The Pain In Her Back

Given on April 28th, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY

Scripture: Luke 13:10-17

 We are told that Jesus was in a synagogue teaching to the ruling elders. It is a Sabbath and so all the work for the week has concluded so they might turn their attention to God. Until into the synagogue comes an unusual sight, a woman, with a pain so real, so debilitating she cannot even bear to look up into the eyes of Jesus. She cannot look up to see the beauty of the blue sky, or the green in the trees. Her life, her spirit, has been forced to look upon the ground for 18 years. Can we even begin to imagine what that must be like for her? This woman, faithfully coming to the synagogue to remain with God even though, it would seem God has abandoned her. For the last 18 years, she has had nothing to look at, nothing to ponder but the ground. She sees only the dirt – the place where people leave what they discard–trash from the previous night, maybe leftover food. Here she is, unable to see the light of day, unable to look her brothers and sisters in the eyes, unable to even know what they look like. The ground. The dirt. The place where people’s feet get dirty. The place where children play and kick dust up in her face.

But it is more than that isn’t it? No one looks to the ground to see God. We do not lower our hands to reach out to God. We raise our hands up, we cast our eyes towards the skies in search of God, we look to the light of the sun rising to find God and yet all along this woman has been relegated to looking at the earth. Up in the sky is the holy, the Divine, where God “lives.” Down below is the profane of life, the earthy part of life. Traditional myth tells us that deep in the earth is where hell was believed to have existed and so she is forced to look down upon the ground, where the brokenness of humanity leads and where we will all find ourselves someday. She’s unable to look up to the sky, to look up to God, to look up to heaven. Our own understanding of the story of Jesus differentiates between up and down when we claim as a statement of faith that Jesus descended into hell, into the mire, into death. And then on the third day rose, he rose up into the sky, up into heaven to be with God, to reconnect to God. And yet this woman, this bent over woman, who for 18 years has been unable to stand straight, unable to look to the heavens, is called over to Jesus and healed. And then she was.

The miraculousness of this healing is only balanced by the reactions of the men standing around Jesus. Those who knew all the rules because they had created all the rules, they had interpreted all the rules to their advantage. They had determined what God’s true followers were supposed to do. And they scoffed at Jesus. And they decried the woman who had just been healed by telling her, “healings must take place during the other six days of the week, the Sabbath is the day of rest.” They tell her, “don’t come in here on this day seeking to be healed.” as if it was she who sought out healing and not the other way around. The ruling men act as if healings of this kind were so commonplace returning the next day to be healed, to be released of an ailment is an easy task. That after being released from a condition that had brought her pain and misery for some eighteen years prior can wait one day, one second more to be brought relief. Was she to assume surely Jesus will be back here tomorrow? Surely she can be healed then? The men believe she should give to God that which is God’s. She should rest this day. She should not interrupt the service of worship. She should not interrupt the movement of the spirit moving through worship in order to participate in the movement of the Spirit moving through her life. Release, healing, a new and healed life in which the future was unbounded, unhindered by that which had defined her life for 18 years should take a backseat to proper decorum and the security of worship on the Sabbath.

The men in this place were upset. This healing was a direct challenge to their ability to determine how to act, to determine how to be. This was their show in the synagogue and this Jesus, this prophet, was ruining it for them with his presence and of all things doing work on the Sabbath. These men were so blinded by their power that they could not see the presence of God erupting around them. These men could not see a new way to be, a new way to act, a new way to love. Luke drives the point home by suggesting the common people sitting in the synagogue do get it. They rejoice at this moment of freedom in an otherwise life of captivity. They, not blinded by power, by position, by wealth, are able to see the newness of Christ shining into a situation that had overwhelmed the woman for 18 years. So they too, like the woman, celebrated and praised God for the work God was doing in that place.

But I wonder, what was it that was bringing this woman such pain she could not straighten her back, she could not look another person in the eyes, face to face, as an equal. The Lukan language here is interesting. He writes, “There was a woman there who for eighteen years had a sickness caused by a spirit. she was bent double, quite incapable of standing up straight.” I wonder if the author of the Gospel of Luke isn’t trying to do more with this story. It is a wonderful and powerful story of Jesus healing a woman of an affliction, but I wonder if hidden behind the plain text, behind the narrative of the story isn’t a commentary on the ways of the world that remain timeless and every bit as relavent today as it was when it was penned. I wonder if Luke isn’t making a statement about the place of women in the Israel of 2000 years ago. The Biblical witness offers many stories of the abusive conditions experienced by women in the tradition. There is Sarah, wife of Abraham who, while traveling, was told to pretend to be Abraham’s sister and is offered to the pharaoh to do with as he pleases in exchange for safe passage while on their journey to the land promised by God. Sarah is given over to the Pharaoh and Abraham is rewarded with land. There is Hagar, the handmaid, who produces Abraham’s offspring and is cast out to live on her own once Abraham’s wife is found to be with child. There is Bathsheba, the woman King David looked upon one day while bathing. David, so overtaken by her beauty, demands her for himself and has her husband killed in battle so he may marry her. There is Ruth, forced to take from the leftovers of the harvest to take care of her mother-in-law and herself, because there was no other way for widows to survive. And there is Esther, the queen of Persia who won a beauty competition over others in the King’s harem to replace the former queen Vashti who had become just a little too uppity for the King’s taste. And there are Lot’s daughters. And there is Tamar.

The structures created by much of the biblical narrative create an environment in which women can presume a second or third-class citizenship, in which they are often used as bargaining chips, a servants, as those seen but rarely heard from. The rules and regulations of the Biblical witness, both Old and New, determine what women will wear, how they will keep their hair, how they will behave, where they will live, when they are considered ritually unclean and what they must do to be made clean again. And I wonder if this systematic inequality weighed on the women in Jesus’ time. I wonder if these stories of abuse and inequality, of violence and misused sexuality, all of which had the added weight of being found in the holiest books of scripture and as such coming with a Divine seal of approval, I wonder if all this weighed down on the backs of women in Jesus’ time. I wonder if these stories were also their stories leaving them unable to stand up straight, unable to lift their eyes to the heavens, unable to lift their eyes to God. Left only to look at the dirt because the weight of all that stuff, for all that time, was simply too much to bear. I wonder if women in Jesus’ time had a spirit that crippled them. I wonder if they often felt like they had the weight of their world on their shoulders? I wonder if they could never stand up straight?

And then comes Jesus, then comes the Christ with a new message. A message of love in which each person regardless of their gender is placed in a loving relationship with God. And then comes Jesus, then comes the Christ with a new message. A message of hope in which the trials and travails of the present age are ending and a new realm of God is appearing which makes all things beautiful and holy and new. And then comes Jesus, then comes the Christ with a new message. A message of equality in which all persons are brought into equal relationship with God, with each other. Was this the experience of the apostle Paul when after his conversion he wrote of an end to the divisions of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Because all were made one. All. Are. Made. One.

I wonder if women’s backs are still in pain. I wonder if women’s backs are still bent today in a way that prevents them from looking another in the eyes, in the face. I wonder if women still possess spirits that cripple them. I have a confession to make. I grew up in a house with all boys save my mom. And I do mean save my mom. I was the oldest of 3 brothers and at times I think my mother was just hanging on for dear life. I grew up in a very male dominated environment in which these sorts of questions were not asked. I also grew up in a church in which the use of male language for God was exclusive and I am not sure that I even questioned my own use of it until I was in seminary. But just as within society we are moving past saying “men” when what we mean is “people” so to in the church should we question the normalcy of male-centric language. If the only way we can ever conceive of the holy is through male imagery, do we not exclude the experience of over those who seek to conceive of God as mother, of Spirit as a She as it is in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, or of Christ moving beyond gendered conceptions to a place transcending all the divisions we place between ourselves and the other. As I said, I grew up in a house of all men except for my mother and in a lot of ways that created an environment if only by sheer numbers, of male domination.  And then something happened, my younger brother had a daughter, and then another, and then my youngest brother had a daughter, and then my younger brother had another, and in the span of 5 years I gained 4 nieces and a lot of reevaluation to do. Because I dream of their futures, a future that will be brighter than perhaps any woman has experienced in the history of the world. And I want to be able to look them in the eyes and tell them that they can do anything they want to with their lives, that they will live in a world in which they will be valued for their minds more than they bodies, that they will live in a world in which to choosing to work and have a family or either or neither will be decisions they make with their partners and with God. And yet, I know that we as a society have miles to go before we get there and not much time in which to make it. We still have miles both in our society and the church before we can begin to conceive of equality, of parity, of seeing all people as equal partners in the church and the world, as equal children of God, no more, no less We still have miles to go before we are as Paul suggests, all made one, male and female, within our society, within our world. We still have miles.

Martin Luther King once noted that he dreamed of a time in which individuals will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I am left to dream of a time in which my nieces, Sophia, Anya, Sarah, and Marci, will not be judged by their bodies or their clothes, but by the content of her character, the sharpness of their minds, and their abilities to bring faith, hope, and love to bear on the dilemmas of their age. But I fear for them on account of the violent nature of our society and our world. For those with children, the presence of people who will do them harm leaves many paralyzed with fear. The threat posed against them is enough to make you want to lock your doors and never let your children, primarily your young girls, out of your sight. A patriarchal society in a patriarchal world run wild with the innocence of our little girls sacrificed.

In the end we are left with no answers, only hope, no answers, only dreams, no answers, only faith. No answers but a story. Jesus, teaching in the synagogue. A woman hobbled by the weight of the world, given a spirit that would not let her stand straight, that would not let her look at another in eyes, in the face. And we see Jesus, calling her over, offering words of comfort, words of healing, words of release. Who do we see in the face of the woman hobbled and then free? Perhaps for you it is the woman in the mirror. Or is it a daughter, a mother, a wife or a sister? Perhaps it is the face of a niece. I see my nieces and I hope and I dream. Because in the end, it is our daughters and our mothers, our wives and our sisters, and it is the face of wisdom crying out, yet full of life and hope and love and wholeness. May we go out seeking the Christ who ends all divisions and makes us all one. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.

Image: “Bent Figure of a Woman Sien” by Vincent Van Gogh

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