Is this a story of all of us and our world now? Not to take anything away from it being this unnamed woman’s incredible story of healing at the touch of Jesus. But that it could also be ours and the story of our world now - bent over and “quite unable to stand up straight” in the face of everything that is happening in the world. Do any of you feel like that? Do we not see people and communities and a world every day that is in this painful state of being, bent over and not able to stand up straight with all that is weighing us and peoples and nations and communities down? And the concern and confusion and controversy and challenges and changes that are taking place in what is collapsing, broken or needs to be disrupted, dismantled, destroyed, in order that a weight may be lifted, especially on the most vulnerable, in order that some may stand up straight who have not been allowed, who have been put down, weighed down, bent over - to be seen, touched, healed. And with thanks to God that this is a story of healing and hope and joy-filled praise, all embodied in a physically challenged woman. And not without its controversy, in a place of worship, on the sabbath. But all Jesus cares about is that after eighteen long years of suffering, that he sees and touches this woman so that she is healed. We rejoice with her. And we pray that this could be our and this world’s story too.
It is one of my favourite gospel stories. In fact, when I was being installed as a pastor here almost 20 years ago, and I was asked if I wanted to choose Bible readings for the worship, I chose this one. It felt good and right to begin a new ministry relationship with a gospel story of healing, of being freed by Jesus from whatever weight or cause that bends us over, and at the touch of Jesus to stand up straight and praise God. And to share with Jesus and one another and others in just this kind of healing and freeing work, in response to personal afflictions, but also the collective, systemic, structural afflictions and injustices and oppressions that weigh people down, that bend them over, and that together we work to see them, to see all humanity and all creation, healed, standing up straight, filled with joy and praise. It was and is a good vision for ministry together.
I have also wondered if part of my attraction to the story was for my mom. She suffered much of her life from chronic back pain, as I know others have and are. And I wanted it so much to be her story. And I am grateful that there were some later years of relief. And I trust, fully for her now, forever in God, standing up straight in joy and praise. And so also for many and all the saints before and with her. I love this story for that hope.
And part of what is compelling about the story is the controversy. The religious leader criticizes Jesus for healing on the sabbath, and absurdly tells people there are six other days when work, including healing or being healed should be done, but not on the sabbath. And Jesus is quick to point out their hypocrisy, willing to do the work of caring for animals on the sabbath but denying healing to this woman afflicted for 18 long years. The religious leaders are put to shame and all the people rejoice at the wonderful things Jesus says and does.
So first, let’s rejoice in this differently abled woman’s healing. Jesus sees her. She is not invisible. And Jesus empathizes with her in her affliction and suffering. Affliction is not the circumstance of everyone who is differently abled. And we are learning as we listen to those who experience this world through different abilities, not to pity or assume people’s longing is simply to be cured of their difference. But to be seen and acknowledged and supported, and for structural barriers and often more subtle social and cultural barriers and biases and prejudices removed and ended, so a weight and burden many people with different physical and mental abilities have to bear would be lifted, toward greater healing and wholeness for us all.
And second, let’s see the connections between her story and our own, our world’s, and particularly others that we see suffering, struggling, afflicted, and bent over, maybe for years, and quite unable to stand up. The story reminds us of Jesus’/God’s first concern - to heal those who are afflicted. That promise in this and other stories, is the gospel, the good news we trust in and witness. This story of grace assures us of God’s desire to see the healing of humanity and all creation. And of the invitation for us to join others in rejoicing! And, to participate in the Spirit’s work of healing and confronting those authorities, religious and otherwise, who would have us believe in limits on compassion, on freedom, on healing and wholeness, often for their own personal, economic, and political gain. As we feel bent over by all that is happening in our world and lives, as we see others bent over by various burdens and afflictions, we trust and entrust ourselves and others to this grace, this healing touch of Jesus, and feel ourselves and others able to stand up straighter, to even lift up our heads and hands and voices in praise of God.
As this world becomes more challenging, environmentally, socially, politically, economically, and personally, this gospel, this grace is what continues to make it possible for us to stand up straight and meet this life and world and everyone we encounter with the grace we receive, offering hope and healing, joy and peace, wholeness and life, together in God. We have been given all we need to stand up straight to meet the challenges of this world, and to stand together for the healing of this world as God desires.
The other connection to this story of healing today, is the current crisis in healthcare in our nation and in other places in the world. We know it is a complex issue. The lack of access to a primary healthcare provider, over subscribed hospitals and closed emergency services, the lack of long term care beds and staffing shortages, stress and burnout in healthcare through a pandemic and continuing more acutely now, rising costs and budget pressures, all of it is causing many to be bent over, so burdened and unable to stand up straight, both healthcare providers and the increasing number of people, especially those more vulnerable, without adequate care, those simply waiting, some growing sicker or at greater risk to their health and wholeness. We can’t turn away from this burden that is bending so many over with a weight too great to bear. We need to join our voices and actions with others to call for and support greater change to ensure access to good healthcare for everyone. We celebrate the opening of the Luther Court Community Health Centre and all the work that has been involved by Karen and the leadership and staff and Board of Luther Court to see this realized, and all our prayers and support for its success in providing greater access to healthcare in our community and as an example and model for others and other communities.
And a last word about the first reading from Jeremiah. This is Jeremiah’s calling story and I wonder if it too is our story. Some years ago, when the lectionary on a Sunday included this reading, we asked one of the eldest people connected to the community at that time, Elizabeth, who was almost 100, if she would serve as the voice of God in this story in Sunday worship. And we asked one of the children of the congregation, Braeden, if he would serve as the voice of Jerimiah. I can still see Elizabeth and hear her quiet voice, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” And Braeden said, “Oh my God! Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a child.” And Elizabeth replied, “Do not say you are only a child, for you will go to whom I send you, and you will speak what I tell you. Do not be afraid of anyone, for I am with you to deliver you.” And I think Elizabeth then put out her hand and touched Braeden’s mouth and said, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” It was a wonderful moment of seeing this story as our own, God’s calling to each one of us.
And God gives us all we need in the Spirit, words of promise and hope, of conviction and courage, to both touch and heal and unburden us that we might stand up straight in praise of God, and to fulfill God’s calling, to share that same unburdening, that same grace with others, confronting all that pulls others down, that they too and all of us together and the whole creation might stand up straight and praise God, now and forever. Let this healing be so for everyone, in all our relations. Amen.