Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Bent Woman and the Daughter of Abraham

I have a friend who, when asked why he is in the Episcopal Church, says, "I'm a cradle Episcopalian, it is my home, I am comfortable here."   There is a certain truth to that.  The dance of the liturgy, the call and response, the pew calisthenics are all familiar and comforting to us.  They occupy our bodies and our minds and position our hearts to be receptive to God.  I love that about our liturgy. 

But is that why one is Episcopalian, or part of any religious community?  I hope not. 
I hope it is because once our bodies and minds are in their routines, our hearts open to God and God reaches in and rattles our cages.  God isn't comfortable, God is brazen, God is challenging.  Church is not a couch, its a challenge.

This week's lectionary is from Luke, the story of the woman who is bent double and Jesus heals her on the Sabbath.  (I have a little soap box I keep with me for use once every three years:  healing on the Sabbath is not a violation of Sabbath.  First Century Judaism permitted acts of mercy on the Sabbath.  OY, how many pulpit bloopers have I heard on that topic!!).  The woman is known, in some circles, as "The Bent Woman."  This is because the construction of "she went bent over and could not stand upright" is such a messy construction in the Greek.  She has been crippled, for whatever reason, for 18 years.  Jesus comes and frees her from that bondage.  Jesus liberates her from the burden she has carried her whole life.

Think about what that means for the woman. Lean over and look down at the ground.  How much can you see?  A circle with about an 18 inch circumference, right? And not much in the periphery, let alone above or ahead of you.  This woman's entire world view for eighteen years has been an 18 inch circle of dirt.  No future, no past, no one else's face unless they got down there for her.  No sky, no hope.  And dirt and dust kicked up into her mouth over the years, this is 1st Century Israel after all, right? That is her world view, that is her life.  Figuring her first century life expectancy at forty years, it is roughly half her life. That is all she sees for roughly half her life.

And what do other people see?  They see a woman who is diminished.  She is beaten down, she is undignified, she is unable to do what others can do. She is submissive and dependent and strange.  Her posture is her public identity.  Sit with that one for a while.

And then, with a word or a gesture, Christ sets her free. 

How has her world view changed?  She can look up and around and backward.  You can imagine in those first few days, that was all she did: she looked all around, she stared at the sky.  I am a huge clouds fan, myself.  I can sit and look at clouds all day.  I don't know how many times I have been honked at at a stop light because the view out my sunroof distracted me.  If she was able, I bet this woman looked at nothing but clouds for the first week. 

But now she is upright, she has a lot of work to do.  She has a whole new existence to create, a second half of her life to live into in redemption of the first half.  But also informed by the first half.  She appreciates, now, that she can look around her.  She appreciates, now, face to face conversation.  She understands,now the essential nature of hope, of lifting her eyes to the hills from whence cometh her help. She values, as she especially can, the gifts we take for granted. And with appreciation, comes gratitude, and with gratitude, responsibility.  She knows she is blessed and she is honor bound to make good use of those blessings.

In my imagination, she uses her new found strength to stand up to forces that bend us over, that foster submission or victimization or force on us an identity that is not a fulfillment of our potential.  These forces are myriad in our world, then as now: domestic violence, sexism, child abuse, elder abuse, etc. Women or the homeless, people of color, disabled people, mentally ill people, uneducated people, these people are bent double under the weight of our fallen world.  And we see them and think of them as crippled.  The Bent Woman reminds us that if that is what we let ourselves believe,  it is we who are crippled.

At the end of the text, the woman is referred to as "a daughter of Abraham."  It is the only time this expression is used in the gospels.  As a daughter of Abraham she has inherited a mighty fortune in favor, and a double portion of obligation.  As a daughter of Abraham she is bound by covenant to serving God. She has an obligation, a unique "perspective" and a generations deep well of grace from which to draw.  It is a big task, living into the potential that God has released in us. But when Jesus Christ sets us free - from whatever is crippling us, debt, addiction, pain, anger, - when he takes us from the Bent Woman to a Daughter of Abraham, you better believe that being an Episcopalian is not a couch, its a challenge.

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