(based on Psalm 71 & Luke 13:10-17)
You might have detected a bit of a theme this morning – with the song, scriptures and story of rocks. Indeed they are symbols of strength, endurance, protection. But then we get to the gospel and there isn’t a rock in sight. We have a story of Jesus going to the synagogue, a place of worship, of teaching, of community – all be it – a somewhat divided community – men at the front, women at the back and the ruler of the synagogue has his carefully crafted sermons ready to go. But he’s been generous and let this itinerant preacher from Nazareth do a little teaching before the important part of the service really gets going. Big mistake! Jesus notices someone.
How did he even see the woman, she’d certainly have to be at the back of the crowd, all bent over like that, it’s not likely that she caught his eye. But she did catch his heart.
In the Bible translation called the Message, edited by Eugene Peterson, verse 11 reads… “There was a woman present, so twisted and bent over with arthritis that she couldn’t even look up. She had been afflicted with this for 18 years.” 18 years, my friends- that’s a long time.
Now, I’m glad that we have different biblical translations to read from and compare, and although I like much in Eugene Peterson’s style, I think he misses the point in this verse. He makes an assumption that what afflicted this woman was arthritis. If you suffer from arthritis, I’m sure you would agree it is not a pleasant thing, and certainly it would be a relief to be done with it for once and for all.
But the translations more closely transcribed from Hebrew and Greek, don’t use the word arthritis. The NRSV says, “10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”
Hmm, a crippling spirit…. That could be a little different couldn’t it. There is some ambiguity in that which calls us to pay attention. We have celebrated rocks today as a symbol of strength and protection. But what if I held this rock (weighing five pounds) – what if I carried it on my shoulder, or held it out in front of me… how long before I would begin to stoop in order to compensate for the weight of it? How long would it take for this rock to become a burden?
What are the invisible burdens that bend us double?
What is it like to walk through life with an invisible illness? What is it like to walk through life being told day after day that you’re not good enough, smart enough, strong enough, beautiful enough? What is it like to walk through life with a memory that haunts you, and won’t let you go, and keeps you from celebrating and honouring the child of God that you are?
It begins to weigh on you…
Jesus saw the woman – he saw a divine sister, calls her to his side and with a touch of love, says to her, “Woman, you are set free.” I like to think it sounded like this: “You are done with this, honey. Hold your head high and move on sweet sister, beloved daughter of God.” And she does! She does that very thing.
And that ironically really ticks off the leader of the synagogue who says, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” Hey, what happened to his carefully crafted sermon? Maybe he was already to tell people if they were sick, it was because they had sinned against God. Maybe he was ready to tell them that if they gave a big enough donation he might say a special prayer on their behalf. Who knows! But it does give Jesus another chance to show the hypocrisy at work in just following the rules without wondering where the grace is at work behind them. “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey and lead it out to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham and Sarah, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
My friends, if we are not setting people free from the bondage of evil, if we are not bringing encouragement, enlightenment, if we not living compassionately toward one another, our community, our world, if we are not helping to remove people’s burdens and if we are not showing them there is something solid and beautiful to stand on, then we shouldn’t be here – Sabbath day, or any other day.
There are tough days, when I find myself hunched over, as if to protect the vulnerable core of myself. I have to return again and again, to that place, where I let go of the burden and feel myself rooted and grounded in Divine Love.
And yet I have been so blessed, because even in those awful, painful times, I know, I know, that I am loved – I have been blessed with family and friends, and I know myself to be a child of God. Do you know yourself as a child of God?
Invitation to build a cairn: In ancient times people gathered rocks and piled them together as way to say, this is a special place, this is where I have experienced God. So I’m going to invite you now to think of a time when you have had a sense that God has been there for you, or when you have felt supported by someone, when someone has taken away or shared your burden, when they have been a rock for you. When you are ready I invite you to bring your rock forward (you may take it home at the end of the service), and place it with the others to make a cairn. You can do this in silence, or you may want to briefly name a person or a time when you have felt supported by God, or by others. (we built the cairn)
We end with this blessing from Irish poet John O’Donohue…
May you recognize in your life the presence,
power and light of your soul.
May you realize that you are never alone,
that your soul in its brightness and belonging
connects you immediately with the rhythm of the universe.
May you have respect for your individuality and difference.
May you realize that the shape of your soul is unique,
that you have a special destiny here,
that behind the façade of your life
there is something beautiful and eternal happening.
May you learn to see yourself with the same delight,
pride, and expectation with which God sees you in every moment.
John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us p 112