St. George’s United Church, August 28, 2016
Sermon: “More than Just Words”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Luke 13:10-17
“Those are just words,” said a Residential School Survivor. “Those are just words.” I heard these words spoken a handful of years ago at the church’s listening circle. As part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vancouver. I don’t remember who said it.” But I remember those words. And what they meant. Apologies, words of confession. Promises to make deep and decisive changes. So far, this person, this survivor, had heard plenty of words. But words without actions, words without results, words without some kind of change in behavior or transformation are exactly that: “just words.”
Empty words, broken promises. They are as old as time. But now we live in time and a place where we are bombarded by words. The internet, text messages, Facebook photos, Tweets, long-distance Skype calls. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “talk is cheap” it’s never been more true. Now, communicating to whomever we want whenever we want is just a click away. Sharing my food choices, witty anecdotes, whether I am bored or excited. These are all possibilities. Millions, billions of words seem to surround us everywhere we go. It makes you wonder if words have any power at all. In our scientifically-minded world, what good are words like “I love you,” “I forgive you?” What goods are confessions and apologies, even, when words are cheap and easy? What good are words when they are “just words”? And in plentiful supply?
Our reading this morning from the Good News According to Luke is all about words. The power of words, in fact. It’s a strange little scene. Kind of finny, actually. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue—which is sort of like a mix between a town hall and a church. And this woman hobbles into the assembly. This woman is hunched right over. Her back is bent at a ninety-degree angle. Crooked.
You might remember how in the gospel of Luke Jesus is often pictured as a healer, as the Great Physician. And here he is… Dr. Jesus, at it again. “Woman,” he says to her. “Woman, you are free of your ailment.” You’re free. Cured. Then Jesus, he reaches out. He reaches out and lays his hands on her. It’s almost like she’s startled. Shocked, jolted. She stands up straight, her whole body stretches out. No sooner is she cured that she’s dancing around the room. Praising God with everything she’s got. Her back is good as new. Not on account of a vaccine. Not a vitamin or rare herb. Not a pill or even surgery. All with a few words. “You’re free from your ailment.”
It’s kind of funny. It reminds you of every bad televangelist you’ve seen place their hand on someone’s head and shove them out of a wheelchair. We might see this story through our modern scientific lenses. We see a woman with some sort of back disorder. Or hereditary disease. And we see the miraculous cure of this woman’s ailment. I am not discounting the possibility of miraculous healings done with a simple word. People I know, respect, and trust have seen things that don’t exactly fit in the “normal everyday” category. But if you pay attention, you’ll see that this is less about fixing the woman’s back, and more about freeing her soul. The woman, it says, was unable to stand up straight because she “had a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” A spirit, an unseen power is the cause of her illness. The text can see beneath the surface of things.
It’s even more clear after Jesus is confronted by a local leader in the synagogue—the pastor of the local church you might say. This guy’s upset because Jesus is healing on the Sabbath day. He’s working on the day of rest, and you’re not supposed to. “Ought not this woman,” Jesus says, “a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” The problem isn’t just with her body. It’s with that deep, inner reality. The Greek word we translate as “soul,” after all, is psyche. The root of psychology, psychiatry. The life deep inside of us that we can’t see. We can’t easily diagnose, psychologize, pharmaceuticalize, or explain away. It’s a mystery to us. The woman’s back isn’t the only thing that’s bent. The problem’s with her soul. Her life on the outside is twisted, malformed, by her life on the inside. Her soul is held in bondage.
And yet… Jesus is able to break the chains that bind her. And he does it with words. Just words. Simple words, a simple phrase. “Woman, you are free of your ailment.” Her spirit that was once hunched over, oppressed, in agony. Is straightened out. Made new.
I ‘m reminded of a story that one of my favorite preachers, Paul Scott Wilson tells about his grandmother. One evening when she was visiting, she told young Paul a story about his grandfather. It was the late afternoon in their farmhouse in Ontario. His grandfather, was working upstairs in the study. His grandmother called up to him for dinner. He called back down, saying he’d be down in a few minutes. His grandmother set the table. Silverware, set food on each plate. And then she sat in her chair and waited. And waited. Eventually she called him again. This time… no answer. So she climbed the stairs, knocked on the door to his study, and called him again. No answer. And just as she was about to place her hand on the doorknob she heard a voice. “My grace,” said the voice. “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Words from the bible, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. She twisted the knob, opened the door. And saw her husband slumped over his desk, reading glasses in his hand. Later they would discover he’d died of a sudden heart attack, right there in the middle of reading. Her heart sank.
It was the worst thing she’d ever been through, his grandmother said. But those words she heard… where this day might have permanently crippled her, like the woman from our reading, bent her down and twisted her soul. She didn’t know if she heard it through her ears, or they were just in her head. But somehow, those words were drenched in the healing power of the Spirit. They landed in her soul. Words that carried divine power. A power that freed her from being crippled by sadness. Freed her from being crippled by hopelessness and despair. A healing balm, infused with grace. Even in the midst of her struggles and her pain. To be sure, there wouldn’t be any dancing around in praise any time soon. But she knew her soul was set straight. So her life could be again one day. All on account of liberating words.
Even in the world we live in, words don’t have to be “just words.” The Bible, the Christian tradition, the way of Jesus Christ, puts huge stock in the power of words. “In the beginning” says the book of Genesis. God spoke… and it was.” The cosmos created by an act of loving speech. And Jesus is named as “the Word made flesh.” That same spark that brought the universe in to being was fully present in the life of Jesus. God’s loving speech to us. One who was able to create a whole new world for us with his words, his teachings, and his touch, his death and his new life. And that, by the Spirit, this same spark is able to heal and set free. Able to re-create our own lives and our own world. Here and now.
I’ve experience this myself. Meeting with deeply hurting people who hate themselves. Who are imprisoned by the past, their souls bent and stooped by things they have done And I can’t quite describe it, but more than once when I have said the words “you are forgiven” I have felt an electricity travelling through my words. And it’s not because of the words themselves. But that God, in Jesus, gave them to his disciples to say, to declare this in his name. They are not my words, but they come freighted with God’s own Spirit. With the power to heal, set free, make new. God can use words, our words. God can infuse words with the power to heal.
Simple words like, “I love you,” “I forgive you.” Everyday words like “don’t be afraid,” or “I’m sorry.” Words like “don’t give up,” “you can kick the habit,” and “in spite of everything… it’s gonna be okay.” These words can be more than just words. They can be charged with the power to break chains. The power to make new.
So now I wonder. What are the words you need to hear? What are the words that if you heard them, would God use to free you, to untwist your spirit? What are the words that could change everything for you? And allow that broken, that bent and shuffling part of you to stand tall once again? And what are the words that those around you, friends, loved ones, strangers, that God might use you to speak to them as well? Because new life always comes to us on the way to somebody else. What is the liberating Good News?
Regardless of what these words are for you. No matter which ones they are, know this: that these words, the words for your freedom, for our freedom. God has already spoken them to us, to you, in Jesus Christ. They have already been spoken in the Word made flesh, who has come to mend broken hearts, and bring justice to the oppressed. They have already been spoken in the one who has come to heal our broken lives, to straighten our stooped backs, to free our imprisoned souls. Who has come to reconcile and make new—us, and the world God loves. These words have already been spoken. And are already true. And ready to be spoken again. And again, and again, and again.
So “woman… or man. Saint… or sinner… or most likely both. No matter who or what you are… You are set free from your ailment.” May you—may we—always be able to stand straight, walk tall, dance and praise in the ever-glowing light of these words. Of God’s good news.
May it be so. In Jesus’ name.