New Hope Fellowship
July 7, 2019
We’ve been talking a lot about freedom the last few weeks. Two weeks ago we looked at that passage from Galatians where Paul says that all are welcome without distinction in God’s house—neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. All are one in Christ Jesus. We are free from the barriers the law puts up.
And then last week we confronted the question: Free for what? And we saw that in Galatians 5 Paul says that we are free to love and serve others, that our freedom is not for self-indulgence. We are free to live an abundant life of love, joy, peace….
Today we have another passage, a story, that causes us to think about freedom. This time we are called to consider the relationship between freedom and peace.
At first what we have today seems like a simple healing story.
A nice, uplifting story. A positive, encouraging healing.
Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent and quite unable to stand up straight.
She is not just a woman with an infirmity but, as Luke says, with the spirit of an infirmity. Whatever it was that had bent her, whatever emotional or physical burden she had born, Luke suggests, ultimately became part of her until her very body was conformed to its image.
When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
But then we keep reading:
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.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
Here comes the conflict and the division.
How does Jesus create such a crisis here by reaching out in love to this woman, by setting her free? Jesus breaks at least six strict cultural rules:
1. Jesus speaks to the woman. In civilized society, Jewish men did not speak to women. Remember the story in John 4 where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. She was shocked because a Jew would speak to a Samaritan. But when the disciples returned, the Scripture records, They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman…
2. He calls her to the center of the synagogue. By placing her in the center of the synagogue, he challenges the notion of a male monopoly on access to knowledge and to God.
3. He touches her, which violates the holiness code. A man was not supposed to be touching a woman he wasn’t married to or related to.
4. He calls her “daughter of Abraham,” a term not found in any of the prior Jewish literature. This is revolutionary because it was believed that women were saved through their men. To call her a daughter of Abraham is to make her a full-fledged member of the nation of Israel with equal standing before God. She is not just the husband of a man who is a “son of Abraham.” She herself is a “daughter of Abraham.”
5. He heals on the Sabbath, the holy day.
6. Last, and not least, he challenges the ancient belief that her illness is a direct punishment from God for sin. He says that it is evil bondage that cripples her. And he sets her free.
And Jesus breaks all of these cultural rules in a few seconds.
[Quoted in Suzanne Luper’s sermon, “Can Jesus Be Redeemed?” September 17, 2000, North Raleigh United Church]
The breaking of these rules did not go unnoticed by the Jewish leaders. The leader of the synagogue was shocked by Jesus’ behavior. Here was a man who did not find a healing service listed in the order of worship that Sabbath, and he didn’t like the deviation.
Jesus came disturbing the peace of the religious people, the religious leaders. He came disturbing the peace in the house of God. Jesus, it turns out, is willing to create crisis to set a woman free.
And we’re reminded of Jesus’ words from chapter 12: I came to bring fire to the earth. Not peace but division.
In fact Jesus did come to disturb the peace. He came to disturb the false and superficial peace that accepts and ignores the
death-dealing ways and
of our world.
I read in The Christian Century about a woman named Lisa Fithian who is something like a professional protestor. I don’t even know what all the causes are that she protests, but she goes around the world protesting corporations and government powers, trying to get their attention about certain practices. She’s been arrested thirty times.
What caught my attention was not her cause but something she said in an interview: When people ask me, ‘What do you do?,’ I say I create crisis, because crisis is that edge where change is possible.
Is this not what Jesus meant when he spoke of bringing fire to the earth— of not bringing peace? Did he not seek to bring crisis as that edge where change is possible?
And so Jesus comes disturbing the peace. Here today he comes disturbing the peace of the religious people, the religious leaders. He sets a woman free—but in doing so he confronts the authorities and powers that be. He creates crisis.
A peace that requires God’s children to stay bound up is not a peace Jesus can accept.
A peace that allows God’s child to be bent over with burdens is not a peace Jesus can accept.
A peace that will not allow him to set a person free is not a peace that Jesus can live with. It is a peace that Jesus will literally die to disturb.
Contemplating this idea of Jesus creating crisis, disturbing any peace that is false or unjust, I came across a sermon preached by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky on March 29, 1956.
In his sermon he talks about how a federal judge handed down a decision requiring the University of Alabama to stop denying admission on the basis of race. After that decision, a woman named Autherine Lucy was accepted as the first black student in the history of the University of Alabama.
However, as soon as Autherine Lucy walked on the campus, crisis ensued. A group of students began threatening her. Crosses were burned; eggs and bricks were thrown at her. The mob jumped on top of the car in which she was riding. Finally, the president and trustees of the University of Alabama asked Autherine to leave for her own safety and the safety of the University.
In his sermon Martin Luther King tells all this. Then he says:
The next day after Autherine was dismissed, the paper came out with this headline: “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace [again] on the campus of the University of Alabama.”
I want to share with you what Dr. King said about this peace in his sermon.
Yes, things are quiet in Tuscaloosa. Yes, there was peace on the campus, but it was peace at a great price. It was peace that had been purchased at the price of capitulating to the force of darkness.
In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, “Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Certainly, He is not saying that he comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: “I come not to bring
this peace of escapism,
this peace that fails to confront the real issues of
the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.”
Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated
between the old and the new,
between justice and injustice,
between the forces of light and the forces of
I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force—
but it is the presence of some positive force—
the power of the kingdom of God.
I had a long talk with a man the other day about this bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice.
And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.
And so Jesus comes disturbing the peace to bring genuine peace. Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem, comes disturbing the accepted peace of the day to bring real peace.
Here in our story today he comes disturbing the peace of the religious people, the religious leaders. Jesus is willing to create crisis to set a woman free.
Why? Because Jesus’ love and grace and compassion for this woman trump everything else. This is very important, I think. Was he just looking for a fight? No. Just looking to stir things up? Just looking to prove a point or be a hero? No. Looking to make a statement? No. That is not what it’s about. My friend and mentor Pete Geren likes to say, Do you want to make a statement, or do you want to make a difference?
Jesus is about making a difference. It’s Jesus’ love; his love trumps everything else.
Jesus is filled with compassion for this woman—this woman who is bent over from some physical or emotional burden she’s been carrying for 18 years.
The point of all this is that Jesus will disturb any peace that ignores the burdens we carry. Jesus will confront any peace that would prevent him from reaching out in love and grace to set this woman free—to set you free. To lift that burden.
Jesus saw a need and he responded in compassion.
He didn’t wait for her to ask,
he didn’t require her to beg,
it didn’t matter what day of the week it was, and
it didn’t matter what the people in charge or
anybody else thought about it.
His love for humanity and
his compassion toward those who suffer
overruled the religious people’s rules. He was willing to break all six of those strict rules if that’s what it took to treat this burdened woman as a child of God.
And when Jesus touches a person with his love, there is no denying the transformative power, the healing power of his grace.
One year when I was at youth camp with the Broadway youth group, at worship one night our camp pastor Gordon Atkinson told a painful story of a time when he was a child and he made an attempt to befriend a boy in his school who was a complete outcast. And Gordon told how in the end he did not have the courage to be this boy’s friend—at the risk of his own reputation—and walked away when it counted.
Milton Cunningham led the music at camp. Milton was youth minister at University Baptist Church here in Fort Worth 20 or so years ago. After Gordon’s story, Milton stood up and, through tears, told us his own story. His parents had been missionaries. He had moved around a lot, but he ended up in the United States for high school. In fact, he went to high school here in Fort Worth. He went to Paschal. He said he was an awkward teenager, self-conscious about his appearance. He didn’t have a lot of friends, and he didn’t have any self-confidence.
After school he would walk from Paschal over to University Baptist and hang out with his youth minister there, Steve Cloud. Milton who is now probably in his 50s, stood up in front of us at camp and cried as he talked about looking in the mirror as a teenager and hating what he saw there. His youth minister, Steve, was everything he wished he was but wasn’t: tall, athletic, good-looking.
One day after school they were outside shooting baskets. Milton said he was and is one of the worst basketball players in the world. Steve, of course, seemed to make every shot. Milton, on the other hand, often missed the basket completely and had to chase the ball across the parking lot.
Finally Milton took a shot, completely missed the basket, the ball rolled far away, and he just said, That’s it. I’m done.
Steve ran over, retrieved the ball, came back looking to Milton like the perfect picture of all-American masculinity and athleticism with the ball on his hip. They started to walk back into the church, and Steve put his hand on Milton’s shoulder and said: You know, If my wife and I have a son, I hope he turns out to be just like you.
And now, over thirty years later, Milton stood before 250 middle and high school students and cried openly at that memory. And cried at the acknowledgement that that statement had a profound impact on his life.
We need to get in our heads that the God who saw a true daughter of Abraham in a bent over woman, is the same God who sees God’s own child in all those in this world bent over with burdens to bear.
And this God
will disturb any peace necessary,
will push aside any rule or religious person he
in order to get
to the person God loves and
to give the love God wants to give and
to touch with compassion and grace.
I don’t want to be the religious person, the Pharisee, who gets between God and someone God loves, do you? I don’t want to be the one who tries to tell Jesus, You can’t set that person free. Not today.
Because this is a God who looks at the one hurting and says, I hope my son turns out to be just like you. Actually, more than that, God says, You are my son. You are my daughter. And woe to the one who tries to get between a mother and her child, a father and his child.
Jesus confronts the religious ones who would prevent him getting to this child of God, the ones who would prevent him from setting this woman free. And the result is conflict, tension, a house divided.
Such is the effect sometimes of the presence of Jesus and the breaking in of the reign of God in the world. A crisis is created; but if setting a woman free shatters an unhealthy peace, then crisis it has to be.
Because, as Jesus says, You are mine. And, no matter what they say, you are set free.