The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
From the time I became aware of people other than family, I knew who she was. She was “the crippled woman, deformed, a victim.” She was a member of our church. Her name was Bertie. Polio had withered her left side, face to foot. Her hand was gnarled into a ball. Her head bent over. She could hardly walk. Because she drooled, she always carried a Kleenex.
In my hometown, we feared polio. In the summers, movie theatres closed. Swimming pools emptied. People were afraid – and rightly so. Some put a large polio hospital on the outskirts of the city. When Mom drove by it, she’d warn us, “Roll up your window. You could catch polio and be crippled, and even live in an iron lung the rest of your life.” That also scared me to death. I feared catching polio and I feared people who had it.
Polio had imprisoned Bertie, making her a dreadful sight. She scared us children. And wouldn’t you know it, of all the church groups, she wanted to spend time with the children. She would learn our names, and attend our Sunday School classes and choirs. Someone even let her assist at Bible School each year. “Be nice to Bertie. She’s crippled.” She was our resident cripple. That’s how we learned to see her – cripple, victim, different and scary.
As I got older, my fear of Bertie lessened. A friend, whose parents ran a business downtown, came to school one day telling us, “My dad heard some commotion behind the store yesterday. He went to check. Two feet were sticking up from a garbage barrel waving in the air. He pulled Bertie out.” We laughed and laughed trying to imagine what that looked like. People downtown knew her. They whispered “polio” to those who didn’t know her as they watched her shuffle by.
As an easily embarrassed teenager, I wanted to disappear when Bertie would spot me on the street. She’d want to stop me and talk. I couldn’t understand her garbled words. You’d rather people not know Bertie knew you. She was the crippled woman and all.
Bertie did more than just hang around the church. She’d bring little gifts sometimes – one for each child. At Christmas Bertie gave us candy. Sometimes she’d give us cards. I’m sure someone had to sign her name. No child was left out. I’d almost forgotten she did that part about her life. She was the crippled woman, you know, and that’s how we knew her. I guess when others carry labels we place on them we see the label, and that’s what they become. She was crippled. That’s all I saw.
Bertie died long ago. But she didn’t go away – at least not for me. Whenever I read how Jesus heals the bent over woman, I think of Bertie. For eighteen years that woman couldn’t lift her head, or stand up straight. Imagine the isolation and desolation of such a life – “Don’t touch her. She’s unclean. Get her out.” One day she dares to enter the synagogue where Jesus is teaching. She must believe Jesus can help her. He calls her over, says some words, and lays on hands. Then she stands up straight and she praises God and so do the others, except for the synagogue leader, the clergy person, wouldn’t you just know. He shouts to the crowd, “Six days he has to do this, but no, he heals on the Sabbath. He breaks the Law.” Jesus gets a bit incensed, too. Those who love laws more than people Jesus calls hypocrites. People called her, “deformed, sinner, unwelcome here.”Jesus looks at her again, and calls her something she’d never been called, “daughter of Abraham,” making her, too, an heir of God’s promises, and letting everyone know she’s in with God, a beloved daughter, after all. That’s who she is. To show it’s so, Jesus lifts her out of bad theology, heals her deformed body, and gives her back her life.
I remember Bertie. I’ll bet Jesus noticed her, too. Sometime she must have heard Jesus name her, “sister; daughter of Abraham; a princess in God’s reign.” He lifted her up to stand tall. He healed her, not of polio, but of shame, inferiority, self-pity, labels we gave her. Jesus restored her real identity, so she could withstand our glances, our fears, ignore our laughter and whispers when she passed by. She wasn’t bothered we couldn’t see past her deformed body. She looked at us children and many adults, and could see in us what we didn’t in her, God’s beloved, a person of value and worth. Her little gifts and notes were tokens of her love. Looking at her this way, I see that Bertie’s heart was much less deformed than ours. Jesus healed her. Bertie was a crippled woman, you know.
I remember Bertie. She’s still with me. She wasn’t the real victim. I was and still can be when I allow fear to cripple my spirit; when I label someone and fail to see their heart; when we ridicule or laugh at someone’s faults, we shut them out. I suspect all of us have listened and absorbed voices that have taught us, “She’s a cripple. He doesn’t belong here. She’s not our kind.” That makes us victims. We imprison ourselves by looking at and naming another’s deformities, and we don’t see our own. If we can’t see each person as God’s beloved, maybe we can’t really see it in ourselves. That’s called sin, with a big “S.” Sin is the deformity that keeps us from seeing each other as God does. The church may forget to teach us that is sin. And Jesus can even set us free from our deformities. God’s all about healing, restoring, making us and everyone whole.
Bertie was a crippled woman, you know. We are too, often deformed by bad theology that keeps us from seeing Christ in everyone and not questioning if what we have been taught is true. Bertie was not a crippled woman, you know. I remember Bertie. She teaches me no one has to stay crippled. Jesus says so.