Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for August, 2016

Unbreaking Her Body

Christ healing the [ailing] woman who was bent over, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51253 [retrieved August 21, 2016]. Original source: Collection of J. Patout Burns and Robin M. Jensen.

Christ healing the [ailing] woman who was bent over, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51253 [retrieved August 21, 2016]. Original source: Collection of J. Patout Burns and Robin M. Jensen.

Luke 13:10 Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had ailed her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” (translation, Wil Gafney)

Let us pray: In the Name of God who loves, is Love and bids us love one another.

The miracles of Jesus present a particular problem for me. I cannot do what Jesus did. But I am not free to turn the page. Walk with me through this gospel and let us see together what it is that we can do to heal the hurting in the church and in the world. The academic in me is struck by the fact that Jesus was in synagogue on shabbes, teaching the scriptures. I love this so much and am rebuked by it. There is no such thing as being so advanced as a biblical scholar, so holy, so saved that you do not need to assemble with the people of God and study and pray. If anybody had an excuse not to go to worship on a regular basis, it was Jesus. And here he is sharing his gifts. So before I lament about how I can’t heal anybody like Jesus, let me ask myself am I following his example in the places where I can? OK, I’m preaching and teaching and celebrating the sacraments. But I’m not going to rush to pat myself on the back, because I know there is more coming. How about you? How are you doing in your worship attendance? What are the gifts you bring to God’s people?

I can’t do what Jesus did and I am suspicious of churches and pastors that say they can heal miraculously. Yet at the same time the church is supposed to be a place of healing. I could preach about spiritual healing for the well-being of our spirits is a primary concern of the gospel. But there is a danger in reading the gospel as only or primarily concerned with our spirits. Our bodies are sacred. We live in these bodies. The health of our bodies matter, even when we have made our peace with their limitations, frailty and failings, snaps, crackles, and pops, disease and disability. The scandal of the gospel is that God became flesh. Jesus spent his life in human flesh touching and healing diseased and despised flesh. It is in the flesh of our bodies that we encounter Christ and each other.

Sometimes those encounters are burdened by the biases and beliefs we bring with us. This gospel is about the unbreaking of a woman’s body but it is also about breaking the habit of uncritical literal reading of the bible. Jesus came from a society that blamed any difference among human bodies in sight, hearing or mobility on the devil. In some texts he will say that people who are mute or deaf or epileptic or mentally ill are demon possessed. We know better but we haven’t always been taught how to say so without sounding like we’re throwing out Jesus and the gospels. The Gospel is the truth of our faith swaddled in the culture, beliefs and biases of those who recorded and preserved it. It is true even when it isn’t factual.

What is true is that the Church and wider society has a body problem. The Church has held a long grudge against physical, human, bodies – especially the bodies of women. You can find that discomfort, suspicion and downright dislike throughout the breadth of the scriptures. The Church also has a long history of elevating the spiritual at the expense of the body. This is an alien philosophy inimical to the Gospel. It comes from Greek philosophy which colonized the church just as Alexander the Great colonized the world three hundred years previous to the Jesus movement, leaving Greek language and culture in his wake. The subordination of the spirit to the flesh is dangerous because it denies the inherent goodness of our bodies, all they do and all of which they are capable. The Olympians we celebrate are victors not just because of their never-say-die spirits. They are Olympians because of their beautiful, marvelous, well-conditioned, powerful bodies in every shape, size, color, gender and configuration.

The ancient world believed that if something was wrong with you then someone did something wrong. Remember the question from another story: Rabbi, who sinned that this man was born blind? Jesus got it right that time; no one sinned. That question didn’t die out in the ancient world for some. There is also for many whose bodies function differently than others around them – especially when in an obvious way – a lifetime of stares and questions. Sometimes a longing to be different, whole, healthy, normal. But sometimes there is also a deep acceptance of yourself and your abilities and limitations constantly assailed by the rudeness and ignorance of people around you.

Our society has come a long way from the times in which people with physical, emotional or developmental ranges that differ from our own were shut away, often abandoned and abused. Sometimes we put people who are different from us up on pedestals because of all they have overcome. That’s not always a good thing. The ordinariness of a synagogue service in which the bent and the straight sat together and prayed together is a lesson for us. Our congregations are reflections of the family of God. Everyone should be welcome and made to feel welcome. So we need to be thoughtful about the language we use even when it is in the gospel. We have to ask ourselves if we are truly welcoming to all and if our members and visitors are as diverse as the whole people of God. Are we accessible to those with mobility challenges? Are we sensitive to them? Does our language say that there is only one way to pray? What if you can’t stand or kneel or fold your hands? What if bowing your head means you can’t read the priest’s lips and can’t follow the service? Are we truly accessible and more than that, welcoming, inclusive?

For eighteen years this woman lived with the stares and pious pronouncements. She could have been an older woman with eighteen years of osteoporosis or she could have been a younger woman with eighteen years of scoliosis from her childhood or anything in between. And she was living the life she had in the body she had. That life included prayer and study. Neither ability nor disability made her any different than anyone else in that regard. She knew she was a daughter of Abraham. It was Sabbath and she went to synagogue.

Jesus is there, in the place of prayer and study and he sees her. Jesus sees her and diagnoses her need. He calls her to him. She does not seek him out. Unlike other women and men in the gospels she doesn’t seek out Jesus to be healed. She is just living her life and healing comes to her. It is only natural, only human, to desire wholeness, health and healing. It is also the case that some folk are at home in bodies we could not imagine living in, at peace with themselves their abilities and what others call disabilities.

I am still stumped by Jesus’ healing. But I believe in it. I can’t reproduce it. But I believe in it. What I can do is bless those who can and do heal and be present with those who are seeking healing and work for a world in which all have access to healthcare. Let God be God. Let the power of the Holy Spirit heal all who she will. On this day she was willing and a body that was bent and broken was unbroken.

Jesus’s touch offered more than the miracle. It was the bond of their shared humanity. So many folk are starving for human touch—even when they live in homes with other folk. We do a lot of hugging in the black church; we say a hug in church may be the only hug some folk receive all week. So let the church be a place where folk can be loved on, safely. And let us always be respectful of the boundaries of people’s bodies and never use our status as adults to press a touch, hug or kiss on a child. We must teach them that they own their bodies and can say no. We pass the peace because we understand that we are to offer a holy touch, a loving touch, a healing touch to each other as a part of our worship because our bodies matter.

The touch of Jesus accomplishes that which others cannot. It heals. It frees. It liberates. It reconfigures. It restores. It unbreaks that which is broken. That is the primary mission of Jesus, to free us so that we may live fully and serve and worship God without constraint or restraint. Some folk do have a healing touch. There were prophets and apostles who could heal. I am certain there are folk in this world whom God has granted the grace to heal with a touch or a prayer. For some the healing touch is nurtured through years of nursing and medical training. What I know to be true is that those folk who advertise and monetize healing are not the ones I trust.

We can’t always count on miracles but we should be able to count on medical care. There is no good reason that this state and this nation cannot provide healthcare to all who need it starting with our children, especially when we say that we are a Christian nation – not true but we say it – and one nation under God. Texas should not lead the world in maternal mortality. This isn’t the Iron Age. But some folk in leadership are trumpeting Iron Age theology and values and they are killing women and children. The exact opposite of Jesus. We may not be able to heal with a touch and a word like Jesus but we can work to make a world where every child, every senior, every person with a disease or disability has access to healthcare. Jesus could have charged anything he wanted for his healing touch. He could have reserved healing for only those who could pay. But then he wouldn’t be Jesus. Jesus was, as the meme goes, a brown-skinned socialist revolutionary.

It seems the only thing folk like less than priests who preach politically or caustion against reading every text in the bible literally is seeing Jesus intervene for good in someone else’s life. The synagogue leader sees the power of God at work before his very eyes and is mad about it. How many of you have seen a miracle? Can you imagine? And he says: It’s shares. She’s been bent over for 18 years, one more day isn’t going to hurt her. I didn’t come to the house of God to experience God in real time. I came to read and hear about God, not see God act in the world. My God is a character in a story, not a real and living God active in the world. I don’t want to see anybody else get better in any way because that might mean I’ll have to change. And I’m too used to my own brokenness to give it up. All that praising is just unseemly. She’s standing up when the rest of us are sitting down. I’m not here for that. Besides, there’s no room for healing in the order of service.

Look at our worship bulletin. We have had this service for four hundred years or so if you count from when we started using the Book of Common Prayer. And while there are prayers for healing there is no space for the healing or the praise that is sure to follow. Jesus’s touch is not only loving, healing and transformational, it is disruptive. Even when we’re doing well – going to synagogue or church – we still need to be shaken out of our complacency, as one of my role models, the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems, taught me when I heard her preach this text a good 20 years ago.

Finally, one thing that hasn’t changed from the time of Jesus to our own is that there are some folk who love animals more than they love people. I love animals. I am a proud cat mama. But I understand that though animals are part of God’s good creation and we owe them faithful care, they do not bear the image of God as we do. There are folk who turn their back on suffering humanity – particularly if they are a different race or religion, like the Muslim Syrian refugees – and lavish attention on animals even when lives are at stake. One example that burns me is the folk who continue to call for Michael Vick to be thrown out of the NFL for a crime that he has acknowledged, apologized for, served time for, paid reparations for and made restitution for as though he doesn’t qualify for forgiveness while at the same time the league and the Cowboys who my godfather played for for fourteen years are full of unrepentant rapists and wife beaters.

To them Jesus says, You ought to do for your sister what you do for your animals. And she is your sister. She is a daughter of Abraham. You can’t call yourselves the children of Abraham and advocate against the well-being of another of God’s children. And we have a presidential candidate talking about throwing an entire branch of Abraham’s family tree out of the country. Well, the brother in the text had the good sense to ashamed of himself after Jesus finished telling him about himself but it seems he wasn’t alone. There was a crowd of folk egging him own. They were put to shame too. Maybe you can’t heal like Jesus but do you use your voice to speak against those who would deny basic human dignity to another person?

After Jesus had unbroken her body and their biases, the folk in the synagogue instead of getting back to the day’s liturgy joined the woman in celebrating the liberating acts of God through Jesus. They didn’t just give thanks for the miracle of the healing but for everything that Jesus did: for seeing our need, for calling us, for touching us, for healing us, for teaching us, for rebuking us, for defending us, for showing us how to live and love, for being with us, for being God among us. For all these things we too give thanks. Amen.