Luke 13: 10-17
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “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? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was
I heard a radio program last year around the thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger launch. On January 28, 1986, an explosion on the space shuttle Challenger killed its crew of seven astronauts and as part of the thirty year anniversary the news program was interviewing Bob Ebeling. Mr. Ebeling had been an engineer with a NASA contractor at the time and he had tried to stop the launch. The night before the launch he and fellow engineers had tried to argue that it was too cold a day to launch the shuttle. As the interviewer reported, the data showed that the rubber seals on the shuttle’s booster rockets wouldn’t seal properly in cold temperatures and this would be the coldest launch ever. He and his fellow engineers argued the case to the superiors and the folks at NASA but in the decision that has now seen analysis, fueled by the hopes that the space programs could launch space regularly, they moved ahead with the launch.
Bob Ebeling had made his case and yet that launch was okayed anyway. And so the next day, when he watched the space shuttle explode in a shocked conference room, he knew what had happened and he trembled and wept.
Mr. Ebeling retired soon after the challenger tragedy and fell into a deep depression, wracked by guilt that he could have and should have done more. In this interview I heard at the thirtieth anniversary he was 89 years old and allowed his name to be used in public for the first time and thirty years later he was still wracked by guilt. You heard it in his voice, speaking about it, Bob Ebeling saying that he has prayed about this for thirty years and he says, “I think that is one of the mistakes that God made: he shouldn’t have picked me for the job. The next time I talk to him I’m going to ask him, ‘Why me you picked, a loser?’” For thirty he’s been carrying this weight, this burden.
As Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. She was bent over and quite unable to stand straight.
Memory can be a long and complicated thing. There are huge stretches of life that can blur together where one day stretches on like the next. Happy times are often uneventful. Sometimes I find a photo of something and realize that the picture is more memorable than the event itself. But that dumb thing I shouldn’t have said can remain emblazoned on my brain, wake me from my slumber years after the fact. Accomplishments can be hard to recall but mistakes can linger and wounds, how long of a story can they tell? Looking back in time any life may have regrets, things you look back on and you wonder if you might have done differently, fears that the lives you may have intersected may have been made worse by the exchange, the ways you acted where you didn’t know enough to act differently and cowardice or ignorance or even cruelty. I think back when I was living in New Haven. There was a summer camp that desperately needed a camp director and I had lots of years experience in it. But the trick was this: the community was poor and predominantly Latino and Black and they hired me and I was white and in charge. I look back at that summer with this deep regret of the things I didn’t know how wrong they were, of the things I could have done differently, and this life and community that wasn’t blessed so much as burdened by my presence. And yet, what can be done? The time has passed, the children are now teenagers in places I do not know and so it’s something I hold. There are times as well that memories can be different but also whisper similar words, hurts that in their vibrancy can intrude even onto a happy moment, pains that just in their nature seem to whisper not just, “I feel bad,” but “I am bad.”
It can be dangerous terrain to survey the past and I don’t know what it was for this woman, what spirit plagued her that slumped her shoulders and brought her low, carrying something for 18 years that as she walked and as she rose continued to pull her down to the earth. There are some ways that looking backwards with eyes of reflection is a countercultural thing. We are a people who like shiny things, which usually mean a future that is new and a past that fits neatly into albums. And looking backward with eyes to reflect and to learn can yield great gifts. Would that as a country we could look back and wrestle with the demons of our past. Would that many of us could spend our time looking at our failures and seeking how we can make a different choice going forward. It can be a gift to spend time in the difficult places in our life and in our memory, to find in the midst of it a truth that we might try to avoid or to find a pain that we might try to ignore. And yet, and we know this well, this is a land not without its perils. When we consider our lives and our pain and our places of guilt, sometimes there is something we can do, sometimes there is an apology that needs to be made, a change that needs to occur, a fire for action that needs to be borne in our hearts. And sometimes given the distances of time, given the fact that not all relationships can or should be resurrected, some of our life is written in ink that cannot be changed but only added to. And so, when trying to rework the past there is nothing you can do to make amends and that can eat a person from within as a painful memory then becomes a club you get very good at beating yourself up with. Or as the loop continues, “I have done something wrong and so I’m a bad person and so I do things that are wrong and so I’m a bad person,” and on and on and on.
St. Ignatius of Loyola was a Sixteenth Century founder of the Jesuits. He was originally born in Spanish nobility and had a conversion of spirit after being injured in battle and so his spiritual life led him in a new way into a walk of poverty and the founding of a new order of the Catholic Church. But his writing testifies to this complicated internal life of the spirit. In particular, he is known for his spiritual exercises known as “The Examine,” where throughout your days and reflections you take an honest account of your life and dwell in the goodness of God. One image that has stuck with me is on the discernment of spirits which may sound a bit spooky, but for St. Ignatius who spent most of his life in the spiritual life and guiding the spiritual lives of others he tried to discern when is something the work of God that comes out of reflection and when does it turn down a dark path? He wrote how for some folks a feeling of comfort might not be the work of God, that if we are too used on feeling comfortable this discomfort might be holy, causing feelings for conscience and remorse, something that sometimes the spirit of God works by causing us to face difficult truths and yet, not always. How for some people, if they feel wrongs deeply, the opposite may be true. As he writes, “It is typical of the bad spirit to harass, sadden and obstruct and disturb the soul with false reasoning.” In some ways, just as it is not from God to ignore difficult truths, it is also not from God to refuse to accept forgiveness. What a remarkable thing we proclaim in the Christian faith, but that there is forgiveness, a chance to let go of a weight that seemed impossible, a chance to receive grace even when we felt we didn’t deserve it.
As I think of this woman who was plagued for 18 years, what would it be like to be healed? What would it be like after 18 years to finally stand straight, freed from a burden that no one else could see?
A few months after the piece on the radio about Mr. Ebeling there was an update: after hearing this program hundreds of people had written him letters of assurance. His eyesight was poor and so his daughter read to him one after another, letter after letter that said, “You did what you could.” Engineers in particular wrote him, letters from NASA officials and co-workers, letters that said, “God didn’t pick a loser, God picked Bob Ebeling.” Letter after letter after letter: his daughter called it a miracle. After 30 years this man found peace. The reporter said that despite cancer and Hospice care that Bob was more buoyant than he had ever known him. Hundreds of letters later, Bob said, “Thank you. You have put my worrisome mind at ease.” Bob Ebeling died about a month later.
When Jesus healed the woman, he called her a daughter of Abraham, drawing her back into the community, naming her as one of God’s beloved, God’s chosen. We are here to be that community, to be a place where we can hear the difficult spirits of truths and also where we can hear the affirming spirit of assurance that here in the midst of community we might read anew our letters and letters that say, “God loves you,” that there is nothing past the forgiveness of God, that in Christ Jesus we are invited to lay our burdens down, to be free to let go, to stand up. In God there is the forgiveness that meets the heavy burdened and says, “You are set free.”
And so it is that we come to this table of grace to seek healing, each to our own but also as a community. That at this table we may be fed, that we may be set free, that we may be healed.
For on the night Jesus was betrayed he took bread and giving thanks for it he broke it and gave it to them saying, “Take and eat; this is my body which is broken for you.” In the same way he took the cup and giving thanks for it gave it to them saying, “Take and drink. This is the cup of the new covenant sealed in my blood. As often as you drink of it, do so in remembrance of me.”
Ministering to you in the name and presence of Jesus Christ we offer you this bread and this cup. Come, for all is ready.
Will you be with me in a spirit of prayer: Holy God, we give you thanks that we are not left up to our own but that you have given us one another and you. Help us to trust that in you there is enough. Amen.
© 2017 Lisa Horst Clark. All rights reserved.