Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Luke 13:10-17
“Sometime in 1619, a Portuguese slave ship [the São João Bautista] traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with a hull filled with human cargo: captive Africans from Angola, in southwestern Africa. The men, women and children, most likely from the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, endured the horrific journey, bound for a life of enslavement in Mexico. Almost half the captives had died by the time the ship was seized by two English pirate ships; the remaining Africans were taken to Point Comfort, a port near Jamestown, the capital of the English colony of Virginia, which the Virginia Company of London had established 12 years earlier. The colonist John Rolfe wrote to Sir Edwin Sandys, of the Virginia Company, that in August 1619, a ‘Dutch man of war’ arrived in the colony and ‘brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the governor and cape merchant bought for victuals.’ The Africans were most likely put to work in the tobacco fields that had recently been established in the area.”[i]
So says a recent article in The New York Times, telling the story of the first landing of enslaved Africans in English-occupied North America. We will commemorate that event, along with other churches, town halls, and schools this afternoon, when we all ring our bells at 3:00 p.m. for what has been called a national day of healing and reconciliation. Our short service of prayer and singing will begin at 2:45 here in the churchyard; I hope you will plan to join us.
This moment of history is significant because, as the New York Times has also stated, “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.”[ii] Our country was not only built on the backs of slaves, but the aftereffects of this cruel system has created many subsequent evils, not the least of which is the racism that we now see has permeated our culture. Most scholars of U.S. history today would argue that we must place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”[iii]
And yet, most of us don’t know much about the reality of slavery in this country, or our misperceptions. We have just taken slavery as a given in our history, but have learned little about it. Perhaps that is because of our educational system. “Elementary-school teachers, worried about disturbing children, tell students about the ‘good’ people, like the abolitionists and the black people who escaped to freedom, but leave out the details of why they were protesting or what they were fleeing. Middle-school and high-school teachers stick to lesson plans from outdated textbooks that promote long-held, errant views. That means students graduate with a poor understanding of how slavery shaped our country, and they are unable to recognize the powerful and lasting effects it has had.”[iv] (Incidentally, the 1619 issue of the New York Times magazine online includes a wonderfully illustrated “Brief History of Slavery: What you didn’t learn in school.” I recommend it to you – I did print out the prose part of that history and have left copies on the back table, but I think the online version is much richer.)
The result of our mis-education is that we become complacent—we’ve gotten used to our world the way it is, with its pervasive racism. We find ourselves accepting things as they are, even though we know that our systems are inherently unfair. We are so accustomed to this way of seeing our world that we rarely stop to question it or imagine things could change.
And that’s where we find the woman at the heart of this morning’s gospel story. The writer of Luke says, “just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” [Luke 13:11] Imagine her point of view: She can see only the ground in front of her; it is only with great difficulty that she can see anything around her – the sky, the stars, the sun, or even the faces of others.
She has been this way for 18 years when Jesus appears before her. My guess is that she has come to accept this way of living, this limited way of seeing the world. Note that she does not ask Jesus for healing—she doesn’t reach out to him or implore him to make her walk straight. That could be because she doesn’t know who he is, or that she simply hasn’t seen him. But I suspect that she doesn’t ask for healing because she has come to accept that this is the way her life is. She no longer hopes for healing.
But when Jesus sees her, he heals her—simple as that. And that sets up the primary conflict in the story, the reason that Luke has included it. You see, it is the Sabbath, and no one is to work on the Sabbath. And Jesus has not only broken this law; he has done it at the synagogue itself!
The idea of Sabbath as a day of rest is of course enshrined in the beginning of our story—The second chapter of Genesis concludes the first creation story with, “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” [Genesis 2:2-3] Sabbath is then confirmed in the Ten Commandments, in Exodus and again in Deuteronomy, where it is also understood to be a day of remembrance for the Israelites of their delivery from slavery in Egypt. With this new emphasis, Sabbath moves from being merely a day of rest to having a more specific role; there is a specific task one undertakes, even as one refrains from work.
In today’s passage, it seems that Jesus’ quarrel with the religious authorities is that they have so regulated observance of the Sabbath that they seemed to have forgotten to leave room for God in the Sabbath. Even as the people of God are called to honor their freedom from bondage on this day, they have in a sense become captive in a different way: they are now bound to the rules of the religious institution. As one writer has said, “A religious observance that is to remember and honor the liberation of God’s people thus becomes in the hands of the Pharisees a means of social control and oppression.”[v]
But a word of caution here: we would be wrong if we think that the leader of the synagogue in this passage represents Judaism, while Jesus represents something radically new. Instead what we have here is two Jews arguing over the best way to observe the Sabbath. One commentator says that, rather than focusing on the disagreement, “we would do better to focus on their common passion to preserve the meaning of the Sabbath; a time to celebrate not having to work.”[vi]
I have to say that, while our Sabbath day, Sunday, has for me always been the occasion for going to church (that is one understanding of holy work for us as Protestants, I think), I have been much more focused on the rest part of the equation. In my childhood, it was a clear rule that the kids cleaned the kitchen after our big Sunday lunch (I don’t think we did much of that cleaning any other day), and my mother always took a nap. Then Sunday evening dinner was every person for their self—find your own. How did your family observe the Sabbath?
And how do you observe it now? What does Sabbath mean for you? One of the interesting things about being a priest is that I fulfill the task part of Sabbath on Sundays, but the rest part has to be moved to another day. I’ve gotten used to that, but I have to work harder to observe that day of rest. And I’m probably not alone in that. Our society today is always trying to eat up our Sabbaths.
So, the writer of this gospel seems to be urging us to really think about the Sabbath, and to consider how we might best honor it. That’s a good question, and I challenge you to consider it. But I am drawn back to the striking image of that woman, bent over, unable to see the world head-on. Far too often, that’s the way we are. We are like the woman bent over and unable to look up and see the sun. We know only the dust and dirt beneath our feet. We struggle to see the path before us by straining and twisting, because we cannot look straight ahead.”[vii] And we have become so accustomed to our limited way of understanding the world that we are unable to even realize there is another way. We need healing too. And we need to be healers of the world, through the mercy of God and on God’s behalf.
That healing is important not only because it grants us the opportunity to be made whole, but also because it opens us to the grace and hope of Christ. When the crippled woman is cured, she immediately begins praising God. She understands the source of her cure. And she is unconcerned with the rules.
We are called to heal the world. And our first step is to understand our need for healing. Today we focus on the disease of racism that pervades our society, and remember its beginnings 400 years ago. We are called to look up and really see the world around us. To recognize that the world may not as we were taught. To admit that we may not have the complete picture. And we must be willing to learn the truth, to hear the things that are hard to hear. we must look up and out at the world as it is, even though it may be difficult.
And then we should expect healing—the crippled woman didn’t expect it; but Jesus did it anyway. This story shows us that God wants to heal us. God longs for us to be whole—to be the manifestation of the Kingdom of God that we have been hearing about all summer. I believe that bringing that Kingdom to earth is about fulfilling our baptismal covenant: continuing in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship; persevering in resisting evil and repenting of our sins; proclaiming the Good News of Christ; seeking and serving Christ in all persons; and striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.
Today we are called to remember that event 400 years ago that started our country on an evil road. We are called to repent of our sins as a nation, and to remember again that Christ resides in each of us—whether black or white, rich or poor, immigrant or native-born. We are called to expect God’s healing for our world, to be agents of that healing, and to praise God for all that we have received.
Let us ask for and receive God’s forgiveness for the sins of our nation as a healing, and then stand up straight and see the world as it is. And then let us ask for forgiveness from those our systems have wronged, and work with them to restore the dignity of all.
Let us pray:
God of justice, in your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception. Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty, and worth of every human being. Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters in the same human family. Open our hearts to repent of racist attitudes, behaviors, and speech that demean others. Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history. And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.[viii]
[i] From “The 1619 Project” of The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/19/magazine/history-slavery-smithsonian.html, accessed 8/21/2019.
[v] Raynal, Charles E., in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 384.
[vi] Allen, Charles. http://graceunlimitedin.org/2019/08/20/proper-16-year-c/?fbclid=IwAR2xd_FibQJbnW3B5OTgiy9143aWVZ09F8Df2OyIoC83LJMzqF-0cPOQRsk, accessed 8/24/2019.
[vii] Townes, Emilie M., in Feasting on the Word, op cit. p. 386.