August 22, 2010

Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

I have an image in my mind of a teenage boy. He’s wearing a black vest over a clean white shirt with a bow tie. But instead of the slacks that you might expect, he’s donning a red and white kilt with knee socks to match. Surrounded by girls his own age and younger, he’s dancing with all his might… head held high, arms in the proper position, eyes focussed as he concentrates on the steps of the dance.

Though there were lots of interesting dances and presentations at Folkfest over the last few days, one of the people I will remember is boy in the middle of the Highland Dance group at the Scottish pavilion. To me, he just seemed to represent what Folkfest is all about… an unself-conscious celebration of cultural heritage, a determination to carry on the traditions of our cultures, and an opportunity to discover our identity by learning who we are and where we came from.

If you spent any time of Folkfest this year, you can’t have missed what I saw everywhere… people of all ages dressed in their native costumes… beautiful fabrics, funny wigs, scarves and sashes everywhere! The official ambassadors were walking around proudly, or standing at the entrances to welcome the gathering crowds. They were all confident, proud, and excited to be representing their countries and cultures. They held their heads high… celebrating who they are and the groups to which they belong.

The story from today’s Gospel about the bent-over woman provides quite a contrast to the confidence and self-assurance that I saw in so many young people at Folkfest. We don’t know what has happened in this woman’s life that has caused her to become so bent-over – so stooped. Perhaps it was an illness that caused her spine to bend so much that her eyes are now always looking at the ground. Perhaps it has happened gradually… over many years. Perhaps she hardly notices anymore that she doesn’t have the opportunity to look up.

The Greek word in the text may indicate that she is bent-over by “weakness” or perhaps by “illness.” Maybe she was not well-nourished. Maybe she was weak with hunger, or weak from many years of doing without the necessary vitamins and minerals to make her bones grow strong and healthy. Some have suggested though, that maybe the woman is bent-over, not because of a physical problem, but because of a social or psychological one.

I remember having a friend in school who grew very tall. She was over six feet when we were only in grade seven, and she felt very awkward and out-of-place a lot of the time. Before she even got into high school, her parents started to worry that she was starting to develop a curve in her shoulders. She was looking down on her friends, and she was trying to make herself smaller than she really was. She needed a lot of encouragement to stand tall and be the person that God made her to be. Otherwise, she might end up bent-over… both physically and emotionally.

I read one creative telling of the gospel story about the bent-over woman that suggested that this woman may have been badly hurt or abused by someone in her life. Maybe she had been told over and over that she was “no good,” and now she has come to believe it. She feels so worthless and wretched about herself that she has literally become bent-over. She won’t look anyone in the eye. She looks only at the ground. She tries to stay out of the way. She tries not to be seen. She doesn’t want to offend anyone, or to risk getting hurt again.

Other commentators have suggested that simply the fact of being a woman in the culture of Jesus’ day was enough to cause a person to be bent-over… at least figuratively bent-over. A poor woman – perhaps a widow – was the lowest of the low. She had no education. She held no property. She had no value at all.

In a society that functioned with an honour-shame system of determining social status, a poor woman had no honour at all. She was filled only with shame, and she showed it by keeping her head down. She was a bent-over woman. She was looked upon with scorn, or at best, with pity.

It would be nice to think that we no longer have any bent-over women among us today. At least within the progressive Canadian multi-cultural context, we have risen above the discrimination and exclusion of the past to create a society in which everyone has a place… where we learn about and celebrate our differences, where each person holds an identity that can be respected and honoured.

Not so many years have passed though, from the time when European immigrants building the Dominion of Canada looked upon the Aboriginal Peoples of this land as something less than human. Encountering cultural practices, religious ceremonies, and languages that we could not (or would not) understand, the new Canadians looked for ways to reform our neighbours and to make them more like us.

Government and churches share the blame today for the legacy of residential schools where Native customs and languages were suppressed as we attempted to “Christianize the savages” of the land. And, in a sense, we succeeded in creating a bent-over People… a People full of despair and hopelessness… a People only recently beginning to stand tall once again, and to celebrate their cultural identity as First Nations Peoples.

There are others among us as well, who are figuratively bent-over by the weight of human discrimination, exclusion, or neglect.

I think of the teenage girl, thirty pounds overweight or underweight, trying to fit in with her peers, always standing on the edge, feeling ugly, and unimportant, and bent-over.

I think of the older adult who has never married, or lost their spouse… living alone in a tiny apartment, feeling like a burden on their younger relatives, needing more assistance, but not wanting to ask… feeling helpless, and hopeless, and bent-over.

I think of the single parent with a special needs child… struggling to balance work and caregiving… frustrated with a system that never seems to provide enough help… feeling alone, and overwhelmed, and bent-over.

I think of the single adult without a partner, and of the couple without any children… doing fine in so many ways, but constantly being reminded of what this stage of life is “supposed” to include… feeling incomplete, left out, and bent-over.

I think of the young adult, trying to figure out their future… making choices about school and work and relationships… feeling ill-equipped for all the stresses and strains and demands on them from all directions… feeling worried, and confused, and bent-over.

I think of the young parents with the growing family. Everything seems good from the outside… but his job might be terminated, and she might be pregnant again, and at least one of the kids will need braces, and it seems like they’re fighting every day… feeling tired, and stressed, and bent-over.

No matter how competent, successful, or trouble-free our lives may appear on the surface, I’m fairly sure that all of us know what it is like to feel bent-over by the circumstances and demands of life… even if it is simply caused by our inability to help those around us (or in the wider world), who are struggling with so many troubles.

And so, we are invited today, to put ourselves in the position of the bent-over woman. Like the woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years, we have the opportunity to show up in the place where Jesus is teaching and healing and helping.

While our pain and grief may be invisible to most people, and we may keep it hidden away most of the time, God knows the things that are weighing us down. Jesus immediately saw the bent-over woman and recognized the fact that she was painfully stooped. He called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And when he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

What happened in her to make such a dramatic and instantaneous change? What power did Jesus have in his touch or in his words to so quickly free her from her illness, her sadness, her grief, and her shame?

I don’t know exactly how it was that the bent-over woman was transformed into a daughter of Abraham who could stand up straight and tall. But I think it must have had something to do with her own sense of identity. Remember, when she came to Jesus she knew herself as the lowest of the low. And that’s how others thought of her as well.

Jesus points out that the leader of the synagogue would not object to someone untying an ox or a donkey on the Sabbath day in order to lead it to water. But the religious man does object to Jesus helping out this wretched bent-over woman on the Sabbath. To him, she is worth less than an animal.

But Jesus sees her differently. By Jesus’ words, and by his loving touch, she is transformed. She becomes what she truly always was… a child of God, a daughter of Abraham… someone who is loved and honoured… someone who can stand up straight and tall and confident again.

I guess I need to say something, before I finish, about what is a rather confusing text from the book of Hebrews. I won’t take the time to go over all the details of the text, which took me some time to sort out with the help of a good bible commentary.

But essentially, what the author of Hebrews is doing here is to make a comparison between how the Israelites in the wilderness of Moses’ time related to God, and how the Christians of the early church are invited to relate to God. God has not really changed, of course. It’s the same God. But the people have come to understand God differently, having met God face-to-face and up close in Jesus of Nazareth.

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to see God and receive the commandments, he did so in fear and trembling. Everyone else avoided the terrifying encounter, staying down at the bottom and saying, “Do not let God speak to us or we shall die!”

They knew that God was holy, and, by comparison, they were rather wretched. They knew that God had high expectations of them, and that God would judge them and find them lacking. And so they cowered at the bottom of the mountain. They were afraid.

But the author of Hebrews explains that in Jesus Christ, we have come to know that we have nothing to fear from God. God is still holy. God still has high expectations of us. And God is still the judge of all. But the judgment is not something to be feared, but it is the promise that, one day, everything will be made right. The kingdom of God will be complete, and we will be made perfect in God’s presence.

This is good news for the people of God!… that all the things that keep us stooped or bent-over will be overcome, and all will be well. The author of Hebrews makes it clear that while the troubles of the world may cause us to struggle now, God is shaking things up. God is turning things upside down… just as Jesus took a woman from the bottom and raised her up, and took a synagogue leader from the top, and shamed him down to the bottom.

God is shaking things up and making things right, and Jesus is bringing in a kingdom that cannot be shaken. It’s a kingdom of love and justice and grace. A kingdom where all people are children of Abraham and sons & daughters of God.

Whether we are Scottish or Dutch or Korean or Ghanaian or First Nations Canadian… Whether we are male or female, single or married, old or young, rich or poor or somewhere in between… Whether we are teachers or students, homemakers or business people, professionals, or labourers, or service workers, or unemployed… Whether we have obvious troubles, or whether our hurts and pains are hidden beneath the surface… Let all of us come to Jesus for help and for healing. Let us hear his voice and feel his touch of blessing, and let us know our true identity as God’s own children. And let us stand up straight and tall as we join in the celebration – rejoicing at all the wonderful things that God is doing! Amen.