Sermon for Sunday, August 25, 2019 || Proper 16C || Luke 13:10-17
When I was a freshman in high school, I had back problems. I grew an entire foot during the first two years of high school, from five feet to six feet. And it hurt. A lot. The bones in my legs grew faster than my ligaments could stretch. This caused my hamstrings to tighten, and the extra taut ligaments connected to my lower vertebrae caused my lower back to be thrown out of alignment. The growing pains were bad, but the worst part was that I couldn’t run. And since I couldn’t run, I couldn’t play soccer. (I did musical theatre instead…and it was awesome, but that’s beside the point.)
When I read the story of the woman with the crippled back, the memory of my back pain tingles and reminds me to stretch those hamstrings that are still really tight to this day. My back issues only lasted a year during a major growth spurt. I can’t begin to comprehend the debilitating nature of this woman’s eighteen years of back problems. I mean, we need our backs, right? Without the use of our backs, the rest of our bodies fall out of commission pretty quickly.
And yet there she is, hobbling into the synagogue. Luke tells us that she simply “appears”; I can see her in my mind’s eye. She’s shorter than everyone else because of her horizontal stature, but she calmly pushes her way through the crowd of people who are there to hear Jesus teach. And now she’s at the front, and Jesus sees her. We don’t know if she went to the synagogue hoping for Jesus to heal her affliction. Unlike some of the subjects of Jesus’ healings, she doesn’t actually ask for it. Rather, Jesus calls her over. “Woman,” he says, “You are set free from your ailment.”
Then Jesus lays his hands on her in a healing posture (maybe like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. *claps hands together and rubs them to generate heat.*) Next Luke narrates what happens to the woman, but our translation is a little bit off from the original Greek language. Our English translation says, “Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” In this rendering, the woman takes the action of standing up straight. But in the original Greek language, the woman is not the subject of the sentence. The Greek says something more akin to this: “Immediately, her back was straightened.”
In this more correct translation of the original language, we see an example of what scholars call “the Divine Passive.” Her back was straightened. How? By whom? If you recall your middle school grammar, this is a passive sentence; that is, the subject of the sentence is not the doer of the action. We can figure out the hidden doer of the action by lengthening the sentence.
Her back was straightened…by…whom? By God. The Divine Passive hides God’s action within the grammar of the sentence. But God’s action is there. Jesus lays his hands on the woman, and God straightens her back.
This nuance is important because it allows you and me to inhabit the correct position when it comes to our own healing. The woman does not straighten her own back when Jesus lays his hands on her. She does not accomplish her healing. God does. The woman’s role in the action of healing is not in the healing itself, but in her willingness to approach Jesus, to bring herself into a moment of hopeful submission. And her role continues in her response to her healing: she begins praising God.
We have a progression here. One: The woman takes the initiative to come to Jesus. Two: Healing happens. Three: She praises God. The step in the middle is the curious one. Why employ that Divine Passive? Why keep God’s healing hand hidden? Her back was straightened.
I wonder if Luke uses this Divine Passive to reveal a fundamental truth of God’s presence. When we encounter the presence of God, we rarely recognize that presence in the moment for what it is. Instead, we look back from a day, a month, a decade later and we say to ourselves: “Oh, that’s where God was active in my life. How could I have missed that?”
I remember a conversation I had with my sister Melinda about a decade ago while I was living in West Virginia. I was crying – like ugly crying – lamenting to Melinda my loneliness, my lack of meaningful relationships with people outside the church. She read through the lines and knew I was talking about the fact that I hadn’t been on a date since seminary. Melinda said to me with utter conviction, “She’s out there. She’s waiting for you. I just know it.”
A few months later, I moved to Massachusetts, and within six weeks of living there, Leah and I met. Looking back at our meeting, I am overwhelmed by the number of connections and relationships and serendipities and blessings that led us to each other. It’s too hot this morning for me to go into detail here, but it’s a good story. Suffice to say, I could make one of those crazy “cover the walls of the garage with pictures and newsprint connected by red yarn conspiracy theory diagrams” to illustrate our coming together.
The only way I can explain our meeting is the presence of God weaving our threads towards one another. No other explanation makes any sense: not the random chance of a disinterested universe, not mere coincidence. Only the directing creativity of God. And yet, I only see God’s presence in our meeting by connecting this length of red yarn to this one and that one and the other one, going back years and years. Each individual event could stand on its own as a discrete unit of life if left unexamined and unattached to the greater tapestry. But the Divine Passive is at work beneath those discrete units. We so rarely notice God’s presence in the moment, but that presence is there.
One of the great movements of the spiritual life is practicing awareness of God’s presence so we can shorten the distance between an encounter with God and our realization of that encounter. That’s the important thought for this sermon, so let me say it another way. God is always present to us, but we are not always present to God. Spiritual disciplines can awaken our awareness: Prayer, Silence, reading Holy Scripture, worship, engaging in holy conversations, working for justice and peace – and there are so many more.
The woman in the Gospel story knew right away what God had done for her, and she praises God. Looking back in our own lives, I wonder what moments might surprise us when we realize God’s hand at work in them. I invite you this week to dig into your own personal history, and do some detective work in the archives of your memory. Unroll that spool of red yarn, start your diagram, and uncover God’s hidden presence in your life.
Featured Image: A Beautiful Mind (2001)