Thistles Grow

Pentecost 14C: Thistles Growthistle
August 24-25, 2013
Luke 13:10-17

The woman Jesus healed had been bent over for 18 years…
18 years is a long time by any standard…
18 years ago the young men and women who are starting college this fall were just born.

For 18 years, this woman’s head has been bent to the ground;
for 18 years she has not been able to look up to see a cloud in the sky,
a bird in a tree, or the stars at night;
for 18 years she has not been able to look at another person face to face;
for 18 years she has not been able to stand up straight.

By this time, she’s already been to doctor after doctor;
she’s had the equivalent of X-rays and MRI’s and CAT scans and PET scans over and over again;
she’s tried chiropracty and acupuncture and physical therapy and all the herbs in the midwives’ closet;
she’s done everything that her friends have recommended:
she’s gone to the exercise class at the Y;
she got a new mattress;
she stopped eating foods with red dye and avoided caffeine;
she was already eating a Mediterranean diet, but increased her intake of fish oil anyway.

Despite all that, she’s had no relief…
And yet the power of the human spirit to seek healing is strong.
All those things failed to give her relief,
and yet she has not given up.
After 18 years, she has not given up on the power of God to heal,
and so she shows up at the synagogue.

I don’t know if it’s the first day she came to the synagogue and Jesus just happened to be there…
or if she heard he was teaching, so she decided to go that one day…
or (in my favorite story of my imagination) if she’s been coming to synagogue week after week looking for healing and finally on this day, she receives the answer to her prayers.

But however it happened, this day her prayers are answered…
Jesus sees her. He calls for her.
And laying his hands on her, he says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,”
And she is!

She stands up straight – for the first time in 18 years.
Free!

Of course biblical scholars have tried to diagnose her ailment…
Perhaps it was ankylosing spondylitis and over the years her vertebrae fused together…
or perhaps it was another form of degenerative arthritis affecting her spine.

But Luke the gospel-writer himself is careful to not make any such physical diagnoses.
Luke says that the woman has been crippled by a spiritual infirmity,
not merely a physical one.
An evil spirit has crippled her.
Satan has her bound.
(And if it’s true as tradition claims – that Luke was a physician – then perhaps he should know.)

How did Satan have her bound?
Why was she bent over?

I have a 2 ½ year old dog named Carly.
She’s still a young dog and so she still gets in trouble.
Those of you with dogs will understand this – you have to be careful when they’re quiet.
If I haven’t heard anything from Carly for awhile,
usually what it means is that she’s found piece of paper of mine
and she’s in the midst of tearing it up into a million pieces.
She prefers paper of some importance to me…
like a sermon draft or a bill yet to be paid or she’s even done it with money that she’s gotten out of my wallet.
So you can imagine,
when I find her in the midst of tearing up this paper,
I (in my best Caesar voice) say sternly “Carly!”

And this gets me every time…
her head drops and she sinks into the ground.
She gets into the position of shame.
The posture of the woman bent-over described by Luke is a posture of shame.
Could this woman be bent over by shame?

There are any number of reasons a woman in Jesus’ day could feel shame…
perhaps it was from her own sense of guilt;
or perhaps she had been shamed by society for being poor or disabled or a widow…or from having ankylosing spondylitis.

For Jesus to speak to a shamed woman,
let alone touch her, was incredibly scandalous.
And yet Jesus broke through that barrier of shame.

Today, men and women are bent over from any number of sources of shame too,
– abuse and addiction topping the list.

Modern medicine does not have much more to offer those who suffer from shame
than medicine in Jesus’ day did.
Shame remains a spiritual infirmity.
And yet the power of God to bring healing has not been diminished
and the power of the human spirit to seek healing is no less strong.

This past May, when I was in Nashville at a preaching conference,
I heard a talk given by an Episcopal priest named Becca Stevens.
Stevens is the founder of Thistle Farms,
a residential and jobs program for women who have survived lives of
prostitution and addiction.
Most of the women have served prison sentences.
Most of them have also had a history of abuse.
All of them have been bound by shame – the horrible feeling that comes from a sense that they are utterly unlovable.

The women live at Thistle Farms for two years.
They are given room and board,
and most importantly, they are given unconditional love.

Stevens tells the story of one woman who lives there named Shana.
Shana’s mother was an addict who sent her daughter at age 13
into her dealer’s house in exchange for drugs.
Shana worked as a prostitute for the dealer for the next 10 years.
Finally the dealer was arrested and sent to prison,
and Shana needed a place to go.

When she came to Thistle Farms, Shana didn’t know if she would stay,
but she wanted to try a different life.
She was scared because she didn’t know how to live a life clean and sober and without hustling.
She arrived at Thistle Farms with the words, “Trust no one” tattooed on her chest.

When she came she was like the woman bent over,
face to the ground, ashamed to lift her head…
and she had been this way for over a decade.

Shana got a job at Thistle Farms.
Thistle Farms also is a business, where the women create and sell bath and body products.
So Shana started working as a sales associate for “Thistle Farms.”
She started learning some job skills
and getting something to put on her resume
to fill in the gaps where her only income was from prostitution.

Shana still thinks it’s a dream…
that someday she’s going to wake up and everything will disappear;
that someone will make her go back to the hell of prostitution and addiction;
or that she will be sent back to jail.

The community of Thistle Farms tries to reassure her that this is real.
That love is real and possible – even for her.

Since so many of the women like Shana struggle with shame,
the program is named “Thistle.”
Why?
Because thistles grow.
Thistles grow on the streets and the alleys where the women once walked.
They have a deep root that can move through concrete and survive even drought.

And yet,
despite their prickly appearance, despite being classified as a weed,
they have a beautiful purple center
making them really gorgeous flowers.

The mission of Thistle Farms says that
“we choose to love the parts of creation that others have forgotten or condemned.”
The thistle grows – it shoots up straight – despite the things around it pushing it down.

The hope of Thistle Farms is that these women will be freed from whatever has
bent them downward, and they too will stand up straight and tall.

Stevens says that the success of the program depends on many factors…
prayer and partners in ministry,
but the most important thing;
the most important thing that heals them,
is that thing they receive called unconditional love.
“Love Heals,” is the tagline of the program
and it is on their tee shirts and coffee mugs.

Jesus looks at the bent over woman,
and sees more than a weed – he sees the flower of the thistle.
He lays his hands on her, and says to her,
“Woman you have been freed from your ailment!”
Immediately she stands up straight and begins praising God.
And once again “love heals.”
(Oh, and did I mention he did it on the Sabbath?) Amen.

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