August 21, 2016 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When is a fever just a fever, and when is it something more? Back in seminary, we had prayer teams that were available during the weekly college Eucharist. Pairs of students and faculty would stand together in the corners of the chapel, ready to offer prayers of healing for anyone who came forward. We were trained on how to do things like keep our eyes open in case the person we were praying for began to fall or pass out. We practiced praying together as a team so that one person could open the prayer and the other person pick up seamlessly where the first one left off. We were told where to place our hands and how firmly or gently to touch the person who had asked for prayer. But the one thing we were never taught was when to say, “You know, prayer is a powerful thing, but I think you might need to see a doctor or a therapist.”
Sometimes a fever is just a fever. Prayer, I’m sure, helps, but for strep throat or a sinus infection, antibiotics are probably the way to go. The bible is full of miraculous healings, but a modern patient would rightly be skeptical of a doctor who reached for the Good Book instead of a prescription pad. For some, the stories of Jesus’ exorcisms are more offensive than they are amazing because they label what was probably epilepsy or a similar disorder as a demonic possession. Granted, the end result was the same—healing and wholeness—but surely it would be a mistake to describe someone with a seizure disorder as being possessed by the devil.
What about the woman in today’s gospel lesson? Luke tells us that this bent-over woman had suffered from a crippling spirit for eighteen years. Later on in the story, Jesus himself describes this “daughter of Abraham” as having been bound by Satan for those eighteen long years. What was really wrong with her? Was it a spiritual possession, or was it a spinal deformity like scoliosis or Scheuermann’s Kyphosis? Maybe it was an autoimmune disease or the result of ankylosing spondylitis. In general, it is offensive to say that someone with a medical diagnosis needs a spiritual solution because it assumes that their faith is broken when, in fact, something is wrong with their body. Sometimes a fever is just a fever, but, then again, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes a spiritual malady manifests itself in physical ways. And, in this case, regardless of what a twenty-first-century physician would say about this woman’s condition, this gospel lesson isn’t about a physical infirmity. It’s about a spiritual assault that has so consumed this woman that her entire life has been bent down toward the ground.
There are two keys in this story that let us know what is really going on. For starters, the way Luke describes the woman’s healing shows us the true nature of her ailment: “When [Jesus] laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” She didn’t fall on her knees and thank Jesus the way that many of his patients did. She didn’t run home to show her husband or children or neighbors what God had done for her. Instead, she immediately stood up straight and began praising God right there on the spot. For what it’s worth, the verb that’s translated “began praising” God is in the imperfect tense, which means that she started something that she didn’t finish—a praising God that could not stop. This crippling spirit—and we’ll get to the source of that spirit in a minute—was the one thing that was keeping this woman from doing the thing that God had created her to do: to praise her maker with all her heart.
The other key to understanding the nature of the woman’s ailment is what comes next: “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.’” Can you see that man? Can you hear his voice? Can you hear the fear behind those words? Can you hear how he is grasping desperately for the power that is slipping through his fingers—clutching for control of the congregation before Jesus completely takes it away? Notice that he doesn’t direct his criticism at the one who has healed the woman. Instead, he appeals directly to the crowd, but it isn’t working. They don’t need a religious leader to tell them what God wants. They’ve seen God’s will unfold before them in a miraculous way. And no appeal to a religious law book will persuade them to reject what they had seen.
But, before the crowd could respond, Jesus interrupted and took it a step further. You see, the word that the leader of the synagogue had used to reiterate the importance of keeping the sabbath was a word that means “binding.” That’s hardly a coincidence. “It is binding that work should only be done on six days,” the leader said to them. “Come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But Jesus took those words and used them against him. “Binding? You hypocrites want to talk about binding? Doesn’t each one of you untie your ox or your donkey on the sabbath and lead it to water? Isn’t it binding, therefore, that this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
With that retort, Jesus revealed the real source of the woman’s oppression. It wasn’t a demonic spirit that had plagued her but the inflexible legalism of the religious authorities. They had become so focused on defining who was and wasn’t good enough to receive God’s blessing that they had used the rules of their religion to keep her tied up and weighed down and bent over, when, in fact, those same rules had been designed by God to set his people free. Refraining from work on the sabbath was originally a gift that would enable God’s people to praise the one who had created them, but, over the centuries, the authorities had used that law to reinforce their standing until not even a crippled woman was able to find the healing that would set her free. The difficult truth about human nature is that it’s easier to tell a bent-over woman who shuffles from place to place why she can’t have God’s healing than it is to see behind the rules and give her what she really needs.
What’s it like to hear the world tell you over and over that you’re not good enough? What does it do to your emotional state to hear people say more times than you can count that you don’t belong? What happens when God’s representatives declare that you aren’t good enough to receive God’s love? Do you think that might crush your spirit? Do you think that would wound your soul? Do you think that might weigh down your heart and mind and spirit until your whole countenance is bent down toward the ground? Then, when people see you, they can tell that something’s wrong. Even without knowing anything about you, they begin to treat you as if you don’t matter, as if you have less worth, as if you are untouchable. And why? Because the people who have the authority and power and control reinforce their authority when, in the name of God, they withhold their esteem from those who don’t measure up. But that isn’t God’s work. It’s Satan’s work. It is the oppressive work of the Evil One to say to someone, “You aren’t good enough for God’s love.”
Jesus came to undo all of that. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a woman who was trudging along, bent over toward the ground. And he called her over, bringing her right into the middle of the assembly, into the place of power. And he used the power and privilege that he had been given as a man, as a rabbi, and as the Son of God to give this woman what had been taken away from her—her dignity. He laid his hands on her and declared, “You are set free!” And immediately she stood up right in the spot where she didn’t belong and began praising God. Who would get in the way of that? Who would dare stand in between this woman and her rightful place at center stage, where she stood in the spotlight to praise God? Who would say that she is wrong?
For too long, voices of power have used the name of God to say to those on the fringe of society, “You’re not good enough to be here. You’re not good enough to receive God’s blessing. Move along.” We may not appeal to sabbath regulations, but we make up our own religious rules of discrimination. We tell people that they don’t belong because of their gender, their ancestry, their accent, their disability, or their sexuality. We pronounce judgment against people because their marriage fell apart, because their business folded, or because their house is in foreclosure. We turn our backs on people who have a criminal record or who suffer from addiction. We do it because it’s easier to believe that we’re good enough for God’s love when we convince ourselves that they aren’t. We do it because the voice of doubt—the devil’s voice—whispers to us, telling us that we aren’t good enough either. And, if we can find a way to convince ourselves that at least we’re better than the anonymous reprobate that shuffles past, then maybe there’s hope for us.
But Jesus has something else in mind. In the incarnation of Christ, God gives up all of his power, all of his control, and all of his holiness to become a human being so that he can declare once and for all that we are all good enough to receive his love. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God takes all of us by the hand and brings us out of the shadows and into the spotlight where we hear him say, “You are set free!” There is no one whom God does not love. There is no one upon whom God does not shower his blessings. So stand up straight, and make room for those whom Satan has kept down for too long. Jesus has set them free. He has set all of us free. And for that we stand up and give thanks and praise to God.