Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Preached by Helen Kennedy
There are many avenues that our gospel reading could take us today. We could talk about how Jesus is going about healing without even asking, casting out demons and changing people’s life, just willy nilly. We could talk about how the leaders of the synagogue miss the point again, by convicting Jesus of working on the Sabbath, really, can you do that for this woman, for anyone actually! We could talk about how Jesus is such a good orator, and the use of his rhetoric to point out the flaws in their conviction, is priceless.
But what has caught my attention in this piece is the fact that this is yet another unnamed woman. Her name is not heard, and her voice is not heard. There are many unnamed women, many voices not heard in our scriptures, and in our society in general. Now I don’t particularly call myself a feminist, but I do take a lead from feminist theology. A theology that looks to reconsider the traditions, scriptures, and theology from a feminist perspective. Part of the aim is to reinterpret male-dominated imagery and language about God, it seeks to revisit religious structures where equality does not exist. It is feminist theology that is challenging the Church of England as it is still considering whether they should ‘allow’ women bishops. It was 1994 before they ordained women to the priesthood, and at the time the presiding Bishop said it would only be about 10 years before we would see a female bishop. That was nearly 20 years ago. Here in Canada, The Rev Patricia Reed has recently died aged 93, she was one of the first women to be ordained in 1976, so Canada was nearly 20 years ahead of England on that score. Then in the last edition of the Rupert’s Land News, the monthly Diocesan newspaper. There is a motley crew of 5 women on the front cover, four of them being ordained, and the ‘seasoned veteran, the Reverend Helen Kennedy’, being the Bishop’s Chaplain. The Bishop in his comments of that day notes that 40 years ago this would not have happened. Yet what a blessing it is for the church… writ large.
So that is a bit of the bias that I come with as I hear this passage. We have a nameless woman, she had been bent double for 18 years, unable to raise herself, unable to stand properly, seeing the world from viewpoint of a small piece of ground in front of her feet. Jesus sees her, most others would not, but he does and the moment Jesus laid his hand on her back, she was made straight stood upright and began praising God.”
The healing sparks controversy because it was done on the sabbath. The leader of the synagogue does not protest to Jesus, but attempts to sway public opinion, he tells the crowd “There are six days to work. Use those days to come to be healed, not on the sabbath day.” This is not an unreasonable argument. The woman has been afflicted for years. What difference would one more day make?
Jesus heals the woman in sacred space and within sacred time, namely on a Sabbath, and he is criticised for this breach of the law. Jesus insists that the synagogue and the Sabbath are not the only things that are holy — so is this woman’s life. She is a daughter of the promise, Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”
He turns to his critics and says, “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? The point here is that the woman is far more important than animals, yet animals are allowed more freedom on the Sabbath than is the woman. And ought not this woman, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” What better time for a “daughter of Abraham” to be released from the grip of Satan than the Sabbath! After all, the very reason for the institution of the Sabbath is to celebrate freedom from slavery.
Give credit to the crowd. They recognise all this. They knew Deuteronomy 5 as well, and they know that Jesus had skewered the argument of the poor synagogue leader. Not only the synagogue leader, but “all of Jesus’ adversaries” are made to look foolish as well. They were “shamed.” The crowd sides with Jesus…all the crowd was rejoicing upon all the glorious things coming into being.
As a daughter of Abraham, as all women are, women have a connection to all of these nameless characters in the bible. An American Nun, Therese Winter writes a poem about this woman, for all women:
Bent over a fist full of twigs, twice daily, sweeping.
Bent beneath a load of wood or care.
Keeping the rules that keep a woman bent by burdens,
spent with weeping.
A women is bent.
Surely you meant, when you lifted her up long ago to your praise,
not one woman only, but all women, bent by unbending ways.
Global forces are constraining women’s lives as never before, ultra-sound scans result in abortions of female foetuses in China and India, female infanticide in any number of countries. The West is no better, it has cultural expectations keeping women in their places. There are forces aplenty that continue to bend and cripple women’s lives in the twenty-first century. Men and women are bent under the weight of commandments and rules, bent double by ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘must’. Bent under unbending religion sometimes, which cripples people’s hearts, minds and spirits and leaves them faded images of the head-held-high person God would have them be.
Although Jesus heals this daughter of the promise in a synagogue, and although she is said to respond with praise, her voice is lost in the way it had been written down. Other voices such as ‘certain women’ who gathered in prayer before Pentecost, what did they say? What were their prayers? We will never know. Or the four daughters of Philip who have the gift of prophecy, what did they prophesy? What did they say? Again we will never know, the words of these woman are not heard.
In my limited knowledge of feminist theology, one woman who is not nameless neither did she remained silent was a woman called Sojourner Truth. What a fantastic name! She stands out. She was a little black woman who had been freed from slavery. In 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio. Apparently, on the second day several male ministers showed up and argued that women should not have the same rights as men. The ministers reasoning: women were weak, men were intellectually superior to women, Jesus was a man, and our first mother sinned.
Sojourner Truth rose to speak. She looked these at these ministers and delivered her short speech — Pointing to her well-muscled arms and referring to the hard work she performed as a slave, she allegedly declared, “and ain’t I a woman”? As to the argument that Jesus was a man, she responded: “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! A man had nothing to do with Him.” I can just hear the snapping of fingers. And turning to the sin of Eve, she went on, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” By all accounts, as Sojourner Truth spoke, the crowd in the church rose and wildly applauded. That was over 150 years ago. I know things have changed, but there are still many voices to be heard, many praises to be recorded.
The uneven witness of the scriptures against women is part of our tradition and heritage. We simply have to acknowledge that even the most foundational texts of our faith leave much of women’s practices of faith invisible. How crucial now then, for women today to stand up and speak. I hope we can take our permission from the call of Jeremiah, words that are very familiar. ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.’ So, women and men of this church, before you were born, before you were brought into a society that values one gender over another, you were consecrated. Male and female, God created them and God consecrated them, be prepared to speak and be heard.
Although we live in a world that continues to “bend” people’s lives, we must follow Jesus in claiming that the lives of women are sacred, and that women and men are invited to be healed and flourish in the presence of the Holy One. If only Jesus’ generous gift of freedom for a bent-over woman were visible in our time in such a tangible way, and especially in our sanctuaries. And that all voices of praise, born from God-given freedom, be heard around the world. Surely that would be good news for today.