You Are Set Free

First Presbyterian Lafayette, Louisiana
August 22, 2010 - Ordinary 21C

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Today’s scripture passages speak of justice and of healing. The combination of these two topics has become, for many in this country, much like the command in the movie Ghost Busters not to cross the streams. These were, of course, two fields of molecular energy that, if they came in contact with one another could rip apart the fabric of the universe much like some feel the health care debate is ripping us apart. I do not believe the pulpit is the place to engage in this debate that so many of us are struggling with, but I do think we would be well advised to consider God’s word in the midst of it.

With that in mind, let us turn our thoughts to the connection between God’s word and our own needs. All of us, in some way at some point, long for healing. Maybe it is for ourselves. Maybe it is for a loved one. Maybe it is something physical, and there is deep frustration over the inability of the vast armada of medical knowledge to fully diagnose or cure what ails us. Perhaps it is something deep within our souls that we can’t quite put a finger on, “like a splinter in your mind,” as I have heard it said. All of us long for the comfort of knowing that we, or those we love, are healed, set free, and no longer burdened by the things that have kept us from doing the things we really want to do. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus just touched me, or him, or her the way he touch that woman.

Human history offers a rich and varied tradition of the connection between faith in God and healing. Prior to the advent of modern medicine, it was fairly normal to think of healing as something that could only come from an external, supernatural force. Perhaps that was part of the leader of the synagogues frustration. Imagine it, performing the same rituals over and over again, knowing that some may be healed by some miracle of God and most will not. That would make me a little callous, too. Yet all believed that if one had atoned properly for their errors that God would offer them some favor. It is not hard to see why some might have turned to more than one source for healing. Nothing wrong with hedging your bets, is there?

In the modern, scientific era there is more of a separation between the activity of God and the reality of healing and disease. We know, of course, that a person’s disease is not because of sin. Disease… dis ease… Webster’s defines it as 1: a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms and 2: a harmful development (as in a social institution)[2]. Disease… dis ease.

It is always comforting when a physician, particularly a surgeon, initiates prayer before a procedure. I have always been honored to be called upon to pray with those in the hospital. It is a privilege of my profession. There is debatable scholarship surrounding the effectiveness of prayer and healing, but there is good evidence to suggest that those who rely on their faith to get them through are more at peace regardless of the outcome, and that is believed to lead to favorable results.

The Christian tradition itself has caused much of the rift between the reality of healing and the practice of faith. If you do not believe me, please look up “The Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey” on Youtube. It is 8:27 of your life you will not get back. I do not mean to disparage the young woman in the Event Staff t-shirt who claims to have been immobile from scoliosis, but I must take issue with the preacher who asks them to put their heads in and shake them all about because, “Alzheimer’s is not scriptural.”

We Presbyterians have often adapted the ancient tradition of anointing with ashes or oil. In doing so we have been very clear to acknowledge our powerlessness in the action of healing. Instead the anointing is, for us, a symbolic reminder of what we know to be true, that God is in the midst of our suffering, that we are never left alone, and that God has suffered and does suffer with and for us.

We don’t claim much more than that because we don’t want to be superstitious. Even worse, we don’t want to act like we can tell God what to do. And underneath all of that, some of us hold onto a little bit of skepticism about God working the way most people assume that God works. All of our need for healing and wholeness, our history, our culture, and our skepticism (or at least rationalism) come with us when we read these stories about the miracles of Jesus.

According to Luke, this is the last time that Jesus taught in the synagogue. So, in a way, this is a swan song. It’s his parting thought and the actions that go with it, as far as his pulpit ministry is concerned. The woman is not named. We do not know if she came looking for healing. All we know is that Jesus saw her, recognized her, and healed her. Then he touched her to confirm what had already taken place. Nothing is said about the breaking of taboos between men and women worshiping together, a single man touching a single woman in public, or the fact that Jesus himself was defiled by touching her before the Priest declared her to be clean.

The Synagogue Leader’s very protest betrays any authority he might have over Jesus, and he turns on the victim as those with power so often do. Jesus silences his opponent in the same way he did in the announcement of his public ministry when he spoke the words of the ancient texts, “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.” Jesus’ demonstration of the woman deserving better care than a farm animal demonstrates the connection between justice and healing. And at the same time they remind us of his earlier statement of our worth being greater than flowers and birds to the Creator who loves us.

Don’t those words sound good? And they are good. But it is still hard to connect this miracle story with something in our own lives. That is, unless you have seen a miracle. It is still difficult to connect injustice with pain and suffering. That is, unless you have experienced unjust pain and suffering.

I would imagine that many of you have experienced something you would call miraculous, something that can only be attributed to a force outside of yourself and beyond description. One of the most profound experiences I have ever had like this happened in Guatemala on a mission trip with a group of Doctors and Dentists. The organization calls themselves “Faith in Practice.” The greatest difference for me in this trip from others was the level of physical contact. I’ve built homes and churches and served in soup kitchens from rural Kentucky to Belize, but I have never seen the level of human contact offered by these doctors, nurses, and support staff. Of these experiences, one of the most difficult was in pediatrics.

I walked in to find an 8 yr old boy lay flaccid on a cold cement floor in the makeshift clinic we set up in a school in the village of San Marcos. He was smaller than my son, who was three at the time, and suffered from malnutrition, brain damage, and leg deformities. His mother carried him for days on her back to reach the American Doctors who could offer a cure or at least tell her how she could help him learn to walk. Poorly educated physicians who charged her for a diagnosis of surgery they could not even perform had already taken advantage of her. In my journal I wrote the following:
As my friend Beth, the nurse, told the Momma there was nothing that could be done I herd the Psalmist’s enemies cry, “Where is your God now?” Then I picked him up. We prayed and the little niño lay his head on my shoulder, his tongue sticking out and touching my scrubs. Then I carried him for his Mami, my sister, to the next line for a final surgical consult. When he became too heavy I set him on the edge of the desk. There she became my Mami too, taking the burden once again. Mami took him on her back and bound him with a cloth. Suddenly I thought, “There she is! My God is not limited by genetics. My God is limitless in the love of a mother for her child!”
He touched me. He touched me, and at first I thought I would be defiled. Then I realized that he was reaching out to heal me. He was reaching out to heal the hardness of my heart. The broken child within me leapt into his arms! Not because I realized how fortunate I was… Not because I did anything for them… but only because I saw my brokenness in his. It changed something inside of me, and I am forever grateful.

Oh how I wish that I could have been the one to offer healing. Oh how I wish his mother knew the ministry her son performed for me! Far be it from me to say that God cannot raise the dead and heal the blind and lame exactly as we have been told that Jesus did. But I believe in a God who is not even limited by leaving things broken. I believe that the most important actions Jesus did are the very ones we can do today. I believe those actions are fulfilled in the way that we challenge the dis ease of our society. I believe they are fulfilled in the presence of justice, and by justice I mean that we are caring for the oppressed. By justice, I mean what Jesus means, which is that those who have limits unfairly placed upon them by others are set free.

Again, these are beautiful words, which I doubt any of us disagree with. But we still have to ask ourselves, what is holding us back from our own healing. In Los Obris, the hospital in Antigua, Guatemala, I saw one of the most grotesque things I’ve ever seen. It was a dismembered crucifix. At first I thought it was broken accidentally. Then I realized this was a very intentional statement about how far Christ goes for us.

In my office you will find an entirely different image. It is an abstract stain painting depicting the spiritual reality of the crucifixion. In both cases the idea exists that if you put time on a line, all points have been fixed. As we look back, the moment of the crucifixion remains frozen in history in such a way that Christ is indeed crucified and risen for us at the same time. Where and when we are able to accept the risen Christ and be transformed from the inside out is also the time and space where we become aware of the resurrection in a way that we can respond to it. And we respond to the resurrection by offering the healing and wholeness we have found, even as our bodies are wasting away.

Bill McDaniel knew this. He walked in while Brenda, the Interim Pastor, and I were planning the Christmas worship schedule. We were so proud of ourselves for getting ahead of the curve, and hear comes an interruption. “Hi, Bill! Come on in.” She said invitingly. “Merry Christmas,” he said, a little hesitantly. “What’s going on, Bill?” Brenda asked. “Well, I just wanted to come by and bring you some peanut brittle. I didn’t have anything but North Carolina peanuts (where Brenda was from), but I made them anyway,” said Bill. After a few more pleasantries Bill said, “Well, I got a bad report from the oncologist yesterday. Yeah… at first I was pretty down. I decided that I could be upset about it, or I could just try to do something nice for someone else. So, I made you some peanut brittle.” Wow.

Sometimes, as in the letter to the Hebrews, God speaks and everything else falls away, for there are only two permanent things. The first is change. All things change. The second is the only thing that is unchanging, and that is the love of God. By the presence of love we know of the presence of God. In the presence of love we experience the presence of justice. In the presence of justice we experience healing that goes beyond our physical needs. You know, last I heard, Bill was in remission. I imagine medical science had a lot to do with that, but I bet the peanut brittle did, too. Of course the people in Guatemala are still suffering, but they, in their own way, are still spreading light in the midst of darkness. May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

Additional Resources
Websites -

Reference Books -
Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday's Texts : The First Readings, The Old Testament and Acts; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Second Readings, Acts And the Epistles; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday'sTexts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Eerdmans, 2001.
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