No Regrets: Bent Out of Shape

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

August 28, 2022

 

Today we continue our sermon series, No Regrets.

====[photo of young person with “No Ragrets” tattoo is shown]

This picture tells me that sometimes, you really should have a regret. You should.

I was inspired by research coming from the World Regret Survey, where people all over the world, over 19,000 people from 105 countries, shared what they regretted in life. Researcher Daniel Pink studied the data and noted that regardless of the person’s age or geography, regrets tended to fall into four categories. You may recognize them in yourself.

There are Foundation regrets, such as the ones Adam mentioned last week, failing to save money or study in school, regrets like the famous grasshopper who fiddled around all summer instead of storing corn like the ant, with his sensible shoes and IRA.

Then there are Boldness regrets, when you didn’t go on that coffee date or follow that dream or speak up and your life ends up looking like the agendas of other people.

There are Connection regrets, a rift or a drift in a relationship. We’ll talk about that next week.

But even though they were less frequent, the regrets that were the most powerful in people’s lives were Moral regrets. Moral regrets are failures in kindness, breaches of integrity, lapses in loyalty. The research made this point very clearly: That the clouds of cruelty in our past tend to linger the longest. Carried shame has this power to bend people, to bend whole communities, out of shape.

I invite you to listen for how that dynamic might be taking place in today’s Gospel.

 

Luke 13:10-17 

10 Now [Jesus] 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 to 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 being done by him.

 Let us pray. Lord, may your Spirit move such that in my words your people might hear your eternal word. Amen.

 

A normal service had begun. Jesus was teaching on various topics. And suddenly, there she was, a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. Scripture doesn’t tell us she had a spine injury or birth defect, though we can imagine that being physically different in an upright world could wound your spirit. Scripture doesn’t tell us if she had a grueling job, probably not hours bent over a laptop, but maybe her shoulders and neck had been warped by carrying heavy crops or water jugs or children or all three. Like these people I saw in Guatemala.

====[photo of Guatemalan woman carrying crops, water, and children is shown]

But Scripture does say she had a crippled spirit, and that sounds a whole lot deeper. The Greek word here conveys that she is doubled over. That sounds like the kind of hurt that is very hard to get over. Perhaps she had been carrying enormous worry, shoulders practically up at her ears, back tight as a drum. Maybe she was loaded with debt and she had to keep her head down or someone might harass her about what she owed. Maybe it was a combination many people in the world face at once: exhaustion, isolation, trauma, shame, all this grief accumulating and compounding over 18 years. The word grief comes from the French word greve, meaning a heavy burden. Truthfully, we don’t know her story in particular, but we probably know people who duck into the sanctuary with a heavy anvil upon their spirit, a weight upon their life, a secret encumbrance on their soul and they can’t even think straight.

At a church I served a long time ago, there was a man in his 50s who started showing up week after week to work around the property. He would be bent over for hours, ripping weeds out from corners of  the church property, some that were barely visible to begin with. I was locking up one evening and saw him out there again on his knees and said, “Hey friend, do you just love this kind of weeding – like an extreme sport or prayer practice – or is something going on?” The man chatted affably for a while then gulped and said, “I did something stupid on a business trip.” He seemed to be daring himself to say more. “I guess I was trying to be a hot shot or teenager again, but I had an affair. Not sure my wife or my kids will ever forgive me but maybe God will. I’m trying to do the right thing, now.” Suddenly the dark mulch felt like a confessional. The silence was thick, save for a distant leaf blower that droned like a Gregorian chant. He ripped out another weed. We talked for a while, and finally, I asked him, “Do you want me to say it again? The assurance of pardon words you hear every week? About being forgiven by God, completely and totally?” He straightened up, wiped his cheek with his glove, “Yes, I really do. You have no idea how much I need to hear that. The hard part will be believing it.” Over time, I noticed he started opening up to people. They opened up to him. His family changed a lot, some of it painfully, but some for the better. But that great rejection he expected never came. Not from the community, not from God, and eventually it seemed like he started pulling the weeds of self-rejection from his mind whenever they sprang up. I’ll never forget this: He’d come up for communion and pluck that bread and say intensely “thanks be to God.” Today’s story makes me think of him.

Boldness regrets, connection regrets, foundation regrets are pretty easy to talk about. Someone says, “Take it from me, kid, stay in school!” or “I shoulda quit that job years ago!” But moral regrets, the shame stories we carry around, those are some of the hardest things to talk about in life. That is part of their power to bend us out of shape. Brene Brown said, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” One of the best things a church can be is a place where someone can say out loud “this is what has me doubled over” and a place where a chorus of other people get their back. A place where being upright is more a posture of grace and wholeness and freedom before God and in the community, more than a kind of strained ashamed pretense.

So, meanwhile, back in the synagogue, a woman begins holding her head up, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember. She begins praising God. Everyone around her is happy. They start hugging her and taking pictures and someone starts singing Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.” There is cake in the Fellowship Hall. The end.

Wait, no. That is not how it went. When this woman is relieved of suffering, the people in her faith community become indignant. They are the ones who are now bent out of shape. The healing was not done appropriately. And suddenly in this story, we see a faith leader shouldering this rigid interpretation of Sabbath, we see other people hell-bent on things staying the same even if someone is visibly hurting. And from them, Jesus calls forth a flexibility in them that they didn’t know they had. Certainly, Jesus said, you care for animals on the Sabbath, so of course you would care for this woman. And, by the end of the story, an amazing thing happens: we see a faith community finally noticing its alignment problems, noticing its shame culture, an uptightness that had been confused with uprightness. And the result was a communal rejoicing. In a beautiful Kingdom of God way, this woman helped their posture too.

In the healings in the Gospels, and Luke in particular, Jesus always attends to the whole spiritual ecosystem. He speaks about grace for the prodigal son and his older brother. The tax collector and the Pharisee. He bestows honor not just on one person at the banquet; he rearranges the entire guest list. In Gospel healing, restoration is an individual and a collective responsibility. It creates a holy uprising for everyone, without zero-sum shame and blame games.

I think of that scene in The Mission, nominated for Best Picture back in 1987. Whether you’ve seen it or not, just imagine Robert De Niro’s character hauling all this weight up a mountain, this huge cargo net of weapons and gear.

=====[photo of man straining to climb a mountain is shown]

He’s straining, trying to do some kind of penance. A priest friend of his unties the weight from him, but he picks it back up again, just loaded down by all this guilt in his life.

=====[photo of man hauling a load across a river is shown]

Killing his brother, a career of cruelty. He finally gets to the top of the mountain, and in this thick suspense, one of the tribal leaders rushes up and puts a knife to his neck

=====[photo of man with a knife at his neck is shown]

and everyone thinks De Niro is going to be killed, including De Niro. The kind of punishment he deserves. Then, the man cuts the rope instead.

=====[photo of man being released from the rope is shown]

And then in just a few seconds, the expressions on his face cover about every human emotion. You see the exact second he finally forgives himself. This beautiful and cathartic and contagious moment when he lifts his head and the relief and joy of the people around him, rushing in,

=====[two photos of man being comforted are shown]

hostility melting away into a celebration all set to that beautiful score by Ennio Morricone. It’s an absolutely gorgeous scene.

When I think of my weeding friend standing there with communion bread in his hand and a smile on his face, or De Niro cathartically laughing, or hunched people and hunched churches finally letting go of their heavy old shame stories, whenever that happens, it always feels like Easter. Every time. It feels like this great exhale of grace, the great uprising of the spirit, the whole purpose of the Sabbath. You may know that Sundays are supposed to be a mini-Easter.

People who are doubled-over with shame, people who feel like they belong at a kind of spiritual scratch and dent sale, realize that Christ’s grace is actually for them. And those same people become deeply empathetic and generous and very often doubled-over in laughter. Karl Barth said that laughter is the closest we get to the grace of God.

And, the people who are straining under the weight of responsibility and rigidity, buckling under other people’s expectations, shouldering a thousand pounds of shoulds, they realize that Christ’s grace is for them too. And those same people become more flexible. They start to lift up their heads enough to notice where and to whom Christ is sending them. Anne Lamott says, “I live for Sundays. It’s like going to the spiritual gas station to fill up and clean the dirty windshield and mirrors.  I typically show up nuts, self-obsessed, vaguely agitated, and I am at once reminded not of who I am, but Whose I am.”

And that is when the whole congregation sings together and plucks that bread of grace and with heads finally raised again in gratitude and freedom and service and holy laughter at all the ways we tried to save ourselves and didn’t, say those words, “Thanks be to God.”

Amen.