Homily for August 21st
10 And He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And there was a woman who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, He called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your sickness.” 13 And He laid His hands on her; and immediately she was made erect again and began glorifying God. 14 But the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the crowd in response, “There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 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 stall and lead him away to water him? 16 And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” 17 As He said this, all His opponents were being humiliated; and the entire crowd was rejoicing over all the glorious things being done by Him.
“When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
I have to admit, that the stories I read in the gospel more often confuse me than encourage me. More often I am moved to feel indignation, much like the religious leaders, rather than astonishment.
For me, my skepticism and resentment comes from my own inexperience with the swift and justice-bearing acts of Jesus and his miracles. My impulse is to target, take aim at, and take down those parts of today’s passage that inflict the most damage on my own pride; and in the process, I disregard those details that more often prove to be the most beneficial. In this case, I quarrel with the immediacy of the crippled woman’s healing.
It still seems like it was just the other day that I walked, a crippled man myself, into the basement of another church building: Ballard First Lutheran. I was there to attend my first A.A. meeting. When I said my name and made my confession—my name is Paul and I’m an alcoholic—the broken silence of my guilt and shame was matched and then overwhelmed with the intensity of a cheering crowd. In that room, any number of sober days is cause to celebrate. In that room, even the meager presence of the most down-and-out sufferer is reason enough for welcome and rejoicing.
As wonderful as that experience was, and as many times as I have played that scene inside my head—again and again and again—the truth is that I left a that room a still-crippled man. That day, there was no laying on of hands; and there was certainly no miracle.
In today’s gospel, a woman appears at a gathering probably much like I did that day. Maybe she is hopeless or living without a home. Maybe she is simply afflicted from the day to day despair that comes from having lived a significant portion of her life limited to seeing the world in only one way: downward facing, back bowed, a posture of her humiliation.
But we are told that she is called forth by Jesus, that he places his hands on her and—immediately—she is healed. For her there is great happiness. She praises God, most likely by lifting her face to the entirely-new-to-her heavens. But as I read this story—again and again and again—it engenders in me more anger than it does rejoicing; more jealousy than joy for the afflicted.
The way I see it, this miracle comes nowhere near my own reality. My own process of healing has been, so far, a long and difficult passage, one that I must show up for—again and again and again—by standing, day after day, on the threshold of those same downward steps into the church basement. Just keep coming back, one old-timer tells me, just keep coming back. We will always be right here when you do.
As an alcoholic, what bothers me most about many of the passages in the gospels, including this one, is the apparent disregarding of what I have concluded beforehand should be the most important facts. I want a lengthy treatment of the miraculous. I want enough details as to how the woman is made well so that I can take the instructions and conduct the experiment myself. Give me a story of healing that I can believe, I say to myself, not just these two declarative sentences. Or better yet, make my story conform to this one. Make this woman’s story my story instead. Fix my life in under a paragraph. Please. Do it now.
But as a poet and a writer—or, I should say, when I let the word of God speak to me as I truly am, as I truly am able to understand it—what encourages me most about this passage is the velocity in which it expands. There is in it an ever-increasing speed with which it passes beyond the horizon of my own narrowed vision. It transcends the boundary created by my own personal history which makes me see it with my head down, one way, as only a story of spiritual transaction rather than spiritual connection. As a poet and a writer, I am better able to notice how the lack of attention paid by the gospel writer to the details of the miracle are overwhelmed by the attention given to the interaction between Jesus and the religious leaders. From this I can draw a different conclusion.
Maybe today I am not the crippled woman. Today, I may not even be one of those gathered few at the synagogue, one of the lucky men or women to witness a miracle and therefore rejoice. No. Today, I most likely resemble the synagogue leaders: my head held high, and so overly confident of my place in God’s kingdom that I feel I deserve recognition for my suffering; and therefore compensation for all my pious acts.
But when I imagine the cross, or lift my eyes to the crucifix behind me—the still-in-stone center of our daily worship—I am confronted with a different reality. I see a man whose head is held up in anguish and longing; but what I don’t see is what I am most meant to see: that God is at the same time looking down.
And when I picture this scene from the gospel, the entrance of the crippled woman into the synagogue, the silence that might have fallen over the leaders because—suddenly—there stood in their presence a woman of the lowest standing, I picture this woman being called forth, her utter astonishment in being known by someone whom she, because or her ailment, is entirely unable to recognize.
I imagine Jesus kneeling down to meet her face to face—his forehead touching her forehead. His steady hands placed gently on her heavy and burdened shoulders. I imagine this woman, in her anguish and her longing, being greeted kindly; being healed, as Christ is; the world above and around her suddenly restored.
Whether or not this woman will remember forever the face of her healer, I don’t know. But what I know from my own experience, and what I believe should astonish us, is that she will more likely never forget where she came from—her lifelong communion of facing the ground.
And so, I suspect, that this is what the religious leaders have neglected to remember: that their circumcision and covenant with God is a reminder of all God has done, and it does not mean the exclusion of the outsider in order to uphold religious principles. Nor does it permit their disengagement with the downcast.
Rather, I think that Christ in this passage, and Christ in his posture, suggests the opposite.
When we look at the cross, do we see the immediacy of a relationship restored with God and with others? Do we see how God always looks down to meet with loving eyes our anguish and our longing? Do we see that Christ alive and kneeling before the woman is also the cross fulfilled?
Healing, I believe, is not limited to the realignment of our bones, but is most fully expressed in the restoration of our relationship to God and others.
The story of Jesus meeting the crippled woman is a triumphant reflection of the two postures present at the cross itself. Jesus embodies the grace, mercy, and compassion of the father when he kneels down to touch this woman. And the woman, in her painful bend and stoop, is made able, through Christ’s healing hand, to redirect her a gaze, full of her anguish and longing, into the eyes of one who is able to match it with overwhelming love and understanding.
The good news for all of us is this: healing takes place at the point of connection. Because of the cross we too can look up and meet God. Or look down—as Jesus does—to love and embrace all the world and people that God has given us to greet.