As most of you know, later today after the 10:00 service, we will be celebrating the 10thanniversary of our shared ministry at Grace Church. Such occasions are important because they offer us an opportunity simply to have fun together, to rejoice in who we are as God’s people and to give thanks for our ministry here. For it really is a shared ministry. I may be the rector, the visible face of the congregation but all of you are part of it and whatever we have accomplished, we have done with God’s help and through a lot of hard work by a lot of people.
As I said repeatedly during the discussions leading up to the capital campaign and renovation project, whatever we accomplished then would not be the end. If we think about the four years since its completion, we can reflect on continuing change and growth as we have sought to live into the vision of what it means to be God’s people in this place. A growing congregation, a growing Christian formation program, and the visionary and important work led by the Creating More Just Community Taskforce are all elements of that. We have had important conversations about connecting with our neighborhood that are beginning to bear fruit. A bit behind the scenes, the Men’s Shelter Task Force has been seeking to build momentum in the larger community for a new Men’s shelter. It is likely that in the next few months that effort will become more visible.
All of this points to the future, not the past and even as we remember how far we’ve come, we also look ahead to the work that God is calling us to do here in downtown Madison. So our celebration should also be a time of recommitment to this congregation and its mission, and an opportunity to imagine the future toward which our faith in Jesus Christ is leading us.
Speaking of looking back, where were you 18 years ago? That would have been August, 2001, a couple of weeks before September 11. Can you think back that far? A few of you probably can’t really, most of us though can at least get a sense of what the last eighteen years have been like, and I’m not just talking about the endless war on terror and all of the other ways our world has changed over the last eighteen years. What about your own life? How have you changed? What has been your experience over those years?
Now, imagine if you will, instead of all that you’ve done, you had spent those eighteen years so severely bent-over by some physical ailment that you hadn’t ever really seen the sky or the faces of other people. Imagine what pain you would have experienced, how small your world would likely have been.
In today’s gospel reading, a woman with just such a physical condition encountered Jesus. This is a fascinating story that Luke uses to emphasize several of his most important themes. It’s set in a synagogue on the Sabbath. The reference to the Sabbath sets up the confrontation that occurs in the second half of the story but the mention of the synagogue is significant in another respect. It’s one of the few times during Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem when Luke provides a clear setting for a story. The mention of synagogue does something else. It connects to other occasions when Jesus visited or taught in synagogues, most notably his first public appearance, when he read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
By mentioning Jesus’ visits to synagogues, Luke wants to remind us that Jesus was an observant Jew, even if he challenged the Jewish religious leadership. But here, we see more than that. The language used to describe the woman’s condition, as well as the language used to describe her healing, all use imagery of bondage, liberation, release, freedom. Jesus says that “she was bound by Satan for 18 years was set free from this bondage.” In addition to healing her, Jesus is liberating her.
There’s more to the story than that. We read it and hear and immediately assimilate it to other healing stories in the gospels. But this one is different in several respects. First of all, the woman. Luke doesn’t tell us why she came to the synagogue. What he doesn’t say is that she came because Jesus was there, that she was hoping Jesus would heal her, that she asked Jesus to heal her. In fact, she doesn’t say anything to Jesus, she doesn’t touch his garment; she doesn’t disrupt the service. Moreover, Luke doesn’t make any reference to her faith. Jesus doesn’t say, “Your faith has made you well.” What Luke does say is that when she is healed, when she is able to stand upright, she glorifies God. There’s an implication here. The standard worship posture in 1stcentury Judaism, as it would be in early Christianity as well, was to stand erect, hands and head raised. In other words, she couldn’t even properly worship God because of her ailment.
So much for the woman. Now Jesus. As I said, we see him visiting the synagogue on the Sabbath as observant Jews did in the first century and do today. We can imagine that the synagogue was crowded, that he was accompanied by his disciples and by others who knew who he was. Many of them may have following in hopes that he would heal them. We can imagine the press of the crowd, the people vying for his attention. But in the middle of that crowd, Jesus sees the woman. That in itself may be something of a miracle, given that she was bent-over, the sight of her easily blocked by other people.
Jesus liberated her to glorify, to worship God, but the act of liberation was preceded by an act of seeing. He saw her struggling, suffering and her responded to her need. His actions of seeing and freeing her brought him into conflict with the synagogue leadership. In fact, it’s something of a staged argument by Luke, for Jesus’ response to the leaders, coming straight out of Torah, makes clear that the tradition to which both sides were appealing, was clearly on Jesus’ side. It’s lawful to heal on the Sabbath. In fact, while we might be drawn to this part of the story and want to emphasize the importance of the conflict between Jesus and the synagogue leaders, we should focus our attention on what this story might have to say to us.
There’s an obvious connection—how do we welcome and embrace those who, like the bent-over woman, seek to worship God with and among us? Do we see them? Have we erected barriers that prevent them from full inclusion? Do we see the ways our actions, beliefs, and physical space prevent them from experiencing the liberation that Jesus offers us?
What traditions do we cling to that present barriers to others? How do they blind us to the people around us, to their struggles and hopes, to their bondage and their desire for freedom?
What might a community look like, that, freed by the power of Christ’s love, freely and without inhibition offers that love to the world?
As we reflect on the last ten years of our common life and ministry, may we also begin to imagine new ways of being community, new ways of following Jesus, and new ways of reaching out to our community and to the world, in healing and welcome, that we all might stand erect and glorify God.