“Daughters of Abraham”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
August 25, 2019
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 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 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.’ But 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? And 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?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
When I first started thinking about this scripture and this sermon, I thought it would be about healing. On the surface, of course, that is what it’s about: Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when he heals a woman with some sort of infirmity (literally in Greek “weakness”) who has been bent over for 18 years. The synagogue official gets mad that Jesus has broken the Sabbath by “working” – and he’s not wrong. Just as doctors keep office hours and get paid to see patients, healing is a form of work, and Jesus was definitely doing it on the day kept sacred in large part by abstaining from work.
But then I started researching the text in preparation for Bible study, and I read a commentary that shifted my perspective. You see, there are two theological traditions about the meaning of the Sabbath. The first is the one we’re most familiar with: God created the world in six days, and then rested on the seventh; so we, too, rest on the Sabbath. This tradition, of course, came from Genesis. The other tradition comes from the Ten Commandments themselves, in Deuteronomy (5:15): God says, “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; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” In this tradition the Sabbath isn’t about rest so much as freedom.
At Bible study we discovered that if you look at the Greek verbs, this scripture is peppered with freedom. Jesus says to the woman who has been bent over, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Then he talks about how even the strictest Sabbath observers untie their livestock to drink on the holy day. And he asks the indignant synagogue official whether a human being, a daughter of Abraham whose descendants were freed by God from Egypt, “ought not to be released from bondage on the Sabbath day”? “Set free,” “untie,” and “released” all come from the same root word: luo, to free, to let go, to liberate.
We quickly get wrapped up in the drama of the moment where Jesus challenges the synagogue official’s narrow interpretation of the law: mic drop! Jesus owned that guy, as the kids say. And Jesus most certainly uses that moment to call out the flaws in a way of seeing God’s law that is so constrictive it would imprison a chronically ill person yet one more day as she waits for healing.
But that’s not why Jesus interrupts his synagogue teaching and breaks the Sabbath rules. He’s not looking to pick a fight or make a point; he is paying attention to a person, a person in need of healing, a person deserving of freedom.
If the Sabbath is about freedom, then what better day to set this woman free from an ailment that has held her in bondage for 18 long years?
Today is the Sabbath, too, friends. So I wonder: what do we need to be set free from today? What burdens, what constrictions, what bondage do we bring here with us?
UCC author and activist Glennon Doyle tells about a burden she carried for many years. At age 11 she became bulimic, which grew in her teenage and college years into a struggle with alcoholism and other drugs. Then one day, she discovered she was pregnant, and as she held the positive pregnancy test on a cold bathroom floor, she decided it was the last time she would binge and purge or drink or do drugs. In that moment she was set free. Not that she wouldn’t still struggle, or that things became easy – but she was no longer bound by those particular chains.
Did you notice that Jesus calls the woman with infirmity a rather peculiar name – “Daughter of Abraham”? It’s the only place in the Bible that term gets used, and I think Jesus uses this title to highlight the fact that this is not just a human being, deserving of better treatment than any ox or workhorse, but also a member of a special people, blessed by God – and also called to be a blessing to all the world. Remember when God covenants with Abraham, God says, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed”? (Genesis 22:18) This woman is a daughter of Abraham and Sarah, and so she is called to be a blessing to all people.
Just as we often fall into seeing people with chronic illness or disability as the recipient of our help rather than agents in their own lives, we often fall into seeing people in scripture who are healed as a passive piece of the story, an object lesson meant to show off Jesus’ divine power rather than a character in their own right. The text often doesn’t help us much in this regard: for example, these verses don’t give us the woman’s proper name, or tell us anything about her other than her ailment; almost as soon as she’s healed, the focus of the story shifts to Jesus’ challenge to the religious authorities.
Yet right before that shift, something happens: the woman stands up and praises God. For a brief moment, she’s the center of the story, directing us all back to the One at the center of everything. It makes me wonder: what else does she go on to become the center of? What story does she go on to be the hero of, blessing others with the same freedom she’s received from God? (“The function of freedom,” after all, as the recently deceased literary giant Toni Morrison famously said, “is to free someone else.”)
And when you are free from your burdens, what blessing will you share with those around you?
In our Hebrew scripture this morning, God calls Jeremiah to preach God’s word to the people. At first Jeremiah suffers from impostor syndrome: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” I’m too young, I’m too inexperienced – if they only knew who I was behind this facade, no one would take me seriously; everyone would despise me.
But God has a different word for Jeremiah, a word of unconditional love and value: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. [So d]o not say, ‘I am only a youth; for I am with you to deliver you” – to free you – “says the Lord.” As Jesuit priest and gang recovery activist Greg Boyle says, “gang members (and everyone, for that matter) are surprised to discover that they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them.”
Friends, God knows exactly who we are, exactly what we’re capable of, exactly what we’re called to. And when God frees us from all that holds us back – a burden of guilt or resentment, a sense of limitation, a deep-seated fear that we aren’t enough – it’s because God has a purpose for us, and has since the very beginning.
With many years’ hindsight, Glennon Doyle now looks back at her childhood self and realizes that she felt the pain and injustice of the world deeply, and used bulimia and her other addictions as a way to numb herself. Now, though, she sees that sensitivity – that weakness – as her superpower. Instead of letting it shut her down, she uses it to attune her to what’s wrong with the world and what she can do to fix it. She uses her freedom to encourage others who feel weak, and she uses the Love Flash Mobs I’ve talked about before to do things like free children from cages on the border; build a maternity clinic in Haiti; open a house for new mothers recovering from opioid addiction in New Hampshire and support opioid recovery in Baltimore; send diapers to Syrian refugees; and so much more.
If you are feeling unworthy today, if you are feeling secretly ashamed of who you are; if you are feeling too small, or too young, or too old, or too bound up or weighed down to possibly be of value or accomplish something of value, I want you to hear this message very clearly: Jesus sees you, and will interrupt whatever he’s doing, to free you. Not to make a point or put on a show, but because he loves you deeply, more than you could ever know.
And then, when you have been freed by Jesus, by the God who delivered the Israelites from bondage and made the Sabbath a day to celebrate liberation, you will find that that God loves and values you so deeply that in your freedom God has given you a special purpose, a job that no one else can do: to be a blessing to all people, in your own particular and powerful way.
Let our spirits stand straight up and praise God, indeed! Amen.