August 25, 2019
11th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
I recently was making a hospital visit and observed an older woman being assisted by two care attendants as she was taking a few steps. As she made her way back to her chair, the woman began to collapse into the arms of one of her assistants, but the nurse caught her and firmly said, “Nope! You’re not falling here. Stand up straight.”
The woman seemed shocked as she suddenly listened and stood up tall. “Look right into my face,” the nurse said, “you’re going to make it the last few steps.” And she did.
I wondered how long it had been since anyone had talked to the woman like that, firmly reminding her of her strength and ability, and encouraging her to look straight into the face of the one nearby.
It had been 18 years for the woman in our text– 18 years of being “quite unable to stand up straight (Luke 13:10-17).” For 18 years, she had been hunched over, looking down at the ground, at the feet of those around her, at the dust on the bottom of their robes, at the crumbs that fell to the earth around them.
We don’t know whether she saw Jesus, whether she knew that he was in the synagogue teaching that day, whether she recognized the hem of his garment, or the sound of his voice. But the text says that Jesus saw her. And that when he did, he didn’t just heal her, but he told her that she was “set free from her ailment.”
Jesus sees healing as a release from oppression, a liberation from forces of bondage. It’s the same image Jesus used when he was in the synagogue at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, when he opened the scroll and read, “The Spirit is upon me to proclaim release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free.” Jesus embodied Sabbath restoration to wholeness that didn’t have to wait to be realized.
Jesus demonstrated what Isaiah had proclaimed, “Today, right now, the breach is being repaired, our streets are being restored, and our bones are being made strong (Isaiah 58:9b-14).
What keeps us in bondage? What keeps us bent over for years upon years, unable to see each other face to face, incapable of noticing anything other than dust and fatigue?
18 years. Can you remember what you were doing 18 years ago? It was just a few weeks before the September 11th attacks. For 18 years, our society seems to have been quite bent over with fear and anxiety about the state of the world and how to live in a global community. Violence and revenge have overcome us. Fears of the perceived “outsider” replaced our nation’s historic open stance toward our neighbors, so that now, even the message on the Statue of Liberty is being reconsidered.
I wonder if we’ve been so focused on Ground Zero in our country for 18 years that we’ve missed the presence of the God of the Universe who has been teaching and healing and working all around us, all this time. I wonder if we’ve been so preoccupied with the divisions and arguments and ugly discourse among our leaders, that we’ve lost the ability to stand up proudly, and truly see each other, human to human, face to face.
Of course, it’s been much, much longer than 18 years for those bent over by our nation’s long-term atrocity[i]. 400 years is sort of an arbitrary number. Slave boats were coming to the Americas even long before 1619, but we commemorate today the first ship officially carrying enslaved persons from Africa to what would become the United States, which arrived 400 years ago this fall.
In the decades and centuries that followed that first boat’s arrival, nearly 600,000 enslaved people would be brought to our shores; over 12 million enslaved people in total were taken from Africa to the rest of the world.
Even after slavery was officially abolished in our country, legal, social, and economical forces have continued to treat people of color in ways that have limited their opportunities for advancement, education, fair housing, adequate health care, and meaningful employment. Red-lining laws, racial profiling, and legal segregation practices have perpetuated inequitable access to wealth, nutrition, and rights, so that for these 400 years, our communities persist in segregation with vast inequalities.
And for nearly all of us, whether we like it or not, whether or not we would have ever chosen it for ourselves or our neighbors, the conditions that were inflicted upon that first group of persons who were forced into this land 400 years ago have led to racist practices and realities that haunt our communities and institutions today.
It has kept not only people of color, but actually nearly every one of us, quite unable to stand up straight and look directly into the eyes of our neighbors. Acknowledging our privilege can cripple us with shame and discomfort, as we admit we have benefited from injustice. Privilege and prejudice leave us all bent over, staring only at the dust and challenge of our divisions, suspiciously eyeing the hems of our neighbors, too afraid or embarrassed to even look each other eye to eye. We become mistrustful of each other, and deeply divided, even when we long to be at peace.
Meanwhile, the Source of our greatest healing stands in our very presence, and sees us, even if we don’t recognize it. The God in whose image each one of us was created has entered our world, and stands with us, striving to set us free from our ailment. God sees our disease, those we’ve endured for just a day, or for 18 years, or for centuries. God sees our pride and our humility. God sees our capacity for violence. God sees our horror at the atrocities we perpetrate upon each other. God sees our brokenness and shame. God sees our confusion over how we can be forced to examine choices we feel we could have never made. God sees our fear of the stranger, our reluctance to give away our privilege, our failure to understand what role we play in problems this big, and the feeling of our inability to change things beyond us. God sees all of it, all of us, and loves us.
“Daughter of Abraham,” Jesus called her. “Children of the Almighty,” he is still saying, “Sisters and brothers, siblings in faith, stand up straight. You are free from your ailment.”
It wasn’t only the bent over woman who was freed that day. By the end of the story, the “entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things Jesus was doing (Luke 13:17).” The people of the synagogue knew that Jesus was living in the spirit of the Sabbath, leading people to water, guiding communities to rest, setting free the captive, proclaiming release to the oppressed, forgiving all that puts us to shame and restoring all people to wholeness.
What would it take for God to heal the divisions and brokenness in our community today? What would be needed for true reconciliation so that all of us could freely and proudly look each other in the face, could claim one another as sisters and brothers, could be restored to right relationship with each other?
What would it take for God to help us stand up as proudly as that hunched over woman, and recognize that we have been freed to love our neighbors as ourselves? How would our strong Healer be catching us, even now, and say, “Nope, you’re not falling anymore. Stand up!”?
Perhaps we could start by more honestly examining the cost of our divisions and the roots of our societal struggles. The front of your bulletin offers some ways to begin that discussion[ii]. Our congregation’s Racial justice team, Sanctuary Congregation task force, ISAIAH group, and Welcoming Community committee will offer additional opportunities in the next few months to help us consider ways we can work for justice.
But maybe we wouldn’t have to wait that long. Perhaps we could start even more quickly, by looking up and noticing people around us. Perhaps we could recognize someone who is quite bent over, isolated from community, even here in our midst, unknown, unseen, forgotten. Perhaps we could reach out to greet someone we haven’t met, and acknowledge them as a sibling in faith. Perhaps we could make eye-contact with someone unlike ourselves, someone differently-abled, or someone who votes differently, or who likes a different style of worship. Perhaps we could stand face to face with someone who understands issues from a different perspective, or who experiences oppression or bondage in ways we have never considered.
Isn’t this, in fact, what we will practice with each other in just a few minutes, as we look one another in the eye and share the peace of Christ? Peace be with you, we’ll say. You, my sibling, my own, you are set free from your ailment. You, my dear one, my beloved, you are raised with Christ into everlasting life. You, Lovely daughter of Abraham, or Son of Sarah, sibling of Peter or Maria, Martha or Andrew, Child of Love, today Christ has united us in one family. We don’t have to be afraid. We are no longer enslaved by our past, our distrust, or our terror. Let’s work together so that we can each have the life we were born to have. Take my hand, and let’s make this the world God wants for both of us. We’ve got streets to restore, and breaches to repair. Let’s get started. Peace. Peace be with you. Amen
[ii] Suggested readings: Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US, by Lenny Duncan, Augsburg Books, 2019;
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo, Beacon Press, 2018;
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, Vintage, 2017.