The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: The Rev. David Rider

The Rev.
David Rider

As we enjoy a beautiful late-summer weekend and gather around baby William Nolan for baptism today, we encounter a quirky healing story found only in Luke’s Gospel

A woman severely crippled for 18 years suddenly stands tall, and Jesus seemingly picks a fight with the religious authorities

Jesus frees her from bondage—and by extension, he does the same for you and me—yet our story begs fascinating questions about how healing happens and what it means to engage the larger culture around us

As we prepare to welcome baby William into the household of faith and as we renew our baptism vows in the process, our passage invites us to reflect on how we get into a tough state—Jesus calls it bondage—and what frees us to live a transformed life

All in favor of transformation, raise your hands

This story of the crippled woman serves as the third of four healing on the Sabbath stories in Luke’s Gospel:

Earlier, Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit (LK 4:31-37) and heals a man with a withered hand (LK6-6-11) on the Sabbath

Later, Jesus also heals a man with dropsy (LK 14:1-6)

Both today’s story and the later dropsy story, Jesus goes out of his way to say that people are more important than oxen and donkeys

Let me disclose right here and now that I find this healing story the least satisfying of the 41 healing stories found in the New Testament

The woman shows up with no acute distress beyond her 18-year affliction, she makes no petition for healing, exhibits no existential turmoil, and has no personal encounter with Jesus beyond his announcing her new freedom

We know nothing of her backstory beforehand or afterward

It feels a bit like gratuitous magic to provoke the authorities—more on that in a minute—and even Jesus chooses not to use any compassionate language, as least as Luke records it

The story also gets us into important discussion about pre-scientific and post-scientific understandings about healing—did she suffer from severe scoliosis, and did Jesus overrule the laws of biology with a snap of his finger?

Yet we root for her transformation and fully get why she would stand tall to praise God

Whether pre-scientific or post-Enlightenment, we all struggle with forms of bondage and ask God’s healing grace for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world at large

It is no accident that Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by the Reverend Sam Shoemaker, a priest in New York City, to bring spiritual insight to those suffering from intractable addiction

An opioid crisis plaguing our country gets us to the same stage of desperation while begging the same questions about how personal responsibility, neighborly love and divine grace work together to bring healing and divine gratitude

Beyond mental health and addiction, we all know the bondage that comes from social injustice, poverty, racism, classism and the other forces that dehumanize God’s creation

Today around our nation, we acknowledge America’s original sin with the 400th anniversary of the first slaves coming to Virginia in severe bondage whose legacy continues to this very day

As Christians, we celebrate the power of resurrection living even as we stare down the forces of bondage that dehumanize life

In a few minutes, we will recommit ourselves in baptismal language to “renounce the evil powers of this world which destroy and corrupt the creatures of God” while we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

If today’s story addresses our longing to overcome bondage—and each of us has our unique version of that affliction—it also speaks to Jesus’ persistent challenging of outmoded structures that fail to bring us closer to the kingdom of God

Along with the three other stories mentioned earlier, today’s healing on the Sabbath depicts the impatient attitude that Jesus brings to the party

His critics argue that he could have waited out the clock until the Sabbath ended before healing the woman

She was not in acute crisis like the beaten man in the Good Samaritan story

Whether with the crippled woman or the dropsy man, they might have spent time together, waiting until sunset instead of challenging Torah so publicly

As with much to do regarding the Kingdom of God, however, Jesus challenges us to see life anew, sometimes in ways that conflict with communal authorities and sometimes—like last Sunday—that cause conflict among the family

Our forebears 400 years ago failed to stand tall when the first slave ships arrived ashore with human chattel—a failure that challenges our values and norms to this very day

A proslavery theology that followed the first slave ships failed to challenge the evil paradigm, instead cherry picking several Old Testament passages to justify bondage

As followers of Jesus today, we covenant with each other to distinguish the forces of good and evil, whether it be the big-ticket challenges of racism, sexism, homophobia or the maltreatment of vulnerable immigrants or the more daily grind of consumerism and the curated self holding in bondage to silly notions of beauty and youthfulness

As we take a joyful long look at baby William in baptism—and, by extension, the many children in our parish and world around us—we root for them as they navigate these forces into adulthood while we strive to make a global village worthy of God’s name and God’s continuing bet on our human goodness

As we move toward the baptismal font and reaffirm our own baptismal vows, I invite you to name any forces that keep you bound from the eternal life that God wants for you

Moving beyond mere self-interest, I also invite you to name the forces of bondage that compromise our parish, our community and all creation

In God’s name, in continuous prayer, and by social action, may we seek to overcome the forces of darkness while standing tall with the forces of divine light

For William’s sake and the millions of children like him, may we live as faithful stewards of the world for which Jesus lived, died, and rose again

May we have courage to stare down the forces of bondage—whether political, economic, spiritual or psychological—that keep us bent over

May we proclaim to the world Scripture’s vision that in Christ the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it

This becomes our Christian vision, our reason for living in a beautiful, terrible, wonderful world