The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s188g13    Sunday 21   25/8/2013

'Woman, you are set free from your ailment'  Luke 13.12

I wonder just what the ailment was from which this woman was set free.

In more recent years I have begun to use my full name 'christopher' rather than the diminutive 'Chris' which people most often called me in a previous life, in a previous marriage, last century.   It didn't really fuss me, but now it 'tickles my fancy' to be called after a defrocked saint :-)   Neither do I much care what others call me now - unless it is late for dinner.   But actually this has made me realise that for all the unverifiable mythological background to the story of Christopher, the name itself must stem from the myth, however factual it may or may not be.   The story of the giant carrying the infant Jesus across the raging river is the source of this name - the 'Christ-carrier'.   It is a real 'Christian' name.

And the story of my becoming 'christopher' is the story of my continuing to reflect on the Sunday readings wider than just my work pulpit, if sometimes only virtually, since 1996.   As I have explored my faith and expressed this exploration, I have been able to move on.   Perhaps it is just that I am a slow learner!   It is not that I have become more religious or more spiritual; I have become more christopher.  

Indeed it is as I have ceased to try to become more religious or more spiritual that I have allowed myself to become more who I am.   The ailment from which I am being set free is the ailment of religion and spirituality.

I reflect that religion and spirituality so often focusses on the great and eternal truths propounded by scripture, creeds, the giants of the church and the weight of church tradition.   The tiny kernel of faith found in the likes of you and me has oft been swamped by all of this.   And it is surely significant that we find this woman 'bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight', in the synagogue on the Sabbath, dutifully listening (as women have often down the centuries only been allowed to do) as the leaders propounded on the ancient verities of the blessedness of obedience to the faith - equivalent to compliance to their teaching.

But manifestly, compliance to their teaching did not bring healing.   I note that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and it was this teaching that nurtured a tiny kernel of faith in this woman, who found not just her body straightened, but also found her voice to praise God.   No wonder the devout and the orthodox were scandalised.   Their power to subjugate had been swept away.   Suddenly it was not only the woman who had found her voice, but we are told: 'the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing'.   Everyone realised that the power of the hierarchy to subjugate had been swept away.   The devout and the orthodox had a full-scale revolt on their hands!

I do not want anyone else to become 'christopher'.   The last thing I want to do is impose my image on anyone else.   I am content that others find the faith to become themselves rather than clones of the ancients or the present high-flyers.

I have been pondering my belief in an interventionist God, and perhaps my answer comes in the timing of my beginning to become christopher when I began posting sermons on the internet in August 1996.   This was when I began to extricate myself from the strictures of parish ministry.   Which leads me to wonder if I've got another year and I will actually be free to be myself.   And perhaps my ministry has been to help others do this in a shorter time :-)

But this makes me wonder what happened when this woman returned to her home and husband?   Such a severe crippling may not have come solely from the result of a restrictive religion.   No doubt she returned not the meek and mild dutiful wife she had been when she left for the synagogue.   Perchance her husband was not well pleased with the cure?   Perhaps he too was a willing assistant of the spirit that had crippled her?   And Jesus didn't tell the woman to follow him - not because he wouldn't have valued her ministry - but perhaps lest he be charged with breaking up a home and family.   Perhaps the woman's task was to teach her husband some things about equality in relationships.   Clearly women did follow Jesus.  

I have been so used to thinking of this woman as unmarried and I wonder why?   I wonder how the whole story would be changed if in fact she was the wife of the leader of the synagogue?   Suddenly the comparison between the care of a man's animals - HIS ox and HIS donkey - is contrasted with the care for his wife.   I point out the curious echoes in the tenth commandment in the book of Exodus (listed in oder of importance): 'You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.' (1)  Jesus' raises the status of this crippled woman from being of even less importance than a male's working animals to 'daughter of Abraham' - whether she be married or not.

I also wonder whether the woman showed signs of physical abuse?

I have just read a lovely piece about attending church.  'Why bother with Church at all?' by Tara Woodard-Lehman, Presbyterian Chaplain, Princeton University:  'After giving it much consideration, I've decided that there is at least one very good reason why I need Church: I have a really bad memory.   It's true.   I have a terrible memory.   Especially when it comes to remembering who I am as a child of God.   Especially when it comes to remembering what God has done, and continues to do, in and through Jesus Christ.   I forget who I am.   I forget who God is.   I forget God's Epic Story of Redemption and Liberation and Renewal and Beauty and Hope.   I forget.   A lot.' (2)   I am glad that she finds church a place of personal liberation, but this is certainly not universal or guaranteed.

In another article, Gavin Drake in Church Times says: 'The nature of the debate on women bishops at the General Synod meeting last November has "finally shocked most bishops into the realisation that conservative demands can never be met".' (3)   The crippling forces of religion and spirituality are still very real and active in the church of my tradition.

My final reflection is to say that we are told that: 'Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues' though not what the content of his teaching was.   His presence was not in the content or eloquence of his words.   We are told that Jesus 'called her over', bringing the crippled woman close to himself, close enough to be able to lay 'his hands on her'.   She was brought from the periphery to the very centre of the action.   She was invited to leave the margins and to take her place as a central player in the proclamation of the gospel - eclipsing the strictures of the devout and the orthodox.   No wonder her demeanour was so radically changed!

And no wonder the devout and the orthodox wanted to be rid of this Jesus who made their status redundant and caused God's work to be seen in someone so obviously despised.

So we are called not to proclaim an interventionist God but to follow Jesus and bring those on the margins into the centre.   We are called to intervene in people's lives, to do as we wish God would act.

(1)  Exodus 20.17