I heard a story once about a boy who was alone with his father when news came over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The father heard the news, turned to his son, and said, “Just don’t tell your mother.”
It sounds crazy now, doesn’t it? She was bound to find out. It’s clear to us now that even the most delicate and sheltered wife would sooner or later have had a look at the papers and would have figured out that World War II was happening. All these years later we can see that that man was in a state of shock, and that his attempt to keep his wife from finding out about Pearl Harbor was an effort to keep his own fear in check. We can easily imagine that he was reaching for some kind of habitual emotion that felt safe: “I’ll protect my wife; that’s my role.” It’s what we do when we go numb: we look for habitual patterns to protect us from overwhelming truths. “Your mother can’t handle this” is a way of thinking that lets the husband feel like he is still in control. It’s a way for him to stay in a safe place.
It's always the wrong time to tell the truth, isn't it? It’s always the wrong time to encounter God. The leader of the synagogue in this morning’s Gospel stumbles right into that problem. Listen to him: "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." It feels stunningly wrong. It’s just like “Don’t tell your mother.” It’s the voice of a man desperate to hold onto the world he knows, even if, in this case, it’s a world full of pain and limitation, and the voice breaking through to him is bringing news not of war but of healing and peace. It doesn’t really matter. As long as we want the lives we already know more than we want the truth, we will respond to Jesus this way.
No, we’ll say to ourselves, this isn’t the right time to go to my room and pray. I’m never going to be a contemplative. No, this isn’t the right Sunday to come to church. It’s hot. No, daily Mass is something for other people. The daily office is too hard for me. There is no need to reconcile with that estranged family member today; I can call her on her birthday. Or Christmas. Or next Christmas. Everyone drinks this heavily. It’s normal to live a life filled with resentments.
No, I don’t need to be an active member of that parish. No, I’m not needed for that service position. Sure, I have sins, but there is no need to confess them this week. I have questions but there is no need to ask them right now. I need to tell someone what God once meant to me but I can’t face that whole story right now. That person wouldn’t understand. I can’t find the spiritual teacher I’m really looking for. Maybe I’m not meant to have a radiant faith.
Is it ever the right moment to encounter the living God? Is it ever the right time to tell the truth? Could this be the moment?
We have so many reasons to think that this is not the right time. Christianity doesn’t really seem to be in ascendancy in twenty-first century America, does it? Faith in Jesus is not really in vogue. Religions across the board seem to be under so much pressure from fundamentalism, and under so much pressure from the distracting demands of practical life: keeping a job, keeping our heads above water, keeping up with the rushing tide of history, keeping our families and our relationships intact. It’s all fantastically complicated, and sometimes it’s truly bleak. I wonder whether we really experience our relationship with Jesus as commensurate with the pain of the lives we are living. I wonder whether our faith in Jesus feels like salvation, for ourselves and for the world. I wonder whether secretly we aren’t tempted to give up on that idea, and keep God at arm’s length. Aren’t we tempted to postpone our encounter with God in hopes that there will be another day when prayer will beckon to us more powerfully, or God will seem present, or it will make sense to us to let go of the possessions and the habits and the attitudes that keep us apart? I have a feeling I’m not the only one who imagines becoming a real Christian one day in the future.
What would our lives be like if we were willing to believe that today was the best day to meet God breaking through to us? That today was the best day to let God into the problems that baffle us? That there would never be a better moment, that we were in exactly the right place to hear from God? Not in spite of our very real problems and limitations but precisely because of them? What Gospel story is being written among us today? What story would be written if we would step out from our hiding places? What turning point would this be? We are the best people God could possibly choose for the lives God has given us, imperfections and all. And this is exactly the right time to hear that message.
That’s what Jesus saw when he was teaching the synagogue, as Luke tells us. He saw a woman who had been bent over, unable to stand up straight, for eighteen years. That’s a long, long, time. Long enough for the woman and everyone around her to take that physical limitation as inevitable, so much so that it ceased to be visible. She ceased to be visible. But not to Jesus. When Jesus sees her he calls her to him and he puts his hands on her and he sets her free. It’s the wrong time for the leader of the synagogue, who is no doubt as shocked as we would be to feel God’s presence so profoundly and in such a new way. But it’s the right time for Jesus, and it becomes the right time for the woman, who immediately stands up straight and begins praising God.
She didn’t ask to be healed, any more than most of us ask to be transformed radically by God’s grace. She is just the kind of person Jesus is looking for, precisely because she is as shut down as we are. Precisely because her pain and her limitations have become business as usual. Precisely because she belongs to a religious congregation that has quietly abandoned the desire to be startled by God’s actions in the world. Jesus didn’t do anything in the synagogue that morning that he doesn’t do all the time among us.
There isn’t anything we can be that those people in Luke’s Gospel haven’t already been. We can’t keep Jesus out with our complacency or our resignation or our hypocrisy or our need to maintain control. Jesus simply calls, and touches us, and sets us on our feet and fills our mouths with praise. It’s not so much that he triumphed in spite of the resistance of the congregation that morning in the synagogue. Let’s think of it a different way: he went there looking for the woman whose limitations were chronic and the religious community that didn’t want to have to face the living God. He went there looking for people like us.
And although this is a story of great, miraculous healing, it’s no different than a hundred healings that might be happening here and now among us. We don’t see it, because we don’t jump up and start praising. But we surely could. We could make it more visible than we do. We could hear the sound of a hundred hearts slipping open, a hundred backs straightening, a hundred burdens being dropped.
This story condenses and magnifies what we know to be true, what we experience in smaller ways all the time. This story presents us with one big healing and doesn’t tell us what the woman’s life is like after that, but we know about life with Jesus. We know that we have within us not only the woman who is to be healed, but also the religious leader who is desperate to control and hide from the power of God so as to remain in the world he knows. And it’s possible, too, that sometimes we have in us Jesus himself. Sometimes there will be the voice of Jesus calling to another with healing grace. Sometimes our own hands will be the hands of Jesus reaching out to touch another who is in pain. Sometimes the time will be right for us, and we will witness the grace of God working in our midst.
Praise God that we are given the gift of this healing in all of its dimensions. Praise God that we are sometimes ready to be healed in whatever way God prepares for us. Praise God that the religious leader within us, the one afraid to let God work in ways he can’t control, may be only a passing moment in the larger story of our lives in Christ.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
21 August 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia