Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, MDiv
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
Today’s gospel provides an account of one of the many healings performed by Jesus. He is teaching at a synagogue and notices a woman who is crippled, incapable of standing up straight. She is deeply stooped over, bent nearly in half, and she has walked through life this way for 18 years. Imagine her experience of the world. What has her posture made her unable to see and experience as others do? What facial expressions has she missed? What views of the world have escaped her? How has her periphery been drawn in and limited by her physical condition. 18 years is a long time to live so constricted and constrained. What in her surroundings did she have to convert to accommodate her ailment? In other words, how did the experience of constriction, result in the constriction of her world?
In this gospel, Jesus calls her over and touches her – perhaps offering her an intimacy often withheld from her. She immediately stands up and begins to praise God. It’s an extraordinary moment, captured in just four verses. She was constricted, constrained, forced to live small. Now she has expanded, her spine has extended; her head has risen – exultant and exalting. Imagine that.
The gospels present us with many stories of Jesus extending physical healing. These stories are interspersed with his teachings on the nature of the kingdom of heaven, and with accounts of humanity’s difficulty in comprehending the good news he offered. I suspect that many of the physical healings we read about serve as metaphors for the spiritual healing that is at the heart of the gospel and of the kingdom of heaven that is ever taking shape around us.
Where do we feel spiritually bent, or crippled? Where are we cowed over, stooped, or experiencing too small a view of the world around us? I think of things like fear, jealousy, anger, insecurity, perfectionism, and efforts to control life or other people. These can, over time, become habits that diminish our spirits and constrain our capacity for joy, love, and for living the lives we were designed to live. They can be habits that keep us small and stooped. Where do these habits come from if we were designed to experience so much more?
Researcher Brené Brown argues that the surest thing she took away from her BSW, MSW, and Ph.D. in social work was this: “Connection is why we are here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” She set out to research attributes of connection, but her research participants, when prompted to talk about meaningful moments of experiencing love and belonging could not do so without sharing stories of “heartbreak, betrayal, and shame – the fear of not being worthy of real connection.” Shame, a form of fear, can be a tremendous crippler, and it is often at the heart of habits like jealousy, insecurity, rage, and control.
Shame, Brené Brown, writes, “is the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection….The pain of shame is enough to trigger that survival part of our brain that runs, hides, or comes out swinging.” In other words, shame can prompt the spine to double-over and the spirit to deflate.
Research indicates that every human being struggles with shame on some level and part of being truly human, part of living wholehearted lives, is to learn resilience in the face of it. But what am I talking about when I talk about shame? Isn’t that more the terrain of those who have experienced deep trauma or been part of abusive religious communities? How does it manifest for the rest of us? Here are some examples people gave Brené Brown and her research team when they asked about shame:
- Shame is getting laid off and having to tell my pregnant wife.
- Shame is hiding the fact that I am in recovery.
- Shame is raging at my kids.
- Shame is bankruptcy.
- Shame is not making partner.
- Shame is my wife asking me for a divorce.
- Shame is my DUI.
- Shame is infertility.
- Shame is internet porn.
- Shame is hearing my parents fight through the walls and wondering if I’m the only one who feels this afraid.
Shame whispers in our ears, “You are not enough. You’re not smart enough, not powerful enough, not accomplished enough, not talented enough.” It proclaims, “You are too weak, too needy, too messed up, too brainy, too awkward, too fat.” If we shake that off, it ask us, “Who do you think you are?” This voice is the opposite of the voice of love. And when this voice has power in our lives, it makes giving and receiving love very difficult – because it presents acceptance and love as unachievable. And it teaches us that joy is fleeting.
It all sounds pretty dire. Except that in the gospels we see Jesus proclaiming over and over again that love is abundant and that we are loved deeply and passionately by God. The gospels denounce the lie that we are not enough or that we are too much. They answer the question, “Who do you think you are” by answering quite simply, the one who is beloved of God. The gospels tell us, “You have been formed in love, you have been made to experience great love, and you get to extend great love. Therefore, shame need not have power over you.”
Do any of you practice yoga? Have you had the experience of holding a pose for a long time, and then being prompted to slowly, gently, rise up from a folded position to stand up straight? The instructor will often say something like, “Now, very slowly, roll up, feeling the sensation of placing one vertebra on top of the other, one at a time, until you are standing again.” What does that feel like – to release a pose and to come into one’s full height? What does that do to one’s breath? How do you start to experience in new ways a once familiar setting? What do you begin to imagine possible?
We are embraced by a love that offers this kind of transformation, this kind of renewal. Sometimes the renewal comes suddenly and release is immediate. These are the moments of great clarity that can take us by surprise and break open a view of heaven in an inescapable way. Other times, the renewal comes slowly and steadily, perhaps at first escaping our notice. We may in fact grow impatient and wonder why old habits seem so resistant to change. And here’s the rub. We experience love profoundly when we have moments of suddenly standing tall. We also experience love profoundly even as we continue to stoop – because love is extended regardless of our habits and our fears. Love is steadily offered, abundantly poured out. It is in our freedom from needing to be perfect, that we can come to understand aspects of love that are harder to see when everything is in place. Sometimes in our infirmity we catch the note that draws us deeper into the song of grace.
At the start of this sermon I asked you to consider how the bent woman’s posture might have limited her view of the world. Now I’d also ask you to consider, what has she seen from that stance? What has she been able to perceive that others miss, their eyes fixed more directly outward? What intricate details has she noticed that are often overlooked by those moving so quickly through life? What joys has she discovered that, as it turns out, are not limited to those who can stand tall? What has she learned in the midst of constriction?
I don’t mean to suggest that her healing was unimportant; it was in fact, a cause for great joy. As it is for us when we experience healing. But there is an incredible joy that can be found in discovering that nothing is wasted in the economy of God. Not even our struggles to believe that we are truly loved as God promises that we are. Not even our feelings of powerlessness to change old habits out of sheer force of will.
Not even shame is wasted, if in the hands of love, it is transformed into empathy, compassion, and mercy for others.
Some of you know that I have been attending Al-Anon meetings lately. In these meetings I sit with a group of people who seem to understand what it is to see one’s own imperfection with honesty, transparency, humor, and hopefulness. They have learned to recognize the gradual spinal adjustments that are taking place in their lives. As they share stories that are told without the constraint of shame, I see what a fearless people they have become. In their fearlessness they are a people capable of great love – even love to a stranger. They promise me, with what strikes me as incredible faith, that I too will come to love them as they already love me.
This kind of belonging and acceptance offers me a profound experience of the kingdom of heaven. It reminds me of what this community of faith gets to practice together and to extend to all those who are in our lives. Freedom, joy, fearlessness.
Not even shame is wasted, if in the hands of love, it is transformed into empathy, compassion, and mercy for others. How will you fearlessly, recklessly, extend love this week?