I am bad at watching the Olympics. I was at work during most of the good gymnastics stuff, and kept forgetting to watch the swimming at night. Finally, my husband and I caught the men’s 100 meter butterfly. The camera was on the stands and my husband said, “Oh, there is Michael Phelps’ baby!” Now, I may not keep track of sports, but I’m usually on top of celebrity gossip, but I had NO idea Phelps had a child. My husband looked at me and said, “Yep, he has a baby and he found Jesus.”
Well, that led to some googling. An article in Christianity Today reports that two years ago September, Phelps was struggling with severe depression and contemplating suicide after his second arrest for DUI in ten years. Ray Lewis, a friend of his, gave him a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, and in reading it, he came to understand that God loved him and had a purpose for him. He used the resources in the book to reconcile with his father and do some internal work. Two years later he is engaged, has a baby, and a new handful of Olympic medals.
Phelps’ story is a powerful story of healing and it is no wonder that Christian websites are so eager to share this story of redemption of such an inspiring and gifted athlete.
But these kinds of healing stories lead to questions, don’t they? Why hasn’t God intervened in the life of my loved one with depression? Where do I fit into God’s story if I haven’t experienced miraculous healing from my medical issues?
Our healing story from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Luke can help us with some of these questions.
Once again, this is a story only in the Gospel of Luke. And unlike some of the Gospel of Luke that focuses on God’s story being expanded to gentiles, this story is in an entirely Jewish context. Jesus is in the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath when he sees a woman bent over with some condition that has plagued her for 18 years. Like the Widow of Nain, about whom we heard earlier this summer, she does not ask for Jesus’ help. Jesus sees her, invites her over, and heals her.
Well, he lays his hands on her and announces she is healed. Our translation reads that she “stood up straight”, but the Greek reads, that she “was straightened up”. Jesus is making it clear that it is not he who is doing the healing, but God through him. In fact, to Jesus this is more than a healing. He describes this woman as being bound by a spirit, and God doing the work of unbinding her. Jesus is making it really clear that the same God who has been preached about in the synagogue for generations is the one who is doing the healing and the unbinding.
God sees this woman. God has the power to unbind her and chooses to do so. God restores her to herself and to her community. God returns her to a place of honor in her community. She is described as a Daughter of Abraham. This is a really unusual title, not used anywhere else in the New Testament. But you get a sense of her place as part of Israel, part of God’s beloved community.
Now, the leader of the synagogue is appalled that Jesus heals on the Sabbath, but Jesus uses the conflict as an opportunity to teach the crowd about the nature of God. God has compassion on people and God absolutely wants to heal us and for us to take care of each other on the Sabbath. God values people.
Immediately after this passage, Jesus starts talking about the Kingdom of God and how it is like a little mustard seed that takes root, or how a little yeast can leaven an entire loaf of bread. Jesus sees this woman’s experience as part of what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God.
Now, while we have a healing service once a month, I’m not aware of anyone in this congregation with the actual charism of miraculous healing. We just don’t live in a world where every person who needs physical healing gets that healing. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t deeply care about that person, or that we shouldn’t deeply care about that person as members of the Kingdom of God. We may not do any miracles together, but we can still live out the principles that Jesus teaches us in this story.
First, Jesus shows us that God sees this woman for who she is. Do we see each other clearly? When we are in the world and meet a person with a disability do we see that person for all that person is, or do we just see their limitations? What would it mean to take the time to ask good questions, to get to know each other, to truly see one another?
Second, Jesus restores honor to the woman. He restores her place in the world. Now, we do not live in an honor-shame culture in quite the same way she did. We know that ill people, or people with disabilities are not deserving of shame. But illness and disability can still be isolating. How can we as a community stay connected to those who are ill? Make our space welcoming for those with disabilities? As members of the Kingdom of God, we are called to see each person as a beloved child of God, worthy to have a place in our community.
There is a lovely story on CNN this week about an engineer who works on accessibility for Facebook. He is blind, himself, and is working on ways to make Facebook and Messenger more accessible to those who are blind. At one point in the interview he says to the audience, “your life matters.” If Facebook engineers get it, how much more can the church! We should be on the forefront of welcoming those with chronic illnesses and disabilities into our communities.
Third, God wants to unbind each of us from whatever holds us back from being the person God designed us to be. What binds you? Unresolved trauma from your past? A conflict with someone? Your fear? The life of faith is a life that is going to involve facing the hard stuff and working through it with God’s help. While God may not give miraculous healings to every person, God can give us the courage we need to go to therapy, to get help for our addictions, to work on reconciliation with difficult people.
We aren’t all going to have a dramatic transformational experience like Michael Phelps. We are definitely not all going to win dozens of Olympic Gold medals. Well, maybe if I start working out every day. . . But God sees each of us. He knows who we are, behind all of our defense mechanisms, beyond all of our surface accomplishments or weaknesses. He knows the person we are deep in our core, and he loves that person.
And we get to be part of a Kingdom in which it is our job to spread that love around—to truly see and know our neighbors as children of the living God. We are invited into God’s healing and transforming work.
Thanks be to God.