Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Almost three weeks ago I got an urgent call from my mother. It was an unusual call, in part because my mother is a strong, independent woman who never asks for help. She asked me to come and take her to the doctor as she was in so much pain she could not even stand much less straighten her back. I told her I would, and proceeded to cancel all my appointments and meetings for the day and left immediately for Selma. I found her downstairs on the couch, hunched over and miserable. She had not called the doctor’s office because, according to her, they never answer their phone and it takes forever for someone to call you back if they ever do. So she just wanted me to drive her there and get them to work her in. The circumstances were already unusual enough that I was going to do anything she asked me to so I helped her into my car and to her to the doctor’s office.
Upon our arrival the waiting room was empty and the receptionist was not at her desk. I grabbed an office wheelchair and took it out to the car, got mom in it, and wheeled her into the waiting room. a few minutes later a receptionist appeared and was rather put out that we were there without an appointment. She said the day was already overbooked and we would just have to wait to see if we could be fit in. We waited over an hour. In that time, one patient left and no one else came into the office. We were patient and I tried to distract her at times and remind her to breathe through the pain. The hour felt like an eternity but, as it was obvious we weren’t going to leave, we were finally called back.
We went into an exam room and the nurse asked why we were there. My mother explained about the pain and how debilitating it was. She couldn’t even hold her head up to look at the nurse when she was speaking. The nurse told her the nurse practitioner would be in shortly. We waited another thirty minutes – my trying to distract mom and reminding her to breathe through the pain. Finally, the nurse practitioner came in. He could tell she was in pain and knew this was not her normal behavior. He asked her to tell him what happened and where it hurt. He didn’t do too much of a physical exam because she was incapable of moving in that moment. He gave her a shot and prescribed some medication and told her to go home and rest and when she was better, he would order an MRI. It was a rather unsatisfactory visit to say the least.
Jesus is in a synagogue when a woman who has been suffering from back pain comes in. Jesus notices her, calls her to him, and asks her if she wants to be set free. Notice the language Jesus uses. It is not the language we associate with healing but with liberation. Jesus is asking the woman if she wants to be liberated from her pain and suffering because she has been imprisoned by it for eighteen years.
Though my mother had only experienced her pain and anguish for eighteen hours, she very much felt imprisoned by it and sought release. Her captivity was prolonged by the delays in my arrival, the wait in the doctor’s office, and the delay in diagnosis and referral. I will admit, the longer she remained captive to that pain and disability the more my own anxiety increased. I began to reach out to friends and parishioners who I knew has suffered from back pain and was able to get her the help she needed. She went to a pain management doctor who worked her in over the weekend, from the lake no less, to his Monday schedule. When we arrived, the waiting room was full but she was called back pretty quickly and given an epidural. On Wednesday, when her back doctor appointment was scheduled, she was already beginning to feel some relief and able to stand – though still hunched over – on her own with the use of a walker. Again, when I met her at the doctor’s office where she had been worked into the schedule, it was full. We did have to wait quite a while this time, almost four hours, but she got to see the doctor at 8 PM that night and was given a diagnosis and a course of treatment to follow. The road to her recovery will be long, but in that moment she found herself liberated from the fear and anxiety that were contributing to a spirit of crippledness that had overwhelmed her. She has since had a nerve block and continues to rest and recover, and though she has not been “cured” in the medical sense and still experiences discomfort and physical limitation, she has been set free.
Liberation comes in many forms. In the gospel this morning, Jesus liberates a woman from her debilitating pain. God sets the captives free when he releases the Hebrews from the tyranny of Pharoah and Egypt. We desire freedom from suffering, from captivity, from injustice and opression, from and prison that we may find ourselves confined in.
Like my mother, the woman in the synagogue found herself held captive to pain. Jesus responds to that pain, but the synagogue leaders who are more concerned with making sure the rules are followed, remind Jesus that there are six other days when he can do that work, but it ought not be done on the Sabbath because that is against the rules. Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and the crowd cheers him for it. But the story leaves us with a question of timing…. if not now, when?
The opportunity to set another person free is not as easy as years of litigation and court appearances in which appeals are heard and dismissed or cases are overturned. Even when someone has been found innocent after being wrongfully imprisoned, they are not immediately released. No, the timing of another person’s freedom from illness or injustice or even inconvenience is often quick and unexpected. And rarely is their inconvenience convenient for us. The leader of the synagogue was not opposed to the woman’s healing. He was opposed to the timing. And even though that healing meant liberation for the woman, a liberation that is easily the most important value of Judaism since the time of Moses, he completely misses the moment in which a Jewish captive is set free. He would postpone that action and in doing so, postpones freedom and deliverance, justice, righteousness, and say instead, “Come back tomorrow.”
It is a bit like Dorothy when she finally reaches the land of Oz and asks to see the wizard and is told to “Come back tomorrow.” Not because the wizard isn’t in, but because the wizard is incapable of liberation – or so he thinks. When the wizard finally takes a moment to release his own feelings of inconvenience and doubt and lack of self-worth and truly listens to Dorothy and friends, he discovers that he can do more than solve their problems – he can set then free from their own self-doubt and misgivings to find new purpose and truth in who they really are.
The determination of someone’s freedom is not about or inconvenience. The two doctors who worked my mother into their already full schedules understand this. They chose to be inconvenienced – the timing of my mother’s liberation was based on her need, not their schedules. They recognized that when we postpone action, we are postponing freedom and liberation. When we tell someone to come back tomorrow, we are simply delaying the opportunity of another to be set free.
Jesus asks the leader of the synagogue why the woman shouldn’t be set free from bondage on the sabbath day. I think he had an even deeper meaning than healing or liberation. I think Jesus’s actions demand that we understand that sabbath is freedom. Sabbath is not a day of rest, the last day of the week, the day we go to church and think about Gold – sabbath is the time in which we find ourselves free from the distractions and oppressions of this world in order that we most clearly might know God and be in relationship with God. It is the moment in which the veil thins and the kingdom of God is near.