The Glory of God is the Human Being, Fully Alive
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark on the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost, August 25, 2019 by the Very Reverend Tyler Doherty.
In Jesus’ time, illness was never just illness. Illness was seen as punishment for sin. Society didn’t look for ways to make people better but blamed them for their illness and ostracized them. There were the healthy, upright, goodies, and the sick, bent-over baddies—a clear line of division between who’s in and who’s out. If one’s illness weren’t enough to bend you over, the weight of this societal judgement upon the sick person certainly would be. It’s not too different from our current time really—just think of the stigma attached mental illness and addiction. Depression is seen as a character flaw, as being prone to vapors, or just being low-energy and feeling sorry for yourself. Addiction is seen as a moral failing rather than having a biological basis as a disease. This is slowly changing thanks to the courageous sharing of stories by people who live with mental illness and those in recovery, but the tendency to somehow link illness with something the person has brought on themselves is deeply ingrained.
When Jesus enters the synagogue, he encounters the bent-over woman who had been crippled with a spirit for eighteen years. That number eighteen is an important one, because it takes us back to a dialogue immediately preceding our passage for today. Jesus says, “Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think there were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. (13:4-5). Jesus’ interlocutors were wondering about a natural disaster where eighteen people were crushed in a building collapse. Was this because they were sinners? Did they die because God was punishing them? And Jesus’ unequivocal answer is—No. Illness and death are not punishment for sin. That’s tit-for-tat human calculus that has nothing to do with how God—God for us, with us and ahead of us— works.
So the woman who has been bent over for eighteen years is explicitly linked by Luke to this question of the people who perished in the collapse of the tower of Siloam. There’s an hidden assumption at work here. Her illness is punishment for sin, and no one is calling out to God for help. They’ve contented themselves with explaining her suffering away as her fault, something she deserves. She’s got her just desserts.
Jesus walks straight into this situation and predictably begins to shake things up. He goes towards the woman who has been shoved aside and ignored for eighteen years. He sees her not with the eye of insider and outsider, clean and unclean, healthy and sick, but with the eye of undifferentiated belovedness. He affirms her status as a beloved child of God, a daughter of Abraham, an heir, and unexpected insider in the life of God. Jesus heals and restores her to her true identity as precious in God’s sight. The woman is no longer defined by her illness, or the stories that are told about her that she’s come to accept as fact. Jesus’ words—“Woman you are set free from your ailment,” cut through the shame and blame that have bent her over and made her invisible in the eyes of the community.
In the process, the woman is healed in multiple senses. No doubt she was healed physically, but deep, transformative encounter with God in the person of Jesus is more than skin deep. She is also restored to relationship with herself—if this man, this stranger can love her, maybe she can start to love herself. She is integrated into the community again, restored to relationship with those who had dismissed her the past eighteen years. And she is restored to relationship with God. The picture of the punishing God who metes out illness for moving violations collapses and is replaced with the effervescent reality of the living God of tender touch and caress, the God who sees her face and has known her since before she was formed in the womb, the God who lays healing hands on the bent-over invisible one from whom everyone has steered clear these past eighteen years. She stands up straight and begins praising God.
But there’s another dimension to this healing that is essential to recognize as well. It’s not just the woman who is healed. The community is healed as well. What are they healed of? Of their blindness, of their hard-heartedness, of their complacent tolerance of woundedness in their midst. Most importantly, they are healed from their upside-down picture of the nature of sin as punishment and blessings as signs of God’s favor. That picture is the engine that drives the whole system of exclusion upon which the community, or any society, operates. Sin used to be located in the bent-over woman—they all patted themselves on the backs, congratulated themselves on their good health, and thanked God they were not like other people. Jesus holds up the mirror and reveals to them the true nature of sin—casting out, exclusion, and the false narratives about who and how God is that underwrite them.
It’s no mistake, then, that Jesus links this mechanism of casting out and exclusion with Satan. Remember, Satan simply means—“the Accuser.” Satan operates by the simple mechanism of pointing the finger, accusing, sowing division, and casting out. Any place where there is finger-pointing and accusation is a place that is in the thrall of the powers and dominions—not supernatural beasties lurking in the corner, but the deeply ingrained human all to human habit of propping ourselves up by scapegoating others, securing our “goodness” by declaring someone else’s, or some group’s, “badness.” Jesus is explicitly equating the exclusion and callousness he sees in the community with the work of the Accuser, with Satan, and he comes to free the woman and the community from its ensnarement in the grips of exclusion.
Jesus is really just calling the community back to its original purpose for which God intended it—loving God and loving neighbor. Praising God as the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth, and serving widow, the orphan, the stranger, the alien in the land. This isn’t something that Jesus is making up on the spot—it’s all over the Old Testament—and he’s reminding them of what it means to be a people turned to God. Turning to God in worship, praise, and adoration means seeing the poor and afflicted in our midst. As one-time strangers in the land they, like us, are called to welcome the stranger. As those who have been brought up out of the land of Egypt, they, like us, are called to work for the liberation of all those who experience the many guises slavery takes.
It’s no mistake that this healing in the synagogue is framed on one end with the parable of the fig tree that isn’t bearing fruit, and on the other end by the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus knows that the goal life is human flourishing—each person in their unique way bearing the fruit of the work of God’s on them in their life. It was Ireneaus of Lyon who said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” That’s what makes God happy, and that’s God’s dream for the world—fully flourishing human beings in loving, life-giving relationship with God, each other, and the world. It’s the church’s job to work to nourish everything that allows each human being to flourish and to work undo and dismantle everything that diminishes or flat-out denies the dignity of every human being as created in the image and likeness of God, and the goodness of God’s creation.
Think about that teeny mustard seed for a minute. Horticultural literalism aside, remember that this tiniest of seeds grows into a tree and becomes a place for the birds of the air to build their nests. The community, with its treatment of the bent-over woman, is closed in on itself. It’s a place of exclusion and invisibility, the very the opposite of the life of radical welcome, and indiscriminate hospitality we see in the life and ministry of Jesus. Just like the mustard seed needs to die to its identity as a little seed, and fall to the earth, so that it might become a place of welcome for all the birds of the air, Jesus is reminding the community that fruitfulness, giving glory to God, comes not from exclusion and casting out, but from having the doors of our hearts and our Cathedral flung wide open.
That’s the really beautiful thing about the mustard seed that grows into the tree—it’s wide open to the vastness of the sky, accepting whomever comes to roost in its branches, and listening to the strange new song that fine-feathered friend might sing. That’s the kind of welcome and hospitality, the openness and receptivity, to which we are called as disciples and a community. Who’s bent-over in our midst? Who don’t we see or want to touch? Who’s been so diminished by stories of shame and blame that they don’t even know there’s another way to be? And how can we, like the mustard seed, open our branches—brazenly, squanderously, praisingly—to the birds of a different feather and be a nest for them?