The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

Luke 13:10-17

Of all the issues facing the church 130 years ago, one that was considered so pressing that it was addressed by the bishops of the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1888 was this: the observance of the Sabbath.

The bishops at that conference issued a report including these statements:
“The principle of religious observation of one day in seven is of Divine and primeval obligation, and was afterwards embodied in the Fourth Commandment. The observance of the Lord’s Day as a day of rest, of worship, and of religious teaching has been a priceless blessing in all Christian lands in which it has been maintained. The growing license in its observance threatens a grave change in its sacred and beneficent character. …The increasing practice on the part of some of the wealthy and leisurely classes of making the day of secular amusement is most strongly to be depreciated. The most careful regard should be had to the danger of any encroachment upon the rest which on this day is the right of servants as well as their masters, and of the working classes as well as their employers.”

The language is a bit dated, but we clearly see that the concerns of that day, at least in this matter, are not far from the concerns we have today, regarding church attendance and maintaining a holy priority for the Lord’s Day.

Although the Sabbath may not be at the forefront of agendas as we head toward the 2018 Lambeth Conference, it is still a concern as society seems to be moving more and more secular in its being and doing. Even among Christians – churchgoers – the average church attendance, on any given Sunday, is somewhere around 30 percent of membership. Is it perhaps something our bishops and other church leaders should be addressing? Not just church attendance, but what it means to faithfully observe the Lord’s Day?

And, this certainly was an issue in Jesus’ day as well, as we see in this morning’s gospel and Jesus argument with the religious leaders who oppose his healing on the Sabbath.

Luke tells us that “Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.” Apparently, he had been invited to do the preaching that day (with every intention of keeping a holy Sabbath). So, when the time comes for the scripture reading and sermon, Jesus steps up to the pulpit, looks out over the congregation, and notices a particular woman.

Synagogues in Jesus’ day were strictly segregated by gender. Only men were allowed in the main part of the synagogue; women could attend, but they had to sit in a special section off to one side. The men engaged in dialogue with the rabbi (the preacher and teacher) for the day. The women sat silently by and listened. Like children in the Victorian era proverb. They were to be “seen, but not heard.”

In all likelihood, this woman is doing nothing to attract attention. Jesus is standing or sitting among the crowd of men, teaching. She has arrived a little late and is trying to enter as quietly and respectfully as possible, trying not to disturb the teacher or distract his listeners. She didn’t care to be noticed, anyway. She wasn’t comfortable with the way she looked, or the way she was so often stared at. So the less attention the better. BUT, Jesus does notice her. He sees movement off to one side, perhaps senses an opportunity to help someone in need. He observes the woman coming in, with her peculiar, crippled, bent-over walk, watches as she quietly takes a seat. Then, Jesus stops, abruptly – interrupts his sermon – and invites the woman to come over to him.

She looks up, horrified. Is the rabbi talking to me? This is probably the last thing the woman expects, or wants. For 18 years she’s been afflicted not only by pain, but by embarrassment and humiliation. Everyone in the village knows her and knows of her condition. The children snicker and point behind her back. The other women cluck sympathetically as she passes by. The more mean-spirited among her neighbors wonder what terrible thing she has done, what terrible sin she has committed, to be so cursed by God.

That day she enters the synagogue as she always does—quietly, unobtrusively, by the side door—as invisibly as possible—and now the rabbi is speaking to her. “Could it be?” she asks herself. “Is he really calling me?”

At first, she continues to sit, eyes fixed on the floor, hoping to disappear from Jesus’ sight and his attention. Hoping he’ll forget about her and go back to his teaching. But he calls her again. She looks upward as best she can, then with the knowledge that all eyes are on her, she stands and bashfully scurries forward, in response to his command. What else can she do?

But, before she even reaches him, Jesus’ voice rings out, with a note of authority none can miss: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Then he comes to her and lays hands on her, and that’s that! She is free! Eighteen years of misery are ended, in the twinkling of an eye. “Immediately,” Luke tells us, “she stood up straight and began praising God.” It’s a good day at the synagogue.

But there are always critics, aren’t there? The leader of the synagogue, who probably has problems, not only with Jesus paying so much attention to a woman in church, but also with all the praise no doubt directed toward Jesus’ healing work, is quick to address both Jesus and the crowd.

“Listen!” he says, “No one is supposed to work on the Sabbath! You know that! No one is supposed to give or receive!” You can almost hear the bureaucratic, holier-than-thou disdain in his voice. “We have procedures for this sort of thing, traditions to follow. Rules to keep. There are certain designated days for healing: & This—the Sabbath—is not one of them.”

“Hypocrite,” Jesus replies, always reserving his choicest anger for such self-righteous religious leaders. “You would carry water to an ox or a donkey on the Sabbath, but for this woman—a daughter of Abraham—you would do nothing.”

Jesus knew that because of such self-righteous judgments made by society and religion, the woman’s condition was so much worse than mere physical disability. She was crippled in her heart as well, as pressed down and bent over in spirit as she was in body.

We’ve all known people like that. Sometimes the most crippling disabilities are those that affect not the body, but the spirit. Doubts and insecurities can keep us paralyzed, unable to act. They make us subservient to others who abuse or dominate or take advantage. They prevent us from realizing our fullest potential as God-created beings.

Time and time again in the gospels, Jesus declared himself to be on the side of those who are” bent over.” In the case of the woman in the synagogue, she didn’t even have to come to him, asking for help. In fact, every single incident of Jesus healing on the Sabbath is like that: Jesus sees the person; Jesus recognizes the person’s need; Jesus heals the person.

Never is the sick person so bold, on the Sabbath Day, to make a request for healing. Always, it is the Lord who takes the initiative. In other healings, on other days, the sick person often does ask for help, and it is given. But, on the Sabbath Day it is different. The people know “the rules”; they’ve been taught them; they know better than to ask, but God seeks us out anyway. God really never takes a day off in his care and love for us. God has no rules for when we may approach him to ask for his healing and wholeness and mercies.

Today, on this Sabbath Day, Jesus Christ reaches out to you and me just as surely as he reached out to that bent-over woman of old. In his hands is the power not only of healing, but of freedom: freedom from sickness, freedom from heartache, freedom from depression, freedom from oppression, freedom from spiritual paralysis, freedom from fear.

Freedom to be a child of God, and freedom to praise God’s Name.

And all of it is offered, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, today, tomorrow and for ever, and in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.