Women, We Are Bent
If you didn’t already see via facebook, here is my sermon from this morning, which was a particularly heartfelt one for me. You can listen to the audio here.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
There are many women who are bent and who stay bent. Forgive me, men, I’m less familiar with your chronic ailments and I would feel like an arrogant fool if I hazarded a guess, but this bentness—this 18-year-long bentness—this is a sickness I understand intimately. And I can assure you, it is no coincidence at all in the story that she is a woman.
Women take a long time to learn how to stand tall, how to square our shoulders, how to lift our chins, how to take up our space. Whether it was society or family dynamics or misguided theology or sustained abuse or our own unrelenting insecurity, we were trained or have trained ourselves to remain stooped, and like those earlier women who bound their feet to keep themselves small, we have stayed bound and we have stayed small and the only pay-off is that we cannot run anymore.
We work until we are bone-tired and we nod and smile politely until we no longer know what a real smile feels like, much less a real yes. We scurry to please and to pat and to pamper until we’ve puttered our lives away and tuned out the song of our souls.
We are bent. As women we live hunched-over lives underneath the weight of demands and expectations and comparisons and the need to be perfect and the longing to be pretty, or if not pretty, at least somewhat appealing, the right kind of mother or lover or daughter, to get it all right and to make the rightness appear effortless, to be both gracious and gifted, gorgeous but not aware of it, glamorous without trying or seeming like you’re trying, to be a great cook and skilled at décor and excellent with babies and smart (but don’t show off your smartness!) and . . . and . . . and . . .
These burdens bend us into half-life—it is like we are walking through life looking down at the ground. Spine cracked over, we’re not able to look up and out and around and SEE the world and our place in it because we’ve got our noses to the grindstone. We are bent.
It is no coincidence or surprise when Jesus meets a woman, and she is a hunched-over woman. He had been encountering hunched-over women all his life, no doubt, but finally, here is a woman WHO KNOWS she is bent and wishes to straighten.
While the male theologians have told us the sin of man is pride, the female theologians have remarked that the sin of woman is lack of pride, and for bent-over women, this is true. The poison that keeps a woman small is the failure to know her worth. The lack of faith to know she has a place in this world—there is a space here meant to be occupied by her. It takes the good kind of pride to stretch out your limbs and take up your space.
Women are taught instead to step aside, to squeeze into the last inch of the elevator corner to make room for others, to hide themselves from view, to shine the spotlight elsewhere, when conversation takes a certain turn to retreat to the sink and dishes on cue.
There is certainly something to be said for selfless service and self-sacrificing surrender and where would the world be if it were not for the silent patience of our spiritual mothers? But there is a difference between giving of yourself because you choose to and giving of yourself because you don’t know what else to do, what else you can do.
There’s a difference between standing tall, doing good and noble work, and crouching over, spending all your energy watching where you go because you are afraid of stepping on someone’s toes. It’s not real service—not the kind that matters—if we’re just shuffling amongst bigger people, being cautious not to offend. To serve the world is to get big yourself and be in it as a real player.
Coach Jim used to always tell us on the basketball court, “Get big!” I can hear his voice now, always saying the same two things. First, sounding slightly annoyed, “Bounce pass!” (something we could never seem to remember) and “Get big!” which, as an exceptionally and irreparably small person, I took offense at. Occasionally I even felt like shouting back at him, “I can’t get big! Look at me!! Give me a pointer I can actually follow.”
But he just kept saying the same blasted thing: “Bounce pass! Get big!” Of course, the real purpose of playing sports is to get simple ideas through thick heads. Eventually I learned that a pass around my defender’s arms was statistically more successful than all the passes I kept attempting through their arms.
And I figured out that “Get big” had nothing to do with literal size. It meant: take up your space. Be a force to be reckoned with. Spindly appendages and all, show off your fierceness. Be imposing. Stretch. Fill your area. Loom over the ball as it approaches. Get in the way of the offense.
Make your body say something. Say, “I’m not backing down” with your body. Say, “You can’t get by me,” with your legs. Say, “I am after that ball,” with your arms. Say to your opponent, “I am ready to face you,” with the large look in your eye. Speak! Get big! Play ball!
Women, we are bent.
I wish I knew what to tell the men about a story like this one, but I don’t, except to say thank you to the ones like Jim who encouraged me not only on the court but later too to go on ahead and take up my space and not apologize. Thank you to those who’ve been the hands and feet of Jesus walking among women and lifting our heads. Thank you to men who have made it stop—the pushing down and the silencing of women.
After a long, long, long ailment, you are helping to heal us, and in being healers, you are being healed too. We are healing one another, don’t you see?
Tragically, religion gets misused time and again to keep women down, but, of course, what matters more is that Jesus raises women up and tells them to stand, to walk, to go, to sin no more.
Leaders of synagogues and churches get indigent to see this work Jesus is doing among women, setting them free from the evil spirit that keeps them bound and crippled.
In the story, it is lunacy that the religious leaders would prevent someone being set free on the Sabbath . . . what else is the Sabbath for if not to liberate the captive from evil? It is lunacy to resist, but the letter of the law has crippled these leaders, bent them away from the Spirit of God (“Whatever you do, Jesus, don’t set a woman loose on the Sabbath!”). Unlike the woman, they do not wish to stand tall and look out and see what God is really up to in the world.
But all this deters Jesus not. “Ought not this woman be set free?” he replies.
It is hard to argue with Jesus and this once got a whole crowd to their feet, rejoicing at the wonderful things Jesus does.
We were bent and now we are free.
Sermon based on Luke 13:10-17, originally preached on August 25, 2013 at Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas.