Monday, August 23, 2010

The Miracle Is in the First Step

Scripture appointed for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost includes Isaiah 58:9b-14, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

When I bring communion to people at home or in a nursing home, I normally bring with me the Gospel that we’ll hear in church on the next Sunday. So last week, I read today’s Gospel in two different places. One was at the monthly eucharist at Williamstown Commons, where a dozen to fifteen residents, most in wheelchairs, gather in the circle.

“Great,” I said to myself as I glanced ahead to this Gospel. “I’m going to read them this story about the healing of a woman crippled for eighteen years? How is that going to go over?”

The second place was in the apartment of a dear lady in an assisted living facility, where she spends much of her day in a wheelchair. The same question gripped me: “How is this going to be for her, and how is this going to be for me, to read this story to her?”

She got pretty fired up about that religious stuffed-shirt. She knows the passion Jesus has for the oppressed and the sick and the less-able. She said what a shame it was that someone who ought to know better would find fault with Jesus for helping a person on the Sabbath day.

I told her that I imagined telling the story a little differently. The setting is a big old Episcopal church— let’s call it the Church of the Heavenly Comforter. It’s high mass and the choir is singing the offertory anthem, when Jesus stops the show. He has spotted this woman inching her way up the aisle. Everyone’s eyes are drawn to her at one end of the nave, to him at the front, and back again.

He sees her. He calls her to come to him. He does not go to her. Some good churchfolk in the pews start muttering about that: “For heaven’s sake, he could at least save her all that trouble!” But no, he calls her over to him. Like God calling the Hebrew people over the Red Sea to freedom.

The miracle starts with her first step. Before he touches her, he encourages her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” The journey up that aisle is hers.

When she reaches him, he lays his hands on her and she immediately stands up straight and praises God.

Even the hardest heart among God’s frozen chosen melts and tears are seen, sniffles heard. Not a few proper Episcopalians are thinking, “Good God, if he can do this for her, what might he do with me?”

And it is at this moment that the Rector goes to the microphone (to make sure that all his flock hear him), and harrumphs, “Anyone else desiring prayer for healing will please wait until communion, remain at the rail, and raise their hands like this—which is how we do it here!”

But that version lacks the power of the conflict that Luke captures. Worship in the Episcopal tradition need not exclude healing: we offer prayer for healing every Sunday. But in this Gospel story, the voice of authority says that healing does not belong on the Sabbath day. Any other day of the week is fine, but on the seventh day God is to be honored by doing no work at all.

That’s the argument that Jesus rises to refute. Hypocrisy, he calls it. “You’ll untie your donkey on the seventh day to bring it to the watering trough, won’t you? Here, a woman has been untied from spiritual and physical bondage. She is drinking deeply from the water of new life that I bring. How does this fail to glorify God?”

And at this the entire crowd in that house of prayer erupted in joy, which must have been the sweetest liturgy that place had seen in many a sabbath. The rule of “everything done decently and in good order” is helpful for keeping the donkey out of the sanctuary, but sad if it keeps the Spirit out, as well. And there, in that synagogue that day, the prevailing Spirit gladdened the hearts of all.

It’s worth noticing that Luke tells us that it was a spirit that had crippled that woman for eighteen years. By the slow working of spirit (attitude), a person can be disabled in illness. To say that is not to blame the sick person for being sick—that would be both untrue and perverse. But it is to observe that our human being is an interplay of body and spirit; so is our health. For example, the ordinary and occasional human work of grieving can become distorted into toxic depression, which takes its toll on the body. Luke, nicknamed the blessed physician, tells us that if it is by the path of spirit that chronic illness binds us, it is by the Spirit of God that we find freedom and well-being.

Would that this should mean the full healing of that brave and cheerful lady I visited, her rising from her wheelchair once for all. Would that the same happen a dozen times more, in that circle at the nursing home. The tears I saw in the eyes of one man there said it all: Would that this could happen to me. And the pain I saw in his face, and the pain I felt with him, brought home to me why I was skittish about this Gospel. This might happen. Of course it would.

Yet these are the very ones, less able than you and I (who may be taking for granted our ableness), these are the ones who recognize and value healing in its smallest steps and humblest forms. It will not be lost on them, if the Spirit of God meets them on their journeys up the aisle and simply renews courage (simply?), or reawakens initiative, rekindles a sense of humor, or sharpens perseverance, eases pain, ushers in a good night’s sleep, reanimates a relationship, or inspires forgiveness.

Healing takes many forms. No wonder, that so many of these should engage the spirit. According to the Good News we hear today, whatever healing it will be starts in the first step we take towards the One who stands at the head, at the heart, and calls; the One who respects the fact that the journey is ours.