August 25, 2019 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
As I look over any congregation, I am extra sensitive that there are several women sitting in the pews who have experienced the horrors of abuse. They may be in partnerships where they feel trapped due to the violence imposed on them. Some may have lived through the soul-destroying experience of childhood physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Also, there are men who have been dehumanized due to abuse. These are God’s children who are bent over with the weight of shame and pain.
The Gospel of Luke tells the powerful story of a woman who is set free from something that has afflicted her, weighted her down, and bent her over for 18 years. The Greek word that is used means to set free rather than to heal a disease. We are not told what has oppressed this woman, we know only that she cannot look up. Luke does not say that she approached Jesus. Instead, Jesus speaks to her, “Woman, you are free from your affliction.” Somehow, she can trust these words of Jesus, stands up straight and praises God!
The bent-over woman has become an important image to women, as she resembles the many women who arrive at the doors of “safe shelters” in countless communities, every day. Jesus did more than perform a Sabbath healing and challenge synagogue leaders. He also challenged an entire social system that saw women as possessions to be treated and mistreated at will. He lifted this woman up with love and dignity and tore down the dehumanizing forces of evil that had disabled her. Jesus’ challenge to the status quo upset the synagogue leader, but he does not deal with Jesus directly. Instead, he responds by speaking to the crowd about broken Sabbath laws. Jesus becomes angry and calls them all hypocrites. They have no problem untying a donkey and taking it to get a drink of water on the Sabbath, yet, freeing this “daughter of Abraham” seems to have been an unworthy act. The term “daughter of Abraham” is an unusual one, and, shows Jesus’ deep respect and concern for the dignity of women. He had come to the synagogue to worship, and, had ended up confronting injustice. But then, that is what worship prepares us for isn’t it?
It was a very busy intersection and an elderly gentleman was slowly making his way across the street when his legs gave way and he could not proceed. A woman stopped her car in the middle of the road and went to his aid. He was too heavy to move. Another 2 people rushed toward him and lifted him in their arms and crossed safely to the other side. Some drivers pressed down hard on their car horns admitting their frustration at being held up at a crosswalk.
Hearing this story we recognize that both of today’s scripture texts speak to our choice to respond or not respond to a call to service.
We are called to confront injustice, to free the oppressed and give them respect, love and their dignity. God lifted the sights of Jeremiah who thought he was just a child and therefore unable to speak on God’s behalf, and Jesus lifted the woman so she could see her true worth as a “daughter of Abraham”. Jeremiah and Jesus responded to a call to service and moved from what was safe to the unknown and unpredictable. What acts of freedom and compassion is God calling us to, I wonder?
Jesus is not afraid to touch the sordid places of our world that need healing. We have seen people who are so engulfed in grief that they are mere shadows of their former selves. We have seen churches so fractured by power struggles that they have torn apart. We have seen neighbourhoods so torn by the drug trade that violence has led to deaths of children. We have seen women who have tried to cover their bruises with makeup and concealing clothing, all so their family and neighbours won’t know that their partner beats them. We have seen all this.
And Jesus walks right up to the grieving person and cradles them with love. Jesus enters the church and rather than taking sides calls forth reconciliation. Jesus walks up to the drug pusher and teaches him about grace. Jesus takes the hand of the beaten woman and leads her to SOWINS. We have seen all this. We stand up straight. Can you imagine not being able to look up and see a sunrise or sunset? Can you imagine not being able to look up and see the clouds floating by? Can you imagine not being able to look up and see the eyes of your 6 foot tall son?
The story describes the transformation and liberation of a woman who 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 women. She cannot “look up,” She is without hope.
From the darkness of exile from himself, Kirk Maynard Gull walked timidly toward Jonathan Livingston Seagull, wobbling across the sand, dragging his left wing, to collapse at Jonathan’s feet. “Help me,” he said very quietly, speaking in the way that the dying speak. “I want to fly more than anything else in the world…”
“Come along then,” said Jonathan. “Climb with me away from the ground, and we’ll begin.”
“You don’t understand. My wing. I can’t move my wing.”
“Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way. It is the Law of the Great Gull, that Law that Is.”
“Are you saying that I can fly?”
“I say you are free.”
As simply and as quickly as that, Kirk Maynard Gull spread his wings, effortlessly, and lifted into the dark night air. The Flock was roused from sleep by his cry, as loud as he could scream it, from 500 feet up; “I can fly! Listen! I CAN FLY!”
By sunrise there were nearly a thousand birds standing outside the circle of Jonathan’s students trying to understand Jonathan Seagull.
He spoke of simple things – that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form. (Richard Bach – “Jonathan Livingston Seagull, 1970)
Jesus never fails to meet people where they are, exactly how and who they are. For him, no one is a lost cause – no one is expendable. The woman bent by life’s burdens for so long was, during that brief encounter, the most important person in Jesus’ life. I find that profoundly comforting.
It is also deeply challenging. Our death-denying society is fearful of the things in life that bring us low and weigh us down with sorrow and memories. We can easily be drawn into hurrying others through their pain and grief, as much for our own comfort as for theirs. But Jesus doesn’t ask the bent woman to straighten up her act and get over herself before she comes seeking his touch. He throws caution to the wind and makes her needs the priority of the moment.
Being with someone who is in pain is uncomfortable. We often feel helpless in the face of inner wounds that cannot be bandaged or easily healed, but Jesus invites us to stay in that uncomfortable place. This is where human suffering and the love of Jesus meet, and while it may be messy, it is holy ground, to be honoured above all else.
I can’t help thinking of the church office helpers who have come in on Thursday noon hours. They have helped to fold the bulletins and do other easy tasks that Marianne assigns. These helpers have included Evelyn who was with us for over 25 years, and Karen who is currently with us. These special women bring unique talents and interests that make the two hours each week fly by. While it is true that they have some cognitive challenges, they are funny, talkative, and conscientious workers.
I don’t know if any of you remember the TV show ‘Cheers.” On the 200th episode celebration there was a clip that involved Coach and his daughter.
Coach’s daughter comes to visit, and the 2 of them are talking in the back room where they can have some privacy. The daughter says to Coach, “Dad, I’m ugly.”
Coach looks at her for a minute. And then replies, “You’re not ugly! You’re beautiful!” Then he pauses as if he’s thinking and sys, “You look just like your mother! I never realized that before!”
“I know I do,” says the daughter. “I’m, the exact image of my mother, and whatever Mom was, she wasn’t …” She was going to say, “She wasn’t beautiful,” but, watching the face of her father, she knows how much it would hurt him, and so she doesn’t say it.
Coach is still lost in his own thoughts, and he continues, “Your mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and you look just like her!” He is so intense, earnest, and convincing that his daughter begins to believe him.
Slowly a light goes on in her face. She begins to smile, and she asks, “Am I beautiful, Dad? Am I really?”
“Yes,” says Coach. “You really are!”
May we know ourselves as beautiful, upright, free people who God loves deeply. Straighten up everyone. We are no longer bound! Amen.