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The Name Our Spirit Wants

August 22, 2004

Glynn Cardy

Ordinary Sunday 21     Luke 13:10-17


Some people find it easy to name their children. I often hear of children being named while they are in-utero. It seems unlikely then that their names are related to their characteristics. Other parents take their time. I remember taking six weeks over one of our children - trying each name on the hapless babe to see whether there was a fit.


Names are important. At baptism we celebrate those names and the person they clothe. The forenames are usually a combination of originality and familial connection. They are a means of both claiming that child as one of our own and setting that child apart as unique.


When a child enters the maelstrom of school names often undergo a transformation. Much to their parents horror the careful work of those early months is discarded in favour of 'Zero', 'Flush', 'Gooch', 'Cheese', 'Stink', and the like. These are names forged in the heat of peer interplay. Sometimes though the names can burn, and leave a permanent scar.


I remember having a coffee with a fellow jogger. He was one of those fit looking 30 year olds they line up for swimwear ads. I was one of those flabby looking 40 year olds they don't line up for anything. We got to talking about food, and slipped on to the subject of fat. Suddenly, as can happen in conversations, the tone changed. As I gently inquired he told me that despite appearances to the contrary, he had always thought of himself as fat. 'Fatty', his name from school days, was no joke. It was a weight that still weighed on him.


There is much pain in a name that hurts, confines, or crushes the spirit. The gregarious personality who jokes about his own nickname may be the very person who is aching inside.


Jesus meets a woman. She is called "the bent woman." How would you like to be immortalized with that name? She was bent over, back terribly contorted, and had been like that for 18 years. She doesn't appear to have a proper name. When people saw her, creaking down the street, they didn't say, "Here comes Mary," or "Look, its Elizabeth." They said, "Here comes the bent woman." That was her name and in that improper name her spirit was held captive.


If you want Kiwi audiences to applaud you, criticize political correctness. Changing labels like "crippled," "deaf," or "blind," to "differently abled," "hearing impaired" or "visually impaired" is often scoffed at as being 'PC'. Yet behind these attempts at language change is people claiming the right to name themselves. The same people who know the power of language to capture and weigh down their spirits. The same people who know the power of language to shape perception and open up or close down possibilities. The same people who claim the freedom to be known by a name they choose.


One church custom, now widespread, is addressing a person by name when giving the communion bread. Every so often an elderly parishioner would approach me and say, "Glynn, I know everyone calls me Betty, but I'm not really. Inside I'm Margaret, and I'd love you to use that name at communion." I find such conversations very moving. They are about people, usually late in life, claiming the power to name themselves before God.


The woman Jesus meets doesn't have a name, other than the improper one given to her by the town, a name based upon her disability. The story doesn't have an identity for her other than that of a victim. She doesn't have a family it seems, no occupation either. She is the one who is bent, stooped, bearing upon her shoulders an invisible yet very heavy weight, the weight of being different, the weight of not looking like everyone else, the weight of not being able to do what everyone else does. She is the crippled woman, bent.


In her encounter with Jesus she experiences freedom and healing. Some will choose to understand the healing literally: Jesus using supernatural powers to cure degenerative osteoporosis. Others, me included, understand the power of Jesus as transformative love, and interpret the healing figuratively. A weight gets lifted off her shoulders - a spiritual and physical weight that judged and condemned her. The spiritual and the physical often interlock. She stands up straight, empowered to be the woman she is, no longer bent by others misshapen prejudice.


Jesus calls her by a different name. Jesus doesn't call her disabled, or marginalized, or a victim of life's unfairness, though from most points of view she is. Jesus doesn't let her disability define how he sees her. Jesus instead calls her "a daughter of Abraham." It is both a descriptive name and also a name that calls her into her potential. Let me explain. Abraham was the great, great-grandfather of Israel. Abraham was the one to whom one starry night it was said a promise was given. God allegedly vowed to make a great nation out of Abraham, a nation through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed. She is a daughter of Abraham. She is an heir to the blessings of God. She belongs to the Jewish community. She is an insider, not an outsider where she had been relegated. She is meant for more than superficial, cruel, limiting labeling.


Abraham, as we read the stories of him, was an interesting guy. He made some big mistakes - like his relationships with his sons and their mothers. Abraham was not your ideal family man. Yet Abraham had a powerful compassion that outshone the other patriarchs. Remember the story of him pleading for Sodom and challenging God to be merciful. The sobering thing about that encounter was that Abraham, unlike most of us, literally believed that he was arguing with a God who could fry him from the sky. Abe had guts.


To be an heir of Abraham is to theologically throw oneself into seeking, challenging, and learning of the mystery of God. Come what may. It is to be a pilgrim. Jesus was therefore both acknowledging and affirming the woman's whakapapa and in doing so gently reminding her of its obligations.


I think a lot of the healing in this encounter comes in the re-naming. The woman has been named as 'bent' and treated as cursed. Jesus names her as part of the community of the blessed, including her and seeing her potential. The woman herself though is yet to claim and pronounce her own name. The story is unfinished.


Another heir of Abraham objects to Jesus. 'Look Jesus, we all like a healing, but this is the Sabbath. Couldn't you have waited until tomorrow?' Jesus quips, 'Well, animals need water on the Sabbath.' Sorry Jesus, it's not a good argument. Animals need water to survive; the woman could have waited until the morrow. But Jesus is not really arguing the texts about Sabbath regulations. His whole understanding of the Law and God is quite different. His paramount assumption is that what pleases God is people's well being. [1]


The leader of the synagogue would have affirmed that we must love God with our whole heart and soul and strength, and show it in action. That meant keeping the commandments. Behind it is an image of God saying: 'I am God. I must be obeyed. I want loyalty and service.' The outcome of which is: we seek to know what God's commands entail, how they apply, and we keep them. Simple as that! The better we keep the commandments the better child of Abraham we are.


Other Jews, like Jesus, disagreed. For them God's chief concern was not to be obeyed but to love and care for people and creation. Commandments, rules, guidelines, traditions, laws, scriptures are subordinate to the purpose of love. A child of Abraham is known not by her bloodlines or by her obedience to the letter of the law, but by her generosity to outsiders, and her commitment to restoring, encouraging, and challenging. When obedience to the letter of the law takes one away from loving others, then something is terribly wrong. [2]


An heir of Abraham, not unlike us today, had a choice over the type of God they would follow - a God of obedience or a God of love.


When we are baptized we join Jesus' iwi. He is our great great-grandfather. His arms were so wide they embraced the whole world. To that iwi we belong. We are connected. We are loved. We are named. In this iwi, in this great river of whakapapa, we will learn to navigate our way in life, supported by and supporting others, with obligations and opportunities. That daughter of Abraham is one of our forebears.


When you learn to navigate in the faith there are many stars in the sky. Some are more helpful than others. Like that leader of the town's synagogue we can choose the star of obedience that notices who is following the rules and who is not. Or like Rabbi Jesus we can choose the star of inclusive love that notices those who are bent out of shape by the words and prejudice of others, and does something about it. Or like the once-was-bent daughter of Abraham we can choose the star that calls us by the name our spirit wants, and which we in time courageously claim.


1. He is not riding roughshod over the Law and replacing it with new ways. Not according to the gospel writer Luke. Jesus upheld biblical Law. His conflicts were over the underlying theology of it.


2. This story is almost a parody of Jesus' opponents. How absurd to object to someone being made well! How absurd to imagine God would be more worried about having the Sabbath commandment protected than having people healed! We need to see that the story had that function: to contrast the two approaches. It is, in that sense, using stereotypes. It would be most inappropriate, in fact, directly offensive, if we were not to see this and to start caricaturing Jewish leaders and Judaism on the basis of this story.

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