August 25, 2013 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16C
© 2013 Evan D. Garner
The audio of this sermon is available here.
She was the kind of person that you don’t really notice. In fact, even if she were standing right in front of you, you might miss her unless you were looking carefully. She made a habit of blending in. Usually, when we saw her, it was while we were driving in the car. She used to shuffle her way down the side of the street—even busy streets without sidewalks—and cars like ours would scoot over a little bit to give her enough room to make her way, one tiny step after another. In less than five seconds, she was gone, shrinking in our rearview mirror, heading who knows where.
We never knew her name. She was just the woman with the hunchback. She didn’t really need a name since her distinctive posture defined her. Once or twice, as we sped past in the car, one of us would ask a grown-up to tell us about that woman. “What’s her problem?” we would say. “What happened to her?” But the answers we got were just speculation. Maybe she was born like that. Or maybe she fell out of a tree when she was a child. Or maybe she contracted a disease that contorted her body, forcing her to walk through life while staring at the ground.
We assumed that she had no family because we never saw her with anyone. In fact, we never even saw her acknowledge the existence of another human being. She spoke to no one. She never turned her head as if to make eye contact. It was as if she lived in a bubble made of a two-way mirror. Everyone on the outside could stare at her and her deformity, but she just carried on, shuffling her feet with her body bowed down, as if no one else existed.
One day, we were playing in our neighborhood, running in between houses and hiding in azalea bushes. The game didn’t have name, and we didn’t know who was “it.” We were just running away from each other, laughing and screaming. I wasn’t as fast as my friends, so I had to stay close to trees and bushes, where I could hide if I heard someone coming. As I raced down a side yard toward the street, looking over my shoulder at a friend who hadn’t spotted me yet, I turned back around to see where I was going, and, when I did, there she was. At first I didn’t register what was happening, but I knew instinctively that I had to slam on the brakes. I skidded down onto the grass next to the sidewalk, and, when I looked up, I saw what I feared the most. The bent-over woman was standing right in front of me.
It wasn’t that she did anything threatening or represented any potential physical danger. Even as a child, I knew I could escape her grasp. But being that close to her was terrifying. She was strange. She was different. She wasn’t like us. And her otherness was petrifying. Because of her hunched-over posture, she had been labeled by decent society as unclean. Something was wrong with her—something more than just her posture. We all steered clear of her—not only because of her peculiarity but because we did not want to be associated with her strangeness. In an odd way, as long as she was at a distance, she made us feel safer, more secure, because she reminded us that something was wrong with her and not with us. She made us feel normal.
I screamed and ran. I didn’t turn around to see what she was doing until I had made it far enough away to feel safe. By the time I did, she was well on her way down the sidewalk, shuffling along as if nothing had happened. When my friends raced over and asked me what was wrong, I pointed down the street and said, “I almost ran into that hunchback woman. I don’t know why she’s in our neighborhood. I’ve never seen her near here before. It’s just not right—for people like her, who can’t even see where they’re going, to be walking down the street. Someone could get hurt.” My friends offered sympathetic amazement in response to my story of the near-miss, and then we went back to playing our game, and, by the end of the week, we had all but forgotten what had happened.
One sabbath day, while he was teaching in the synagogue, Jesus caught a glimpse of the bent-over woman through the open front door. He stopped in mid-sentence, offered no explanation, but walked down to the door and whispered something to the woman. Then, he took her hand and escorted her inside, bringing her right into the middle of the congregation. Everything happened too quickly for us to make sense of what was going on. We couldn’t believe what was happening right in front of our eyes, but we knew that something strange and powerful was unfolding. Then, Jesus laid his hands on her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!” and immediately the woman straightened up and lifted her head toward the sky and exclaimed, “Praise be to God above!”
While we were still trying to figure out what was going on, the boldest among us spoke up and said what part of our hearts were feeling. “This isn’t right!” he said to all of us. “This is the sabbath—the day of rest. There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on one of those days and be cured.” But Jesus looked at him and at the rest of us and said, “You hypocrites! Who among you doesn’t take care of his animals on the sabbath, untying them and making sure they have water and food? Shouldn’t this child of God, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage even on the sabbath day?”
And, in that moment, I knew. When I heard the words of Jesus, I knew that he was speaking to me. I had been the one to bind this woman—to keep her hunched over under the weight of oppression. My words and my thoughts and my disgust at her twisted figure had piled up on her shoulders, forcing her to bend over even further. And the further she bent down, the closer her eyes got to the ground, the straighter I felt. We had all done it. For eighteen years, we had all kept this woman on the outside so that those of us on the inside could feel better. We sucked the life and joy and dignity out of this woman so that we could have just a tiny bit more esteem. Every time we stared at her and silently gave her a label that read “Damaged Goods,” we were hiding the real truth—that every one of us was just as broken as she was, but, as long as no one else could see it and as long as she remained the source of our pity, we were safe.
But, when Jesus called her a daughter of Abraham—a child of God—he did something that threatened all of that. When he put his hands on her and said to her, “Woman, stand up straight!” he showed everyone that she was just like us and that we were just like her. The scariest truth is that each of us is just as bent over by the burdens of this life as that woman. Whether by illness or disability or unemployment or addiction or divorce or race or class or sexual orientation, we are vulnerable to the labels that other people place upon us, and, because of that vulnerability, we quickly slap a discriminatory label on someone else before anyone notices our own weakness. Often, in the name of our religion, we call that which makes someone different from the rest of us “unholy” and “wrong” and “sinful” just because we don’t want anyone to notice what is “wrong” with us. Even the most bent-over and broken among us would rather point a finger at someone else in the name of what is right than admit our own vulnerability.
But Jesus changes all of that. He takes the weakest among us and brings her right into the middle—the place of power—and says, “Stand up straight! You are a daughter of Abraham! You are a child of God!” And, when Jesus says that, no one can take it away. If you are broken to the point of being bent over—even if it’s in ways that no one else but God can see—know that God is still calling out to you in order to make you whole. And, if you’re so worried about what’s wrong inside of you that you’ve lost the ability to recognize the dignity of every human being, stop for a second and listen to what Jesus is saying to them and to you. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to fit in. You don’t have to have your life in order. Still, God is calling out to each and every one of us, saying, “You are my child. You are my son. You are my daughter. Stand up straight!” Amen.