Disturbing the comfort

Passage: Luke 13:10-17
Date: August 26, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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I was speeding along the freeway the other night (not really speeding, of course), and suddenly traffic came to a screeching crawl. A bank of flashing yellow lights on the left shoulder warned us. And, of course, everyone slowed to gaze, voyeuristically. They were merely changing a flat tire. Yellow lights flashing, danger ahead: a pretty good image for listening to scripture, this amazing collection which reads us as we open ourselves to it. Danger: today's lectionary gospel reading.

It begins, "Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath." Flashing yellow lights: in all of the gospels, synagogues were often places of confrontation, of danger. Remember synagogue worship: men in one section, women in another, and never the twain shall meet. Always led by men, highly trained and respected lay persons, not priests, people of high community honor. They must have been pre-Presbyterians, because much that happened in worship seems to have been done decently and in order. Guests were sometimes invited to teach. Jesus was the guest. Prepare for trouble. Listen: 13:10-17

Try to get inside her, that unnamed woman. Bent over for more than half of her life, unable to stand straight. I can hear my mother telling my sister and me, "Sit up straight" or "Stand up straight." This woman spent her life looking down, at the ground. Because physical infirmity was often thought to be divine punishment or the work of evil, she probably would have been an embarrassment to her family, and thus isolated from them. Perhaps she entered the synagogue after everyone else had, silently, invisibly at the back, in the shadow.

But, after eighteen years, she knew the routine. No big deal. Like the man with the shopping cart who regularly pulls it past the church, knowing where bottles or cans might lurk, she knew how to survive. Long ago, she had made the adjustments, learned what her body could and could not do. What had seemed so abnormal had become her normal. She endured the loneliness and isolation, associating only with those as ostracized, of as low honor as she was. She had learned that synagogue was part of that survival routine, and she knew how to do it. She was good at it. People hardly noticed her. Good thing.

We have no clue if she was aware that Jesus would be there, though the gossip lines in a village were powerful. That day, she showed up, for worship, as was her custom. She did not ask anything. She did not touch him. Simply, startlingly, Jesus saw her, and called her over. What was he thinking?! Sabbath decorum down the tubes. Then, in front of God and everybody, he spoke to her in public, and then he touched her! And she stood upright, straight. First time in 18 years. Imagine.

Her response? Praise to God. Then, she had to learn how to live, differently, new. Disturbed her comfort, for sure. The powers that be, their response? Total consternation. How did this fit with decently and in order, especially Sabbath order? Now, before we wax judgmental, which is so easy for me to do, let's give the synagogue leader the benefit of the doubt. I see him as a deeply caring and thoughtful man. He knew his Book of Order, the witness of the whole church as to what was proper and not in worship. His job was to lead this congregation with all sincerity and faithfulness. On the other hand, Jesus had just disrupted the whole thing.

I can so easily identify with his response, with his need to protect the institution and his fear of being challenged to see things differently. We know that it is the nature of institutions to protect themselves, to strengthen themselves, and that is what loyal staff seek to do. It is not evil in intent.

An example: When I was in my 20's and very single, I fell in love with a wonderful woman. OK so far, right? The problem was that Linda had been previously married. Decades before that, the Presbyterian church had not allowed anyone who had been divorced to serve as an elder, deacon, or minister. Divorced people, even if they showed up in worship, were somehow bent people, second class. That was no longer true when we started courting, but I needed to find out the current church status regarding clergy marrying a divorcee. I had heard that a Presbytery committee would need to investigate the divorce to determine if it were her fault. If not, then I would be free to marry her and their findings would be spread on the minutes of the Presbytery. That sounds so awful now, but it was all for honest, sincere protection of clergy and institution. Bent people.

Kalanga Odette was no more than 16 when she became a wife. The expectation for her, like most married women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was to bear lots of children. She is now the mother of nine. When, at age 42, she learned that she had HIV/AIDS, she thought, "I can't have AIDS." ...She had remained faithful to her husband and even lived without him for two years when he left their rural home to find work in the capital city....

Angry and feeling helpless, Odette felt that killing her husband-who had known he had the disease but didn't tell her-and then herself was the only answer. Then she talked with Monique Misenga, director of the Department of Women and Families for the Presbyterian Community of Kinshasa.

"I asked her if she was a Christian and she told me yes," Misenga says. Misenga followed with the questions: "Then, why can't you follow what Jesus said? Can you forgive your husband?"

Odette told Misenga "no" at first, but eventually with her guidance, she changed her mind. Odette and her husband have both now undergone counseling, and Odette also participates in an income-generation program that the Department of Women and Families operates.

Odette embodies the collective [bentness] of women in the Congo-trauma, hurt and sadness specifically centered on life with HIV/AIDS. She is also an example of the powerlessness and disenfranchisement of Congolese women living in an overtly male-dominated society. [Bent women: we Presbyterians here are working in partnership with Presbyterians there in a wide range of empowerment and training projects for women and their families.] Children are also supported through an orphan care program. HIV/AIDS education is taking place. [Finally and perhaps most important,] Misenga says, the women need to be taught too that they are human beings created in God's image.

Do you hear Christ's healing touch in this? Stand up straight. But, consider how disruptive this must be for traditional males in Congo. Disturbing the societal comfort to stand up straight. Healing, valuing in the name of Jesus Christ.

The action of Jesus, son of man/Son of God, confronted the institutional deadness that Sabbath day. The synagogue leader tried to uphold what he understood to be holy. Most of us do. What he failed to get was that acts of compassion, of healing, are always holy work.

Foreign illustrations come easily, and they are safe. But, I have been asking this week, "So who are bent people that we do not see, refuse to recognize, in all good sincere faith?" In keeping our loved institution decently and in order, whose healing do we block? Another way of asking: how much of what we are, is doing church rather than being church? Institutional maintenance rather than empowering compassion, healing? I know bent members, bent with age and physical disability, who can no longer come here for healing, for communion, because of stairs and inadequate restrooms. My heart breaks because I know young adults who grew up in this congregation. It is their home. Yet they no longer feel valued or welcome here, because their sexuality differs from most of us. I know bent members, bent with burdens and tragedy, who are not comfortable here because we all seem so successful and happy, and their tears would not be welcome. I know committed Christians who wonder how a congregation as wealthy as ours can sleep at night, realizing we give only 11.5% of our operating budget for ministries of compassion and justice beyond our doors.
I am also deeply aware that I am in a sense bent, like the synagogue leader. No, it does not say he was bent, but he was. I see only certain things, and am blind to others. I prefer institutional comfort and predictability to the challenging inbreaking of God's revolutionary presence in Jesus Christ. Marilyn Ferguson wrote:
At ....points in our lives, we decide just how conscious we wish to be. We establish a threshold of awareness. We choose how stark a truth we are willing to admit into consciousness, how readily we will examine contradictions in our lives and beliefs, how deeply we wish to penetrate. Our brains can censor what we see and hear, we can filter reality to suit our level of courage. At every crossroads we make the choice again for greater or lesser awareness. (Ministry of Money 8/07, p. 12)

The flashing yellow lights remain for me with this reading, this bent woman episode, the dynamic presence of Christ. Surely the tension is real for us, between Westminster as institution and Westminster as engaged open ministry. To live without the tension would not be healthy. Yet, within it, I, we, need to be touched by Jesus for healing, for standing straight and seeing new. Even as we need his comfort, we need his discomforting presence so we can become a healing community of grace for one another, and a compassionate presence in our desperately needy world. It is an amazing adventure we have, as we give ourselves to Jesus Christ. May it be so. May it be so.