Sermon for Pentecost XIV (C)
August 21, 2016
Hello, my name is Rebecca. I am the “daughter of Abraham” that Luke told you about a few minutes ago. Actually, that description might be a little confusing to you: I’m not actually Abraham’s daughter since he lived at least a thousand years before I was born. Luke might have done better to describe me as a descendant of Abraham. You might think of it like being Dutch in 21st century America. To make it really simple, just call me Rebecca. I’m Jewish. I lived at the same time as Jesus, and this is my story.
While Luke may have been fuzzy about my name, he got this right: I lived most of my life bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Imagine that if you can. I did a lot of what your expression says about people who are embarrassed or ashamed: I spent a lot of time studying my toes. Instead of calling me “Rebecca, daughter of Abraham” you could just as easily call me “Rebecca the Invisible.” You literally couldn’t see me in a crowd. It was extraordinarily difficult for me to make eye contact with anyone—not that anybody wanted to make eye contact with me. You know how it is when you see someone who is disfigured or maimed. You suddenly get interested in a nearby sign or a bird in a tree. Anything to keep from looking at “them.” Yeah, that was my life. Eighteen years of being invisible. Rejected. Shamed. And people had the nerve to blame me for my condition: Surely I must have done something to offend God. Why else would I have been punished so severely?
Eighteen years. In my day that was long enough to go from being born to having a child of your own. It was long enough to go from becoming a parent to becoming a grandparent. A lot of water flowed under the bridge in the 18 years that I was bent over.
What have you been doing for the past 18 years? I’ll give you a moment to think this through: Where did you live 18 years ago? What was your family like back then? What has happened over the course of the past 18 years? Children have come and gone. Jobs may have changed. Perhaps you’ve moved. Think what it would be like to have missed those 18 years because of a physical ailment. Not only that, think about being like me for all those years: Invisible. Rejected. Shamed. Blamed.
So, yeah, I was interested when I heard that Jesus was in town. Stories about him were big news in my day: Jesus was teaching, feeding, and healing people. He was doing something new, something freeing, something radical, which caused the religious leaders to fret and complain. All of that is what got me interested, so I hobbled over to the synagogue to see what I could see.
It wasn’t easy, you know. I mean, being bent over like that. I couldn’t see what was going on. That, and the fact that I’m a woman. Women aren’t allowed to enter the part of the synagogue where the men gather, the place where Jesus was teaching. The best I could hope for was to overhear a few words. That would have been enough. I mean, he was so famous! To be able to say that I had once heard him teach would have been amazing!
Then it happened. Suddenly everyone in the women’s section of the synagogue parted, like Moses and the Red Sea, and there I was, left in the middle, all by myself. It was an odd feeling, not being invisible any more. I stood out like a sore thumb. An abberation. An embarrassment. I wanted to run but… well, that would have fueled the gossip in town for months!
When I looked around I realized that Jesus was pointing at me. Not only that, he was calling me over. He was actually asking me to enter the men’s section. You can hear the gasps, can’t you? “For shame!” people said. “Women don’t go into the men’s section, especially women like her!”
“Woman,” Jesus said (you see, he didn’t know my name, but that didn’t matter at the time). “Woman,” he said, “you are set free from your ailment.” Then he laid his hands on me, and immediately, incredibly, I stood up straight. For the first time in 18 years. And heck, yeah, I began praising God. You would have, too!
Just as suddenly as I had been freed from my ailment, wouldn’t you know it: my ex-husband’s cousin, the village rabbi, started protesting. It’s all a blur now and I’m not sure if he was chastising Jesus or me, but it sure felt like he was saying, “Woman, don’t you know there are six days of the week when you can come here to be cured, but not on the Sabbath! This is God’s day, a day of rest. Shame on you!”
I hadn’t come to the synagogue to be cured. I hadn’t done anything but hope to hear a few words from Jesus. He’s the one who called me into the men’s section. He’s the one who freed me. And suddenly this is my fault?
But Jesus—he was wonderful. He took that hypocrite to task. He lectured all the religious leaders about doing what is needed on the Sabbath, and he said that it was only right and just to set me free from my bondage regardless of what day it happened to be.
I don’t know, something about what Jesus said, or did, really caught the imagination of the crowd. Just as I had been freed so that I could stand upright, they too seemed to be freed from their bonds. Like me, they started rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing. It was a fine day. The best day I can remember in many years. And it was a fine day for those who had crowded into the synagogue with me. They, too, were freed from the oppressive rules and regulations that the religious leaders used to hold us down.
But that was all five years ago. “How’s your life now?” people ask me. “What’s changed? How’s it going?”
Well, as you probably know, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he stopped by our little village. He eventually made it to Jerusalem, and it didn’t take long before the powers that be hung him on a cross—precisely because he wanted to set people free rather than bind us for our sins or failures.
Even though Jesus is no longer with us, I am part of a small group of people who follow him and his teachings. It’s no easier for us than it was for him. We are blamed and shamed for simply speaking his name, we are rejected and persecuted for hoping and working for a better life, a just and compassionate world.
That might seem odd to you—and it is. Trying to live by love and compassion—that shouldn’t upset people, but it does. It’s easier to understand this reaction if we recall the dream Jesus’ mother had for him, the song she sang when she found out she was pregnant:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
I am here to tell you that this dream came true in my life. Jesus lifted up the lowly—I couldn’t have been any lower, if you know what I mean. He freed me from that which had ruined my life, and for that I will be forever grateful. Even though some people still remember the way I was and are suspicious of me because of that, I have friends again, especially among those who follow Jesus. I’m able to work again, and contribute to the welfare of others. It’s still a little hard to believe—and it’s a small thing—but I can actually make eye contact with people around me.
Sadly, though, five years later, many things have not changed. My ex-husband’s cousin is still in charge of the synagogue. Women are still banned from entering the inner chamber. The hungry still beg on the street. Suspicion and hatred still drive the village’s gossip. Injustice, oppression, and corruption seem to have the upper hand.
But I have changed. I try to live every day in response to the mercy and compassion that Jesus showed to me: I tell other people about Jesus and how he freed me from my bondage, how he frees all of us from whatever binds us; I look for ways to show strength in opposition to the proud, the self-righteous; I work to lift up the lowly and to fill the hungry with good things.
And those I know who follow Jesus have changed. We befriend the invisible. We help those who are helpless. We bend down to lift up those who bent over by the weight of this unjust world.
As you go your way today, remember me, and remember my story. I was bent over and held captive by a physical ailment; what is it that binds you? What is it that keeps you from living the life that God intends for you? Is it anger or bitterness? Is it the inability to forgive someone for perceived offenses? Is it the need to be successful or at least better than someone else? Is it a lack of compassion or understanding for someone who is different from you? Is it a physical ailment like mine? Whatever it is, Jesus is here to touch you, too, to say, “you are set free from your ailment.”
I am Rebecca. It is no longer Rebecca, daughter of Abraham; it is Rebecca, child of God, for that is who I am now. And that is who you are: Rachel, child of God, Frank, child of God, Tom, child of God, Stephanie, child of God. Loved, freed, forgiven, restored. Receive that love, that forgiveness, that restoration, here, now, in scripture and prayer, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, in Christian community.
Then, as you go back to your everyday life, tell everybody how God has freed you. In all you do, free others from whatever it is that binds them, bends them over, or holds them back. When people see you, may they rejoice at all the wonderful things that God is doing in and through your life.
© 2016 Dwight L. DuBois
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