Sometimes weeks can go by in the Bible readings in church and it can sound like stuff from a foreign land. The end of the world coming with fire… the moon like blood and the sun made dark. Or there are stories of people with diseases we are not likely to catch, tribes and peoples with names that sound like someone just made them up, and prophecies about events that must have long since passed into history.
But today’s reading is one of those where we can pretty much all recognise the scene and all identify with the people. We all know plenty of women who are bent over; with osteoporosis, with life’s burdens or just because as we get older that’s what happens. And I imagine we’ve all seen women, like the one on the front of order of service, in our own streets and we’ve wondered ‘How does she cope?’ And of course we’ve all known, and most of us have sometimes been, the other person in the story, the person who says, ‘What, you can’t do that here…!’ or you can’t do that now… or in that way with those words, or not without being ordained or something…. ‘It’s against the rules’. We’ve all met or been the person who is burdened and bent up by the need to keep the rules and do it right and make sure everything’s as it should be. And we know that, if you push all that rule-keeping too far, it can be a real burden – not only to you, but to those round you too – and we know that sometimes we just don’t what else to do but stick to the rules because life’s too frightening otherwise – but it screws us up inside….
The more you read this story you more you see that this is a story not about one bent and messed up person in pain, but two. This is not just about a woman bent double, but a man too. The leader of that religious community had presumably been learning the ‘rules’ for years – maybe even for more than the eighteen years that the woman had been bent over in her body. You can imagine that he’d had to spend years of life learning the rules and making sure that people kept them. But what a burden that could be! Neither of the two people could stand up straight really. You can imagine how they might each behave in worship. The woman could only look down at the floor and probably keep out of the way at the back. The leader of the synagogue was probably in the front, but he couldn’t stand tall either because he was so nervous about anything going wrong he was perpetually checking the rotas, fussing over the preacher and making sure the offering was locked up properly and that nobody got to sit in anyone else’s favourite seat… and certainly that nobody interrupted things by standing up straight and praising God in an impromptu solo! I imagine that many of us can identify with this man – and with the woman too – with both of these people, each bound and broken, neither in a wholly good place, both in need of some kind of healing. And I hope we hear the end of the story and the hope that perhaps they both went away different people…
But the thing is, the church, and any synagogue, and I suspect any mosque too, is really not for the healthy or the well put together, not for the suited and booted and the ones who have every part of life in good order, not a place where all the rules have always to be kept. It’s for people like you and me, the people we all are, the broken and messed up and bent double, the rule stretchers and even the rule breakers. The church is actually here for people whose lives are messed up. Jesus said that he didn’t come to call the righteous.. not just the pure… but the meek and the grieving and the poor in spirit.. those who would love to be good, but can never just quite get there for more than five minutes…
I’ve beeing reading a book by Rachel Held Evans who says that people are much more likely to be united by a common experience of brokenness than a common list of beliefs. That’s quite a thought. And I can see how that’s true. We might argue about which 50 words we should use to sum up the Christian faith, and we’d be amazed at some of things people might want to say they believe, but if one of was weeping with grief we would all know what that was like and we’d just stand there in simple solidarity. We all know what it means to be broken – and if some of us sometimes act as though we are whole and sorted – well that’s because we’ve probably got very good at pretending or hiding – and we probably have to bend over backwards to do it… so it’s just another way of being messed up really.
So the woman who comes into worship bent double, unable to stand up straight, is not an unusal human being. And neither is the leader of the synagogue who can’t see straight about what really counts – neither is he unusual for a human being. We are all, all of us, messed up, broken, bent, in some way or other. This is what it’s like to be a human being. And the church, Jesus Christ, the God of love and mercy and forgiveness, the Holy Spirit that comes to transform and bless people – all of these are for all of us – the broken and messed up ones, the bent double with pain and sorrow and burdens, the crazy ones and the daft ones, the fallen ones and the just not quite where we’d want to be ones. This is all of us.
And Jesus sets the woman – a woman bent double – free. And he wants to set the leader of the synagogue free too. He wants to set all of us free. And if that can’t be quite by healing every wound and making all our lives Sunday colour-supplement perfect, then there is one thing he can do. He can tell us that we are daughters and sons of Abraham. He can give us a new name. He can give us an identity that tells us, however messed up we are, that we belong in the family of God’s chosen ones.
I wonder if you noticed that little part of the story where Jesus says, ‘… and ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ And perhaps you remember, because everyone loves the story, that only a few chapters on Jesus says about Zacchaeus, the cheating accountant who climbed up the sycamore tree to sneak a good view, that ‘he too is a son of Abraham’.
We human beings are quite good, in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways, of pushing some people out of the family; the ones who don’t quite fit because of what they believe or don’t believe, or how they look or what they bring to the world. And we’re even better at not quite believing that weare part of the family either. But Jesus is just brilliant at making sure everyone gets to be recognised as belonging. Jesus was a son of Abraham, one of those born from the one God called to start a chosen people, as numerous as the stars in the sky. And Jesus called the woman bent double and Zacchaeus the bent taxcollector children of Abraham too. There is nothing you can do, so they say, to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can to make God love you less. You are a child of Abraham. And anyone who comes inside this door; Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist, questioning, never thought about it really… you name it… they are children of Abraham too.
Abraham goes back to the moment when God said he would make a holy people, when he set the whole following God thing going. Abraham and his wife Sarah were not perfect beings either – no more than anyone since Adam and Eve. But they were God’s family, so that was that. And they were chosen before there were any commandments, any Sabbath days even, any synagogues or churches. They were chosen when all that God’s people had were tents and stones and no land to call their own. They were God’s children. And that’s who we are too. Even if we’re bent double with age, like Abraham and Sarah come to think of it, and that woman in the temple, even if we’re bent double with troubles and worries and crippling anxiety, like that leader of the synagogue. Even if we’re broken with pain and grief – or just messed up because life is like that sometimes… we are children of Abraham, part of God’s chosen people.
I wonder why it is, or how it’s happened, that we seem to have turned church into a place where people think you have to be OK to go. It’s a place, like many places I guess, where if someone asks ‘How are you?”, we say ‘Fine!’… and it would seem somehow a bit inappropriate to say anything else. And of course no-one wants to blurt out their soul to a stranger or to someone they hardly know. And no-one wants to mess up the service that’s supposed to have an order and turn it into chaos – with people praising God or praying out loud when it wasn’t planned. But, do you know, I think church is, or should be, the space where we can be broken and messed up and know it’s OK – because no-one’s going to say we can’t be broken here or that we can’t healed today…
I remember once in my life moving to a town and having to choose between two churches – which one would I go to? But when someone said ‘It’s easier to be a broken person at that church’, I knew that’s where I belonged. I didn’t want or need a space to be respectable and well dressed and with everything in order. I needed a space where I could be me… a daughter of Abraham.
I wonder why anyone would choose this church? Not because we are a great success – in the way that most people measure these things. We are not packing them in. We haven’t got a long list of community projects that make a huge impact. We can’t point to lots of miracles. But I hope we can say that, whoever you are, you are a daughter or a son of Abraham, you are one of God’s chosen family – and whatever is crippling you at the moment – you can come here and be yourself – and you might even find a way here to stand up straight and tall and be proud of who you are. You might be broken in some ways – of course – we all are if you look hard enough.. some of us have just learned a bit better how to live with our brokenness. But everyone here is a beloved child of God, with a vocation in this world that is truly yours.
It’s interesting that when Jesus had helped the woman to stand up straight – and when he had put the leader of the synagogue straight – the Gospel just tells us that
‘The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.’
It’s there is verse 17. But I hope it can be so here too. Sometimes you can get to the end of the line in life, the end of your tether, and then something that happens that tells you, ‘Well, we may not have much, but we’ve got each other!”, or perhaps ‘I’ve got this day’. Or even ‘God is with us’. And sometimes even that is enough to get any of us to unbend a little, to let go, and to let God smile on us and God wants to. And when you see that happening to a person you can’t help rejoicing too. Jesus did some wonderful things – no doubt. And Jesus is, somehow, here among us today and every day. There are great things happening – or could be happening – among us. However broken we think we are, God can heal us a little, can lift us from our shame or worry or self-doubt, and let us know that we are sons and daughters of Abraham – God’s chosen ones. I’m only five foot two, but inside I’m an amazon… because I know that I belong to God.. and so did that woman in the synagogue that day, and so, I pray, did the leader of the synagogue – and the entire crowd rejoiced. Thanks be to God, Amen.