Imagine. For eighteen years, the woman can’t straighten her spine. The weight of her life pressing down on her discs, curving her back, so that her frame of reference gets smaller and smaller. Her world becomes the circle just in front of her feet, no longer able to feel the sun on her face, no longer able to see the stars at night. Then Jesus sees her, calls to her and touches her with his hands and sets her free. He heals her on the Sabbath and the religious folks who try to live as closely to the commandments as possible, see this as an affront to God. Not so with Jesus. Not so with the woman whose back is straight so that she is able to move without pain, able to see the faces in front of her. The rest of the reading today focuses on Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath and his argument with the religious leaders of his time.
Today, though, in our “wrestling with the big questions”, I want to focus on the woman with the crooked back and her healing.
Today the question that we will look at together is “how do we cope with a negative event in our lives that is within our control?”
This is different from events in our lives that are not within our control. We know from experience that much in our lives is beyond our control. We cannot control if we get cancer or if someone we love gets cancer. We cannot control a train accident or plane crash. We cannot control tsunamis or tornadoes. All too often, we think we can control things, but that is mostly an illusion.
There are events within our lives, however, that are within our control. Choices we make that have an impact on others and have an impact on how we see ourselves. That is the question that we look at this morning – what happens when we mess up. How do we see ourselves? How do we deal with it? Of course, the word for it in theological terms is “sin”. What do we do when we sin, when we hurt others, when we break relationship with God, with neighbour, and with ourselves?
If you have ever been to a retreat, either church or office, you will know this or a similar icebreaker. It’s one of those getting to know each other games. In this one, everyone grabs a handful of skittles – you know, the round, colourful candies – and for each different colour, the participant needs to answer a different question him or herself.
A question that came up for an older woman who participated in a retreat was if you have a green skittle, please use one word to describe yourself. “Kind” was the word she used for herself. She had tried in her life to be kind. It was important to her. But she remembered a time when she was younger when she hadn’t always been kind. She had failed to stand up for a friend in school. She let the pressure of other friends bully a mutual friend. She was what is known today as a “by-stander” in bullying terminology, someone who sees what is happening and lets it happen by failing to act, by failing to speak up. She had failed at kindness. She had only looked at the small circle around her own feet and couldn’t, at the time, look up to see the pain on her friend’s face.
That same icebreaker question, we play with our own egos in real life. We all have words or images to describe who we think we are, certainly who we see ourselves to be, how we want others to see us. Pick a word to describe yourself: compassionate, intelligent, funny, diligent, responsible, loyal, all of the above, maybe. Whatever it is, we project that image outward. But when we sin, when we do something with negative consequences, our illusions break.
Sometimes when we mess up, we spend sleepless nights with guilt or shame, our pillows and sheets crumpled with our own night time tossing about. Rest won’t come because we re-live what we have done, and we re-hash what we could have done differently. Sometimes we fail miserably at our own self-image. Then what do we do? How do we cope?
Max Lucado writes of this as a metaphor of spiritual baggage we carry around: “Our spiritual bags bulge with binges, blowups, and compromises. The fellow in the grey flannel suit, he’s dragging around a decade of regrets. The kid with the baggy jeans and nose ring, he’d give anything to take back the words he said to his mother. But he can’t. So he tows them along. The woman in the business suit? Looks as if she could run for election; she’d rather be running for help, but she can’t run at all, her bags too heavy.”
When we talk of sin, guilt and shame, it’s important to make a distinction, however. There is such a thing as good guilt and such a thing as bad guilt.
Good guilt is the kind we confess and ask forgiveness for: those things we know we have done or left undone that are within our control. When we have said mean words to our children or our spouse because we know exactly the words to use that hurt. When we have betrayed our friends. When we have failed to notice the needs of people around us, here in the congregation, at home, or in our communities. When we have treated our own selves, our own bodies, with contempt. When we have lied to save our own skin. These are within our control and guilt or feeling bad about our actions is positive in this case. That is good guilt.
Bad guilt is when we feel badly about things that are not within our control. When we take on the responsibility of another person’s actions and make what they did our own. This is bad guilt and it has no positive place in our lives. This bad guilt robs our lives of strength and peace and love for ourselves. When the abused woman thinks if only she didn’t make her partner so angry. When the child thinks that he can fix his parents’ marriage if only he would behave better. This is guilt that doesn’t belong to us, it is not our sin, and we need to shake it as quickly as the disciples shook the dust off their feet when a house or town wouldn’t welcome them.
In Greek, the word “sozo” means to save and to heal. So when the woman with the bent back was healed by Jesus, we can also say she was saved by Jesus. In this case, salvation is an experience, not a doctrine. We aren’t saved, or made well, by believing certain things. Like the daughter of Abraham in our story from Luke today, we are saved, we are healed, and are made whole, through our experience of love. The woman was healed, saved, because of Jesus’ love for her.
Frederick Buechner writes this of experiencing salvation, “(it is) some moments in your life that you say YES to right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen. Laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks. Waking up to the first snow. Being in bed with somebody you love… if you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul.”
The daughter of Abraham saw it, threw her arms around it and praised God for it. But she also knew the pain of living with a crippled back for 18 years.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that pain strips away our illusions; that pain makes theologians of us all. Brown Taylor suggests that if we were to make a graph of our lives, we would see that it is during the times where we have been in pain, or have suffered, that we have grown the most. Not that we purposely seek pain out. But we know from our own experiences that pain and suffering come to every life. No one is exempt. It is a part of what being human is about, we mess up, we suffer, we hurt ourselves and we hurt others.
Counsellors can and do help us. Doctors can and do help us. Good friends, and the love of family helps us when we struggle. It is important to use the wisdom and resources available to us when we are trying to cope with our own shattered illusions. But our faith can also tell us something about our sin, our mistakes, our failures.
The story of Jacob comes to mind.
Jacob who is born the younger of the twins to Esau. Jacob the favoured of his mother. He tricks and steals the blessing from his father, meant for his brother Esau, and he runs. After years in service to Laban, and having done very well for himself and his family, Jacob is about to meet his brother for the first time. He is rightly afraid of his brother’s anger because of what he had done.
Before he meets Esau, Jacob wrestles with someone in the night and demands a blessing from him. In that night time struggle, Jacob doesn’t come away unscathed, his hip is injured and he limps, but he gets the blessing. He has struggled with the angel and has come out the other side. In his struggle, he is re-named “Israel”, the one who strives with God.
In our life experiences, even though we don’t want it and would rather avoid it, it is through the struggle that we come out the other side with a blessing and perhaps a new image of ourselves, or at least a new word to add about who we believe ourselves to be.
Christianity teaches us that whatever the sin, whatever we have done or left undone, love overrules it. This love is the love of God who comes to us incarnate, as human and fleshy as we are, to show us how far love will go to forgive and to heal. This overruling love is the love of God who is always calling us home through the doubt, through the guilt, through the pain.
“So sometimes we are alone in an inner wilderness and burdened by regret and a place where the heart can rest seems a long way off – a distant country barely remembered.
Sometimes, when the soul is lost and we become disconnected, with hopes battered, failures mounting and our daily companion is the pain of abandonment, we know that we are far from home.
Yet even in this darkness our hearts long to return, to find release, to be touched by resurrection. We glimpse a different path even when we are far from it. It is a path on which our search for light, our awareness of failings, our yearning for another way are in themselves propelling us forward to new possibilities.
We are being moved forward to the possibilities that our tears are being witnessed, that our cries are being heard, and that our bodies and souls are being healed by the One who accepts, understands and tenderly invites us home.” (words paraphrased from Peter Millar,Living Letters of the Word, Wild Goose Publications)
Our experience of salvation, of being made whole, of walking upright and straight, is when we return home to the One who heals and forgives, the One who sets us free and calls us daughter, calls us son.
Remember, the mercies of the Lord never come to an end, remember they are new every morning.
Pr. Katherine Altenburg