Freedom in My Bones

Freedom in My Bones © Jan L. Richardson

Gospel reading, Proper 16/Ordinary 21/Pentecost +13, Year C (August 22): Luke 13.10-17

I’ve heard it said that every preacher has only one sermon, and that each message is simply a variation on it. I know this about myself, not only as a preacher but also as a writer and artist. I’m not sure what the title of my core sermon would be, but I know it has something to do with these questions: What are the habits, patterns, and rhythms by which we live our lives? Do they enable us to live in freedom, fully open to the presence of God? Or does our way of life hinder us from this? Are there patterns and habits that, over time, have become confining, keeping us bound and bent and feeling less than whole?

As a preacher, writer, and artist, I may venture far afield in my work, but I always seem to return to these core questions about what we shape and build and construct—and sometimes constrict—our lives around. And I find myself pondering these questions again as I contemplate the upcoming gospel lection, which is among my favorites: the story of the bent-over woman that Luke gives us in his Gospel.

Luke tells us that the source of the woman’s crippling illness lay beyond her control; he describes it as a spirit that had kept her bound for eighteen years (“eighteen long years,” Jesus points out). There was nothing, it seems, that she did to cause her condition, and little she could do to remedy it. There is no habit, no pattern, no routine that this woman can change that will free her—except to place herself in Jesus’ path.

I find myself curious about the community around this woman, wondering what their habits toward her had been. Did they hold her responsible for her condition, thinking—as people so often thought in that time, and still often do in ours—that her physical appearance was a manifestation of an inner fault? Did they take any notice of her as she made her painful way among them, or did they allow her to travel below their line of sight? Did they ever pause to look her in the eye, alter the shape of their own body in order to meet her gaze? Did they keep their distance, concerned that her state might pass all too easily to them? How much of this did the woman absorb into her own body and soul?

I know my wonderings reflect my own assumptions, largely born of my noticings about how in our own day we still so often look around, look through, look away from those in our midst whose bodies look different than whatever we consider the norm. And maybe I’m taking a too dismal view here; maybe this woman, whose name we do not know, did in fact have kinfolk and allies. Yet it’s clear that there were those in her community who allowed themselves to be locked into patterns that worked against her wholeness and freedom. When Jesus dares to heal the bent-over woman on a sabbath day, he meets resistance and outrage. In turn, he challenges those present to consider what sabbath really means: that in its fullness, the laws regarding sabbath are designed not just for rest but for release from all that keeps us in bondage.

Yesterday morning I returned home from my three-week trip to the other side of the country. After spending two weeks at the Grünewald Guild, a place I think of as another home, I went to Lake Tahoe to serve as the keynote speaker for the Companions on the Inner Way retreat. Both places offered remarkable experiences of community and hospitality. And in each place I witnessed the power of what happens when people are invited to live and move and work in ways that lie beyond their customary habits, patterns, and assumptions about who they are and what they can do.

In my retreat work, I often encounter folks who claim that they don’t have a creative bone in their bodies. I understand this; can see all too readily how our culture chips away at the creative spirit that is innate to us. It is alarming, how easily we participate—however unconsciously—in societal patterns that seek to keep us within certain confines; that keep us from being too distinctive, too creative, too noticeable. That keep us from standing upright.

But in these past weeks, I watched a woman create a sculpture for the first time since her mother’s death more than a decade before; I heard a woman in her 80s declare that she was going to spend the rest of her life painting; I saw people take the scriptures into their bones as they sang and worshiped and prayed and danced the sacred texts of our tradition; I saw them piece together words and images that drew them more deeply into their internal terrain where they found the presence of God in ways they had not noticed before. I saw them holding one another in community, walking with one another into new landscapes.

As these scenes and moments of the past weeks play through my memory once again, I see, too, among them a shadow: a woman bent, moving, rising, standing, praising. Healed and free.

And so I, the preacher and writer and artist who perpetually circles around the same message, am come this day to ask you: What are the patterns you are enacting in your life and your community? Do you have any habits and routines that, once comfortable, have become constricting and confining? Are there ways that you participate in keeping others in rhythms that are comfortable for you? Do you allow others to do this to you, letting yourself absorb assumptions and prejudices that keep you bound, however subtly? Do you resist moving in ways that might challenge and conflict with the patterns of others? What would it look like to place yourself in the healing path of Jesus, and know sabbath down to your very bones?

Prayer for All Things Rising

For all things rising
out of the hiddenness of shadows
out of the weight of despair
out of the brokenness of pain
out of the constrictions of compliance
out of the rigidity of stereotypes
out of the prison of prejudice;

for all things rising
into life, into hope
into healing, into power
into freedom, into justice;

we pray, O God,
for all things rising.

In the coming days, may you place yourself in the path of the Christ who desires our wholeness. Together. Blessings to you!

[“Prayer for All Things Rising” © Jan L. Richardson from Sacred Journeys: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayer (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1995). To use the “Freedom in My Bones” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

10 Responses to “Freedom in My Bones”

  1. Maureen Says:

    Beautiful post, Jan. Blessings… for all things rising.

  2. Cyndi Wunder Says:

    Jan, thanks so much for your inspiration! I am working on my first sermon to be given outside of seminary chapel and this is my text. So much of what you say resonates strongly with what I have been praying over and keeping in my heart.

    I looked up the Greek word that is so often translated as disease or disability. It is far more ambiguous than that. It can even mean a lack of confidence. I too was thinking about the ways in which we limit ourselves even unconsciously.

  3. phyllis thomas Says:

    Jan. So wonderful to have you back! This was a ponderous post and one I will be mulling over for awhile. Some very important challenges and questions here. Thanks! As always you minister deep into my soul and spirit and as always your image is marvelous.

  4. Kate Says:

    Your words resonate very well to me right now in my life…thanks.

  5. Elizabeth Nordquist Says:

    Dear Jan,

    I am flying up to San Francisco to preach on this text on Sunday at Jeff Gaines’ church. I would not allow myself to read your reflection until I had done most of my own work, but once again I find such resonance and soul connection. that I am encouraged to stand up a little straighter myself to being this Word.

    Thanks so much for the gifts you brought to Companions; my ears have been full of stories of grace and delight from those who were there. Blessings on you as you settle into a new home place this fall for the next piece of ministry.

    In gratitude and grace, Elizabeth

    In joy and delight, Elizabeth

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thank you so much, Elizabeth! You were on my mind as you prepared to preach at Jeff’s church. What a gift it was to share in the Companions retreat. The hospitality of that tremendously engaging community was a blessing that continues to go with me.

      Blessings and gratitude to you.

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