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Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost - August 25, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

Louise was eighty-eight years old when I first met her. She was one of those lifers in the Episcopal Church. She had been a clerk on the vestry for thirty years. She had been the director of the Altar Guild for fifty years. She had sung in the choir for eighty years. Even in her late eighties, Louise remained spritely and alive. She still made her famous raisin squares and invited folks with no other place to go to come to her family meals. While she did tell me she couldn’t be bothered with using female language for God, she nonetheless had an amazing capacity to tolerate and even appreciate change. I don’t know where that came from. Probably that she was a woman with a disciplined practice of daily prayer.  

As Louise aged into her nineties, she began to have problems with her back and her posture. Every year, she was a little more hunched over. It caused her pain that she needed to constantly manage. It restricted her mobility. But also, and this is what she’d talk to me about, it impacted her ability to see.  Her posture had her facing the ground and so she couldn’t spend much time looking out without it hurting her neck. And so, while Louise continued to get out and about, she wasn’t free anymore to see the world around her and the people around her in the way she had previously.

Of course, it’s today’s Gospel that has me thinking about Louise. In it, Jesus spots a woman who has been bent over for eighteen years, calls her over, and heals her so that she can stand up straight.  What Louise reminds me of is that being hunched over doesn’t just cause physical pain. It doesn’t just cause mobility challenges. It actually impact your ability to see the world and connect in the world. Jesus’s healing in today’s Gospel, like many of his healings, does a whole lot more than just curing pain. It restores the woman’s dignity. It restores her ability to see others and be in relationship with them. It restores the woman’s ability to do things that she enjoys and gives her life meaning. In a culture that in ways even worse than ours, segregated and looked down on those who those with physical disabilities, Jesus freed this woman to return as a full member to the community.

Indeed, this was a healing about freedom. Freedom for the woman to live the life she wanted. Freedom for the woman to be fully welcomed in community. Freedom for the woman to be herself. Freedom for the woman to see and connect to others, and to the world, and to God. And this is what the religious leader in today’s story failed to understand when he criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. You know, one of the trends in modern Biblical scholarship is to be a little more sympathetic to the religious leaders who were Jesus’s antagonists. To try to understand where they are coming from.  

This is in part to protect us from the trap of anti-Semitism that often has emerged from seeing the Jewish leaders in the Bible as bad guys.  But it also just plain makes sense. The religious leader of this synagogue has allowed Jesus to come in and teach. Mid-sermon some woman walks in. Jesus cuts off his sermon mid-sentence and walks over to the woman to heal her. The religious leader is probably thinking, “Couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?” After all today’s the sabbath. The day to attend to God. The day for holy rest. It’s not entirely unreasonable or uncompassionate for him to think that this healing could be put off for the moment. Both for the rest of the folks listening to Jesus teach who he’s now ignoring and also for observance of the Sabbath honoring God. 

But Jesus will not wait to heal. Jesus will not wait to free this woman from this infirmity that has her bound. And this, to my mind, isn’t Jesus breaking the rules of Sabbath.  This is actually him adhering to them more fully. You see, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people were called to remember two big stories from their history as they observed the Sabbath. The first was God resting on the seventh day of Creation. That’s the one that we tend to know. But the second and no less important one, is the Exodus. God’s freeing the Hebrew people from bondage. That’s part of Sabbath observance too.

This is the third commandment coming from Deuteronomy, “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”  

Sabbath is both a time for holy rest and also, I would suggest some forms of holy work… all within the broader context of God wanting to give us all healing and freedom and wholeness. Jesus hated that the rules of the religious establishment didn’t lead the woman in that direction. Indeed, their rules became ones that enforced the status quo, that were a means of social control and oppression. Whenever any rule, religious or otherwise, doesn’t lead to freedom, it is not in alignment with the way of Jesus. 

Whenever children at the border are separated from their families, that is not the way of Jesus.

Whenever social norms about gender keep folks from living and expressing themselves as they are, that is not the way of Jesus.

Whenever folks who look like me hoard our resources and don’t share them so others can flourish, that is not the way of Jesus.

Whenever the community allows some in and holds others out, that is not the way of Jesus.

Whenever our own thought patterns make us feel less about ourselves and so we don’t claim our well-deserved place in the community, that is not the way of Jesus.

  Healing and wholeness and being free. It is what Jesus wants for all of us. It is what Jesus offers to all of us.  And so the Sabbath is both a time where we make space to receive those gifts for ourselves and also a time where we get equipped, equipped to go out into the world and dismantle all those oppressive systems that prevent others from receiving those gifts as well.

The April before last, Louise died. She drew her last earthly breath at a nursing home surrounded by family and friends. And she was perched up in her hospital bed in such a way that she could see them all of them. She could see all those who loved her and were right there with her. She too was healed.