A sermon preached on August 21, 2016, by visiting pastor, Liz Pearson
It was a cold, February day in Atlanta. I had just left my church (where I was serving as Minister of Education) for a doctor’s appointment. I drove through my Chick-fil-A to pick up lunch and was driving across a busy intersection to get on the Interstate. There he was! Holding his sign.
I was in a hurry, eating my lunch, in my nice warm car. But, I had to stop at a red light. There he stood, next to my window, slight in stature, scraggly beard and hair, weather beaten skin, deep piercing eyes…wanting something to eat. I was not going to give him money. He would probably just use it for alcohol or drugs, right? Then I remembered I had some small bags of food in the back seat of my car left over from World Hunger Sunday in October. I let my window down, gave him two bags of food and he graciously accepted. He then asked if I knew where he could get a coat. The jacket he was wearing had seen better days, it was very thin, certainly not blocking the cold wind of the day. About that time, the light changed and traffic moved. I told him I would be back with a coat. I knew he didn’t believe me.
I went to my appointment and as soon as I left, bought my new friend, Billy, a coat, gloves, scarf and hat. The sun was setting and temperature was quickly dropping. I returned to the site where I had talked with Billy, wouldn’t you know it, he was gone. I drove around and spotted him walking toward a nearby bridge. I stopped my car, called his name and he came running. I gave him the coat and other items. Suddenly, it was like Christmas morning. As we talked and he put his nearly frost bitten fingers in his new gloves, Billy asked me why I would do this for him. I thought for a couple of minutes and responded, because of Jesus. He told me he used to believe in Jesus but, too much LIFE happened to him and he wasn’t sure anymore.
Over the next several weeks and months I had the privilege to hear about Billy’s life, his family and to meet his friends…known locally as the “bridge people.” Billy shared with me that he had gone into a local restaurant to get a hot meal with money from his “earnings” (begging) at the busy intersection. But, the waiters ignored him and refused to wait on him. After several failed attempts to get service, he left. He said to me, “people look at me and see nothing…it’s like I’m invisible to them.”
I am invisible…people don’t see me. Those could, easily, have been the words of our woman in today’s Gospel reading. It was obvious she was invisible to the ruler and leaders of the synagogue but she was not invisible to Jesus.
Let’s look again at our text for today found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 13, verses 10-17. It was the Sabbath and Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues. A crowd had gathered to hear him teach. Among the crowd was a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for 18 years, she had been unable to stand up straight, bent over. We don’t know the exact nature or cause of her ailment. Perhaps the woman’s condition was indicative of her diminished status as a woman.
She had come to the synagogue and there is no indication that she came for Jesus to heal her. She does not approach Jesus. Jesus takes the initiative. Jesus saw her need and responded. He says, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her and, immediately, she straightened up and praised God. Jesus laid hands, on the woman…He touched her. The laying on of hands was an act of blessing. Touch was important to Jesus. In each of the Gospels we see examples of Jesus healing the sick and infirmed, and He often touched the person that He healed. He was connecting on the most personal level with those he helped.
He touched the woman and, immediately, she stood up straight. There was no pause. No thinking about it. She stood up straight! This verse also has a symbolic meaning. In a society where women were marginalized-Jesus restores not only physical health but dignity. For 18 years she suffered under the weight of her gender and physical disability-she was ostracized, socially-publically. Women in that day were oppressed by religious and social restrictions and having this infirmity multiplied, many times over, this woman’s pain and suffering.
What was the woman’s response? She praised God. She gave the glory for her healing to God.
The story doesn’t end here. What happened next may sound all too familiar to those who have been in the organized church and its institutions for any length of time. It was the Sabbath. The ruler of the synagogue became indignant because Jesus had healed, had worked, on the Sabbath. (Heaven forbid that someone in need should be helped when the church by-laws said there was to be no helping others on Sunday.) The ruler was angry with Jesus but expressed his comments to the people. There are six days for work, do your healing on those days, but don’t break our rules and heal on the Sabbath.
The ruler and his board of directors were people who loved systems and rules more than people. They were more concerned that their petty little laws be observed than a woman helped.
Jesus responded (and I imagine with great passion), You HYPOCRITES. Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your animal (your ox or donkey) from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then shouldn’t this woman, this daughter of Abraham, who has been oppressed for 18 long years be set free on the Sabbath? Jesus answered the leaders of the synagogue by contrasting what they did for their animals with what he had done for this woman. He used an example of an “exception to their law” which allowed beasts of burdens to be untied on the Sabbath, to underscore his point. Since the woman was a daughter of Abraham, should they not do more for her than for their animals?
Jesus’ attack was on the rigidity of those who were using the establishment to wield power over the people. The ruler and leaders of the synagogue were known to impose rigid, inflexible, and oppressive rules on their followers. Jesus’ problem was with their complete lack of grace. Jesus came to set people free from the oppressive rules which kept them bound.
The story ends on a happy note, with Jesus’ opponents humiliated, put to shame, and the people, those who had come to hear him teach thrilled. They were delighted and rejoiced in support of all the wonderful things he was doing.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were hiding behind the trappings of religion to oppress the people. He was attacking the lack of grace proclaimed and the lack of grace practiced in the church of his day, unfortunately, that still true today in some churches.
This is a story of Jesus’ radical grace. Jesus, on his own initiative, approaches the woman and heals her. The goodness of the power of God exercised for no other reason than to show mercy, extreme mercy…forgiveness, and compassion. Grace cannot be earned. Grace is a gift.
What do our religious teachings, today, say to those who are bent over, who have their backs against the wall, the poor, the crippled, the refugee? Do we, as Christians, demonstrate God’s radical grace: his mercy, his love, his compassion to those who are bent and can’t stand up straight?
What do we offer those who are oppressed? What do we as a church, we as the people of God offer the oppressed of this world?
Are we bound by systems, structures, laws, ideologies, economics, or stereotypes? Are we too busy, too tired, too important in our own minds to help our brothers and sisters stand up straight?
Or, have we been set free by the radical grace of God so that we can proclaim good news to the poor, heal the heartbroken, and announce freedom to all who are bound.
This gospel story seems simple and straightforward, but, conveys a deep and powerful message. A reminder that we are not made whole with God through rules but by God’s amazing, radical grace in Jesus Christ our Lord. As a result, we, too, have the opportunity to join that crowd in the synagogue and rejoice in the wonderful things God has done and is doing in our lives and in our community of faith.
There may be someone here this morning bent over with worry, problems, pain. You may feel oppressed by this world and need to hear Jesus’ words, my child, you are set free. Maybe you have never experienced God’s radical grace in your life and want to talk with one of the ministers and have them pray with you to experience God’s grace, forgiveness, and mercy. Wherever you are in your life, whatever is going on, the same Jesus who set the woman free and chided the religious leaders of His day is here with us this morning and wants each of us to know His amazing, radical grace.