Eighteen years ago, the church was packed.
It was the Sunday after Nine Eleven, and people came to worship in droves.
They stopped coming almost as quickly; attendance, which had been declining before the
attacks, returned to normal trends within a few weeks.
The shock wore off, life for many people returned to something close enough to normal,
and the need for God or comfort or religion or assurances or whatever the crowds
were seeking was either unmet or faded away.
Maybe it got redirected to military action or economic patriotism.
The church and its leaders began to wonder and argue about what they did wrong
while the world moved on to other places and priorities.
The decline has continued, and so has the church's navel gazing and worry.
The woman crippled by a satanic spirit and bent over for eighteen years looks an
awful lot like today's American church.
She hears Jesus, but does not see him.
Her field of vision, her view of the world is downcast and limited.
She remembers younger days when it was so much easier.
She steps carefully in a world that doesn't seem to care about her.
She keeps returning to the synagogue, keeps attending to worship and teaching, keeps
listening and engaging and trying, keeps making appearances.
But she seems to be bent over with a burden she cannot shake, quite unable to stand up
straight and face a world that has changed so drastically in only eighteen years.
She is out of date, out of touch, out of style, and running out of energy.
She is getting older, moving slower, adjusting to her new reality that is not so new
She feels like her hands are tied, maybe to the past, maybe to debt or decaying property,
maybe to doctrine or traditions that no longer make sense, maybe to the demands
of wealthy families keeping her afloat, maybe to all of the above or more.
Her memories don't match her observation, and it takes more effort to accomplish less,
and sometimes she sags under the weight of it all, a crippled spirit, a shackled
It's not for lack of trying that she is in this condition; she simply cannot heal herself.
She is quite unable to stand up straight.
And she keeps faithfully showing up.
Jesus sees her and calls her forward.
Church, you are set free from your ailment, he says, sabbath after sabbath.
Whatever is holding you down is no match for the Lord who lifts you up.
Untwist your frame and uncork your voice.
Face the world and sing your praises and tell your story.
Look all around you at all the other faces, many of them downcast too, and see
them and love them the way I see and love you.
Touch them with promise and set them free.
Rise up and show the world what Easter looks like.
And when the backlash comes, I have your back.
As usual, the teaching and the touch of Jesus cause trouble.
The leader of the synagogue desperately tries to restore order.
There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured,
and not on the sabbath day!
He's right, of course, as religion always thinks it is.
After eighteen years, Jesus could have waited another twenty-four hours.
But the synagogue leader's vision is limited too.
He is bent over with authority, weighed down by the rules, God's conscientious
compliance officer, a spiritual mall cop taking his job with noble seriousness.
He sees a foot cross the yellow line and responds exactly as he was trained to do.
He does not recognize the face or realize that he is reprimanding the owner who is
crossing the line to save the store.
Jesus heals this woman on the sabbath because he is doing far more than healing this
He is healing the synagogue.
He is setting the sabbath straight.
Lady Sabbath herself had become weighed down and bent over with mountains of
regulations defining what was and was not permissible, so that people had to work
extremely hard to make sure they weren't working.
(Sometimes religion misses the forest for the fourth twig just on the ground behind that
tree over there.)
Jesus knows the words of Moses, who stood at the edge of the promised land he would
never enter and knew God's people's capacity to miss and forget the point.
He gave them a reminder sermon even longer than this one, named Deuteronomy.
He repeaed the sabbath commandment, but he changed the commentary.
Remember the sabbath and keep it holy, he said, but he never mentioned creation or God
resting on the seventh day.
He gave them a different reason:
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.
Sabbath is the weekly reminder and celebration that God has released the children of
Abraham from the house of bondage after so many long years.
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?
Ought not this synagogue of Abraham's children be set free from rules that make healing
illegal on Saturdays?
And ought not this church of God's baptized children be set free from whatever is
weighing her down and shackling her praise and silencing her witness to the God
who restores the dignity and posture of beloved, burdened people—even if those
burdens are faithfully made decisions and wise and well-intentioned duties?
The church aches to be set free from yesterday and life-draining rules and every other
holy thing in slippery human hands that holds us hostage.
And our twisted, tangled, tired world also aches to be untied and set free.
So Luther insists, in his watershed essay of the same title, on The Freedom of a Christian:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
His explanation of this feels longer than Deuteronomy, but first he says one more thing:
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
The face of this mysterious, beautiful paradox is Christ, the Lord of all who lifts
the woman to stand up straight and also takes a knee and shrinks his field of
vision to the tired, dirty feet of his disciples.
He bends over, lifts them into his hands, and washes them.
The Lord of all, subject to none, is servant of all, subject to all.
We who are quite unable to stand up straight by ourselves see this Lord when he takes a
knee in front of us.
When he is lifted up, it is as broken bread and a broken body on the cross and the risen,
ascended Lord of all.
When he lifts us up, we praise God, and we also see others who are bent down... and now we know what to do.