St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Battles, Seen and Unseen”
Collect: Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 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." 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 away to give it water? 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?" When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.
I have found that to be so true. Some who seem to have everything “just so” are on the inside struggling to cover a facade that is tragically collapsing. We cannot see and we cannot know what is the internal struggle someone is dealing with. You have heard me say it before, and in today’s story it is especially true. “Hurting people hurt people.” That is usually the foundation of controlling religion, at least I have found.
The woman in this story had nothing to hide. She couldn’t if she wanted to do so. Her affliction was known to all. She was suffering with a crippling ailment for 18 years. It was plain and clear what she was suffering from. Growing up in Newport News, just off Fort Eustis Army Base, many of our neighbors were military. When I was about 10, a man moved in with his family, including his Vietnamese mother-in-law. After decades in the rice paddies, she was hobbled, unable to stand up straight. Today’s story reminds me of her and watching her shuffle along as a boy. She suffered, just as the woman in today’s reading.
And it begs the question, what is it we do with suffering when it is us, or someone we love? What do we do when there is nothing to be done? When there is nothing but to bully through and make a show of it. Most of us have been there. We put on our brave face, put on our big boy or girl britches, and steel ourselves because we have to forego what is foremost on our minds and do what has to be done.
Some of you may be dealing with something even today. You may have come here for a distraction or a respite. You may have come here today for a cup of hope. Good. This is where we do find our hope. And sometimes, we even see deliverance. Thanks be to God.
But sometimes in our suffering we cry out, or lash out, the opposite of steeling ourselves. Last week a friend was suffering from a situation, and it played out with almost an hour by hour commentary on Facebook, expressing rage, fear, self-depravity, hate, worry, angst, pity, and sometimes all of that mixed together. It was painful to see, but she was grieving her situation in a way that worked for her. And she posed a question, “Will this grief ever get better? What makes it go away?”
I responded: “Time. It is like a pulled muscle. It hurts to move or even touch it. It is the focus of your thoughts now because it is screaming. But slowly, you will begin to regain the ability to move and work with it. And one morning you will wake up and go about your business and then it will strike you that sometime the pain ceased and you missed that it was gone, or at least greatly diminished.”
Suffering is like that grief. We learn to get along with it, because often we have no choice. And the woman in today’s story had no choice, until Jesus came along. He saw her. His heart went out to her, and proclaims her healed. And she is. After 18 long years, it says. And that is the nature of suffering. The days do not get shorter in our suffering. Times flies when you are having fun. Suffering makes the sand seem to pause in the hourglass. Long hours, long days, long years.
And here is the fascinating part. The leader of the woman’s community, who has seen her suffering for 18 long years, is more worried about the timing of the healing than in the fact that her suffering has ended.
We need to avoid being like the leader of the synagogue, with his eyes so fixed on heaven that he was no earthly good. In other places (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28, and Luke 6:1-5) Jesus is very clear that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. That the strictures in place where there to help people remember to keep it holy, but there is a time and place where common sense is more important than legalism. Usually every time and every place is common sense more important than legalism. And even more, what could be more holy than healing someone’s suffering? When I walk into an Intensive Care Unit or an Emergency Room in a Pastoral Call I know I am on Holy Ground. The doctors and nurses treat me as part of their team. The welcome my partnership, for in the THOSE settings we all know that we are about the same business, the same HOLY business. Wholeness and Healing.
When the leader confronted Jesus with how he had scoffed the Law, one of the 10 Commandments, no less, Jesus fired back:
“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 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?”I can hear the comeback forming on the leader’s lips, “Yes, but…” but then came the response from the people. An eruption of praise.
When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
Just like the woman, there was suffering going on here as well. Just hidden. Not as obvious. Not as clear. The worry about being “good enough.” The worry about having it “perfect.” We will not ever be perfect. We cannot ever be perfect.
The legalism being espoused here is a form of control. And it goes hand in glove with its current incarnation fundamentalism. Rigid faith is about control, and control is about Power. Plain and simple. There is nothing you could do or not do that will change God’s opinion of you. You are the Beloved. But God does want us acting like Jesus, especially when we know we are Beloved.
In the book we are reading for Shrine Mont this year, Falling Upward by Father Richard Rohr, he speaks about the two halves of life. It is not about age, per se, but about approach. The younger years, we are concerned with Doing. The second half of life, we are more concerned with Being. Doing/Being. It could be seen as Quantity/Quality. It is about an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet versus a fine gourmet meal. There is a striking difference. A religion that is focused on maintaining Power will zero in on the splinter and ignore the logs. In the second half of life we move the logs so we can deal with the splinters.
Focusing more on Being rather than Doing is also a sign of maturity and experience. When I am new at something I have to focus in on the Do’s and Don’ts. I have to think about every motion and instruction. I have to think about everything in order to do it. So often though, after practice, practice, practice the callouses get formed, the muscle memories are developed, the focus can be on the subtleties instead of the rudimentary mechanics. So often we get to a place of competence and decide that is enough. And God forbid anyone who wishes to go any further.
There is a reason why we start with the 10 Commandments, and end with Love God with Everything and your neighbor as much as yourself. It is much easier to limit my faith to a checklist, it is black and white. It is cut and dry. Loving God, Neighbor, and Self is much more ambiguous, and therefore much harder. There is a reason the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who exactly is my neighbor?” Jesus’s rule is far harder to keep, for it never ends. We could ALWAYS love God more. We could ALWAYS revere our neighbor more. It never stops. There is no end.
The rudimentary faith ends with, “Bad Jesus, you broke Commandment 4. Shame, shame, shame.” Jesus says, in his actions, “Have you not seen this woman in need in your very midst?” Eyes so fixed on heaven they are no earthly good.
God is calling us to explore the depths, to get out of the shallow end of the pool. God wants us to not just visit the Kingdom of God on Sundays, but to build the Kingdom in our Selves and in our World every day of the week. As our Hebrews passage ended:
...we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.What is the “Acceptable Worship with Reverence and Awe” that God is asking of you? What is the next step into the depths for you? How can you broaden your service; how can you deepen your commitment?
It is different for each and every one of us. That is why we cannot have a controlling or limiting faith. Each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, and fearfully and wonderfully called. That is why the Holy Spirit is wild and free. Jesus likened the Holy Spirit to the wind, going wherever it wants. That is why we have to get beyond this [pointing at the 10 Commandments] and get to the Reverence and Awe.
When we see God, at work, at school, at home, and yes, maybe even at church, what is your response? “Hey, that’s not proper, you shouldn’t do that!” Or Reverence and Awe? When we celebrate this Resurrection Life, this healing life, this “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver) we join with the crowd rejoicing with all the good Jesus was doing, is doing, and will be doing. Thanks be to God! Amen