Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues one Sabbath when a crippled woman entered the service. The interaction between them is a mere seven verses long and is only recorded in Luke’s gospel (Luke 13:10-17)

Jesus was simply doing what rabbis do. He was teaching in the synagogue when he spied “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”  While she obviously had a physical ailment that afflicted her, this woman’s spirit was also crippled causing her to be “bent together” or “bent with” herself. We might say she was “all bent out of shape,” physically, emotionally, and spiritually. What had once been only an ailment was now this woman’s complete world. She had so forgotten who she was previously, that she became identified to others and herself only by her infirmity.

While we may not bear outward, obvious physical marks of our disability, we realize the inward scars that often result in anxiety and timidity, self-doubt and depression, grief and easy judgment, insecurity and defensiveness. Like this woman, we can become so crippled by our own spirit or the oppressive spirits of familial expectations, cultural bias, and religious convictions that we too are burdened, stooped over, drawn into ourselves. We lose our ability to gaze outward, to look up, to stand tall and strong.

Luke presents the woman as if this were a routine trip to the synagogue. I imagine she moved in slow and careful ways. Her presence speaks of her acceptance of her limitations due to the dull discomfort that has been hers for eighteen years. Hers is a world of quiet resignation. So this woman came with not one expectation, and she certainly would not have called attention to herself in order to ask Jesus for anything. Yet in the space of one short sentence, Jesus calls her to him with the single word, “woman,” and he sets her free. He openly defends her. He even calls her a daughter of Abraham. With the ability to, at last, stand fully upright, her response is to look up and to praise God.

Now I know another woman whose life was also deemed holy. Her parents had her name dutifully written on the Cradle Roll of their church and upon her arrival, her happiest place in the entire world was at church. Her Sunday School teachers would tell her the wonderful stories of Jesus and her heart would respond with “I love Jesus.”  Her choir directors would teach her songs of praise and worship and she would leave the doors of the church to sing these songs everywhere she went making her home and her school and the great outdoors into sanctuaries of praise and worship. Her pastor preached sermons that always invited anyone to give their life to Christ and to full time Christian vocations and every time, she felt a tug on her heart that yes, this was her place and role in the world.

There were no restrictions put on these invitations. You didn’t have to be a certain gender, or a specific color, whosoever will, could respond. And she did . . . over and over again. She felt as if the Lord had reached out His hand and touched her mouth with words, just as God had with the prophet Jeremiah. But when she tried to preach them, the resistance was powerful. You see, the great big family of faith changed and became more culturally-biased than Spirit-led. And these changes and how they were played out in the local church laid heavy on her heart and so burdensome were they that she bent over with a crippled spirit so that the fullness of her personhood, her relationships with others, and her sense of God were all distorted, twisted, and bent out of shape.

Just when she thought she could not exist any longer up under the weight of her deformity, a congregation who celebrated the transformative works of God, touched her anew with the love of Christ reminding her that she could, at last, stand tall and praise God with the words God had placed in her mouth.

Most of you know this story as my own. I find that I am still in awe of this calling to be your pastor and your invitation to stand tall and praise God. It is mysterious and challenging, assuring and frightening, energizing and exhausting all at the same time. Now what we do here at Covenant together are the same things that happen in all churches:  we bury the dead, we affirm those in love, we celebrate births, and we study the scriptures in order to bolster one another with courage for the living of these days. But then there are things that happen here, and through you, that do not happen any other place on earth because we dedicate ourselves to welcoming God’s transformations.

For instance, on Wednesday of this past week, we held the funeral service for Louise Andrews. There was a large butterfly in the baptistery in celebration of the transformation she had experienced as a believer who now resides with the Lord in Glory. But there was also a Care Team from our congregation who had so tenderly dedicated themselves to love Miss Louise that we witnessed her eccentricities turn into endearments in her last years . . . yet another transformation. The service was a little unconventional to honor her life appropriately.

So on Wednesday night of this week, my mother-in-love called our house. Our conversation went something like this:

“There was a man at church tonight who had on Mardi Gras beads.”


“He said he had gotten them as he went into a funeral service at Baptist Church of the Covenant.”


“He said the woman who died was over 100 and there was a trumpet player who played “When the Saints Go Marching In” and that the pastor was a woman.”

Did you tell him I was your daughter-in-law?

“Well,” came her hesitant reply,I did, but you know, I’m never quite sure about all the things that go on down there at your church!”


My hope and prayer, my friends, is that not a one of us gets sure of what will happen here. Rather, let us be open to the Spirit who works continually to relieve us of our burdens, our physical infirmities as well as those convictions that become binding and restrictive, so that we are set free to praise God for the wondrous things that divine love and mercy have done and will continue to do. Amen.

(Exegesis from Cynthia Linder, “Preaching the Lesson,” Lectionary Homiletics.)

Sarah Jackson Shelton is pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant, Birmingham, Alabama. This blog entry is an excerpt from her August 22, 2010 sermon.