You would think that after preaching almost four cycles of the Revised Common Lectionary a preacher would have at least one sermon on all the interesting texts that come around regularly. For some reason unknown to me, however, it turns out that I have never written a sermon on the Gospel text assigned for last Sunday, the story of Jesus healing a woman who was bent over, unable to stand up straight, and had been that way for eighteen years.
It’s curious that I’ve never preached on this text, as it contains a fascinating, multi-layered narrative that offers exciting possibilities for nerdy people who like to think about such things: the story could take a preacher in so many different directions! As it turns out, I was not preaching last Sunday either, so I sat in the pews and listened to a colleague preach a masterful sermon on the text. This morning my mind is still in conversation with the story, though. Just think of all the ways a preacher could go with this text:
For one thing, Jesus — a man, a rabbi — notices a hurting woman while he’s preaching, stops everything, and tends to her needs. That’s a pretty astounding turn of events in the culture and time that Jesus lived. A preacher might explore how we notice or don’t notice certain people in our own communities, or how women — two-thirds of the world’s enslaved and impoverished population — are often overlooked and untended.
Or, you’ll note that when the synagogue leader gets outraged at Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath he doesn’t go and talk to Jesus about it. Instead, he triangulates communication and complains to the crowd. Sound familiar, church? Props to Jesus who isn’t afraid to call out the hypocrisy. (Of course, he does end up getting killed, so the preacher might want to proceed with caution on that front.)
Or, the preacher could talk about what it means to be in need of healing, physical or any other kind of healing, and the powerful and profound way in which Jesus invited the woman to stand up straight. My colleague who was preaching Sunday said, “I imagine Jesus kneeling down, cupping the woman’s face in his hand while he rubbed her back, looked her in the eyes, and invited her to stand up straight.” It was a beautiful homiletical picture. Frankly, I was a little jealous that I hadn’t thought of it.
What kept coming to mind as I read the text, though, and what has chased me since Sunday is this: I wonder if she was afraid. I wonder if the woman was afraid of being seen, of hoping, of making people mad, of seeing the world from a different perspective, of being healed … of change? I wonder if she was bent over in body but crippled profoundly by fear?
I haven’t lived in a bent over body for 18 years; I would have no idea how that feels. But heart-stopping, relationship damaging, life hampering fear? With this I am very familiar.
As counterintuitive as it seems sometimes the painful situations in which we find ourselves feel more comfortable than the fear of the unknown. And fear itself can bend us over, crippling us so that we cannot live with freedom and hope in a world that so desperately needs people who will gather the courage to face our fear and help each other stand up straight.
It seems to me that this is a common individual human experience, but even if we prefer not to get personal, we can see it playing out in living color in our national political discourse. Fear drives division between us. Fear invites bad decisions. Fear limits possibilities. Fear leads … to death.
I know I have to end the mental exercise of thinking through this text because next Sunday is just around the corner and I actually am preaching on another text. But for some reason I don’t think this story will let go of my heart too soon.
Poor woman, bent over at the waist for 18 years.
Poor all of us, crippled with the weight of fear.
I wonder what would happen if we set it down, that fear. And if we stood up straight. And if we opened our hearts and our arms to possibilities and to hope and to each other?
If we did, I think it would be like a miracle.
(Speaking of being afraid, it’s tough to speak prophetically from the pulpit about issues over which your congregation members hold differing opinions. But gun violence in our country is an issue pastors must be talking about: it’s an urgent issue for faith communities when 50 children a day are shot by guns in our country. 50. Are you a pastor who needs some training to learn how to talk about this issue and organize your community to work toward change? Do you know a faith leader who could be encouraged and equipped by a training like this? Please: sign up today. www.GodandGuns2016.org. I’ll see you in New York in October!)