The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
This is one of many stories in the Bible with a nameless female character…of course, she had a name, but the writer of Luke’s gospel doesn’t convey her identity, except that she was “bent over” and “unable to stand up straight.” I can’t fully imagine what it must have been like to live life doubled-over like that. It must have been painful to walk, to sleep, to do anything. [demonstrate] Can you imagine what the world looks like if you are bent over in that position? It would certainly be difficult to look at someone during a conversation. What would you see? You’d see the dirt and the dust on people’s feet. You might catch a glimpse of the sun or the sky if you turned sideways. Suffice it to say that your field of vision would be severely different that if you were standing straight and tall.
Did you notice that the woman doesn’t ask Jesus to heal her? He simply says, “You are healed from your ailment.” Perhaps she had given up hope of being healed. Perhaps she felt as though she was not entitled to a healing by Jesus. Maybe she didn’t know his reputation as a healer. I wonder if, after eighteen years, she had come to accept her condition as “her new normal.”
What are the parts of your life that need healing? Maybe, like me, you have a physical illness that is holding you back. Or perhaps you have a personality trait that you know is anything but helpful, but it just seems to be part of you. Could it be that you are experiencing a way of living that you’ve come to accept when in truth it could possibly be changed? Healing can take many forms, whether curative or restorative, as it was for the woman in this healing story, or it can mean coming fully into relationship with God, with self, and with others.
One of the things that plagues our congregation is the sin of self-reliance. We are a church full of real doers who are used to making a difference, and we are successful and accomplished in many different ways. Now, you may say, “Hal, that sounds like a blessing, rather than a sin.” And I think that our Protestant work ethic would affirm your assertion. And I call it a sin because I know it so well in my own life. I am so good at keeping things together, at maintaining control, at doing the right thing. I do that to such an extent that sometimes I forget to rely on God…at least until things begin to fall apart. One of the things that having a recurrence of cancer has taught me is that there are parts of our lives over which we are not in control.
There is an old Dutch aphorism that says, “If your little boat is about to be dashed against the rocks in a storm, row with all your strength and pray with all your might.” So, it’s not just a matter of letting it all be in God’s hands – we have a part to play and so does God. And the serenity prayer, written by UCC minister Reinhold Niebuhr, in its original form says, “God grant me the wisdom to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” I love that prayer, which doesn’t let us off the hook – it demands courage to change things when possible – and it asks God to be present in the midst of the process.
But what if the doubled-over woman had accepted with serenity that her physical ailment could not be changed? I suspect that sometimes God knows what is possible when we have already given up hope. Are there broken aspects of your own life that you have come to accept too readily? If so, what would it look like to give God a chance to heal that?
I know that if you read, watch, or listen to the news that it is anything but hope-filled and that there are aspects of our culture and political discourse in which we want to throw in the towel. Today, we mark the four-hundredth anniversary of African enslavement in our nation, and every American is living its legacy. We experience mass shootings, and then the memory of them sinks into the background, becoming invisible like so many other shootings. We have unproductive vitriol and flaming tweets instead of honest political dialogue and diplomacy and statesmanship. Have we given up hope of ever experiencing something different? Have we come to accept institutionalized racism and gun violence and rancid politics as the new normal?
I am never going to encourage you to stop trying to use nonviolence to change the system, but instead I am going to ask you to open yourself to the possibility of God working within us and among us — changing the way we think, feel, and act. I invite you to open yourself to the possibility of God healing you and healing the world.
What if we could be agents of God and God’s healing? What if we open ourselves to the healing power of God’s love and the realm that Jesus proclaimed in order to do what we cannot do on our own? What if God can heal the world – tikkun olam is the Hebrew phrase our Jewish sisters and brothers use for this – but what if God needs us to be agents of love and transformation?
Last week I read a wonderful meditation by the progressive Franciscan, Father Richard Rohr about nonviolent transformation. And he offered this observation: “It’s when we come to the end of our own resources that we must draw upon the Infinite Life and Love within us to do what we alone cannot do.” And if we do not draw from that unfathomably deep well of love, then we commit the sin of self-sufficiency.
Our openness to working together with God and to healing can call forth within each of us as individuals and as a congregation the transformative power of love. Emilie Townes, a womanist ethicist and dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, writes that “Part of the gift of healing is that it can open the doors in the rooms of our lives, and healing encourages us to walk through these doors to discover the grace and hope and judgment that may be inside each room.”
Going Deeper means summoning the courage to open doors into rooms in our lives we wish we could seal forever. And Going Deeper means that we are not alone in any of those rooms, because even when we ourselves do not have the strength to face our brokenness alone, we have the healing power of God with us. And that is where we find humility as well as the grace of God.
If we are confined by our own brokenness, looking down into the dust all the time, it will be impossible for us to look forward, to envision what lies ahead, to blaze the trail that will lead us toward God’s realm of justice and peace and healing. So, let us open our hearts to God and to going deeper in the faith that binds us to reliance on the sacred.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Emilie Townes in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3. (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), p. 384.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.