The Gospel reading for today is about much more than a simple healing story. There are several layers. One of the layers can be fairly well summed up with a recent cartoon from the annual Church Pension Fund calendar that is sent out every year to churches. This is from June of this year. The church is full and people are waiting for a wedding to begin. Two women are talking:
“Oh Esther, I’m glad we’re here early. I’m so excited for this wedding. Aren’t you?”
“Actually, I’m not sure I can stay. If I do, I may need to stand to object in the service!”
“Why? You’ve been to a number of same-sex marriages here…”
“Oh, that’s not the issue. I love these two guys.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize you had an issue with female officiants…”
“Are you kidding? Our Rector is amazing. She’s so gifted.”
“So, is it the inclusive language liturgy that is troublesome?”
“Not at all, bless their post-modern hearts!”
“So help me out here! What on earth can the problem be?”
“Isn’t it obvious? It’s a 7 pm wedding and no one is in black tie!”
We don’t know the woman’s name in today’s gospel passage from Luke. She is simply referred to as the woman who is bent over, crippled by some physical ailment. Her physical disability seems to have named her. In some ways she stands for all who are so named: diseased, slow, retarded, grossly overweight, stupid, crippled, blind as a bat, gimp, senile—anyone who is somehow less than normal in body or mind.
The woman is encountered by Jesus. He heals her, and it is wonderful For the first time in her adult life, she is able to stand up straight, to look straight ahead instead of at the ground, to be restored to what we call normalcy. But perhaps just as wonderful is the way Jesus speaks to her, and what Jesus says about her. He does not call her disabled, or hindered, or a victim of life’s unfairness, though from most points of view, she is.
Jesus seems to have no interest in making her a professional victim, so that her disability defines her whole life. Rather, he calls her “a daughter of Abraham.” This one whom we call the bent over woman, is called by Jesus a daughter of Abraham. So, why is this significant?
Abraham is the father of her faith. Abraham is the father of faith for all Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It was with Abraham that God made covenant. Abraham was the one to whom a great promise was given. God promised to make a great nation out of Abraham, a nation through which all the nations of the world would be blessed. It is through Abraham that the Jews would be considered God’s chosen people.
This woman is a daughter of Abraham, an heir to the blessings of God. Moreover, as a daughter of Abraham, she is also called to be a blessing to the whole world. She is meant for more than superficial, cruel, limiting labeling. Bent over though she is, she is part of God’s great salvation of the whole world. And Jesus has compassion on her and heals her. She stands up straight. Even if her back had not been healed by Jesus, I think she would now have stood up straight. Her life has been caught up in God’s promises to the world. Her life has been renamed, not as a long story of injustice, victimization, and sadness, and most likely even great pain, but as a daughter of Abraham. She is a child of God.
You will notice that Jesus doesn’t acquiesce to those who try to criticize the good he has done by throwing the law at him. He calls them hypocrites. Don’t be surprised when you try to reach out to show compassion to those the world deems as “bent over,” or in some other way not “normal,” and a well-meaning legalist in the church criticizes you, throws scripture verses at you, totally misunder-stands your good intentions, and condemns your good works. Perhaps the clothes you are wearing or the method you use to minister might not be suitable for a proper Episcopalian. It might seem to Catholic or too Protestant. Rejoice and be glad! For so persecuted they the prophets, and they certainly didn’t hold back on taking issue with Jesus, even to the point of killing him.
Jesus dealt with Pharisees in his day, and we still have Pharisees among us today. (And be on guard, because sometimes we, ourselves, can fill the role of Pharisee.) Take heart and remember that Jesus encountered the same criticism and ridicule, and be glad. When those who are bound by legalism or a critical spirit come out against love and mercy and criticize your work as wrong or sinful, stay the course and follow Jesus. God will deal with these people.
In Jesus’ name and for his glory, you can give the “bent over” one a new name and courage and faith and, and maybe a new life. Jesus means to name you and remind you who you are in the heart and mind of God. He will not let you acquiesce to the names the world wants to lay upon you…or maybe even the names to which you have allowed yourself to fall victim. You are daughters and sons of Abraham. Your life is meant to count for something, to take its place on stage in God’s great drama of redemption and salvation and blessing. You are called to live into the grace and wholeness that God intends for all of God’s beloved and, indeed, for God’s whole creation. And, you are called to help Jesus in the great work of giving others back their names and maybe even their lives.
When we do baptisms in the church we “name” the children, whatever full names the parents had given them at birth. And then, regardless of the name given the child by his or her parents, the Church gives the child a much more determinative, revealing name—Christian. In doing so, we hope and pray that this child’s life will be a long story of growing into that name, living into God’s gracious dreams and holy purpose for him or her.
This child is a member of the fellowship of faith, the local church community, as well as the Church universal. And God gives special gifts to this child so that he or she will be a vital part of the Kingdom of God and God’s purposes on this earth. And by the way, we will be baptizing Christian and Jessica Race’s new baby boy Cameron next Sunday.
Friends, you are sons and daughters of Abraham. Your name, regardless of what else anyone may call you, is “Christian” or follower of Jesus the Christ, the Sent One. Stand up straight, look up, not down, step out in faith, claim your birthright, and be the beloved child of God that you are. Then go out into the world to love and serve the Lord. And be prepared for criticism, even heartbreak.
However, you won’t go very far until you run into other sons and daughters of Abraham who need to be reminded of their birthright. Your call, as the hands and feet, and heart and mind and voice of Jesus on this earth, will be to help them get back their names given to them at their baptisms, and by doing so, maybe even their lives and reasons for living. Amen.
*Adapted from article by Wiliam Willimon, as reprinted in Synthesis, “Tradition,” August 22, 2010.