Sermons That Work

The Thirteenth Chapter…, Proper 16 (C) – 2004

August 22, 2004

The 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel includes two texts offered for today’s Gospel: the account of The Bent Over Woman and at the close of the chapter, the dialog where Jesus engages the question of the number to be saved. “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” Binding these are images of the Kingdom of heaven: the tiny mustard seed which grew to a tree and yeast that a woman takes to leaven large measures of flour. Whether or not the Gospel writer put these texts in sequence, they offer us examples of the ways the witness of Jesus’ interactions long ago reinvigorate the Gospel message and the church’s mission today.

In the story of The Bent Over Woman, Jesus lays hands on a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. In response she stands up straight and begins praising God.

Imagine for a moment, yourself as a person bent and crippled. You have seen such people on the street—often women. Imagine what it might be like to have suddenly whatever infirmity is bearing down upon you lifted. You might well raise your arms as you give praise for this renewal of life.

This image, of a woman standing tall, with arms outstretched to heaven has long been the symbol of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus. The Caucus began using this image for their logo as they worked with others in the 1970’s to pass legislation that would allow women and men alike to answer “yes” to the call to priesthood.

A month ago, July 29, 2004, marked the 30th anniversary of the ordination to the priesthood of the first women in the Episcopal Church in the United States to be so. ordained. The Caucus still uses this image of the woman praising God to express the joy and thanksgiving and continued hope for the church. Of course, not everyone back in 1974 greeted this news with great rejoicing. Yet, over the last 30 years, at least at its most basic level, almost all parishes and dioceses have come to a clear sense that the church is infinitely richer for the inclusion of women as priests and bishops. The image of women standing tall to praise God in the pew as well as at the altar proclaims that a crippling spirit has been removed from the church’s history.

I suspect that Luke himself might be somewhat confused at the use of this image as a priestly image. Exegetical work on the word “spirit” in the text would suggest that the “crippling spirit,” though couched in the language of demonology, really meant, in those days, some sort of physical, perhaps arthritic infirmity of which the woman was healed. Today, in such a situation we might take ourselves to the hospital for back surgery and that would be that; we might still be joyful and feel the occasion of our healing worthy of praising God, but the occasion would not be so full of meaning or metaphor as the incident described in Luke.

Yet, the image of the church, or our communities, or our families being bent over by a crippling spirit offers us the opportunity to examine our own situation. What are the ways in which Jesus’ healing hands and words might call us to stand up straight and glorify God? What are the tools we might use to ask for God’s healing grace in each of them? What is the vision of the Gospel toward which we strive?

On July 29, 1974, as the hands of Jesus, represented by three Bishops, were laid on the heads of 11 women, the church itself was healed of a crippling disability. The healing did not ensure that the suffering was over, either for those who rejoiced and those who did not. But at least a crippling spirit no longer hindered the healing. Suffering and joy continued to live side by side. But the door was open for new life and renewal of a church where all might be included.

Over and over again, even when it is not evident or there seems to be a strong theological or biblical evidence to the contrary, the Gospel message opens us to wider vision of inclusivity.

Take for example, the words of Jesus as he traveled through towns and villages.
“Strive to Enter by the narrow door,” replied Jesus to the one who asked him just how many will be saved. Such language recalls images of exclusion—the road is narrow and the way is long. Only the strong survive. The implication is that only a few are able to get through the narrow door. Yet Jesus continues: “From North and South and East and West, people will come and take their places at the banquet in the kingdom of God”—not necessarily those who have the right credentials or blood lines or those who strive to be first. Everyone is invited—but you have to walk through the narrow way, the narrow door.

The narrow door in much of current religious education today is taken to mean something quite different from what it meant in Jesus’ time. We often think of the door as open only to the really good people or the really pious or smart people or the ones who knew the “right people.” The narrow door, in our modern way of looking at things, was the one that looked pretty much like the front door of any modern day house, the door we lock carefully at night and which seals us safely in. That was not the door Jesus was speaking of at all. The narrow door in Jesus’ day was something else entirely—it was, in fact, the open door. In those days there was the daytime door and the nighttime door. The daytime doors were really the gates of the city. Any of you who have traveled to Jerusalem or any number of other cities with medieval origins has seen the great big city gates. Every morning they were opened to let the vegetable and market carts in—or to let the cavalry out or in. They are giant doors that allowed the comings and going of animals and vehicles and armies, folks with lots to carry. At night, though, the wide doors were closed and the entryway to the city was through the narrow door through which you could only enter on foot—with very little baggage. When Jesus says strive to enter through the narrow door, the message is that you can’t take a lot of baggage if you want to hang out with him. Christian life very often is about letting go of some of the baggage we think is essential to our lives. In order to enter the world to which Jesus calls us, we often must shed much that we think keeps us safe. We step through the narrow welcoming door, often having to bend low to come into the authentic realm to which Jesus invites us. It is that place where who we know, who we have been, who our ancestors were, what our education has been, or what possessions we have do not matter. And what we are given in exchange is the healing hand that allows us to throw off whatever is burdening us, in body, mind, and spirit, and to lift our arms in joyous praise to God.

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Christopher Sikkema


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