The Sunday Sermon: The Prophetic Task

August 21, 2022
Penelope Bridges

Jesus is in the middle of his sermon at Sabbath services, and he looks up and notices someone on the edge of the congregation. By now, we have spent enough time with Luke’s Gospel not to be surprised by this. The way Luke tells it, Jesus has a knack for noticing people whom others overlook: children, women, mentally ill individuals, beggars in the streets. His mission statement, taken from Isaiah and proclaimed in the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, makes his response to suffering a foregone conclusion.

He sees a woman who is bent over under a great spiritual burden, so weighed down that she can’t even stand up straight. Jesus pauses his sermon to call her forward. He interrupts what he is doing for a crowd, to attend to the pain of one person. He cannot help but respond in compassion. Now, just think about this scene for a moment. The synagogue was crowded with people who wanted to hear him speak: after all, he had been causing a sensation all over Israel with his stories and healings and rebukes of the powerful. Everyone in the front of the synagogue would have been male: the community leaders would have had the seats of honor; women would have been relegated to the fringes along with anyone considered ritually unclean. For a rabbi to touch a woman in the course of leading Sabbath worship would have been unthinkable – for anyone other than Jesus.

Luke’s Gospel is full of women who are freed by their relationship with Jesus from bondage of various kinds. There are wealthy women who provided for the needs of Jesus and his friends. There are the women who dared to stay at the Cross. The women who first discovered the empty tomb and were ridiculed by the apostles. The woman who was healed of a chronic hemorrhage. A whole crowd of women healed and liberated.

Now Jesus calls this woman out to stand in the midst of those powerful men, a woman whose very presence represents a threat to their authority, a person who is overlooked and undervalued, a person who has no power in herself to help herself, who is suffering through no fault of her own, who has not dared to step forward and ask for help. Jesus sees her. He acknowledges her bondage. He speaks a word of liberation. And he lays healing hands on her. And the one who has been bent double under the weight of a spirit of weakness feels health and strength flow into her. She finds the courage to stand up straight, to look those powerful men in the eye, and to lift up her voice in praise of the God who sees us, who heals us, who liberates us. I imagine her singing Mary’s Magnificat, her voice filled with astonished joy.

Imagine the effect this incident had on the crowd in the synagogue. Women who were similarly burdened and oppressed realized that there was another way to live. People with crippling afflictions understood that healing was possible. People who had believed they had no value in the community saw one of their own recognized by a leader and given the dignity of health and freedom. Suddenly revolution was in the air: the words of the prophet Isaiah coming to life: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” No wonder those who held the reins of power got upset.

This isn’t the first time in Luke that Jesus has pushed against the rigidity of the Pharisees’ Sabbath observance. There was the time he and his friends walked through the fields and picked heads of grain to chew on. There was the time he healed a man with a withered hand. He seems to go out of his way to scandalize the people who are the self-appointed guardians of what is right and proper.

The reason for the prohibition on Sabbath work is to be reminded of God’s rest on the seventh day of creation. It also honors the deliverance of Israel from hard labor in Egypt. It proclaims that rest is a blessing, a holy gift of God. Free people, people made in God’s image, are free to rest. The privilege of choice is fundamental to being free. That is a good reason. But wisdom insists that it cannot be a rigid, 100% rule: there must be room for the Spirit to move, for the occasional exception for good reasons.

The scribes themselves allowed exceptions to the Sabbath rules, such as leading their farm animals to water. But they didn’t recognize this incident as a valid exception. Why? Why didn’t the suffering of this woman qualify on the same level as a donkey’s thirst? Was she invisible? She had suffered from this disability for 18 years, so she was likely middle-aged or elderly, a faithful member of the synagogue, part of the furniture, no longer noticed. It’s a common experience for older women – that we become invisible. And when you see someone week after week, you stop noticing the details, and you stop thinking about what they must be feeling. And then the interruption of your worship to address their needs becomes an offense instead of a moment of grace.

Some years ago in another church, my congregation welcomed a young woman with cerebral palsy, who was in the ordination process. She had a brilliant mind, was remarkably articulate, and used a wheelchair. The sanctuary of the church, like many churches including this one, was not on the same floor level as the nave: there were a couple of steps up to the altar.

Our seminarian needed to be able to approach the altar, especially as her ordination to the diaconate drew near and she needed to practice preparing the table for Communion. As we knew that she would be assigned to another church after ordination, we decided that we needed only a temporary accommodation, so we bought a portable, metal ramp and placed it before the central opening in the altar rail, the only place where there was a wide enough gap for an ADA-compliant ramp. It wasn’t ideal, and it wasn’t the most attractive piece of furniture, but it was adequate for the few months we would need it.

Sadly, I started to hear grumbling from some members of the congregation. They resented having to look at this ugly ramp: it interrupted their worship experience. They lacked the generosity of spirit to rejoice with our gifted seminarian that she now had access to the altar and could prepare to live out her vocation.  I have to confess that I wasn’t at my most pastoral when I responded to the complainers. So I am deeply grateful for the grace that I experience in this community as we have changed this beloved worship space to make it more accessible and safer for everyone.

Jesus never failed to notice those who were in need of healing, and he wasn’t afraid to pronounce a prophetic word of God’s grace, regardless of how much it shook the religious institution and its leaders. In our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures we are hearing a series of passages from the prophet Jeremiah, and today’s comes from the very beginning of that unfortunate prophet’s journey.

Like many prophets, Jeremiah doesn’t welcome his call from the Lord. “Ah, Lord God, I do not know how to speak for I am only a boy,” he protests. Jeremiah’s modesty reminds us that a person of faith doesn’t assume that they have God’s ear. Most prophets take some convincing before they accept the vocation. To be a prophet for God is an awe-inspiring responsibility and should not be grasped too eagerly. In fact Jeremiah’s life turns out to be pretty awful, as he is ignored at best, persecuted and imprisoned at worst, so his reluctance is merited.

Most of us are not called to be prophets. But there is a word for everyone in this Jeremiah passage, for God calls each of us to some kind of ministry. One sign that a call might be genuinely of God is what I call “holy terror” – a sense that I am not up to this; that it’s a stretch; that I don’t quite have what it takes. I don’t think the Holy Spirit often calls us to the easy stuff.

Being a prophet is not an easy calling. The politician who dares to speak out prophetically against the party line may see their career go down in flames. We don’t always appreciate the prophetic voices in our midst – they represent the margins, the extremes; they call us to unwelcome change, and staying in the middle lane is more comfortable and less work – but we need to hear them, whether they are William Barber or Michael Curry, Bernie Sanders or Liz Cheney.

God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” This is a word for all of God’s people. God knows us intimately, as intimately as a woman who senses that new life has begun in her even before her body starts to change. To be known and loved from the very beginning is the ultimate in security. Sadly, many people are raised to believe in a God who does not both know and love them intimately, but instead in a God who sees only their shortcomings and flaws and judges them.

What holds you captive? Fear of scarcity or an uncertain future? Anger at a long-ago injury or abandonment? Grief over the way the world is changing and losses are stacking up? Unhealthy relationships? Jealousy and resentment at the opportunities others enjoy? There are ways to be freed from all of these kinds of bondage. The 12 steps offer one path. Sacramental confession is another. Education about the harm that has been done in the course of maintaining our privilege is a tool we have been using as a congregation for nearly three years now.

The scholar NT Wright has suggested that Jesus does for this woman in Luke’s Gospel what he longs to do for Israel: the people of God has become warped, twisted, bent over under the burden of a law that is rigid and inhumane. Bishop Wright extends the meaning of the parable beyond the personal to the corporate. How might this Gospel speak to us as a congregation? What is our calling? What are we called to pluck up and tear down? What shall we plant and build? How might we ask God to liberate us from being bound and bent?

There are people all around us who are bent over, unable to stand up straight. They are bent over by abuse, injustice, systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia, grinding poverty, mental illness. As an institution we are in a period of discerning the relative claims of pastoral need and traditional rules: two issues that have recently come up are the question of offering Communion to the unbaptized, and allowing weddings to take place in the penitential season of Lent. In a few moments/at the 10:30 service we will baptize two young children, a practice that many of our fellow Christians frown on.  We are called to prayerfully and faithfully balance the traditions and norms of the church against the urgent needs of the people in front of us. It isn’t easy, but again, prophetic work is never easy.

Jesus, like Jeremiah before him, stays focused on his prophetic call in the face of rigid authority. He refuses to toe the party line when there is urgent work to be done, setting right injustice, freeing those who are oppressed, healing the suffering of the world. Let that be our work also.

Amen.

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