In some Christian faith traditions, the congregation is asked to rise for the reading of the gospel lesson. As I understand it, the practice is a way of honoring Jesus, the one who demonstrated the unconditional love of God that transforms human lives and communities. We stand in awe and gratitude for the Word of Life.
I’m going to invite you to rise for the reading this morning, but for another reason. Our text is a healing story. While teaching in the synagogue as was Jesus’ custom, he encounters a woman seeking his help. The Bible describes her as having an illness that had caused her spine to curve inward. She was completely bent over and unable to stand straight, and had suffered from this condition for 18 years. Eighteen years of chronic pain. Eighteen years of struggling to walk, converse with others, engage in the ordinary daily routines. It would have been nearly impossible even to look into another person’s eyes. We don’t know anything about her support system–whether she lived among supportive family or neighbors who cared for her, or experienced social isolation. Was she a regular at Sabbath services, or did she attend that day expressly to meet this Teacher about whom she’d heard such wonderful things?
To experience something of what it meant to her to live with this sense of confinement, I invite you to stand and to lean forward, with your head bowed (please support yourself with your hands if necessary). If you’re watching online or listening by phone, you can do the same. You will know when it is appropriate to rise out of that uncomfortable position.
“Now Jesus 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
Hallelujah! Even after just a few minutes of discomfort, we can feel the relief of healing. The language Jesus uses in the healing is not so much recovery from illness, but release from confinement. You are set free. Thanks be to God!
Oh, if only the text ended there! It continues:
“But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, 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.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘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, to be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders in this instance may seem a very silly discussion to us who rarely if ever observe an entire day of Sabbath rest. But let’s be clear, first of all, that Jesus is NOT canceling the fourth commandment to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Instead he is reminding the religious leaders not to get so wrapped up in enforcing the law that they forget its gracious purpose: for the benefit of human wholeness and community. Jesus makes the point by referring to the origins of the commandment centuries before following their liberation from slavery in Egypt. He cites their own exceptions to the rule to point out their hypocrisy and spiritual amnesia. Why wouldn’t we act to free a person from the bondage of illness in remembrance of God’s act to free the whole people from the bondage of enforced labor? Even your animals are freed from their pen to receive what they need for life. Are they more worthy than humans?
Putting the specific controversy in its context, the story invites us to consider two questions: First, what are the ways we are captive; where do we need liberation in our own lives? And second, in what ways does the church promote or inhibit God’s work of liberation?
The discomfort of the opening exercise was meant to get us thinking the things that confine us in perhaps less obvious ways than the woman’s infirmity. Are we held captive by work? By drugs or alcohol? By past memories we can’t let go of? By regret or grief or paralyzing anxiety? Frankly, the command to practice Sabbath may not be as irrelevant as we might think–so hard we drive and so full our days. Can we even imagine hearing the words of Jesus applying to us: “Dear One, you are set free”?
And picture ourselves rising up, breathing deeply, healed and whole?
Yet this is the description of God’s work in the world; the work which Jesus exercised through healing power. Jesus made it clear throughout his earthly ministry that the Kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven is evidenced by people set free from brokenness and suffering. Over and over he demonstrated that wherever God is at work, you can expect to witness liberation–your own and others’–freedom from confining disease, societal expectations that bind and disfigure, and even holy commandments that keep you down for even one day more. Now is the day of salvation, Jesus told the religious leaders. The Kin-dom of God has come near when you see chains broken and souls lifted up.
Just as Jesus challenged the leaders of his day, so he has called out the Church in every generation. To speak honestly is to acknowledge the ways “Church” itself has been a barrier to God-given freedom for Black and indigenous people, women, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, and more. Reparative, reconciling work must continue–because it is central to the gospel. The religious leaders got it wrong not in their obedience to the law of God; they blew it by elevating that law above its holy purpose to relieve human suffering and promote human flourishing. You might say they were so heavenly minded they were no earthly good.
In contrast to Jesus, whose healing power inspired rejoicing over the liberation of every human bondage. Jesus gave us a glimpse of divine glory by showing us healed humanity and restored community. Friends, we witness to our faith in God most truly when we center human thriving–and let nothing stand in its way.
It’s felt like eighteen years since construction began on our capital renovation project. We’re very close now to completion and it will soon be time for celebrating. The transformation of this building is nothing short of miraculous: including God’s guidance, your vision and immense generosity, talented and deeply committed leadership, a general contractor supportive of our mission. . . And something else. Like all projects on a budget (and is there any other kind???!), the scope of work must be clearly defined. Not everything we wanted could be included. Air-conditioning here in the sanctuary, for example. Repair and repainting the little patch of water-stained dry wall I see every Sunday up there in the right balcony. But I will be forever grateful to the Guidance Team for hewing to a clear priority: what will benefit the people Central is called to serve. A brand new HVAC system for New Genesis, to provide better heating and cooling for the unhoused men living in recovery there. Reconfigured offices and improved rooms for the supervised visits of families in crisis, served through Central Visitation Program. Restrooms and concession area that will enhance the experience of Denver Philharmonic Orchestra concert attendees. Space to operate Purple Door Coffee shop, a social enterprise business, developing employment skills for young people at risk of captivity to mean and unforgiving streets. Friends, we are building for people.
We are joining Jesus in ministries of liberation–out there, and in here.
That’s worth standing up for!
So I invite you again to rise and praise the One whose work is liberation; whose Kin-dom brings healing and peace to the whole human community. I cannot wait to see the wonderful things Jesus is going to do through Central.
Friends, thanks be to God!