The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58)
We do not know her name. We know nothing about her family or her home life. But we can imagine her. A woman, weary, resigned, resilient. A woman “bent over” and “quite unable to stand up.” A woman who spent her long days staring at her own feet, staring at the dusty trail beneath her, staring at the feet of those who pass her by. Not because she wants to avoid eye contact, or miss the sunrise each morning, or fail to see the birds flying overhead or revel in the beauty of the stars at night, but because she has no other choice.
While it may have begun as a physical condition, her years of being bent over has taken on a spiritual component as year after year, unable to stand up straight, she is denied the basic dignity of seeing another face to face. This woman had probably experienced at least eighteen years of standing in a crowd where no one saw her. People would have spoken to each other across her back and she would have felt herself little by little fading into the background. In our Gospel, she comes to the synagogue. We don’t know if this was her first time or her regular discipline. I wonder if anyone noticed her.
According to the scripture, the woman does not approach Jesus to ask for help. She simply shuffles forward, being repeatedly jostled by all the people, hoping to find a secure place to stand. Jesus is teaching and is probably surrounded by people eager to hear his words. Because she can only see the ground, she is unable to see Jesus. But Jesus sees her! Jesus sees her! He stops his sermon and calls her over.
She must move slowly forward trying to find a place to take her next step. She must have sensed that all eyes for the first time were on her. But despite any discomfort, she continues towards the voice. And then Jesus says to her what Jesus always says to those he meets who are sick or suffering “You are set free.”
Laying his hands on her she feels the release in her back and shoulders. The Gospel tells us that “immediately she stood up straight.” After eighteen years, the first face she is able to clearly see, is the face of Jesus! So, she begins to praise God.
While there was much rejoicing, not everyone was happy. Over the ruckus, the leader of the synagogue begins to shout, “No! Not here. Not today! This is the Sabbath! There are six other days you can be healed. Come on one of those days. But not today! Today is the Sabbath!” Oh, we religious people, we know our scripture. This religious leader guarded the commandments to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. The leader knew what was at stake. Right belief. Right practice! He knew the importance of obeying God’s laws and upholding the faith filled traditions of his spiritual community. He did not want the Ten Commandments to become the Ten Suggestions.
But he has missed the heart of the Sabbath, the heart of God’s law. What the leader has missed is compassion—the kind of compassion that trumps law every single time. The kind of compassion that sees the broken body, the broken soul, the broken spirit before it sees the broken commandment.
Jesus also knows scripture. And so, like a good rabbi, he begins to argue with the synagogue leader about how to read and interpret. In Exodus, the Sabbath is seen as the day God took rest in creating the world. But in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is to be kept because the children of God were once slaves, tied down, bent over, their world shuttered by oppression. They were to keep the Sabbath because they were always to remember what it meant to be set free. And in Leviticus, the commandment of the Sabbath was given so that all may have life. Jesus believes that there is no better day for liberation than the Sabbath. There is no better time for healing than now.
There are many people today who are bent over, unseen, unheard, ignored, who long for someone to see them, to set them free so they can live in their fullness, live with hope and dignity. There are people who have been made to feel as if they are invisible, as mere playing pieces for a political game, as collateral damage in violence and war, as simply disposable when their well-being does not fit the current government agenda. Women, people of color, immigrants and asylum seekers, people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, people who are poor, people who are sick, people who are incarcerated, people who are differently abled, people who are spiritually broken. Many are bent over under the weight of shame, judgement, and prejudice and they dream of being released so they may have the chance to stand up straight in all their God shaped selves. Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winning novelist, editor, teacher, and professor who died recently said, “Racism keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being.” It keeps you bent over, talked over, shoved to the margins.
Where do we find ourselves in this story? Maybe we feel a connection to the woman bent over for eighteen years. Maybe we know what it feels like to be bound by circumstances that diminish, distort, and wound us. Maybe we know what it feels like for our being to be ignored, our needs to be dismissed, our dreams to be scorned. Maybe a spirit of infirmity has kept us unable to speak for ourselves. Maybe we have grown accustomed to being spoken over, spoken for, pushed to the background. Maybe we know what it feels like to have people look past us or fail to fully look us in the eye, to truly acknowledge our value. To that Jesus sees our strength. Jesus sees what is tall and straight and beautiful in us. Jesus does not wait to be asked. Jesus sees the time for freedom is now.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the synagogue leader. We may cling too tightly to what we see as our truth. Our experience may have led us to see the world and scripture only through our own particular lens. We may even fear having our vision expanded by other voices and other stories. We may cling too tightly to the wrong thing, missing the miracle of God in our midst.
And when this is our part of the story, Jesus often puts just who and what we need to see in our path. Dr. Catherine Meeks, author, professor, activist, tells the story of working with a clergy person who was having deep conflict with a member of the parish. The clergy person wanted to know how to deal with the person in a way that would end the problem. Dr. Meeks told the clergy, that if you get rid of this person or this particular problem, God will just send you another until you have learned the lesson you need to learn.
If we open our hearts, if we are willing to come to Jesus’ voice, he will bring us new truth and new understanding, inspiring us to read Scripture in a compassionate way, helping us see the world through new eyes. It may shake us up, it may unsettle us, but with God’s help it will bring healing and freedom from all the things that have shuttered our vision, all the things that have kept us from standing up straight and praising God, all that gets in the way of God’s tender, compassionate “unbending.”
Today we will bless and rededicate our love and support to those people who will begin a new school year next week. We offer these blessings as another year brings expectations, dreams, anxieties and fears. Each of you have imagined yourself back at school. For some of you this will be a cause of great excitement—new classes, seeing friends, getting back on the playing field, beginning again. For some sprinkled in will be worries about how things will go, how your efforts will be received, how you will possibly get through the first weeks as you readjust to a new wake up time and less flexible schedule. And for some, you may fear being ignored, being overlooked, being talked over. But wherever you are as you begin this new school year, have confidence that you are seen and loved by the one and only God. In this place, we invite you to stand up in all your God given fullness. We invite you to see that God sees that you are marvelously made, knows your needs and dreams, and will be your constant companion as you walk through this new year. God will never tolerate your diminishment. God wants you to be completely free to be the person you were created you to be.
This afternoon at 2:45 pm, we are invited to gather on the lawn of St. Paul’s Church in Stockbridge for a short prayer service followed by the ringing of bells. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has invited all Episcopalians, all people of faith traditions, and all people who profess no tradition of faith to join in remembering and honoring the first enslaved Africans who landed in Virginia, one of the English colonies, in August, 1619. Four hundred years ago, the arrival of “twenty and odd Negroes” on the shores of our country inaugurated years of brutal slavery where men, women, and children, simply because their skins were dark, became slaves for life. African-Americans, the sons and daughters of these first enslaved arrivals continue to battle against being talked over, being pushed aside, being profiled.
God has never abandoned our brothers and sisters of color. But for those of us who may not know this history, for those of us who live lives untouched by the struggles our black brothers and sisters face daily, for those of us who long to participate with Christ in bringing about racial healing in our land, and praying for our future, may this remembrance help us all gain a new way of seeing, to stand alongside those who continue to struggle for freedom, to recognize that none of us are free unless all of us can stand up straight and be free.
Just as Jesus brought a woman who had been bent over to the center of worship in the synagogue that day, may we all be touched by the liberating power of God. God does not intend for us to live bent over, talked over, pushed aside. God does not intend for us to walk in the path of limited truths, acting without compassion. Jesus calls to us, heals us, restores us, and then invites us to join with the full community of God to stand straight and offer our loud praise. Jesus teaches us that healing and wholeness can never be postponed. Jesus wants us all to be free. Let us all begin now.