August 25, 2019
Proper 16: Luke 13: (6-9)10-17 (18-20)
The intermittent rain, darker mornings, and the chopping of wood is a reminder that winter is coming to Lopez Island. Last Sunday we heard Jesus the Prophet warning the crowds of their hypocrisy — they could perceive the signs of the earth and sky but were unwilling to understand the sign of the times. We, too, are good at observing the times and the seasons of the earth and sky and I have been warned that winter is coming.
In the desert there is a moment in September when the shift of the sun would tell me that we had survived another summer — something so subtle, yet so welcome — autumn had arrived. It would be another month before temperatures dropped but the light was different.
Last week’s gospel reading marked that shift in Luke’s telling of the good news and from that moment until the night of his last meal with his disciples, Jesus is laying waste to the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, the tyranny of the oppressors and he is raising up a vision of the realm of God where all will be called beloved. Framed and couched in the form of parables — Jesus speaks of a realm of forgiveness, abundance, mercy, mystery, hospitality, humility, discipleship and grace. Confronting the system of corruption and domination, Jesus is on the way to certain death and through death will save us all.
We are the recipients of his sacrifice and are called to live in this way of Jesus the Christ — the anointed one because he did this for us all. So what does that mean for us, here at Grace Church on Lopez Island?
Let me begin on the streets of New York. I lived in Midtown Manhattan for two and a half years. My tiny apartment was on 58th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. My office was about six blocks away and I passed the UN building on my way to work and I walked everywhere. I very soon discovered that when one walks in the city, one does not look at or acknowledge those on the street with you. Now this was a bit difficult for one reared in the South where “How are ya’ll doing” was considered good manners. I learned quickly to walk with all deliberate speed, head slightly down — do not smile or acknowledge others.
I also became very aware of the street people and homeless. Some had jobs handing out the free daily paper, others pushed garbage cans with brooms attached. Some were desperately ill, old and clearly suffering from the last stages of alcoholism or chronic mental illness. Many were regulars and one very elderly man always caught my eye. He was completely bent over, and as he walked he pushed a cart filled with his belongings. I often thought about what it must be like for him — he could not look up, his view was limited to the ground in front of him and in the rush of people and traffic, he must have struggled mightily to keep moving forward. He could not even see the faces of those who rushed by — this remains one of my most vivid memories of New York and a great sorrow for my inability to even acknowledge his presence. It is such an anonymous place and I could never find the courage to simply speak a word of kindness, much less do something that might be an act of mercy. And so, like everyone else, I simply walked on by, eyes averted, looking away.
Today’s gospel reading is a mirror for the church and for me — Jesus is in the synagogue on the sabbath, teaching. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. Our translation weakens this opening — it is more accurate to say, “Behold a woman.” This is a moment to be alert. Here is this woman, she was all bent over and completely unable to straighten up. Jesus calls out to her: “Woman, you have been freed of your weakness.” He placed his hands on her (a considerable violation) and at once she straightened up and glorified God.
Luke’s description, “The Spirit of weakness” is understood to be the result of demonic possession. Jesus liberates her — this is more than a healing — it is a setting free and her response is one of praise. Imagine. Eighteen years, bent over, unable to straighten up and then, suddenly, unexpectedly, you are erect — standing straight up. And what did she see? The face of Jesus, the astonished crowds, and the irritated ruler of the synagogue. What a sight that must have been!
But then, 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.” And now, we see in the mirror, we see ourselves and all the righteous justification that gets in the way of compassion, mercy and loving kindness.
For you see, the scribes and the Pharisees believed that by perfectly keeping the Law, the reign of God would be ushered in — they were deeply sincere and committed to such a call. They saw the Law as a vehicle for grace for the whole world and here was the itinerant teacher, deliberately disobeying the Law — healing on the Sabbath, touching this woman! The ruler of the synagogue protests that the Law should prevail and she should have come on another day to be healed.
What gets in our way? What stops us from acting in the moment? What rules do we carry that keep us in bondage at the cost of another’s pain? And I think about that bent-over man in NYC and try to imagine the scenario. If I believed I had the capacity to liberate him from his imprisonment, what stopped me? I wonder what might have happened if I had even had the courage to say, “Good morning”?
Here is another story, a true story. Years after NYC, I returned to Phoenix and was back at Trinity Cathedral. One Sunday, I was sitting a couple of pews behind three friends. Two were seated three pews in front of me and the third was seating behind the two. During the reading of the lessons, a young woman with a backpack entered. She was disheveled and was a bit disordered. She sat between my two friends and at the beginning of the sermon, became disruptive, raising her arms above her head and making sounds, agitated and confused. As I watched, my two friends each scooted closer to her, gently touching her and soothing her. My third friend then leaned in and laid her hands on her back. As I watches, the woman began to relax and quiet. Throughout the sermon, the three women surrounded her with grace and love. Peace settled around them. Here is what happens when a community has the courage to reach out. The community at Trinity has come to a place of spiritual maturity and it is with joy that I offer a vision of a better way.
This gospel ends with two parables. Jesus says, “What is the kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in the garden. It grew into a tree, and the birds of the sky made nests in its branches.” He also said, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman takes and sticks into flour; three small measures leaves the whole.” These parables speak to this moment in the synagogue. They frame the work of fulfilling the law with genuine acts of mercy.
I came here to be with you because I saw in you a community that would break the rules for the sake of the least, the lost, the lonely and the little. Perhaps all it takes is the smallest of beginnings — small and hidden acts of liberation — perhaps the liberation has already begun — People of God, stand up straight, lift up your heads, for the time of liberation has come!