Almighty and Loving God: Send your Spirit, that we may be transformed into your likeness and that you may give us tools to build your kingdom here on earth. Be with us and bless us Lord, Amen.
She came to pray and to hear the Torah read aloud. It had taken her most of the day to get there from her home on the outskirts of town. Now she still had more bumping, elbowing and pushing to endure as she made her way to the steps of the synagogue. This was her routine every Sabbath, from morning until nightfall, to and from the synagogue. She was a daughter of Abraham. She knew every cobblestone and crack in the pavement. This afternoon, though, there seemed to be added excitement in the air of the synagogue courtyard. Much more whispering between friends, something about a new preacher. She found a place to stand, off to the side, so no one would risk becoming unclean by touching her. Then she heard his voice.
What he was saying made her heart leap. If only she could lift her head to see his face. And, then all was quiet. She could hear the rustling of robes and soon saw sandaled feet. The voice was right in front of her now, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” he said and he touched her. He touched her. Immediately she stood up straight and looked into his eyes. The eyes of love. Praise for God flowed from her. Her praise and joy was spreading through the crowd. But above the noise, from high up on the steps, kept coming shouts of “not on the Sabbath.” The synagogue leaders quieted the crowd with shouts of “not on the Sabbath.” This woman had been crippled for 18 years. Why would Jesus want to wait even one more day to heal her? Why NOT on the Sabbath?
Now let me tell you about another woman who was crippled. I’ll call her Gina and I met her this summer. Gina grew up in Tennessee, raised by her mother. Of course, they were poor and her mother looked for help from a long string of boyfriends. I won’t fill in all of the blanks for you but the end result for Gina was a life of prostitution, drug use and jail. She knew every crack in the pavement along Columbus Street. Gina was tough. She stayed on the treadmill to and from jail for 30 years. She’d leave jail clean and sober and ready to make a new life for herself, but in the midst of her joy, there was always someone shouting “not on the Sabbath.”
Not on the Sabbath — I need first and last month’s rent
Not on the Sabbath — I don’t hire people with a record
Not on the Sabbath — sorry, we don’t have any more beds for tonight
Not on the Sabbath — I can’t heal you today, come back tomorrow
Gina had been crippled all of her life. Why would we want to wait even one more day to heal her? Why NOT on the Sabbath? Thanks be to God there are people in our world who are saying, “why not?” who are working to heal the crippled, now. Molly, my daughter, and I met some of these people this summer when we visited Thistle Farms in Nashville. Thistle Farms includes a two-year residential program for women who are healing from prostitution, trafficking and addiction, they also manufacture and distribute a natural bath and body products line and they recently opened the Thistle Stop Cafe. And they provide advocacy services for hundreds of women yearly. Thistle Farms was founded by an Episcopal priest, Becca Stevens. The program began by housing just 5 women who had been released from prison. They were clean and sober and needed a place to stay. The program evolved because every time someone said “not on the Sabbath” to Becca Stevens, she said, “why not?’ They began by renting a house to provide shelter to the women for 2 years for free. Then they realized that the women could not get jobs, so they added the bath and body products. Then they took in more women and added more houses and needed more jobs. So, last year they added Thistle Stop Café.
And, we have these people in our midst here in Clearwater too. There is Barbara Green, who we met here just a few weeks ago, and her late husband who saw the need and founded HEP by buying just one house to give shelter to the homeless on their church steps. Now this program provides housing and support to hundreds. And then there is Resurrection House in St. Petersburg, that Fr. Joe helped found, that provides housing and support to families, ensuring that after 2 years in their program that the cycle of homelessness is broken. And I know I could list others.
Now listen carefully to this quote from Feasting on the Word. It is kind of wordy but it is important: “The control of Sabbath practice represents a convenient way of maintaining an oppressive system whereby some people are forced to endure perpetual suffering by others who are more concerned with sustaining a system that benefits them than with alleviating the burdens of those it cripples.” I’ll read it again … “The control of Sabbath practice represents a convenient way of maintaining an oppressive system whereby some people are forced to endure perpetual suffering by others who are more concerned with sustaining a system that benefits them than with alleviating the burdens of those it cripples.”
Now, let’s replace “the control of Sabbath practice” with the threat of prosecution or the threat of deportation or the threat of eviction or the threat of taking your children away. The threat of eviction represents a convenient way of maintaining an oppressive system whereby some people are forced to endure perpetual suffering by others who are more concerned with sustaining a system that benefits them than with alleviating the burdens of those it cripples.
Back to Jesus in our Gospel: “And ought not this woman be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath Day?”
For Jesus, the care of human beings is itself a religious virtue that takes precedence over rites, rituals, and the social systems they ensure. Worship is at its best when it transforms us and lifts us into new life, not when it maintains the status quo. I’m not saying that we should abolish the institution of church. I believe this is where we get our strength to go out into the world and take care of humanity. We get our strength from our rituals and from each other. Jesus’ words are a needed reminder that the care for God’s people in need is at the heart of our faith.
This song came around on my playlist this week and after living with this scripture passage all week it became even more meaningful. It is called Jesus Christ is Waiting by John Bell/Graham Maule of the Iona Community in Scotland. I heard it sung by Fran McKendree. I’d like to read it to you as a poem.
Jesus Christ is waiting, waiting in the street.
No one is his neighbor all alone he eats.
Listen Lord Jesus, I am lonely too.
Make me friend or stranger, fit to wait on you.
Jesus Christ is raging, raging in the street,
where injustice spirals and where hope retreats.
Listen Lord Jesus, I am angry too.
In the kingdoms’ causes, let me rage with you.
Jesus Christ is healing, healing in the street,
curing those who suffer, touching those he greets.
Listen Lord Jesus, I have pity too.
May my care be active, healing just like you.
Jesus Christ is dancing, dancing in the street,
where each sign of hatred, his strong love defeats.
Listen Lord Jesus, I feel triumph too.
On suspicion’s graveyard, let me dance with you.
Jesus Christ is calling, calling in the street.
Come and walk faith’s tightrope,
I will guide your feet.
Listen Lord Jesus, let my fears be few.
Walk one step before me, I will follow you.
Jesus is not one to allow the control of the Sabbath to exclude people from healing. Our stories today are about communities of healing. What kind of community do we want to be? And, do our own systems help us to become that kind of community or do they hinder our desires? Will our traditions hinder the “daughter of Abraham” or Gina from joining us today?