“Be Set Free”

What is freedom, to you? For me, it’s a bodily sensation, a kind of whole body deep breath. It comes with the quiet that inhabits our house after everyone else has left; all human noises cease and even the furnace fan stops running. It rises up in me when I’m flying down a huge hill on my bike. It washes over me when I’m in the woods and my phone greets me with that sweet message, “no service,” urging me to simply be present in the here and now.

What is freedom, to you? Just take a minute or so to think about that. What is freedom, to you? I’d love to hear a few responses.

For eighteen years, the woman in today’s Gospel story coped with a spirit of disease so crippling, a load so heavy, that it caused her to live bent over. Eighteen years; eighteen long years. In those days, given people’s life expectancies, that was pretty much a lifetime. She carried a pain, a problem, that weighed on her for so long it truly seemed intractable. Over time, it simply became part of her, permanently diminishing her energy, her hope and her creativity. I wonder what this ailment was. I wonder what it is for you, for me, what weighs upon us, what oppresses us, what crushes our bodies and spirits? Many things could cause us to live bent over… an illness that has no effective treatment; a self-destructive habit; a broken relationship; loneliness; stress; money problems; the losses of aging; the big problems our world is facing.

Recently, I returned from a trip to the San Lucas Mission in Guatemala with our confirmation class, mentors, and other adults from First Church. One of the mantras of the volunteer program at the Mission is that we go there not primarily to help, but to learn. In the “day in the life” class we studied the routine activities that men and women do in traditional Mayan families. Every day, we learned, the women wash clothes. They bring large plastic tubs, called banos, back and forth from their homes to the lake or a washing station called a pila. When the tub is full of wet clothing, it weighs about 40 pounds. The women balance that burden on their heads while navigating rocky, steep paths, and often tending to babies tied to their backs at the same time. The men travel long distances—walking a couple of hours sometimes—to gather huge loads of firewood, about 150 pounds at a time. They stack the wood and artfully bundle it with string, so that the flat edges of the logs line up to make a smooth surface against their backs. They attach a tump line (a forehead strap) to the bundle, and hoist it up with the help of their young sons.

The point of this experience was for us to try doing everything: patting tortillas flat with our hands and laying them over the fire to cook; scrubbing out our own dirty clothes; and carrying laundry and wood. Our teachers kindly made the loads much lighter for us. Still, we tottered and swayed beneath laundry tubs and wood bundles, laughing at our own dramatic incompetence. I don’t want to romanticize the hard lives of our Guatemalan friends. Certainly, the injustice of poverty makes their burdens much heavier than they should be. And at the same time, I have such respect for their strength, skill and endurance. I am grateful for their wisdom that says: it makes all the difference how we carry our loads. Rather than sheer power, this work requires balance, posture, technique, and careful preparation. Instead of going it alone, we need our community and our traditions so that we can find joy, blessing and support even as we bear our burdens.

There are two parables that Luke places right before today’s reading. One of them is a commentary on the current events of Jesus’ day. The governor, Pilate, had killed some Galileans, while they were at worship. Also, a tower fell on some workers, killing them. Jesus points out that many, in his culture, would assume that those who died must have done something wrong. He refutes this link, insisting that sinfulness does not cause suffering. The second parable is about a fig tree that was bearing no fruit. The owner of the vineyard wanted to cut it down. But the gardener pleaded for another year, asking for time to give the tree some water, some compost, some tender care.

In these texts, I hear two key messages that influence the way I’m reading today’s story. First, it’s inevitable that our lives will bring us burdens to carry, but, God is not the one who places these loads upon us. They are not a sign of our sin; they are not a divine punishment. And secondly, no matter how long we’ve lived bent over, crushed by a crippling load, it is never too late for us to be set free. God is like a gardener, always tending us, encouraging us to grow and bear fruit. God’s healing work takes time. Sometimes true liberation can only unfold over the span of a lifetime.

The synagogue leader was angry at Jesus’ healing of the woman, and accused him of working on the Sabbath day. Biblically speaking, the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time that God gives humanity in creation. It is a sacred day in which we stop our work, worry and commerce, and give ourselves over to rest and renewal. We remember that God is the Creator, and not we ourselves. We remember that we are not slaves to anyone or anything, even our own burdens. God has created us to be free people. Jesus argued that far from violating the core purpose of the Sabbath, what he had done fulfilled it. “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?” Jesus points out that healing and liberation is not human work at all. On the Sabbath, we stop working and get out of the way so that God can work. God’s healing work re-balances our loads. It restores our posture. It teaches us a life-giving way to carry our burdens.

What is freedom, to you? Take a moment to envision it. To touch it and taste it. Stop, and rest. Know that there, in that sanctuary in time, that Sabbath, God is at work. Be still and know that you are set free.