What makes some people so cheerful in the midst of adversity? Seemingly blind to the detritus of life that swirls around street corners? How can people, who can barely stand up straight call themselves blessed? Perhaps it’s the fact that as they look down, they don’t see only the things that other people discard and trample underfoot. They are able to glimpse glory in the mud. To see reflected in the mud the image of stars. To see shimmering on the puddles the outline of the rainbow.
Their perspective is different from ours, but it is enhanced by their experience— of trial or exclusion, of being invisible or discarded, of pain or loss— their experience affords them depth and insight. The scripture from Luke 13 this week, though it speaks of physical appearance, takes us to a much deeper place. A place where rules are broken, where conformity is cast aside. A place where what you see is not what you get.
Because the love of God confounds expectation. And allows miracles to happen. Allows despair to become hope. Allows dire straits to become places of possibility. Allows the trials of life to become places of growth. And allows those on whom we would look down or pity to teach us the most valuable lessons about life and about the transforming love of God.
We give thanks that there will always be sons and daughters of Abraham such as the one in the gospel reading this week who will challenge and confront, who will go on seeing the best in all things and who will always mirror for us the love of God that is not stifled by our smallness of heart.
Martha Spong tells the story of three ladies. They made up 3 percent of the worshiping population, three dear and elderly ladies, each one bent over. She goes on to say that when this text came up in the lectionary, I could not preach it. I could not tell the story of a woman bent over for eighteen years suddenly straightened up and cured by Jesus. I could not tell it because no one had offered my ladies an instant cure.
I could not tell it because it felt like cheating to call their disability a metaphor. I could not tell it because it felt like cruelty to suggest they had been bound by evil. I could not tell it because when a person in the pews suffers from a condition in the Scripture, it’s hard to preach about Sabbath laws instead of real human difficulties. All these things bound me, just like evil.
Like Martha Spong, I ask the question of myself, as I face a congregation, of how I work with a text that bends us in half? The best-intentioned preachers say the worst-received things at times (and I don’t doubt I have done this), simply because they think they know how other people feel. Sometimes my over-sensitivity is misplaced, and just as often I’m reacting to the wrong thing.
Unless you’ve lived it— and I don’t mean your mother lived it, or your grandmother— we are just guessing. If I really thought about things I would be asking those in the pews, their thoughts and feelings about the story. And then, with their permission, I might preach it.