The following are excerpts of a sermon given recently at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ by the pastor, the Rev. Charles L. Wildman:
In Luke 13:10-17, we cannot know for sure what caused the woman to spend 18 years of her life bent over. So the bent-over woman bore a double burden. She was physically impaired to the point that she spent most of her life going about looking at the ground. And, as if that weren’t enough, she also carried the burden of being misunderstood. Then, to make matters even worse, as a woman, she already was treated as second class in her patriarchal society.
It’s hard to walk bent over. Ever since an experience at a conference many years ago, I have thought about the possibilities for her posture. My assumption is that she had carried heavy burdens for a long time — hauling large jugs of water from a distant well to her sustain her family. Or large loads of produce to the village market to sell to add to the family income.
At a pastors conference, I was asked by a colleague to help with a dramatic re-enactment of this story. I was selected to be the one who was to carry a heavy burden, in this case, a lighter colleague, on my back — this to dramatize the idea that we are to help another who is in need.
So, in front of some 500 colleagues, I found myself attempting to carry on my back an admittedly fairly light female colleague. It was embarrassing. In spite of her small stature, her weight began to hurt my back in just a few seconds. By the time in the skit in which I was released from carrying her, my back ached so badly that I felt like walking bent over to ease the pain.
Jesus instantly experiences the bent-over woman’s pain — her physical ache as well as her emotional sorrow at her society’s treatment of her. He knew how she yearned to be free of her ailment and to stand tall among her peers. He understood that living life looking mostly at the ground, viewing the road ahead only with the greatest difficulty, can be limiting at best. We need to see the horizon, appreciate the sunrise and the sunset, the mountain vistas and ocean’s farthest waves, to know God’s hopes and dreams for us.
He touches her. She is healed in an instant, stands tall and grateful as she gazes fully into her future writ large on his strongly kind face, delivered from illness to health, from limited possibilities into the limitless eternity of God’s future. Now, she is a daughter of Abraham, just like the tax collector, Zachaeus, (Luke 19:9), considered sinful by his society but accepted by Jesus as a son of Abraham, worthy of a new start. Students of this text feel that by this healing, Jesus signals the equal status of woman in God’s realm, a revolutionary idea for Jesus’ day and still so for some in ours.
As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Temple leaders are less impressed with the healing and all that it might stand for than they are that in the act, Jesus seems to be violating one of the Ten Commandments, (Exodus 20:9-10) that no work should be done on the Sabbath. But Jesus reasons from the lesser to the greater. Why is it that you temple leaders untie your animals and lead them to water on the Sabbath but fault me for unbinding this human being from her burden? In appropriately shaming them, Jesus once more preaches that the law was made for humans, not the other way around! God intends that we are to be set free from all that hinders us from fulfilling holy orders.
Our entire Bible is a liberation story. Jeremiah quickly learns that God’s call to him to be prophet of Israel means that he will be delivered (Jeremiah 1:8) from all dangers. The aged psalmist (Psalms 71) is convinced from long years of living that God will rescue him from all ultimate dangers. The Israelites are freed from Egyptian bondage, and freed again and again from exile and persecution at the hands of their enemies. Freedom is at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian story. Even in baptism, we pray for the child or the adult to be given the strength to resist oppression and evil.
May you and I, often burdened by warfare within ourselves, wrestling with compulsions, fears, habits, prejudices, preconceptions or pride, open arms and hearts to the only One who can set us free. Then, unbent and grateful, we can dedicate ourselves to the most joyful life possible, setting free all who ache and struggle from burdens too great to bear and lives focused only on the ground. Amen.