Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 13:10-17
Gather children. Tell them the gospel story for the day. Ask for 3 or 4 volunteers. Have the volunteers assume a stooped position, like the woman’s in the story. Ask them to walk around the sanctuary and come back. Ask them: What was that like? Did the world look any different? Did you notice anything? How did your body feel? Would you like to go around like this some more? How about forever? What if you didn’t have a choice? What do you think it’s like for people who are stuck like this? Would the world look different?
How did you like the Children’s Message today? I’m not looking for kudos, I really do want to know if it was thought provoking. A Christian Education professor I used to have, Karen Tye, used a lesson like that with adults in a Bible Study when they were on this gospel lesson, in an attempt to see if they might have a shift in perspective. All of the members of her class were able bodied adults who had never experienced a real loss of any of their physical abilities, and to hear her tell it, the experience was very moving for most of them. They had all come up to a person with a disability at one point or another, but most of them avoided it if they could. They weren’t disrespectful or impolite, but they were uncomfortable to be in this other person’s presence. They said that they couldn’t understand that other person, or they pitied him or her, or they didn’t know how to act, so they ended the interaction as quickly as they could. But with this exercise, they became, for about 10 minutes, disabled, forced to view the world from, literally, another angle.
Our kids just reported feeling…. Dr. Tye’s students reported that they had never noticed the ground so much before. They felt shorter, as though the entire world were above them. They noticed that they couldn’t look someone standing up straight in the face without craning their necks, and that their backs began to ache. Not only that, but their other muscles, unaccustomed to being asked to moved around in this position, were starting to protest. Breathing felt different. They noticed that it felt like people who were standing up straight were talking over their heads, both literally and figuratively; they also noticed that those doing the talking didn’t seem to notice. And they noticed that a few people seemed to want to avoid them.
They experienced a striking change in perspective. Frequently in Bible studies, and even in sermons, when this text is studied, the focus remains on the miracle, or on the hypocrisy of the synagogue leaders, but these students wanted to talk about the woman with bent back. How could she have handled that for 18 years? What must that have been like? How could the synagogue leader not realize that this is a painful condition, and hang the Sabbath tradition, this needs to be dealt with! They noticed that she doesn’t ask Jesus for healing, she is merely present. It is Jesus who calls her to himself. They began to discuss the miracle of empathy, and whether that miracle is what leads to healing. How many people had avoided this woman up til now? Did it take courage to be among the crowd? And they started to wonder, why had they mostly avoided with someone so different from them in the past? How could they learn to behave differently in the future? A striking shift in perspective.
I always appreciated this story from Dr. Tye. It lead to so many other facets of the lesson! For instance, they were able to talk about the difference between the way people in Jesus’ time likely viewed illness and disability, and how we see it now. In Jesus’ time, illness or disability were the result of either demon possession (a frightful idea), or a terrible sin committed either by the person with the problem, or an ancestor. Either way, a person showing visible signs of sin or demons needs to be avoided. Who knows what could happen if you got too close? In our day and age, knowledge and research have helped change our perspectives a bit. We are aware that sin and demons do not cause physical problems. (Well, mostly aware. I know that there are still some who preach God’s immediate punishment.) We have come a long way toward discovering ways to make physical disabilities easier to live with. And we have laws that forbid businesses from excluding a person because they don’t fit the majority mold. It’s a major improvement. There’s still much to do, but the shift in perspective has gone a long way toward getting people the respect they deserve. The information a person has goes a long way toward influencing their perspective. And sometimes, perspective is everything.
Perspective is everything. In today’s gospel lesson, we witness the perspective of the synagogue leader: Nothing is worth breaking the established law. Therefore, healing must wait one more day. We also witness Jesus’ perspective: God’s children all need and deserve God’s love and help. Therefore, the day of the week is meaningless. And we witness the perspective of the woman with the bent back: This is what life looks like. Therefore, even if it makes others uncomfortable, life must be lived, and that man over there might just be able to help. These are very different points of view, though they comes out of the same time period, the same culture, even the same religion. Jesus, with his knowledge of God’s love, and his love for God’s creation, is able take the woman’s perspective into account, and give her what she needs. The poor synagogue leader is left defending his position, unable to see anything other than what he already knows.
I’ve been thinking about this all week as I read the news or scroll through facebook. So many people are writing about the election, who’s right , who’s wrong. One campaign is trashing the other. Articles in the paper and memes on the internet seem to celebrate every negative comment or statement. Supporters of either side have actually physically threatened one another. I remember back to the Bush vs. Gore campaign, back whenI was in college. I remember finding it so remarkably awful the way that the student body divided against itself, so that even good friends couldn’t speak to one another. And it seems like nothing next to what we’re experiencing now.
Every perspective is influenced by a person’s experiences and knowledge. And any person with even a hint of wisdom knows that how we understand our experiences can evolve as we continue in life, and that knowledge grows with every new scrap of information that is offered up by the world around us. We each have such different experiences, such varying access to information, that we can’t all have the same perspectives, and usually that’s okay. But it seems, in this election cycle, as though it is definitely not “okay.”There not multiple perspectives, there are two sides, with a handful of unfortunates waivering between. One side is right, the other is wrong. Only no one can agree on which is which, and the fight has gotten nasty as fear has taken hold.
I know that I’ve taken a side. In this campaign cycle, I’m terrified of the results if my side doesn’t take the election in November. And I’m not alone in this. But the other day, listening to the radio, I heard an interview with a staunch Republican author, who comes from a staunch Republican family. He talked about his childhood and the part of the country he and his family come from. He talked about what he thinks makes him and his fellows tick. He was very open, he sounded very straightforward. And I started to understand, just a little, where he was coming from, and why he might feel the way he does. Turns out he had experiences that shaped him, just like mine did. Turns out he collects scraps of information and stores them away, just like I do. And it turns out that he is able to look at his experiences anew as he grows older, much like me. Isn’t that something? A moment of grace as I drive along, listening to the radio. I still don’t agree with him, at all, but my attitude has softened toward him, if not his stance, since the interviewer first introduced him.
It’s sort of remarkable, what happened when I let my guard down long enough to listen. It probably helped that he was on the radio, and not in front of me, but it was a start.
Jesus was able to reach across a strong divide to heal the woman with the bent back. He employed God’s love and considered that this woman’s pain had gone on too long. He reached out, transforming her life, revealing to everyone around what happens when one is willing to try combining God’s love with empathy.
Can I do that? When I find myself thinking about these frightening times, I notice that sometimes I forget to employ my experiences of God’s love as I consider those who support the other side. But if God can love me, damaged as I am, couldn’t God love that one as well? Will I be like the synagogue leader, unable to show God’s love to another? Or will I attempt a more Jesus-like approach, remembering Divine love, remembering that the other may have something I could empathize with?
As I write/speak this, I struggle. I cannot, probably will not ever, see the world the way the other side sees it. And I read the call of Jeremiah, which was paired with today’s gospel lesson: “Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…’” I don’t know that we are all prophets, but I do believe heartily that God knows each and every one of us, and knew us long before we had formed any opinion of the world around us. It’s an intimacy that reminds me that every single one of us in this tense, fearful society is a child of God, a child of creation. Our nation’s hearts seem so hardened lately, should I allow mine to be as well? It would be easier than looking to collect more scraps of information, ones that might allow for empathy with someone I disagree so vehemently with. But Jesus sets an example—he takes knowledge of God’s love, empathy with the woman’s pain, and heals her. I don’t know whether he thought she should be around average people, or whether he thought she had a demon, all I know is that he tried anyway, and the results were grace incarnate.
I pray that I might be an example like this. I have cousins I love so much who I just can’t talk to right now because their internet memes upset me so much, but if I could find a way to reach out, to be that humble, that brave, and that confident in Divine love, perhaps they could too. And in God’s grace, we could look each other in the eye again. It occurs to me, that on top of this, I hope that I could be like the woman with the bent back also, ready to be reached out to, accepting of what may come. That’s actually just as intimidating, isn’t it?
Perhaps if enough of us tried this, this reaching out and being open to being reached toward, the tension leading up to November will lessen. Perhaps we will be able to see one another as brothers and sisters in creation, rather than mere opponents, and healing in our society can begin. I pray that this might be so.