The miracle stories in the Gospels almost always have something surprising, something a little different that marks each one as unique. What sticks out in our Gospel reading for this morning is how long the poor woman has suffered. She is introduced as having been crippled for eighteen years. At the end of the story, Jesus repeats that Satan has bound her “for eighteen long years.”
Early Christian commentators saw this woman as representing us all. All of us are crippled with ailments of one sort or another. All of us are bent over with sin and suffering that prevents us from standing tall in God’s presence.
Now, after all that time, Jesus sets this woman free. Jesus empowers this woman, who has been bent over with pain for so long, to stand up straight and praise God.
In this story, Jesus is doing deep healing, healing long-term wounds. And the good news of this story is that what Jesus does for this woman, he can do for us, too.
We are wounded in all sorts of ways. Some of us have physical ailments, but I am thinking more about the spiritual wounds that we all carry, the wounds that may not literally bend us over, but that definitely weigh us down.
There are at least three levels of deep wounds.
Some wounds go back to our childhood. I saw an example of this in my current television series. I have confessed before that my TV tastes are low-brow. I tend towards superhero shows. Now I am watching the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which probably doesn’t come up in a lot of sermons. But an episode from the first season was all about childhood wounds.
The agents have discovered a magical staff that gives everyone who touches it great power in battle. But there is a cost. When you touch the staff, it brings up your worst memories, the times when you were most frightened or ashamed or angry. Thinking about those old wounds gives you a surge of adrenalin which helps you fight. But it makes it difficult to do anything else but fight.
One of our heroes is a tough man. He doesn’t seem beaten down. But when he touches the staff, we see one of his traumatic memories. He is filled with rage and defeats the bad guys. So far, so good. But then he can’t let it go. He is haunted by his memory. It’s like he has PTSD. And he starts to act out. It is not clear that he will be able to continue doing his job. He begins to alienate the people he loves. He is being gradually crushed by this old spiritual wound that he had not acknowledged for years.
His is a particularly dramatic case, appropriate for a superhero show. But we all have wounds like that, wounds that we have carried for a long time, wounds that sit on us like a great weight, wounds that make it difficult for us to be the people we want to be and to act in the ways we want to act.
Our Gospel reading is about healing that kind of wound. It is an invitation to bring our deepest wounds to Jesus, to expose them to his healing touch, to seek his help in carrying whatever burdens are crushing us down. Rarely will we experience the kind of immediate and full healing the woman receives in our reading. But over time, Christ heals. Christ enables us to stand a little straighter and to praise God a little more earnestly. That is good news.
But there is another, deeper set of wounds than the ones we receive in childhood. They go back even farther. I have been reading about “family systems theory,” and one of their key ideas is what they call the “multigenerational transmission process.” It’s a mouthful, but the idea is pretty simple. Our children inevitably absorb some of the consequences of our unhealed wounds.
So somebody gets hurt somehow, and the spiritual wound never really heals. It’s like the man in my TV show. For the rest of his life, he is bent over a little bit by this unhealed, often unacknowledged wound. And because he can’t quite be the person he might otherwise have been, he can’t love his children quite as well as he otherwise could have loved them. His children are effected by his wound even if they never have any idea what caused it.
And it keeps going. His children carry his old wound, which prevents them from being the people they could otherwise be. So they pass his wound on to their children. And so it goes through the generations. A really traumatic wound can effect a family for generations, long after the original cause has been forgotten.
The only way to break that cycle is to seek healing for the deep, multigenerational wounds that afflict us. Family systems books have some amazing stories about dysfunctional families that, with professional help, are able to identify destructive patterns of behavior that go back generations to some old trauma they may have known nothing about. And then the people in those families can begin to experience healing.
But we can say more than secular psychologists. The only true healing we can experience from multigenerational wounds that we may not even be able to name comes from Christ. Christ knows our brokenness better than we can know it ourselves. Christ’s grace and love cannot be shaken. Christ touches us at that deep level and invites us to new and better life in him. That is really good news.
But we can take it still one more step.
As you may have heard, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves on our shore is sometime this week. We don’t know the exact date. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has asked every Episcopal Church to toll its bell for one minute this afternoon to acknowledge that event.
We don’t have a bell to toll, but we can acknowledge the tremendous wounds that slavery and racism have inflicted on our body politick. We see the legacy of those wounds all around us all the time, and we all pay a price. African Americans and other minority groups pay the most obvious price, of course. But the wounds run deep for pretty much everyone in America, and we need real healing as a nation.
None of us are responsible for things that were done long before we were born. But we carry the wounds from those things. And we are responsible for what we do about our wounds today.
And here too, our Gospel reading offers hope. Jesus can heal even those historical wounds.
If we come to Christ, if we acknowledge our woundedness and our need, if we repent of our sin, if we ask God to heal us and to change our hearts, we will experience healing.
And if we experience Christ’s healing, even just a little bit, everyone benefits. Christ’s healing power can ripple out from us to effect the people around us. The healing we receive from Christ can benefit our children and all the people who come after us.
The good news of our reading, the good news of Christ, is that we don’t have to be defined by our wounds as individuals, as families, as a nation. We are God’s beloved children. We have been redeemed by Christ. In Christ is healing and wholeness.
My prayer for us, my prayer for our nation, is that we can come to Christ in faith, receive his healing grace, and share God’s love with a hurting world.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan