August 21, 2016

14th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen.

Where were you eighteen years ago? Some of you weren’t even born yet, so you can ask yourselves what you were doing on this date as many years ago as you can remember. Maybe you were getting ready to start kindergarten, or ready to start your last year of teaching. Maybe you were unpacking from vacation, or getting ready to sell your house. Families who were welcoming new babies that summer could be getting ready to send those kids off to college in the next few days.

August 21, 1998. President Bill Clinton had just admitted having had an inappropriate relationship with a White House Intern. That day he would be questioned about military strikes he had ordered the day before against terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. St. Paul Police were searching for two young women who had vanished after attending a party together the week before. They’ve never been found. Norm Coleman and Skip Humphrey were campaigning to win their parties’ primaries to be nominated for governor that fall. Jesse Ventura would win his party’s nomination with no opposition. A soon-to-be second grader in my house would have noticed that Sammy Sosa hit his 49th home run that day. Mark McGwire was holding at 51.

An archived copy of the Gloria Dei Guide reports that our congregation council met that week to receive the report from the Facility Needs Assessment task force. The team described our need for additional educational space, increased accessibility from the parking lot into the building, expanded welcoming and gathering spaces, and improved mechanical and electrical systems. That month our congregation marked the official completion of hosting a booth at the state fair for over 50 years. In honor of our desire to be a caring, healing, and welcoming congregation, a new support group was being formed for persons who were gay or lesbian and their families, to discuss how the congregation could be more welcoming and inclusive.

I dug out my own calendar from 1998 to see what I was up to. On this date 18 years ago my red book indicates that I met with colleagues in the morning, made hospital visits in the afternoon, and led a wedding rehearsal at 5:00 p.m. I also noted that my two oldest nephews were leaving for their first year of college that morning. 18 years ago I would have had a house full of three little children, a garden full of tomatoes and peppers, a meaningful job, and a full plate of things to do. But I wonder what spirit was beginning to weigh me down.

Luke tells us that the woman in the synagogue lived with her ailment for 18 years. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to have been bent over by the forces that held her for that long. Maybe all I need to consider is what I’ve been burdened by that long in my own life.

What has kept you bent down across the years, making you quite unable to stand up straight?

For some of us, it’s been physical conditions like those this woman faced: chronic pain, migraines, arthritis, injuries, ongoing treatments, growing weakness or fatigue. It can be alarming to consider that for over 18 years we’ve dealt with the disease.

For others, it’s been more emotional or interpersonal pain. Relationships that we’ve dealt with for decades are still not really working. Addictions and obsessions continue to complicate our lives. The depression just doesn’t lift. We wonder why we don’t get better, or why we keep working on the same troubles we’ve dealt with for years.

Perhaps we’re dragged down by low self-esteem, or feelings of inadequacy. We never seem to be able to manage what other people seem to accomplish. We worry that we haven’t lived up to our potential. We don’t experience the same pride or satisfaction that others do. Or maybe it’s been a spirit of competition or jealousy. Over the years we continue to note how others receive more praise, get faster promotions, achieve more with working less. Things don’t seem fair or right, and we continue to feel disappointed and unappreciated.

Maybe it’s the reality of poverty or of being underemployed over the last two decades. Too many people feel undervalued and unable to move ahead in the work they feel called to.  Others feel too burdened by the tasks they’re expected to perform, never getting ahead no matter how hard they work.

The news we have faced this summer reminds us that we’ve been bent over by the social and racial divisions of our country. Much longer than 18 years ago I lived in Milwaukee, and knew even then of the social and economic strife that plagued the north side. For generations, racism and oppression have kept some people down, and kept some of the rest of us too comfortable, too oblivious, too complacent, or too afraid to confront the power of discrimination. We are bent over by our unwillingness to change.

The worker in the synagogue was feeling bent over, too. I suspect he was a very good worker, who tried awfully hard to do the right thing. He knew the rules and wanted them to be applied meaningfully to everyone. In fact, he knew that the rules were good for people.

The Sabbath was a gift for his community. When the people of Israel were freed from slavery, God gave them the gift of Sabbath, a promise that for an entire day every week, work and labor and commerce and expectations were off the table. For at least one day, they could remember they were free. The only thing that mattered was the worship and appreciation of God’s power, God’s ways, God’s creation, God’s laws.

The synagogue leader wanted others to abide by the rules because he knew they really were helpful. There is truth in what he was teaching. There honestly were six other days to heal. Couldn’t Jesus have waited to help this woman until a more appropriate time? Would the woman have rejoiced any less if Jesus had simply said, “Come back here tomorrow, and I will straighten your aching back.”

Maybe the synagogue leader worried that if he started lightening up on this rule, all the others would be harder to enforce, too. The law is a gift from God. Shouldn’t it be honored? I suspect the leader’s work in trying to keep everyone from misbehaving and misunderstanding wore him down. God’s laws seem demanding, because they require us to experience life as God designed it. It didn’t help to have some upstart preacher come into town and start healing people on the wrong day. Once people started accepting simple infractions like this, then what?

Jesus isn’t really condemning the leader’s focus on doing the right thing. Jesus and the woman were not trying to break Sabbath law. In fact, this healing takes place on Sabbath in the synagogue. Because both Jesus and the woman were doing exactly what faithful Jews were supposed to do, gathering in the synagogue for prayer and thanksgiving.

By appealing to the reality that any one of those with him would have cared for their animals even on Sabbath, Jesus was reminding all of them that his action of healing the woman was in fact not “work,” but actual Sabbath-keeping. The leader of the synagogue was right; Sabbath was meant for the worship and appreciation of God’s power, God’s ways, God’s will. And God’s power and will was to free this Daughter of Abraham from disease, and to straighten her up.

Could we trust that God is doing the same thing to us here? We’ve come here this morning to observe our own weekly opportunity to worship and to acknowledge God’s power in our lives.

We give thanks again today that through word and sacrament, through the peace of Christ and the power of the Spirit, Jesus is touching us here, and empowering us to stand up.

We claimed again just a few moments ago that our sins are forgiven, that God is rich in mercy is setting us free, and making us alive together with Christ.

Do we believe that? Do we believe that the power of resentment, the fear of change, the feelings of inadequacy, the jealousy, the lack of empathy, the powers of intolerance and racism and injustice have been overcome? Do we trust that we have been buried into the death of Jesus and raised to new life?

Isn’t that why we’re here? Because we believe we have been saved? Because we have been touched by the power of God who lifts up our heads, and brings us new life?

Jesus isn’t trying to ignore the teaching of Sabbath Law. Jesus is reminding us that the purpose of Sabbath is to celebrate that the Children of Abraham are free. And so are we. Sabbath frees us from the demands that hold us down, and reminds us that we stand tall as the Children of God.

Whatever has held us down, even if it has held us down for 18 years or more, has less power over us than the love of God which restores us into abundant life and everlasting love.

Maybe the question isn’t about where we were 18 years ago. Maybe we should be asking where we are headed, now that our heads are raised. Maybe we are able to consider what we can see, now that our eyes aren’t focused only on the despair and dirt that drags us down.

Isaiah gives us very clear ideas about how we will behave once we can see what’s in front of us. We are to offer food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. We are to let our light shine, to rebuild the ruins and restore the streets. We are to strive to be called the repairers of the breach, working to heal all that separates the world from the way God created it to be.

Rather than considering where we were 18 years ago, or wondering where we will be 18 years from now, perhaps we are called to live in the miracle of this present chance to stand up in God’s grace and love. Maybe we need to rejoice at all the wonderful things God is doing in our lives and in our world.

Thanks be to God.  Amen

Texts:  Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17