In our Gospel reading, Jesus heals a woman who has been “quite unable to stand up straight” for eighteen years.
This poor woman’s ailment was obviously physical; it was in her body. But her ailment wasn’t just physical. The real cause of her problem was spiritual. Luke tells us it was a spirit that crippled her. Jesus himself says that Satan bound her.
So, when Jesus heals this woman, Jesus doesn’t say, “be healed.” Jesus says, “Woman, you are set free” from spiritual bondage.
As is so often the case, I would love to know more about this story. I would especially love to know more about what it means to say this woman was bound by Satan. That’s an attention-grabbing phrase!
But neither Luke nor any of the other Gospel writers tell us more about this woman. That makes this passage an invitation to reflect on our own experience of spiritual bondage. I mean our bondage to sin.
I have recently been bound by sin in a new way. I became addicted to a game called Kakuro, which is a little like Sudoku. Like Sudoku, in Kakuro there is a grid of empty squares with some clues about how to fill them. My son introduced me to the game and downloaded a Kakuro app on my phone. Little did he know what he was doing to me.
My Kakuro habit started innocently enough. The games were easy and fun. I’d play a couple each day, and they took ten minutes a pop.
But as I progressed, the games got bigger and harder. They took more time. And I became obsessed.
The harder games took me more than an hour each, and I have played 120 of them in the last few weeks. That’s a LOT of time on Kakuro. Over the last few weeks, my Kakuro habit cut into other leisure activities. It cut into my time with Carrie. It cut into my work.
When I sat down to write this sermon, I thought, I’ll just play a little Kakuro before starting. Famous last words! I set an alarm for fifteen minutes. When the alarm went off, I paused it. When it went off again, I paused it again. An hour or so later, it was lunchtime, and I hadn’t started my sermon.
My Kakuro habit was at root a spiritual problem, but it had physical consequences. I was tired from staying up too late. At the most advanced level, the grid is 22 boxes by 22 boxes. Looking at those tiny boxes on my phone gave me headaches. I even started to resemble the woman in our reading. I hunched over my phone so long it hurt to straighten up.
Thankfully, I have finished all the Kakuro games on my app and, now that I know its effect on my life, I won’t download another one. I hope!!
Now, in the grand scheme of things, a few weeks of excessive Kakuro playing is not a big deal. But my experience with Kakuro does illustrate how sin can entrap us.
We sometimes think of sin as particular bad actions, and some actions are bad. It is a sin to steal, and that’s pretty much always true.
But sin can be considerably more subtle too. Sin is anything that distracts us from the love of God and neighbor. And the worst distractions are often not the particular bad things we do. The worst distractions are the otherwise innocent habits we get into.
So, Kakuro is perfectly innocent. I recommend it to any of you who are less compulsive than I am. And for a while, I enjoyed Kakuro in a perfectly innocent way.
But over time, it really did become a negative in my life. It compromised my engagement in things that are more important to me. It even quit being fun. Starting a new game at 11:00 at night, when I’m tired and my head, shoulders, and back already hurt from hunching over my phone, isn’t fun. It’s a form of bondage.
The good news is, Christ comes to set us free. In our Gospel, Christ set the woman free. And Christ sets us free from whatever binds us.
Kakuro is an easy one. True addictions are a lot harder. Our tendency to narcissism and selfishness is harder still. But no matter what form our bondage takes, Christ comes to set us free.
And the freedom that Christ offers is the mirror image of bondage to sin. Sin starts easy. Sin’s true consequences only emerge later, when sin begins to weigh on us, to push us down, to cripple us. Over time, sin destroys us from the inside. Sin sucks the joy out of life, and the life out of us.
God’s call does the exact opposite. We see that in our Old Testament reading. God’s call didn’t look much like fun to Jeremiah. God’s call looked almost impossibly hard.
So, we read, God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet. But Jeremiah didn’t want to be a prophet. Jeremiah felt unqualified, which he probably was. And Jeremiah was scared. After all, he was only a boy, and God was asking him to become a prophet to the nations That’s a lot of responsibility.
Jeremiah was right to worry. The life of a prophet could be hard. Few people have the necessary faithfulness and courage and strength to be a prophet, and Jeremiah had no reason to think he was one of the few.
But God tells Jeremiah not to worry. God promises to be with Jeremiah. God promises to deliver Jeremiah from his foes. God promises to give Jeremiah the words to say.
God did not promise Jeremiah it would be easy, and it wasn’t. Jeremiah suffered all along the way. But Jeremiah went on to become one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s long history. And although Jeremiah can be kind of a whiner, I’d like to think Jeremiah also experienced the joy that comes from doing God’s will and from being in right relationship with God.
God calls us, too. Not necessarily to be prophets. But we all have a vocation from God, a calling. And God’s call doesn’t always sound great. It’s nothing like a quick game of Kakuro!
Although God’s call is also not limited to the ordained, I think particularly about people called to the ministry. I’ve known lots of priests like Jeremiah. They have been called by God to the priesthood, but didn’t want it. The ones I have spoken to didn’t want to get ordained for different reasons, and some of them were pretty good.
But Christ sets us free from whatever holds us back. And God keeps calling. And eventually the priests I know have answered, and God has been with them, and God has given them the Holy Spirit to make it all work. God does the same for all of us, ordained and lay.
The woman in our Gospel reading had a dramatic moment of liberation. Jeremiah had a dramatic moment of divine calling. Mostly our lives are less dramatic than the stories in our readings for this morning.
But always we face two roads. Always we have a choice to submit to the bondage of sin, or to embrace liberation in Christ Jesus and follow the way of God. The right choice often looks hard. But it is the way of life. And with Christ’s help, God’s yoke can become easy, and God’s burden light.
My prayer is that we experience true liberation in Christ, and walk in Christ’s way. And I say that in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan