It has been many years now since I memorized and recited this story from Luke as an assignment for a seminary class. It is a powerful experience when the biblical story takes place in your body, even as you feel the words take shape in your mouth.
But this woman does not ask for the faith story to be played out on her body. This woman – unnamed except for her place in the religious tradition– this woman does not ask for healing. She does not even approach Jesus. She is just going to synagogue as she has every Sabbath since she was a child. Though she has been bent over for 18 years, she has not given up her faith, her connection to God, her connection to God’s community.
The community kind of ignores her though, or at least takes for granted that she is bent over. She has been that way for so long folks have forgotten that she used to stand straight, that she was born standing tall. After all these years it is easy to overlook her, literally look over her, as she shuffles by.
But Jesus sees her, calls out to her. He names her a daughter of Abraham and Sarah. To Jesus she is not primarily her illness or infirmity. She is a daughter of Abraham and Sarah, like all of the good Jews gathered at the synagogue that day. Jesus sees her, names her, frees her and then… she stands up tall.
At such a miracle there is great rejoicing. But not by everyone. The one who sees himself as the keeper of the tradition, the enforcer of the rules, he is not happy. The woman has been faithful enough all these years. Why must Jesus interfere with the community, with the way they do community? And besides he is breaking a rule, working on the Sabbath. It has been 18 years, what is one more day?
Jesus sees it differently. He understands that the woman has been bound, not just physically but psychically and spiritually. And at the protestations, Jesus points out that they are all bound if they cannot see what a gift her new freedom is. If a rule observed is worth more than a life brought back to wholeness then they are all doomed, each one of the religious rule followers. They know who they are; we are told they are humiliated and embarrassed.
And then there is this small mention of “everyone else.” “Everyone else rejoices and marvels at what Jesus is accomplishing.”
“Everyone else” is a small character in the story, just this one mention, though they probably played a big role in the woman’s life. It is “everyone else” who have grown accustomed to the bent over woman coming and going. “Everyone else” is the faithful attenders who show up each Sabbath at the synagogue, ready to respond. “Everyone else” weeps, prays, rejoices, sings. And when Jesus appears “everyone else” pays attention; they marvel and rejoice at all he is accomplishing.
While this seems like a personal story that plays out on the body of one woman, we might also wonder at the many people who continue to live bent over with the weight of the world on them. What if this is not just the story of one woman but also the story of a whole people who have been bent over in pain, held captive by the evil spirits that have been imposed on them.
What if those bent over are opposed not by one overly religious leader but by a whole system of rules that hold them in that bent position, for much longer than 18 years. What if that system of rules not only keeps people bent over but creates more people who are bent over, who are caused to live in pain and shame.
What if “everyone else” is not just the Sabbath faithful but all those who have grown accustomed to the bent over ones coming and going? “Everyone else” has seen the people bent over from exhaustion and unable to stand up straight. “Everyone else” has seen the bent over people walking to the corner market where there is no fresh food. “Everyone else” has seen the bent over people trying to raise their children while working two and sometimes three jobs. “Everyone else” has accepted that the people are bent over because they work hard, because their parents worked hard, because life is sometimes unfair. “Everyone else” has never expected that those bent over can actually stand up straight and thank God. Certainly not without Jesus’ help.
We live in a country that has kept people bent over for generations. We live in a country that was built on the backs of bent over, enslaved people – planting, hoeing, harvesting. We live in a country that has been possessed by the spirits of hatred and fear since its beginning. And though slavery has been outlawed for 150 years those same spirits of hatred and fear have not yet been exorcised.
Those spirits continue to keep many people bent over even after Martin’s dream 50 years ago of people standing hand in hand. So yesterday, thousands upon thousands gathered in Washington to remember that we can stand up. People of all ages and walks of life, people from all over the country came together to proclaim that perfect love casts out fear, that the Beloved Community can bring healing and cast out those spirits that keep us all crippled.
Honestly, most of us here don’t look bent over. Sure we are tired but bent over? Dig a little deeper and we can all find ways that we are struggling with the spirits that keep us down. At first glance though, we might kind of look like one of those groups of “Everyone else.” We are the faithful who show up. We weep with those who weep, we rejoice with those who rejoice and we sing real good.
We try to be who Jesus wants us to be but let’s be real: we are not saviors and we aren’t even meant to be. We live in a time when those who are bent over are encouraged to speak for themselves. Those who are perceived as bent over want to speak for themselves, even when that seems impossible.
Remember our dear friend Charlie, gone too soon this past January? He did not speak in words, he did not walk and yet he went to the Maryland State House to advocate for rights for the developmentally disabled. He didn’t speak alone, he had help from many friends and colleagues but his presence and his body spoke loudly. Some people saw Charlie and thought “bent over.” He taught us that though he sat in a wheelchair, he stood tall.
When one is bent over it is scary to speak for oneself. Especially since no one is expecting it. It is not uncommon to find excuses; even the prophet Jeremiah said: I don’t know how to speak! I’m too young!
So Jeremiah got a pep talk –
Do not say, ‘I am too young.’
Now, go where I send you.
And say whatever I command you.
8Do not fear anyone,
for I am with you to protect you.
It is God who speaks.
Jake and I were in the office on Tuesday when he suddenly said, “Oh no, another school shooting.” And then, “But wait, nobody got hurt.”
By now the country knows that we have Antoinette Tuff to thank for keeping children, faculty, staff, police and the shooter himself safe at the school in Decatur, GA. Some months previous Antoinette Tuff might have herself been seen as bent over. Her husband of 33 years left her; she was on the verge of killing herself. But she made a promise to God that she would live. And now she believes the reason she is alive is so she could save this young man and everyone else.
Antoinette took the risk to cast out the spirits of fear and hate that were so present that day. By some miracle, Antoinette Tuff, a middle aged African American woman, was able to tell Michael Brandon Hill, a young white man, that she loved him, that she would keep him safe. She shared with him about her own bent over experience and allowed love to flow through her.
You can imagine she must have had Jeremiah’s words going through her head, “No God, not me, why me?” Yet she was willing to identify with Michael Brandon Hill, she was willing to reach out and believe that he is more than his illness. She didn’t ignore that he was bent over but neither was that all she saw. She called him “sweetie,” a term of endearment that in this context means a child of Abraham and Sarah.
It would have been much easier for Antoinette Tuff to step back and hope that Jesus would somehow appear and take care of the situation. But Antoinette did not allow herself to become “everyone else” who watches. She became the hands and feet of Jesus, the very voice of Jesus speaking “it’s gonna be okay, I love you.” And there has been much rejoicing.
It is difficult to do as Antoinette and Jesus do, to see beyond the bent over posture and yet not ignore it. The temptation is to say, “Oh I didn’t even see that bent part of you” or “I forgot that you are bent.” It is a challenge to see the uniqueness of the person and see the system that keeps them from being all they can be. It may be a large, entrenched system like institutional racism or the new Jim Crow. It may be an internal system, like Jeremiah experienced – No, not me, I am just a child, I am not good enough.
It is an overwhelming prospect and there is hope because we do not do this alone. The thousands upon thousands that marched in Washington yesterday came from all over the country. We represented houses of worship, unions, neighborhoods and colleges, fraternities and sororities, politicians and parents and many languages and cultural traditions. Though this country teaches us to fear, we have the capacity to love, to call each other by name, to see that we are each more than what holds us bent. We are children of God, children of Abraham and Sarah. We stand together.
But how do we stand together after the march, when we go back to our homes, churches, synagogues and mosques, back to our unions and schools and neighborhoods? Moses said, “Let my people go.” Antoinette said, “I will not let them hurt you, I will walk out there with you.” Jesus said, “You are loosed, you are free,” but he continued walking with the disciples, all bound by the Roman Empire.
What do we say? It is overwhelming to encounter this bent over world and know how to respond. It is easy to be overcome by the great challenges that greet us every day. So I am grateful for and comforted by the short passage that follows this story from the synagogue on the Sabbath.
Jesus continued, “What does the kindom of God resemble? To what will I liken it? It’s like a mustard seed which a gardener took and planted in the garden. It grew and became a large shrub, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.”
He went on, “To what will I compare the kindom of God? It’s like yeast which a baker adds to three measures of flour and kneads until the whole ball of dough begins to rise.”
These are the absurd tools we are given to live into freedom: the smallest of seeds and a teaspoon of yeast. Yet we are called to plant, to knead the dough so that healing, hope, freedom and the reign of God are alive and growing in this bent over world.
May we be given the courage, love and strength we need to plant the seeds and knead the dough – together.