It’s wonderful to be back in this pulpit, although I’ve also loved being in the pews with you most of the summer. Ive said this before and I’m sure I will say it again, but there is no church, or chapel, or place of worship I know of to equal this one! There is a mixture here of intelligence and compassion, tradition and edginess, devotion and deep, resounding humor.
This time last week, most of us sitting in the pews had doubled over with laughter more than once. The Rev. Tom Pike, the beloved priest who was familiar to many of us led the service of Morning Prayer, while Renny Stockpole’s inimitable group provided the music, starting with a rendition of ‘Satin Doll’ that had us humming and tapping our feet as the tall, elegant figure of Tom Pike appeared from a side door to begin the worship.
Our programs indicated that we were to begin by singing a hymn so we were a bit startled to hear Tom say: “Let us say together the Confession on page 79, and knowing many of you as well as I do, I’m sure we need to say it…Most merciful God, we confess….”
“THE HYMN! The HYMN!” someone shouted from the back row; ‘YES!” echoed another voice. “We are supposed to sing the hymn first!”
Unfazed, and with great dignity, Father Pike bowed to the musicians: “Gentlemen, I apologize. Of course, we are to sing a hymn…”
So we sang the hymn, and THEN said the Confession, and by this time my visitor, a semi-retired priest from Memphis and New York named Buddy Stallings, turned to me and said, ‘This is my kind of church! I love it.’
According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, the fastest growing religious group in the United States is the ‘Nones,’ – the people who mark ‘None’ on the survey that asks for religious affiliation. In 2014, there were almost 56 million of them, roughly 23% of the adult population, and, Lord knows, that number has done nothing but increase. Lately, another category has been added by those who study statistics on religion: the ‘Dones,’ those who have been there, done that.
The Nones and the Dones have made a decidedly negative impact on traditional church attendance, for sure. But after experiencing that worship service last week – participating in the warmth and deep laughter, listening to a preacher who spoke with emotion about God’s unfailing love for us and the value of being together in prayer and worship, I’ve decided that this institution I’ve served for decades is well worth preserving, albeit with some much needed transformation.
Which brings me to today’s gospel reading, the story of a healing but also of a synagogue leader in great need of lightening up! Talk about a vivid contrast to St. George chapel last Sunday – here it is, in the gospel according to Luke.
While Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath, he notices a woman on the edge of the crowd. Luke describes her as ‘a woman with a spirit that has crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.’
In case some of you are wondering what the significance of the number eighteen is, the answer is that nobody knows for sure. What we do know is that in the 1st century, the life span, particularly of women, was considerably less than today’s, so eighteen years could be half of her life. A long, long time, in other words.
The woman is used to being ignored; she does not ask for healing; she does not recite a creed or profess her faith in Jesus. She just stands, bent over, at the edge of the crowd.
But Jesus sees her, calls her over and says, ‘Woman you are set free from your ailment.’ Then, Luke tells us, Jesus lays his hands on her and immediately she stands up straight and begins praising God.
You’d think that would be the end of a lovely story of healing and restoration, but NO! The synagogue leader, a consummate bureaucrat, proceeds to have what my grandmother would have called a ‘conniption fit,’ raising his voice (and maybe his fist) and shouting, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
He is not shouting at Jesus; he’s shouting at the woman! Bully that he is, he doesn’t have the courage to rage at the rabbi who has attracted quite a following in towns and villages healing people and preaching about the coming Kingdom of God where the last will be first and those who appear to be first, like this synagogue leader, will be at the end of the line.
Jesus must have had a mild version of a conniption fit himself, firing back, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or 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?”
My friend Buddy Stallings who was here last Sunday is a marvelous preacher; in fact, he’s preaching at the Episcopal church on Fishers Island for the next four weeks.
Here is a portion of Buddy’s sermon for today, about Jesus’ confrontation with the synagogue leader’s strict adherence to the Law: “the primacy of law, though often depicted by us as singularly rigid and unforgiving, in fact brought order and goodness into what otherwise would have been chaotic.
“We cavalierly suggest that Jesus, in a rush of free love, turned a righteous nose to the law. Not only is that not true but also it misses the finer point of how Jesus understood sacred scripture. He loved and knew the Law – on this very day teaching in a synagogue built in devotion to the Law. But Jesus understood it as a guide to truth, not the ultimate container; as a roadmap for life but one that was spacious and humane…
“Though he had encountered it before, Jesus, it seems, was utterly dismayed by the position taken by the leader of the synagogue and angry enough to resort to calling him out. “You hypocrites! How dare you stand in the way of healing for this suffering soul?”
“I can almost hear Jesus say, ‘Do you really believe that the God whom we are taught to love with our heart, soul, and mind would quibble over what day one of his beloved children is returned to health and fulness of life?”
“And on this day,” Buddy concludes, Jesus’ reaction carries the 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.’ “
As we know all too well, that is a day that has to be won again and again, throughout our lives. The synagogue leader attempted to preserve his power and control by using his title as synagogue leader to discredit and weaken Jesus, and to shame the woman.
In vivid contrast, Jesus employed the greatest power in the universe, the power of love, to heal the woman, to release her from whatever had worn her down. He used that power of love over and over again, to bring healing, to release people from bondage, to offer God’s mercy and justice to the least and lost…that is why he, and only he, is called ‘The Chosen One.’
As her encounter with Jesus enabled the woman to stand up straight, so our encounters with the Holy can equip us to stand up straighter and with more conviction, when justice, mercy, and love are called for. If standing up for those things causes a crisis, as it did in the synagogue long ago, so be it. As followers of Jesus we can do nothing less.
One of you recently shared a portion of your spiritual journey with me which goes like this: “The mystery of Jesus as Lord, Son of God, is to me as powerful and incomprehensible as my own existence, the directives of my conscience, and the yearnings of my soul for God. The existence of Jesus as man is not a mystery but a master plan, a map, for me to emulate. Like all master plans and conscious efforts to improve our lot, Christ is often forgotten, and our vision of Him in our neighbor’s face is often blurred by our selfish needs.”
“The existence of Jesus as a man is a master plan, a map, for us to emulate.” I like that. Some days, we (or at least I do) identify with the stooped over woman, weighed down by the weight of our world; other days, we try to emulate Jesus as best we can: by standing up, speaking up, for what we believe is right, paying attention to those on the margins, to heal at every opportunity.
Remember that in doing those things we are never alone: God told the young Jeremiah: “Do not be afraid for I am with you to deliver you.” Jesus told his disciples the same thing as they gathered around a table in Jerusalem on the night before he died: “Do not be afraid; love one another as I have loved you.”
They shared a loaf of bread and a cup of wine that night, and Jesus sent them out to do the work he had given them to do, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. May we leave here today, empowered to do the same, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,