14th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C – August 21, 2016
Karen is a beautiful woman who creates floral masterpieces. However, when you speak to her she hardly talks above a whisper. I wondered if she had some vocal condition that limited her capacity to express herself with much volume. However, one day she collapsed in church. When I visited her that afternoon she was crying uncontrollably. She spoke about the terror she lived with as a child. With some gentle coaching she acknowledged that she feared her father and the gun he carried with him in the back of his truck. Karen believed that if she was not perfect her father would end her life.
Karen, like the woman who was crippled for 18 years, was carrying a tremendous burden. But, praise God, that day God touched her in such a way that she was ready to share her secret and was ultimately set free. For Karen, it took an encounter with Jesus in the form of some time of counselling, being in a support group at her church, and regular visits by her minister. She soon began talking with a strong voice. She learned how to safely live in the community. A restraining order was placed on her father and ultimately he was incarcerated. For the crippled woman, she was set free as she encountered Jesus on the Sabbath. Standing up straight after 18 long years of being stooped must surely have been worthy of great praise.
Both Karen and the crippled woman were not healed in the conventional sense of the word. It was not being cured from an affliction that is described. Instead, what is described is being liberated. Such freedom is in many respects much deeper and more life changing than the healing of a disease. It is soul deep liberation.
For nearly 20 years I served as a board member on several Safe Shelters, similar to our SOWINS. In Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Ontario, I witnessed countless women flee abusive relationships and find safety and support in a Safe Shelter. These women were young and aged, independent and with several children, poorly educated and with several degrees, poor and financially well off. In other words, there is no stereotypic abuse survivor. Some of the women have been in the shelter before and returned to their partner, hoping and believing that the abusive behaviour would stop. In every situation the woman was surprised to find herself needing to use the services of the Safe Shelter. In every situation the woman was burdened by the abuse.
What I learned from serving on Safe Shelter boards, visiting in hospitals, hospices, and homes, and conversations in coffee shops is that being set free is quite different from being healed. One can be set free from the oppression of abuse when a decision is made to not tolerate the abusive behaviour ever again. One can be set free from a crippling illness when one’s mind accepts the reality of the condition and you choose to live life fully within this new reality. One can be set free knowing that death is imminent when accepting that until death comes one lives to the best of their ability savouring each moment. Oh – to savour each precious moment of life.
The tiny medical clinic at the Chikore Mission in rural southeastern Zimbabwe seeks to serve over 20,000 people scattered across the countryside, with no resident physician, virtually no modern medical equipment, and a scarcity of medications which puts our own full medicine cabinets to shame. Outside the hospital there is a sign that proclaims a truth as contemporary as it is ancient, and as sophisticated in Penticton as it is unpretentious in Chikore, Zimbabwe: Chikore Hospital: The Hospital Treats but Jesus Heals.
Why did Jesus choose the Sabbath to respond to the stooped over woman? Why would he dare break the time honoured sacred tradition? Certainly we recognize that the Sabbath laws had become a burden to the people rather than an aid to their spirituality. In many ways the synagogue leader is just as bent over by the law as the woman is by her condition. Both needed Christ’s healing and liberation. Christ brought liberation to the woman by acceptance. He offered liberation to the leader by showing him his hypocrisy.
Such laws have been upheld for many centuries. In 1670, two lovers in New England were tried and convicted for the crime of “sitting together on the Lord’s Day under an apple tree in Goodman Chapman’s orchard.” About the same time, Captain Kemple of Boston sat for 2 hours in the public stocks for “lewd and unseemly behaviour.” His transgression? Kissing his wife publicly on the steps on the Sabbath day. Even the circumstances were not considered important; Captain Kemple had been at sea and had not seen his wife for 3 years.
The prevailing attitude was that 6 days a week is plenty to do the secular activities of life. Jesus’ response? “God is not bound by that schedule and is available to meet human need at all times.” In fact, I think Jesus was even more stirred up than that polite response. I think that when Jesus saw the stooped over woman he thought to himself, “Give me a break! It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is! This person needs me to respond – and now!”
We have an account of a transformation and liberation of a woman who scripture says was “bound by Satan.” Satan represents all evil powers that keep humans in bondage – cultures, laws, traditions, and economic systems or political powers that oppress us. Early in the story, the bent over woman could not “look up,”. She is without hope. She was bound by the powers.
How have all those powers affected you? Have you supported a woman forced to wear a hajib? Have you worked for minimum wage while raising a family? Have you listened to the political rhetoric coming from the United States the last few months and worried about the impact on the world and Canada in particular? Have you helped at the Soupateria and really heard the stories of poverty? It is hard to look up when bearing the load of oppression and bondage. It is difficult to recognize Jesus when evil seems to be sitting on your back. The chains of cruelty weigh too many people down and cause retaliation. What is your part in breaking the chains of oppression?
So – what is the answer? Writing letters and emails to our politicians outlining concerns about the poor of our community, those living under the terror of abuse, and the dreams you have for Canada to be a peaceful nation are important ways that we can help others to be set free. Phone calls, cards and emails to those who are bent over can help the other person to stand straighter. Volunteering for groups that help those in need to stand a little straighter is yet another path of support.
I want to leave you with one more challenge. You and I believe that this church is important in our lives. We come week after week. What would happen if each one of us invited a friend or neighbour to worship with us some Sunday? I can’t help wondering if the invited person might be the bent over one, and we are not aware. Perhaps our church might offer them the spiritual nourishment to straighten up. What do you think?
Imagine that you have been bent over for 18 years. You have not experienced the sun beating on your face. You have not looked at your neighbour face to face. But today – you are free from your ailment and you can stand straight. The sun sparkles in your eyes. Your neighbours have smiles on their faces. And this congregation is excited to welcome you. “