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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

August 25, 2013

Set Free

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 13:10-17

             She was born in 1910 into the Ottoman Empire, in the nation of Albania, in what we call today the Republic of Macedonia.  Her father died when she was ten, and by the age of twelve she knew she wanted to give her life to the service of Christ and His church.  She went to Ireland to receive her education in joining the Sisters of Loretto, who sent her to India to teach in a Catholic school, where she eventually became head of school.  In 1946, deeply moved by all the poverty that surrounded her in Calcutta, the world’s largest city, she received what she would refer to as “the call within the call.”  She eventually founded an order within the Roman Catholic Church called The Missionaries of Charity that has 4,500 members today who practice the Benedictine rule of “poverty, chastity and obedience,” and share a commitment “to give wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.”  Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and spent her life in service to the poor of the world.  She died in 1997 and ten years after her death, journals that she asked to be destroyed, because in her words, “they would make people think less of me and less of Jesus,” were published.  The journals were intensely personal, and reflected her long seasons of questioning her faith when she felt no presence of God.  It described moments where she could only speak of “darkness,” “intense loneliness” and “torture.”  While the world witnessed a woman who ministered daily in direct ways to “the poorest of the poor” in the name of Christ, she could write in silence to her spiritual directors, “Where is my faith?  Even deep down right in there is nothing but emptiness and darkness – My God – how painful is this unknown pain – I have no faith.”

             Some people were scandalized or upset by the revelation of this news that Mother Teresa struggled to believe.  Christopher Hitchens crowed over it, saying it proved that her faith was “a sham.”  But I like the conclusion drawn by the writer in Time who did a cover story on these journals when they were published in 2007, ten years after her death.  “These may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor.  It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives.  And you know who that is?” he asks, responding, ‘Everybody.  Atheists, doubters, believers, everyone.’”  Mother Teresa left us a great gift by acknowledging her struggles with faith.  In the language of our text this morning, she showed us that we are all crippled in some ways, and we all need to be free to seek and to be open to the healing only Jesus can give.

             Interestingly, though, this woman in our scripture passage in Luke this morning does not even ask to be healed, just as most people with crippled or wounded spirits or bodies do not know how to ask for help.  Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  That is a very Jewish thing to be doing!  Synagogue, Sabbath and Scripture were keystones, utterly foundational to Judaism and to Christianity as well, though we would say Sanctuary rather than Synagogue.  A woman appeared “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.”  For a long time she was “bent over and unable to stand up straight.”  “Jesus saw her.”  I love that statement!  It is a reminder to us that Jesus sees us as well.  Jesus sees me and sees all of me, as I truly am.  Jesus sees my strength, and He sees my crippledness, and He sees yours as well.  And to this woman, Jesus speaks His Word: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  When He laid His hands on her, she stood up straight and began to praise God.

             I love this word as well!  The Westminster Shorter Catechism says our “chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  Joy is found in praising, glorifying God as the source and substance of all that we are and all that we receive, all that we are given.  This woman’s healing is unasked for, but it is immediate and complete, and she is thankful to God for it.  One of the marks of joyful, spiritually healthy people is gratitude.  “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” we sing each Sunday in this place.  Praise and thanksgiving are fitting, appropriate, life-giving responses to Jesus.

             And note that where Jesus is, where His Word is spoken and heard, there is joy and rejoicing, there is praise and freedom.  Jesus set this woman free from a spirit that crippled her for eighteen years.  Wherever Jesus is present, wherever Jesus’ word is spoken, there is healing and joy, there is life and freedom, there is restoration.  Because Jesus comes to redeem and to reconcile us to God and to each other, and just as important, to reconcile us to ourselves.  Jesus comes to set us free to be ourselves, and to see ourselves as God sees us. 

             e. e. cummings writes, “To be nobody but yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”  Jesus comes to heal us and to restore to us our true, our real, our best selves.  And to this woman who has probably only been known as “that crippled woman,” or ignored completely, Jesus even gives a new name.  He calls her “daughter of Abraham.”  It is the only place in Scripture where this phrase is used.  But it means that all the promises of God made to Abraham are also intended for her.  It is what we affirm each time we baptize a child in this place, and it is at the heart of each of our baptismal identities.  Who am I?  I am a son of Abraham, I am a daughter of Abraham.  I am a child of God.  And like this woman who is healed and made whole and given a new name, a new identity by Jesus, I want “to praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  I don’t want to sit silently and not thank and praise God with all my heart.

             I know not everyone wants to join me in praising God, just as everyone in the synagogue with Jesus that Sabbath did not.  There are always critics, always people who have a beef, and their beef becomes the only word they can offer.  It is always going to be that way.  There are some people who are incapable of seeing that life is a gift, a sheer blessing, amazing grace, for which we are to give thanks and praise.  There are always those who can only criticize, can only find fault, can only voice their displeasure.  I feel sorry for people who are like this.  I honestly, genuinely do.  There are usually reasons why people get so critical of everyone and everything else.  “To know all is to understand all,” says an old Arab proverb.

             I understand that there are reasons why people get bitter and biting.  But I am not going to let them keep me from being thankful, and from being someone who cannot stop praising and thanking God for all the blessings that Jesus has given.  Jesus alone gives me the freedom to be my best self, to quit faking it, and to be who it is I truly am meant to be.  I cannot stop praising and thanking Him for that great gift.  I think to encounter God is to find yourself wanting to praise and worship Him.

             The deeper truth is that we all have the critic and the worshipper within our own souls.  They both dwell within each of us.  The one we feed the most determines which one will grow and flourish.

             This woman is healed by Jesus, even as she doesn’t even ask for healing.  I am aware that not everyone who asks in prayer is healed.  Most of us go on living with some form of crippledness.  Twice in the last few months I have gathered with Elders and members of our church to pray for members who are quite ill and fighting their sickness as hard as they can.  Each time I have read the passage from James, and we have anointed our dear friends with oil, laid hands upon them and prayed our hearts out.  Will God heal them of their cancer?  I honestly cannot say.  Healing is God’s work, and every prayer we ever offer ends in a comma, not with a period, and we must add, “nevertheless, not my will, but Thy will be done.”  But I do know that we all experienced the peace and presence and power of God, and we all found joy and strength and the love of God in a powerful way each time we prayed … we all experienced what Paul called “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”

             So here we are in the Sanctuary on the Sabbath listening to the words of Jesus.  “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  He might just as well say, “Man, you are set free from your ailment.”  Then Jesus asks, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

            Luke continues, “When Jesus said this, all His opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things Jesus was doing.”  That is what I want to do.  It is why I come here to worship.  I want “to rejoice at all the wonderful things Jesus is doing.”  How about you?

                                                                                     Amen.

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