“Labor and Liberation”Dr. Jeffrey “Chad” Fetzer Luke 13: 10-17 Year C – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – (Proper 16)
Near the end of World War II, American infantryman Leo Hymas was given one of the best nicknames a soldier could receive during such a horrendous conflict. In early April of 1945 Hymans and three other soldiers assaulted what they believed to be some type of minor prison facility. They blew a hole in the fence and quickly captured the guards inside.
This facility was actually the Ohrdruf concentration camp-a Nazi forced labor camp in central Germany. Part of the Buchenwald camp network, it was the first Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by American soldiers. Leo saw the ovens, the gallows-the sickening, inhumane reality of evil. But he also witnessed scores of joyous survivors approaching to embrace him as their liberator.
From that day forward 19-year-old Leo Hymans was known as “Leo the Liberator.” When asked about this event a few years ago, Leo the Liberator simply responded, “I was blessed to help free many oppressed people. What tiny little bit I did to help overcome that terrible, awful wickedness, as difficult as it was, was the best thing I have ever done in my life.” (http://www.army.mil/article/37255/world-war-ii-soldier-reflects-on-liberating-concentration-camp-during-holocaust-remembrance-ceremony)
We love stories of freedom and liberation don’t we? They tap something deep inside our humanity. Though the film is now almost 30 years old, I am still moved by the image of Indiana Jones, keys in hand, unlocking the shackles that held the village children bondage at the Temple of Doom.
Today’s passage unfolded another story of liberation. It began with Jesus teaching in the synagogue, a much tamer opening than the fiery altars of the Temple of Doom. But before our imagination can picture this scene a second person must garner our attention – a woman. Her character development was rather thin. We know next to nothing about her. She was a nameless, faceless, ageless mystery to us except for the fact that she suffered.
She lived life “bent over.” She existed in a constant stoop, unable to look anyone in the eye, unable to feel the sun on her face, and most likely in constant pain. The passage suggested that a spirit kept her in this condition for 18 years. However one chooses to interpret that passage, the reality was that our mystery woman has spent a large chunk of her life, days and days with a condition that held her captive – that forced her into physical, emotional, economic and spiritual submission.
But that Sabbath day in the Synagogue – Jesus saw her.Jesus saw this stooped woman. He called her over and, utilizing both word and touch, released her from this debilitating condition. It’s interesting that Jesus never spoke the word “healed” but rather announced that she was “set free” from what had held her. She was liberated!
Now tell me, after such an experience how would you react? Would you run home to inform your family; quickly rejoin society; get back to a normal life as soon as possible? Not this woman. Her immediate response to liberation, to being upright and pain free was praise to God!
She rejoiced! She had seen God’s redemptive power. She witnessed the reality of the Kingdom of God in the world! She understood that there had been a change in the balance of power.
When I was in 6th grade we would sometimes play a team game of tag where if someone one your team was tagged you had to go to the “jail” which was by one of the big oak trees at the basketball courts. That’s where you had to stay. We were captives. But if one of our teammates could get to the tree and touch it without being tagged there would get a “jailbreak” and everyone would be released.
When that happened all of us in jail (I was always in jail – too slow) would let out a shout of joy; not only because we were out, but because that release changed the balance of power in the game. The dominion of the other team was pushed back. In an unnamed synagogue along the dusty roads of Palestine, Jesus had pushed back the dominion of Satan. That was something to celebrate.
Not everyone was so joyful. The leader of the synagogue was indignant, angry, and livid. He shouted down the crowd in order to give them and, by extension, Jesus a lesson in Sabbath law. His objection was straightforward and telling. “There are six days when one can be healed. Do this labor then!” was his scolding invective.
Remember that for Jews, the Sabbath as a day of rest, of non-work, was a cultural marker of who they were. It was part of their unique identity which had to be protected. There were long and tedious lists of actions, of labor forbidden on the Sabbath. Healing was on the Sabbath naughty list.
For the Synagogue leader there was nothing meaningful, profound or redemptive to cherish in what he had just witnessed. For Him, followers of God should be characterized by keeping the Law. Healing should be done on another day. It was more important to protect doctrinal rightness regarding the Sabbath than encourage compassion for the needs of a suffering, bent-over woman. Have you ever experienced this – an attitude where it was more important to protect an institution than to care about people?
Jesus never allowed such attitudes to go unchallenged. He never will. Though the leader’s anger was not addressed to Jesus directly, but to the crowd it was clear Jesus was his primary target. “Your anger and disdain is hypocrisy,” Jesus responded. He defended his assertion using a classic rabbinical debate principle of lesser to greater. “Think about your livestock. Will you not untie your ox or donkey and lead it to water on the Sabbath?” Jesus clearly assumed that everyone in the congregation would have followed this practice. Whether this violated the Sabbath or not didn’t matter.
The reality was that no one would chance letting their animals get sick or die on the Sabbath due to a lack of water. “All of you untie your ox or your donkey (the lesser concern) on the Sabbath. I have ‘untied’ a woman (the greater concern) who has been bound for eighteen years.” Of course it was permissible to set someone free on the Sabbath!
For Jesus the Sabbath was about remembering and celebrating liberation. Freeing a woman from a condition that had held her captive was Sabbath labor of which God would heartily approve.
I wonder how clearly our worship reflects this understanding. For the believer worship is, among other things, a weekly reminder that the victory of Jesus over death has changed the game for all of us. Worship is about celebrating liberation. I worry though that for many, Sunday is all too often is a day of religious obligation. It’s about what we do for God, not what God has done for us. We often seek to protect the institution of our faith rather than being about the labor of liberation.
What if Sunday was about calling to mind the mighty acts of God so that we might be encouraged to venture some mighty acts ourselves?
What if Sunday was a day to remember that death has no sting so that we do not live controlled by fear?
Might we live differently with that revelation fresh on our hearts? Could we look around, identify, and lift up places in our community and congregation where God is still untying those who have been stooped over?
Where do you see liberation?
Where are people still bound?
As a community will we commit to the ministry of liberation in the name of Jesus, or will we settle for just being doctrinally right?
If we will follow Jesus’ example, we might not only learn a lot about what God is up to in our midst, but we might also reclaim Sunday not as a day of religious obligation but a day of freedom, of release, of liberation. And, like Leo the Liberator, we will discover that the freedom work Jesus calls us to be about, as difficult as it is, will be one of the best things we have ever done in our life.
About the Writer:
Dr. Jeffrey “Chad” Fetzer is Pastor of New Haven Church in Lawton, Oklahoma. A native of Shawnee, OK, Chad is a graduate of Furman University (B.A.), Southwestern Baptist Seminary (M.Div.), and Brite Divinity School (D.Min). Chad and his wife, Tammy, are the parents of two sons, Josh and Jonathan. He enjoys Oklahoma State University athletics, playing on the “wii” with Jonathan, traveling, food, and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Scripture and Music:
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
We’re Marching to Zion
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me
O Master Let Me Walk with Thee
Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
Here I Am, Lord
Be Not Afraid (Mendelssohn or Craig Courtney)
A Mighty Fortress (Gordon Young)
God Is Our Refuge (Allen Pote)
Lord of the Dance (John Ferguson)
Majesty (Jack Hayford)
Here I Am, Lord (Daniel Schutte)
People Need the Lord (arr. Lloyd Larson)
Here I Am, Lord
Lord of the Dance
I Heard About A Man
Be Not Afraid
Be Thou My Vision