When we first hear it, today’s gospel sounds like a story of healing - and it is. Jesus lays his hands on a woman who is bent over, and immediately she stands up. But when we listen carefully to the language used, when we pay attention to the way the story is told, we realize that this is more than a story of healing. This is a story of liberation. This is the story of someone being set free, someone being released from oppression. This is a story of liberation, and liberation is at the very core of the gospel.
It’s Pride Week in Ottawa, and later today many of us will march in the Pride Parade. Pride represents many things to many people, but at its core, Pride is about liberation. Indeed the very first Pride Parade way back in 1970 was called Christopher Street Liberation Day. Pride is about people being set free, set free from the chains of discrimination and prejudice, set free from bonds of shame and social stigma, set free to be the people they were created to be, set free to live fully, to celebrate and to rejoice. And one thing I can guarantee, there will be celebration this afternoon!
We believe that God created each one of us to live fully and to flourish. Not just some of us, but all of us, in all of our diversity and uniqueness. We have been, each one of us, created in the image of God, worthy of love, honour and respect. As God says to Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” God doesn’t wait to see how we turn out at birth and then decide whether we are good or not. Even before we are born, God knows us and consecrates us, that is to say, God declares us to be holy, to be sacred, to be of God. To be very good. Fabulous, even.
Or as Lady Gaga sings it, “I’m beautiful in my way, ‘cause God makes no mistakes, I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way.”
God created us to be free, to live fully and joyfully. But as each one of us knows only too well, there are a lot of things in this life that get in the way. Things that weigh us down, that restrict us and oppress us. Which is why when God comes to us in the person of Jesus, the core of his mission was and is to release us from oppression and to set us free so that we can flourish.
I’m not just making that up. Here are Jesus’ own words, proclaimed in Nazareth at the very beginning of his ministry:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
That’s the mission. The core of the gospel is liberation. And today’s gospel reading is a story of liberation. It is the story of one woman. But if we use our imaginations, it can also become our story, a metaphor for our liberation, for stories that may still be unfolding, or have yet to play out.
The woman is bent over, unable to stand up, unable to look up, unable even to make eye contact with those around. How isolating that must have been. How exhausting, how frustrating. We are told that it is a spirit that has crippled her. We’re not used to talking about spirits, but that only opens things up for our imagination. What are the spirits that cripple you, what are the forces of oppression that prevent us from standing up straight, from looking people in the eye, from feeling fully ourselves?
When Jesus sees the woman, he sees the bondage, the captivity, the oppression. And true to his mission, he declares to her, “you are set free.” He releases her from the spirit of oppression. He lays his hands upon her, and she stands up and begins praising God.
I read this story on Tuesday. And then I read another story later that day, and I couldn’t help thinking that in some ways they are the same.
The second story I read was Mayor Jim Watson’s coming out story. It’s the story of a young boy who was taunted, of a teenager who had no resources, nowhere to turn for guidance or help, no one to talk to about his sexual orientation, a young man who was lonely and socially awkward. He was, as he wrote, completely in the closet, worried about how friends and family might react.
You might say that like the woman in today’s gospel, Mayor Jim was living a life that was bent over, unable to fully stand because of the spirit of oppression that exists, and used to be much stronger, in our society, and in our churches. And there were consequences. This is the way he puts it:
“My reluctance has not allowed me live my life as full of love and adventure as my gay friends who were bolder and braver than I ever was.”
The woman in the gospel story had been bent over for 18 years. Mayor Jim had been in the closet for even longer, for 40 years. But this week he came out. And in an interview I heard a couple of days later, he said that he felt great, and had slept better than ever the last two nights.
That’s a story of liberation. That’s what the gospel is all about. That’s what our faith and our church should be all about, helping to liberate folks, calling on God to liberate folks from whatever oppresses them so that they can live fully and be the people that God created them to be.
But you know that so often we get it wrong.
That comes through in today’s gospel as well. The leader of the synagogue is indignant because Jesus has cured on the Sabbath, breaking one of the religious rules. Sadly, he’s still part of our story too. So often, we distort religious practices until they become instruments of oppression. That’s what the synagogue leader has done. Which is why Jesus sets him straight in no uncertain terms. The religious practice of Sabbath is a good practice which at its core is about – guess what - liberation. Sabbath is a way of remembering how God set the Hebrew captives free from slavery. It is a celebration of liberation. Now, for slaves in forced labour, liberation actually does look like a day of rest. And rest is good for us. But when the synagogue leader invokes the practice of Sabbath-rest to try to put off this woman’s liberation for even one day longer, Jesus will not allow this to stand. Any religious practice which is used to oppress people, to prevent us from living fully, the way that God intended us to live, is a profound contradiction and needs to be re-examined.
Today we celebrate Pride. We celebrate the full inclusion of our LGBTQ2S+ brothers and sisters and siblings in the life, leadership, liturgies and sacraments of the church, while at the same time, lamenting our history as agents of oppression, and lamenting the on-going oppression that still goes on in many places in the name of Christ. These things we confess and lament.
But we will also celebrate the liberation of so many who have overcome the oppressive spirits of social prejudice, religious exclusion, discrimination and lack of support. They will celebrate their pride today. We will celebrate the diversity of people in our world, in our city and in this community, a diversity that brightens and enriches our lives together and has so much to teach us. Because diversity in and of itself is liberating.
When the woman who has been bent over is able to stand up straight, her immediate response is to begin praising God. And before long, we are told, the entire crowd is rejoicing with her.
We too have been set free. Let us also respond with praise and rejoicing.
Homily. Yr C P21, August 25 2019, St. Albans, Pride Sunday
Readings: Jeremiah 1.4-10; Ps 71.1-6; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17