August 25, 2013

14th Week after Pentecost

Spiritual renewal supplies the energy for personal and systemic change. When we practice our faith through the liturgy that renews us, but that is not the end of our worship according to Isaiah. We are to take that renewal into every corner of our lives - family, profession, school, community - then it becomes the force for real and lasting change in this world.

Just before the verse where our reading begins today, Isaiah says, "Is this not the fast that I choose? To break the bonds of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free?" (Isaiah 58:8)

The prophet’s call is as contemporary as if were written yesterday. "Then will your light break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up speedily." (Isaiah 58:8) Isaiah understands that it’s not just the healing of the poor that’s the issue here, it’s our healing. And many of us are finding that the way to get our lives together is to be centered each week through worship and then act on what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives for the sake of others, “then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.”

Now the conventional wisdom is the opposite. We say, "I’d like to do something for others. But first I need to sort of get my own stuff straight." Isaiah says if you do that you’ll be stuck in a trap. Isaiah is saying, that the best way to get your life together is to simply come as you are and let God take care of the rest, because if we are honest, we can’t really change ourselves, we need something or someone beyond our own willpower. We need a divine encounter, in fact, we need a regular divine encounter, like worship.

Isaiah provides a wonderful description of human fulfillment. He says, "If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like the noon day. The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places." (Isaiah 58:10)

If you have any parched places, then he says, "You’ll be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, you’ll raise up the foundations of many generations. You will be called the repairer of the breech and the restorer of streets to live in." (Isaiah 58: 11-12)

Now who can’t find time for that? This is not a demand to squeeze a little more time into an already overly busy life. This is an invitation to get our lives together. This is a chance for healing and it begins with worship.

Today we are invited to notice, again, the priorities that drive us. We are invited to stop, however briefly, the manic activity and consider the options Jesus offers us. Consider the crippled woman in Luke’s narrative today. There is no indication from the way Luke tells the story that she had come to the synagogue looking for healing. Nothing is said that would make us believe she had heard of Jesus or made a special point to be in the synagogue so she could see if the Nazarene would perform a miracle in her life. She had just come for worship. It was the Sabbath, after all, time to get up and go to synagogue. It was what she did every week, not that it was easy for her to do, considering her physical condition. But she did it.

And as it turned out, she was in the right place at the right time.

She knows the rules. Jesus knows the rules, too, as well as the synagogue leader who takes issue with what Jesus does for the woman. Miracles... and just about everybody believed in miracles in that day … miracles aren’t performed on the Sabbath. Miracles come under the heading of “Labor” or “Work.” You didn’t even cut your toe nails on the Sabbath (Jesus uses the example of watering one’s ox or donkey), much less perform miracles. No, she was there just because she had decided to be at worship. She just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that put her in the presence – not to mention the healing, compassionate hands – of Jesus.

Good things happen, redemptive things, eternal things – when you find yourself in the presence of Jesus. In the case of the crippled woman, Jesus set her free from the physical bondage that kept her from experiencing life at its fullest. Jesus was more than willing to give her what he, and evidently no one else, could provide.

For 18 years the woman had been unable to stand upright, lift a child, or gaze at the stars. Bent over, she saw only what was on the ground. "You are free," she heard Jesus say. Jesus touched her and suddenly she could raise her arms high in the air, look at the world, and praise God. All the uptight leaders could do was grumble because Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath.

Now, when she called on the name of God, she could lift her face to the heavens. Now, when she offered her gifts in the synagogue, she could do it herself and not have to ask someone else to do it for her. Now, she could stand upright before the One to whom she would then gratefully bow down. All because she was in the right place at the right time. The right place and the right time for all of us is when we find ourselves in the presence of Jesus.

Or maybe we should say, when we are present to Jesus.

Let’s not ignore the third person in our story, the synagogue leader who takes issue with what Jesus has done. After all, he’s in the presence of Jesus as well. But there is a difference – a big difference – between being in Jesus’ presence and being present to Jesus. I think we can safely surmise that his presence in the synagogue was largely due to it being his job. For this unnamed woman, it was her opportunity to worship the Lord.

For him, religion was entitlement and something to be guarded carefully by the kind of rules that people like himself had developed. For her, it was a matter of grace and was something to be given away.

So here we are in the presence of that same Jesus who reached out to this woman and brought healing. He is present to us in the bread and the cup we will share at God’s banquet table. As you eat and drink remember that this meal is a reminder that as you make yourself present to the God who is always with you, it will make all the difference in the world for you and those God seeks for you to serve. Spiritual renewal supplies the energy for personal and systemic change.

Amen.