The Freedom to Stand
August 25, 2019
After eighteen years she had gotten used to looking at people out of the corner of her eye. She has to look up and sideways – this is about all she can manage. Of course, nobody tries to meet her eyes. She is mostly invisible. And to those who seem to see her, they don’t bother to bend over and incline their heads far enough to meet her eyes.
After eighteen years of being bent over, she could hardly remember any other way of seeing the world than out the corner of her eye. She could hardly remember what it was like to stand up straight. She missed the days when she wasn’t bent over, when her world extended beyond the span of ground at her feet that she was forced to look at. She missed the days when she didn’t feel so alone.
She yearned to be set free from her illness. She hungered to have the bonds that shackled her soul loosened. She was bent over, anyone could see that. It wasn’t hard to look at her and recognize that the way her body contorted itself was unnatural. But nobody else could see that she was not only bent over physically, but she was bent over inside. Her spirit mimicked her physical appearance. Her soul felt bent over, oppressed and burdened by the weight of forces beyond her control. Forces that seemed to suck the very life out of her, that whispered to her about how alone she was, how much of a burden she was to those around her, and how maybe she had done something to deserve such a punishment from God.
The woman in our passage is bent over by what is named a “disabling spirit.” It is surely a physical illness that has left this woman bent over, unable to stand up straight for eighteen years; but it also seems to be more than just a physical illness. In this passage, there is a lot of language that revolves around bondage. This illness has bound her spirits, contorting them out of shape as well. She is unable to stand up straight physically yes, but we wonder if perhaps she is also unable to stand up straight spiritually; she has been bent over by forces beyond her control.
This woman’s story resembles many of our own stories. We have been bent over by forces beyond our control. The disabling spirit that bends us over has many names. We call it depression, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, grief caused by the death of a loved one, PTSD, bipolar disorder, loneliness. We call it broken relationships, broken families, addiction, racism, bigotry.
These forces that attack our bodies, our minds and our communities, leave us feeling disabled, bent over, unable to stand up straight. And they do not leave our spirits untouched. The forces of our world that bend us over are often outside of our control and leave us feeling helpless. We feel like a blade of grass caught in a hurricane, battered by wind and rain. All we can do is wait out the storm and hope for the best.
We feel helpless, lost without hope as we watch our own bodies and minds deteriorate. We feel helpless, lost without hope as we watch our loved one’s bodies and minds deteriorate. We are bent over by a force that binds our spirit, chokes out our hope, whispers that we are alone and keeps us from standing up straight.
But the disabling spirits and forces that keep us bent over do not get the final word. Because as the woman who has been bent over for eighteen years enters the synagogue on this particular day, she is unaware of an encounter she is about to have that will set her free and allow her body and her spirit to stand up straight again.
The woman enters the synagogue in Nazareth. She had heard that Jesus, the great teacher has returned. She had heard him teach once before in this very synagogue. He had proclaimed that the year of the Lord’s favor was upon them and that he had come to give sight to the blind, to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free. She wonders if he really meant what he said, or whether he was actually capable of such power. Surely he didn’t have the power to set her free from the disabling spirit that bent her body and her soul over.
The woman files into the synagogue as Jesus is teaching. It’s the Sabbath. She glances at him from the corner of her eye, looking upward and outward. It’s all she can manage. And then suddenly Jesus pauses, noticing her. And then he turns and looks her in the eye, which is no easy feat. He would have to bend over and incline his head to meet her eyes. He summons her over into the center of the gathered crowd. And then he speaks: “Daughter of Abraham, you have been freed from this disabling spirit that binds you and shackles you so.” And then Jesus places his hands on her, and immediately she stands up straight and begins glorifying God.
We can imagine the scene as this woman, who has been bent over for years encounters Jesus, who has the power to help her stand up straight again.
Jesus sees this woman; he notices her even though she would be invisible to everyone else. He bends his own body to meet her eyes and truly look at her, to notice her and to understand the burden she has been carrying for eighteen years.
Jesus summons her to himself. He calls her out of the crowd and invites her to come to him. He does not call her into a private room to heal her. But he calls her into the midst of her community to heal her there. He seeks to reunite her with her community. Healing cannot take place in isolation, apart from community.
Jesus speaks to her. He calls her daughter of Abraham. To associate her with Abraham is to link her to the Abrahamic covenant, to remind the people of the promises made by God to their nation’s father, Abraham. In healing this woman, Jesus is publically fulfilling God’s promises. He is fulfilling Old Testament promises that speak about healing, redemption and restoration overcoming brokenness, pain and disabling spirits.
It is not coincidental that Jesus heals this woman, but it is necessary. As the synagogue leader scolds Jesus for healing on the Sabbath—for breaking Torah law—Jesus responds that just as it is necessary for caged animals to be led to food and water on the Sabbath, it is necessary for this woman, who has been imprisoned by a disabling spirit for eighteen years, to be healed on the Sabbath. Jesus states that it is necessary for this woman to be healed; God’s promises demand it. Jesus fulfills those promises and liberates her from the forces that bend her over.
But what is interesting about this passage is that Jesus declares, “You have been set free from your illness” before he touches her and before she is actually physically healed. There is something else going on underneath the surface here. The woman is declared to have already been freed from her disabling spirit, from a spirit that has bound her, even though her physical disability remains. Freedom has already taken place before the physical healing happens.
Jesus, in declaring the woman to be free even before her complete healing happens, shows us a truth that is often hidden and even once uncovered, is difficult to swallow. That truth is this: in Jesus we can experience freedom from the forces that bend us over, even when we do not experience complete and total healing.
I admit that I struggle when I come to many of the healing narratives in Scripture. I don’t know what to do with some of them. I want to proclaim the good news that God can miraculously heal us from our physical and mental illnesses. And I do believe that God can and does on occasion. But I also know from my experience and from many of our stories in this room that God does not always miraculously heal us. Many of us have been living with physical and mental illnesses for years that have not been healed, no matter how much we pray. We all know that as we continue to age our bodies and minds will continue to deteriorate and not work the way they once did. So then, is there comfort or hope is to be found short of complete and total healing?
In Jesus’ encounter with the woman, I think we do find hope, even where there is not complete and total healing. Jesus heals the woman physically, yes, but he also speaks to a deeper oppression, a deeper force that binds her, a deeper bent-overness that she has already been freed from, even before she is healed physically. What is this freedom that Jesus speaks of?
First, Jesus has given her the freedom to be seen. Jesus looks at her, sees her in her bent over state, and calls her to himself. Jesus has freed her from the oppressive spirit that tells her she is invisible; he has freed her from the internal narrative that she tells herself about how she is not worthy of others’ attention, about how her brokenness, her bent-overness is too much for others to look at and want to be around. She is freed from the lie that she has to hide her brokenness, that she has to be ashamed about what bends her over. In the act of being seen by someone else – being truly seen – the woman’s spirit is able to stand up a little taller.
Jesus also sees us in our bent over state, and calls us to himself. Jesus sees the burdens that weigh us, the illnesses that ravage our bodies and our minds. He offers us the freedom to stop hiding, the freedom to allow ourselves to be seen by others– to allow not just the nice parts to be seen, but the messy and broken parts too.
Have you ever had that experience when you’re at a party or a group gathering with lots of other people, and you’ve just received some terrible news or you feel weighed down by some illness, some problem that won’t go away? You look around at how much fun everyone else is having, how everyone else’s lives seem so put together and perfect, but inside your spirit is troubled or even crying out? And you know how badly you wish you could share the news, the illness, the problem with them – you want them to understand the sadness/the pain you’re carrying – but you don’t, because you don’t want to burden them, you don’t want to ruin their good time. Or perhaps you’re too ashamed or too scared to share with others what is bending you over inside.
In 2009 my grandpa died on Christmas morning, and I remember going to church the following Sunday. During the coffee hour everyone was sharing about how wonderful their Christmases were, but I felt so alone, so bent over inside because my Christmas was awful. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell any of them. I couldn’t allow my bent over spirit to be seen. It felt easier to hide it. To pretend it wasn’t there; but this just bent me over even more.
Jesus offers us the freedom to be seen. He offers us freedom from the forces that isolate us, that whisper we are alone and have to deal with life on our own. Jesus calls the woman into the midst of her community to free her from the isolation that she had grown used to. Jesus allows her to be seen by her community, and that is where healing takes place. Healing from the forces that bend us over cannot take place in isolation, it can only take place in community.
Jesus beckons us to let ourselves be seen by our community – whether that be our church community, our family, or some close friends—Jesus beckons us to trust that healing comes from sharing our burdens with one another. Oftentimes it isn’t miraculous healing that helps us stand up straight, but it is the love and support of our community that helps us stand up a little straighter.
In this story Jesus also offers the woman the freedom to acknowledge that things are not the way they should be. Jesus reminds her and the crowd of God’s promises and reminds them that it is necessary for her to be healed. Not, it would be nice if she were healed…but it is necessary for her to be healed, because it is not right that she has been bent over for so long by a disabling spirit. This is not the way things are supposed to be. This is not the way things will be in the kingdom of God. And so Jesus gives her the freedom to look her illness squarely in the face, and not to justify it, not to try to understand how it’s part of God’s plan, not to explain how it is meant to teach her something, but to look at it and to see it for what it is: it is ugly, it is not meant to be.
Jesus offers us the freedom to look suffering square in the face, and to know that this is not part of God’s plan. Suffering is a reality of life, yes, and it is inescapable, but we are given freedom from the lies that God causes our suffering for a reason. The God we see clearly in Jesus is not a God who hurts or who doles out illnesses as part of some master plan; but instead we see a God who is doing everything in God’s power to rid us of our illness, to restore us, to heal us from our bent over spirits. I do not believe that death and suffering are ever part of God’s plan. But when we lose a loved one to death, when we are diagnosed with a terrible illness, when we suffer the ravages of deteriorating minds and bodies, I believe that God’s tears are the first to fall.
We are freed from believing in a God who causes our suffering. We are freed to look suffering and death squarely in the face and to pronounce that it is indeed evil, ugly and terrible. We do not have to justify it or explain it away; we are freed from the need to understand why our suffering happens, and are freed instead to focus on how we will respond to it. We are freed to believe that our God is indeed present in the midst of our illness, our brokenness, our bent-overness, not causing it, but helping us to stand up a little straighter. We are freed to know that God finds it necessary to heal us from what bends us over.
Finally, Jesus offers the woman the freedom to trust in God’s promises – to trust that suffering will not have the final word, but healing will; to trust that brokenness will not have the final word, but redemption will; to trust that she will not be physically, spiritually and socially bent over forever, but God has promised that she will stand up straight once again. Jesus offers us this same freedom that comes from trusting in God’s promises.
I once knew a guy whose name we’ll call “Teddy.” Teddy had seen more and experienced more brokenness than I probably ever will. A failed suicide attempt had left him crippled and with a scar that constantly reminded him of his shame. He suffered from a mind that had turned on itself and was unable to regulate his moods. He was disowned by much of his family and found himself locked against his will in a mental health facility.
But for all the brokenness and bent-overness that Teddy knew, he also knew that he belonged to Jesus. Teddy would always carry with him a stress ball that was shaped like the Earth. When you ran into him he would pull this little Earth out from his pocket and remind you that everything in the Earth belongs to Jesus. And to make sure you really understood what he meant, he had a mantra that he would always repeat and that he would make you repeat after him: “You’re born with Jesus, you live with Jesus, you die with Jesus.”
If Teddy was ever having a bad day, all you had to do was start repeating his mantra, “You’re born with Jesus, you live with Jesus, you die with Jesus,” and before you finished he would be repeating it with you, a faint smile on his lips. This was a man who trusted in God’s promises – who trusted that Jesus never left him alone and that he still belonged to Jesus no matter how bent over he became – he trusted that he would not be bent over forever, but that one day he would experience the complete healing, the complete redemption that God has promised will have the final word. Teddy trusted in God’s promises, even against all hope, and he found himself free to stand up a little straighter.
Jesus seeks out those of us who are spiritually, socially and physically bent over by forces beyond our control, and he liberates us for a life of worship and witness.
Jesus offers us freedom to look suffering in the face and to call it what it is: ugly; he offers us freedom from isolation, beckoning us to share one another’s burdens; and Jesus offers us the freedom that comes from trusting in God’s promises – promises that speak of healing, redemption and life finally overcoming all brokenness, suffering and death.
Suffering is an unfortunate and inescapable reality of life. No matter how hard we try to avoid them, there will always be forces that will bend us over. And so as Christians, perhaps life isn’t about avoiding suffering, as much as it is figuring out what to do with our suffering – how to respond to it. Jesus shows us a way of responding to our suffering that brings freedom and helps us to stand up a little straighter.
Jesus is at work in this church, in the Cheney community and this world, giving us freedom from the forces that bend us over. We bare witness with our lives and with our love to the good news that in Jesus there is freedom. We carry the promise of this freedom with us in our very souls. Let us help one another stand up a little straighter as we point to the freedom that Jesus offers.