Standing Tall

SERMON

Psalm 71.1-6

Hebrews 12.18-29

Luke 13.10-17

Sunday 21 August                 Standing tall                                     ©Suzanne Grimmett

“To you, Lord, have I come for shelter: let me never be put to shame”

I love this cry we hear in the Psalms because we can recognise it as a deep cry from our own hearts. Shame is something that has the toxic capacity to cripple us and rob us of life. The highly popular research work of Brené Brown into the subject offers this definition;

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”[1]

It is the big bad feeling we have all experienced at some time- unless we are a sociopath. It is the feeling we will avoid at all costs, but we will also do anything to avoid thinking or talking about it. I think it is beautiful that our scriptures do not shy away from the toughest feelings we have. We are reminded that God is with us, God sees us, and is the shelter where we are assured of our worth and restored to belonging.

There is a beautiful image of being lifted out of shame in today’s Gospel reading through the healing of the woman who is seen, valued and set free. It is sad, I think, that we only see one of the actors in this synagogue drama released from their bondage. For when we change perspective, we can recognise that there are other characters in this scene more bound up than the woman who has been crippled for many years. There are also those whose religious ideology has entrapped them. The thing is, Jesus came amongst us, teaching and healing, and we have sometimes in the church tried to systemise his teaching into some kind of rule book while avoiding the confronting call to our own healing and forgiveness.

Jesus never interpreted healing as a purely physical event. In today’s story Jesus describes the woman as having been bound by Satan for 18 long years. It is difficult to know how to interpret this, but it is clear that Jesus, and likely those gathered there, believed this affliction to be spiritual as well as physical. Earlier in this chapter Jesus corrects a view that those killed in a recent accident with a falling tower were somehow worse sinners than others and were receiving a punishment. This reference to harmful theology could be a key to today’s story, where the number of 18 people killed connects to the 18 years in which this woman has suffered with this affliction. The false teaching that accidents, disease or other physical ailments are a punishment for sin has kept this woman excluded from the compassion, care and respect which she deserved. It is also no accident that Jesus chooses to heal her on the sabbath. Surely, after so many years, one more day would not matter, but Jesus reveals through this confrontation something significant about God’s relationship with humanity as well as the oppressive nature of the religious system.

The cultural and religious subordination of women in that society would have made this woman invisible. Furthermore, she comes into the synagogue bent over, unable to look people in the eye as equals. The theological understanding of the time meant that she was seen in some way as outside the blessings of God because of her disability. Jesus breaks through all this firstly by calling her over, making her visible to all gathered in the synagogue that day. He then touches her….reaching across all of the religious taboos around her gender, her possibly ritually unclean condition if she happened to be menstruating, and of course ignoring fears of contamination from what is perceived to be her Satan-induced crippled condition. And then, if that was not enough religious rules to overturn in one day, Jesus heals her on the sabbath.

Have you ever seen a healing like that? Someone lifted up who had previously only been used to receiving contempt, denigration and abuse? The response of this woman is that she is set free to stand tall and look others in the eye. She immediately begins to praise God, the author of her liberation…the one to whom she can run for shelter and who takes away her shame.

The entire crowd rejoices with her, recognising the presence of God and maybe experiencing for the first time that felt truth that if God could set this woman free, maybe they could also be freed from their shame and fear. All Gospel miracles are meant to help us ponder the nature of God’s relationship with people and our relationships to one another. Healing has both a pastoral and a prophetic role.

Keeping the Sabbath holy was linked from the beginning to remembrance of the deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Jesus uses the word bondage to prophetically recall his audience to the heart of what Sabbath is about. The Sabbath is being controlled with multitudes of requirements that have imprisoned people in an oppressive system. Jesus calls this out saying, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” A religious system that would care more for the animals of financial and practical value to them than for a woman in their midst who needed their care is cruel and oppressive. Jesus has already said earlier in Luke’s Gospel that the religious leaders “Load people with burdens difficult to bear” and “do not lift a finger to ease them.” If a social reality is part of a domination system that oppresses people, then we may call it the Satan. We are reminded in our baptismal promises to renounce Satan and sometimes I think we don’t recognise where that demonic presence can still be present in institutions and cultural systems that dominate, manipulate and control by their very nature and structure. You do become aware of it when you stand up and speak out about any oppression as the opposition and pressure to be silent is great. Jesus speaks loudly and publicly here, naming the Satan that is working through systemic religious oppression and crying with Moses, “Let my people go!”

The religious leaders in this story no doubt believed fervently in the rigid maintenance of all their religious structures and are therefore caught in a bondage of their own. I believe Jesus would also have healed and set them free if only they would allow it. Healing requires vulnerability before God, letting the prophetic word of liberation release us from our fear and pain. It is to be open to the fresh breeze of the Spirit which continues to set people free from bondage and shame so that they can praise God and be cocreators of God’s kingdom of love, justice and peace.

This week has been a difficult week in the life of the Anglican Church with the formal launch of a company naming itself “The Diocese of the Southern Cross”. I believe any departure and division within the church is reason for great sadness. However, the time comes when we cannot deny the liberating work of God. Many have noted that a breakaway group is nothing new in the church, and that for Anglicans this has happened in past decades over the ordination of women. Some who could not accept the leadership of women in the church felt the need to leave. This too, was accompanied by sadness, but as we look back across the last 30 years of the great blessings of women’s ministry and leadership in our church, we can see that by enabling women to stand tall we have released gifts which have revealed more of God’s kingdom on earth. We are a church which rests on the pillars of scripture, tradition, reason and experience and, through deep commitment and listening to one another, we continue to find our way forward by the Spirit’s prophetic leading.

It was not 18 years, but I did spend many long years being told that women should not exercise leadership in the church and that I could not be ordained. It was crippling. I was grappling with an invisible but oppressive system that reduced my full personhood to a subordinate one. It was a grace and a healing beyond my expectation to be empowered to stand and be myself, set free to speak, my mouth opened to proclaim the praise of this God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. I read this story of the crippled woman and still feel the joy and wonder at my own healing and liberation.

It took some struggle and some clear and courageous speech for this healing to be possible. We need to speak honestly and courageously now if those diverse in gender and sexuality- marginalised and oppressed by religion for so long- may be able to stand tall and be celebrated for the gift that they are to the church.  We should be suspicious of any theological ideas that hold people in bondage and shame.[2] Thankfully the Spirit is at work, setting us free from fear and declaring all of God’s children worthy of love and belonging.  As we see the full gifts of the LGBTIQ+ community released, we will together with one voice praise and worship the God who sees us, calling us to be inheritors and cocreators of a kingdom of diverse and holy people that can never be shaken.

God is with us, our ever-present shelter in times of trouble. Have faith.

+Amen


[1] https://positivepsychology.com/shame-resilience-theory/

[2] John Shea The Relentless Widow: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 1992: 244

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