Gospel: Luke 13:10-17
1st Reading: Isaiah 58:9b-14
2nd Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29
I’ve heard this phrase a lot lately, “Getting old ain’t for sissies!” I can appreciate that, since I have my own aches and pains. I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m just exhausted most days, in a good way!
In the Gospel, we meet a woman who knows about aches and pains of body and spirit. Who is this woman who is bent over and crippled for 18 years? We don’t know very much about her. She is completely silent at the beginning of this story—but still Jesus notices her. She doesn’t complain to anyone about her illness. She doesn’t ask to be healed on the Sabbath or any other time. She doesn’t say anything at all until we hear that she began praising God. Even after she’s healed, she doesn’t get into the debate between Jesus and the leader of the Synagogue.
We can know from the history and culture of that time that she wouldn’t have been allowed to be a full member of society. We can assume that she was probably blamed for her illness and that people probably avoided her. It is likely that she wasn’t even supposed to be there in the synagogue that day, let alone close enough to this holy man that he would have noticed her.
In some ways the reading leaves it open for us to interpret who is this bent woman. I think of our churches, bent over budgets, bent out of shape about who is included and who isn’t, bent up looking backward about the good old days and what we’re doing wrong that we aren’t growing, bent up with fear about the future, bent toward holding fast to what we’re used to, bent over with low self esteem. Some of this is about the larger church and all the stories that send us in a fearful spiral about how the church is shrinking and we’ve gotta change or die, --stories that either make us cling to the newest fad to try to hang on a little longer or hold fast to old traditions that we don’t know why we like them but we do.
Thankfully, I have found in this congregation, while yes, a little bent with age and a teeny bit of anxiety here and there and with past hurts, actually more than a little flexibility that I really appreciate. We may be bent, but part of that is out of necessity—we’ve had to learn to bend with some of the difficulties with leaders, pastors, with budgets, with loss and grieving many members over the years whether they died or moved on. So I know I’ve found this to be a place of grace, although bent a little here and there.
You’ve been pretty open to different ideas. For instance, next week we’ll be worshiping outside. It is a little inconvenient moving chairs and trying to speak loud enough that folks can be heard outdoors. But we do it because it reminds us that God is not just here in our building, but in the world. And we find ourselves seeing God in different ways. The outdoor service can be a good time to invite friends and family who don’t feel as comfortable in our sanctuary, and many of you often do. I appreciate your willingness to stretch and invite and bend a little to experience God in a new way.
You’ve been flexible about the pantry, about partnering with Church of God of Prophecy, about different groups using the building, and to different ways of worshiping, celebrating, and working together. I want to encourage you and remind you to keep up the good work. There is always more that we can do to bend and adapt and be relevant. We can do even better to be welcoming and open and encouraging to all. We’re pretty good at this, but everyone makes mistakes. I’ve overheard little side comments very similar to this complaint by the synagogue leader about what is proper and what isn’t. I’ve seen sideways glances. I’ve occasionally participated in a lack of welcome, too. There are ways that we could be more flexible while still being grounded in what’s most important, our Savior Jesus Christ and his love and grace. To get grounded, we read the Bible, we have prayer practices, we worship and sing God’s praises, and remind ourselves of how he’s welcomed us completely, and now we get to bend to make sure that others are welcomed as fully as we have been.
Being bent isn’t all that bad. It shows adaptability. If you look at reeds, you can see the little joints, the places that hold the stalk together and allow for movement in the wind. I love laying on the ground and watching trees sway in the wind. They have the ability to be strong, but also the give to move a little and give a little. Our big tree in front of our house even makes a wonderful creaking sound. I like to think of that as its praising of God, like this bent over woman in the Gospel.
Think of the people bent in and around this congregation. Some are facing serious illness. Others are aging. Some are grieving. People come to the church crippled with hunger for food and a friend. Our friends with Church of God of Prophecy had been crippled, held back from growing because their meeting space was inadequate until now. We have all at times been bent by rejection, by fear, had our hopes crushed.
For our congregation, for us as individuals, for our neighbors and friends, even for the trees and reeds, Jesus comes with healing, renewal, repair, and restoration. He comes with joy and daring. And to our embarrassment, he comes on the wrong day! He is going to get the powers that be in a tizzy. He is healing and feeding the wrong people on the wrong day in the wrong way. He is healing and rebuilding the church in the wrong way on the wrong day. We’ve got our ideas of what healing should look like and how it should happen, and he’s throwing healing around willy nilly. He doesn’t line people up from most deserving to least or hardest working to laziest.
But for Jesus, this is what Sabbath is for. Yes it is about rest. Yes it is about focus on God. But God’s focus is healing and restoration and freeing people, all people, all creation, every single day, especially on the Lord’s day. God wants to free congregations from anxiety and shame and being stuck. God wants to free people from hunger and disease and burdens. God wants to free neighbors from isolation. God wants to free us all from arbitrary social conventions (like what day healing can and can’t take place) that don’t help us but only make life harder.
God is about healing and freeing. Love is about healing and freeing. Jesus not only healed that crippling disease, but also took that upon himself. He allowed himself to be bent over with all the burdens of life that we face. He knew the burdens of hunger. He was bent with shame, with pain, with abandonment. He didn’t shun being bent. Instead he embraced it, so that in our bent state, we could stand tall. We could stand up straight and tall whether we are from a large congregation or small one, whether we could afford a part-time or full-time pastor, whether we had pews or chairs, whether we were young or old. Jesus came so that we could stand tall whether we were sick or well, gay or straight, divorced, widowed, or married, no matter what we wore or how many pearcings or tattoos we have or don’t have, how much ear hair we have, or what devotional practices we might have, or any other differences between people. Being freed, ourselves, to stand up straight, we have to be careful then not to be hypocrites and apply another set of rules to others. We can then free others to stand up and be their fullest selves.
We are the bent woman. We have known difficulty in life. We find ourselves somehow in Jesus’ presence. Jesus sees us and all we have been going through. We may or may not ask for the help we need, but Jesus brings us healing and renewal nonetheless. It is a scandal that he does it. We didn’t do anything to deserve that healing. There are people in more need, who are worse off. He does something scandalous. He offers himself for our healing and hangs naked and exposed, humiliated and accused, bent and broken for the healing of all. And what can we do, but give thanks and praise, stand up tall, and minister to others so they know the freedom and welcome that we do!