of the Gospel, but we want to liberate others from whatever holds them in bondage. Granted, we might not have the supernatural power Jesus had to heal the sick or lift up and straighten the woman who was bent over for eighteen years, but there are things we can do.
We might not perform supernatural miracles, but we can engage in works of justice and righteousness so that both invisible and visible chains of bondage are broken and walls are torn down. We might be increasingly frustrated with the church’s complacency and restfulness in the face of injustice and oppression. We long for people to rise up and act, rather than just sitting in the pews, singing the same old songs and hearing the same old word. We want to be like Jesus and we want others to follow us.
Oh, how much good work there is to be done! We busily scurry around trying to help as many people as we can. There aren’t just people to heal, but sermons to preach, and committee meetings to attend. How good it feels to us when we are finally able to see the bonds of evil broken and the joy on someone’s face as they worship God. There’s so much work to be done—the mission field is endless—that there’s not enough time for us to rest, to take a Sabbath, and to hear the word for ourselves.
We might, on our best days, do a good job of following Jesus. We might even, on occasion, be able to put aside our inner-synagogue leader who prioritizes policies over people. But when Jesus sees us, he sees the woman who is in bondage, hunched over for eighteen years. When Jesus sees us, he sees a child who needs to be set free from the pursuit of accomplishment and self-righteousness. When Jesus sees us in the crowd of the faithful gathered in worship, he invites us forward, he lays his hands on us, and immediately we are set free to stand up and praise our God.
When we rush to go out and follow Jesus in healing the sick and freeing people from bondage, we might just forget that we need saving too. We might set off on our mission of liberation only to realize that there’s something holding us back in bondage.
Friends, more than anyone else in this story, we are like the woman who needed to be set free from her ailment. We are beloved sons and daughters of Abraham. We are children of the living God. And in this moment of gathering to hear the word, we have done what she did. We have faithfully come to hear the word of Jesus. We have taken our place in the crowd, expecting the same old thing, but hoping that this Jesus might have something new to teach us. We simply showed up for this moment of Sabbath, as we always do. And as we have taken our place in the crowd to hear the word, Jesus has called us over to himself, laid his hands on us, and set us free.
Miracles of healing and deliverance do still happen today. And they happen when we faithfully show up in the worshipping community to hear a word. They happen because Jesus has come in our midst to set us free.
Thanks be to God. Amen.