Rev. Dr. Steven Albertin
August 21, 2022
Pilgrim Lutheran Church
“Pastor, how many times to I HAVE TO go to church a year in order to remain a member?”
“Pastor, how many services do I HAVE TO attend so that I can be confirmed?”
“Pastor, how much money to I HAVE TO give to the church to remain in good standing?”
What do all these questions have in common? They assume that GOING TO CHURCH and participating in its life is a matter of duties to be kept, obligations to be met, and conditions to be fulfilled. They assume that the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,” is something that we do for God in order to get a blessing from God.
In today’s Gospel, we meet a woman who values going to church and keeping the Sabbath Day. It seems that she has never missed GOING TO CHURCH for 18 years, despite a physical ailment has left her crippled and bent over.
Her physical affliction had also affected her attitude. She is a dispirited and broken person. She is depressed. She is bent over not only in body but also in spirit. 18 years is a long time. She had no hope of cure. There was no joy in her heart or praise on her lips. Yet she loyally maintained her Sabbath obligation and kept on coming to church.
Her pastor, the leader of the synagogue, only seems to have made matters worse. You can just hear him haranguing her and his congregation about their need to keep the Sabbath. That meant regularly coming to church, contributing generously to the annual budget, singing in the choir, teaching Vacation Bible School, helping lead worship and the coffee pot filled on Sunday mornings. Can’t you just hear him preaching to this crippled woman, “OK Hilda! Stiff upper lip! Hang in there! Praise God! Rejoice! It could be worse. Pray for strength!”
It is amazing that she hung in there and continued to come. Like so many of us, she wanted to do what is right. She wanted to do what God expected of her. She was committed to keeping the rules. The problem was that she was never able to do enough. And when she failed, the leader of the synagogue and all the other committed rule keepers only kept piling on more obligations. The harder she tried, the more she felt like she was falling short.
It is like the story about the young, hot-shot NFL rookie quarterback in his first training camp. He was always trying to impress his teammates. He thought that rookie quarterbacks were supposed to be humble. He was humble. He knew he was humble. He felt good about being humble. He was proud that he was humble. But then he realized that he shouldn’t be proud of being humble because someone who was truly humble, shouldn’t be proud of it. So he was humbled, really humbled, so humbled that he was proud of being humble. There, he finally got it right. And he was proud of it. Oops! There he goes again: proud of being humble when being humble means that you should never be proud.
When going to church is only something we GOTTA do, when it is only a rule to be kept or a condition to be met, it becomes a burden we don’t need. We do not want to even hear about how we MUST go to church. When we do hear about it, we only grit our teeth and dig in our heels. Our excuses mount and our resentments grow. We find better things to do with our Sundays and weekends. We do not need preachers and pious church leaders lecturing us about our lack of commitment when they are no better than we are. When do show up, we do so grudgingly. Or we look down our noses at those who are not as committed as we are.
No wonder the church seems to be “just a bunch of hypocrites,” no better than the religious leaders Jesus scolds in today’s Gospel.
But the problem is worse. Like this crippled woman, we are in bondage . . . to the power of Satan. Satan loves to use even God’s law, even God’s good rules like the Ten Commandments, even God’s command to “remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,” to either puff us up and make us proud or accuse us, harass us and bring us down.
Satan subtly mumbles, “You are hopeless. You can’t praise God enough. You can’t go to church enough. You can’t pray enough. You can’t be good enough. You don’t feel spiritual enough. You deserve to be crippled and bent over.”
When we are absent from church, on the golf course, sleeping in, too busy with other things, fed up, burned out and now checked out from church, Satan has just where he wants us.
But then Jesus intervenes and interrupts. Contrary to the leader of the synagogue and all of those pious rule keepers of this world, the Sabbath is first and foremost about what God wants to do for us and not what we HAVE TO do for God. The Sabbath Day is God’s gift to us. Going to church is about getting in on God’s grace and mercy and not about making a deal with God.
Therefore, Jesus heals the woman of her crippling disease. Whatever it was that had bent her over, perhaps her arthritis or a slipped disk, Jesus healed it. Jesus made it go away. Most of all, he did it on the Sabbath! He could have waited another day and not defied the rules and regulations. But this woman needed help now. Jesus was not going to let the law, even if it was God’s own law, get in the way of God’s mercy. So, he breaks the Sabbath, heals the woman and angers the leader of the synagogue and all defenders of the deadly lie . . . that we have to keep the rules and prove ourselves to God.
No wonder the leader of the synagogue was angry with Jesus. “Jesus, who do you think you are going around and acting like this and breaking God’s rules? Do you think you are God or something?”
Of course, that is exactly who Jesus claimed to be. That is exactly why he had to be put to death on the cross. Those, who were convinced that keeping the rules is all that ultimately matters, had to silence the one who was undermining God’s system for running this world and keeping things in order. They were convinced that God cannot be that recklessly gracious. In the name of God, Jesus must be stopped.
However, Jesus insisted that God is indeed that gracious. To prove it, Jesus loved and befriended all those who were broken, bent over, crippled and suffering . . . all the way to the cross.
Jesus went to his grave believing that such love was no mistake. This is indeed the heart of God. His faith was not in vain. It was not an empty wish or an broken dream that went up in smoke shattered into shards, because on the “third day” God raised Jesus from the dead.
It is clear. What Jesus did for that poor, crippled, bent over and dispirited woman in today’s Gospel was no mistake. Even God’s holy law in the end could not limit God’s commitment to love.
That good news is exactly what God is up to in Jesus and His church: loving, forgiving, healing and caring for all the dispirited, broken and wounded people of this world, . . . people just like us.
The Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,” GOING TO CHURCH, is first and foremost about what God has done and continues to do for us. For 18 years and more this crippled woman had been in bondage not only to her disease but also to the accusing demands of rules that she could never hope to keep. We too are in bondage to our sin, to the commands we can never fully keep, and to the continuing accusations of Satan who would like us to believe that we are anything but the beloved sons and daughters of God.
When Jesus healed this woman and freed her from her bondage, she was unbent. She was able to stand tall. For the first time in a long time she was able to feel good about herself, confident that God was smiling on her, sure and certain that she was a beloved “daughter of Abraham.”
That also happens when we keep the Sabbath and come to church. Our lives may be crippled. Like that woman in today’s Gospel, we may be bent over, sad, dispirited and depressed with a life that was not supposed to be this way. We may be ashamed and embarrassed, scrambling to put on a good face and keep hidden what we want no one to see. However, here in Word, in Water, in Bread and Wine, in handshakes and smiles, in prayers and kindnesses, Jesus comes to heal us from what cripples us. Jesus comes to free us from our bondage to the rules and their accusations. Jesus comes to renew our faith, uplift our spirit and comfort us with the assurance that our lives matter. Therefore, we get to come out of shadows. We get to face the demons and confront our secrets. We get to stand tall and upright. We get to smile and welcome those who long to know that in this place their lives count.
“Do I HAVE TO go to church?” No . . . you GET TO go. Because where else are you going to be welcomed like this?