a lesson learned

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 15.10-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

I am a man. Though, as an African American intimately, painfully familiar with the societal deprivations experienced by people of color, both in human chronicles and in my own history, I, however sensitive and sympathetic I may and can be, cannot know firsthand the strivings and sufferings of our sisters of our human family who, from time immemorial unto this day, have had their dreams deferred and denied.

For women, in every arena or field of endeavor – athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries – patriarchal hegemonies remain; pay equity still an ideal and glass ceilings still firmly in place, some hardly clear, but rather cloudy, opaque, leaving the women below unable to behold as possibilities the riches of opportunities long relished as realities by the men above.

This comes to my mind and heart, my soul and spirit as I reflect on the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

Jesus enters the district of Tyre and Sidon. Her territory. And she, with the urgency of gravest necessity, greets him with a shout, “Lord, Son of David!”


This non-Jewish woman recognizes who Jesus is, demonstrating a greater awareness of his messianic identity than his disciples have shown so far…

Even more, she, for the sake of her love for her daughter, captive in the thrall of demonic-possession, dares beg the mercy of this Jewish messiah; her very request expressing her belief that he can do something and hoping he will

Still more, she, as a non-Jew and a woman, in the audacity of her appeal has stepped over, kicked over the even then ancient barriers of race and gender, status and authority that bar her from receiving any help.

Jesus, a Jewish man and rabbi, observing those time-honored boundaries, says nothing, need say nothing. His disciples, men, no matter their societal stations – most as fishermen, one a hated tax collector, another a religious zealot – surely standing higher than she, beg Jesus to “send her away.” Jesus answers, and it’s not clear he is speaking to her, sharing only his ultra-exclusionary understanding that his mission and ministry are intended only for Israel.

She persists, adding to her words of respect, “Lord” and “Son of David” a universally understood deed of deference, kneeling at Jesus’ feet; again asking, begging, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds with a demeaning word of cultural difference and distance, likening the woman and her daughter to dogs hungering underfoot at the table.

She persists, voicing her belief, her confidence that even a crumb of the mercy of Jesus can conquer the demon laying claim to her daughter’s soul.

Jesus, praising her faith, finally grants her desire.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a bold witness to the persistent power of faith, especially in response to the rejections of silence and dismissal of the status quo.

I also see that even Jesus, who taught that what is internal, not external, bears the fruit of wickedness, had to be shown how not to fall prey to his perspectives, his prejudices about the outward features of culture and class, race and gender. Bless you, Jesus, for having the humility to listen and learn.

May all who follow Jesus, in every arena and field of endeavor, athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries, no longer look on “the other” as “other” and, thus, no longer offer crumbs of mercy, if even that, but rather invite all to have a chosen seat at the table.


Illustration: Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)


106 and counting…

Dad & me, Tuesday, 7-29-86, Charleston Int'l Airport

Note: Today would have been my dad’s 106th birthday. William John Abernathy (August 7, 1911-April 27, 1996) and I had a difficult relationship; one fraught with the daily tension and enduring mutual resentment of the clash between his irresistible force of an alway-authoritarian, at times, arbitrary disposition and my ever-immovable object of adolescent rebellion (which continued well into my adulthood). O’er the years and o’er many trails of solemn reflection and trials of sober regret and sincerest repentance for my great part in our brokenness, I’ve come to understand, love, and respect my father. Today, the thought occurring (Why? I’m not entirely sure) to leaf through one of my journals, I found this forgotten (and astonishingly dated) twenty year old entry…


Thursday, August 7, 1997: On Sunday evening, August 3, Pontheolla and I attended a Healing Eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral. At the time worshipers were invited to come forward, we went and knelt at the altar rail. I asked “to be delivered from my long held bitterness against my departed father so that I can be free and so that he might be free!” I was anointed with oil and received the laying-on-of-hands by the celebrant, Ted Karpf, who prayed a prayer for my healing. I experienced then and continue to experience an ever-deepening sense, spirit of relief and of release. I wept a single, slow-moving tear of thankfulness as I sat with Pontheolla, holding hands, praying my healing would abide.

Ironies, painful and heart-rending, abound…

Ted had preached a homily, speaking eloquently and provocatively of the human condition, which finds self-worth in work and does not (cannot!) hear and respond to God’s gracious word of worth in being…simply being. Ted couldn’t have known that he was speaking so directly to one of my life’s issues, hurts, questions! (I pray my healing will abide.)

Moreover, the service was held in the War Memorial Chapel. Perhaps what I perceive as the irony of setting a service of healing in the place memorializing those who have died honorably in defense of country in times of war, if not intentional, was, at the least, purposeful. Verily, those who have endured the wars of acceptance and rejection in wounded, broken relationships need healing, for they have died a 1000 deaths and perhaps have killed others a 1000 times in those recurring mental scenarios of vengeance. (I pray my healing will abide.)


Photograph: Dad and me at the Charleston (SC) International Airport, Tuesday, July 29, 1986 (one of the few pictures of my father and me in which we are more or less smiling)

“I was blind, now I see”

a sermon, based on John 9.1-41 and Ephesians 5.8-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2017

Our gospel tells a story of the healing of physical blindness. Yet, as the words of our epistle, “Once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light”, refer to an ontological transformation of who one is and what one does, I focus on spiritual blindness, which is the point of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees, “…that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Spiritual blindness. Our human, inherent, sin-stained inability to see clearly God, others, and ourselves. Our incapacity to see clearly the right, however defined, and even when we do, to do the right consistently.

Through the “lens” of Jesus’ ministry, we can see how spiritual blindness is healed.

To Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, Jesus asked, “What do you want?” Bartimaeus answered, “I want to see again!” Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight.[1]

The Healing of the Blind Bartimaeus, Harold Copping (1863-1932)

Sometimes spiritual blindness is healed suddenly. A light dawns and remains lit. A new, deeper self-awareness comes and stays. A greater revelation of who God is, as the creator and sustainer of our lives, appears and abides. A mountaintop moment occurs, which, lasting only an instant, is enough; for what we see, we do not, cannot forget; and unable to forget it, we act on it.

In Bethsaida, a blind man was brought to Jesus. Jesus took the man by the hand. Leading him away from the curious crowds, he placed saliva in his eyes, laid hands on him, and asked, “Can you see anything?” The man said, “I see people, but they look like trees.”  Again Jesus laid hands on him and the man’s sight was restored.[2]

Christ Healing the Blind Man at Bethsaida, Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)

Sometimes spiritual blindness is healed gradually. Not suddenly, but steadily. The mountaintop moment of greater self-awareness or grander epiphany of God’s presence fades as quickly as it came; leaving a sense of having made no progress. The once bright, dawning light is now dim; whatever clarity we experienced, gone, whatever certainty of knowing what to do, lost.

That is, until the awareness, the epiphany comes again and more clearly.

The man “blind from birth” had a tougher time. Jesus spit on the ground, sealed the man’s eyes with soil and saliva, and sent him stumbling to the pool of Siloam. What a ridiculous spectacle it seems to me! How humiliating! Nevertheless, the man received Jesus’ ministrations and was healed.

The Blind Man Washes in the Pool of Siloam (Le aveugle-né se lave à la piscine de Siloë), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Sometimes spiritual blindness is healed neither suddenly nor steadily, but slowly. Even with best intentions, striving to do the right, we stumble. Make mistakes. Sometimes tripping in places where we’ve tripped before (compelling our confession that we thought we knew better!). Sometimes we slip on new terrain (which, added to the old areas of our lives, means we spend a lot of time face down on the ground!).

Still, whether suddenly, steadily, or slowly, whenever we seek the light of Jesus, following his word and will, the shadow of spiritual blindness is lifted and, with the man born blind and with John Newton, the author of  “Amazing Grace”, we can say, “I was blind, now I see!”

A final word. The suddenness, steadiness, or slowness (and probably for all of us, all three!) of our experiences of the healing of our spiritual blindness indicate that it is no one-time occurrence, but rather an ongoing work of sanctification, deepening righteousness, growing in holiness of life.

The Apostle Paul knew this. To the Christian church in Philippi, he wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”[3] The Greek word translated “to know” also can mean “to see.” Paul wanted to see Christ. He wanted to be free from his spiritual blindness; his human, inherent, sin-stained inability to see clearly God, others, and himself. “I want to know (to see) Christ,” then, “Not that I have already obtained this…but I press on to make it my own.”[4]

The healing of spiritual blindness is no one-time thing, but an ongoing experience. As long as we live, in this world and in the next, there is light for us to seek and to see. That light is Jesus. May the words of that wondrous song of thanksgiving[5] be our Lenten, no, our constant prayer:

I want to walk as a child of the light. I want to follow Jesus…

In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike.

The Lamb is the Light of the City of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.



The Healing of the Blind Bartimaeus, Harold Copping (1863-1932)

Christ Healing the Blind Man at Bethsaida, Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)

The Blind Man Washes in the Pool of Siloam (Le aveugle-né se lave à la piscine de Siloë), James Tissot (1836-1902)


[1] Mark 10.51-52 (paraphrased; my emphasis)

[2] Mark 8.22-25 (paraphrased)

[3] Philippians 3.10a

[4] Philippians 3.12a, b.

[5] The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 490, words and music by Kathleen Thomerson (b. 1934)

when Jesus advents

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 11.2-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

Whenever I consider this world’s sickeningly repetitive demonstrations of inhumanity, I say, I shout, “This must stop!” And whenever I feel this rise of righteous indignation, I know I share spiritual kinship with John the baptizer who preached to all who dared listen:

Bear fruit worthy of repentance…

for the ax is at the root of the trees.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down

and thrown into the fire…

One who is mightier than I is coming…

His winnowing fork is in his hand.

He will clear the threshing floor,

gather the wheat into the granary,

and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.[1]


Jesus, whose advent John proclaimed, arrives, but without the expected judgment. John, arrested for disturbing the peace, huddled in a dark prison, still harbors hope for the fulfillment of his prophecy. Hearkening for word that the ax has swung, the winnowing fork has swept, he hears news of Jesus’ ministry, taking sad note that the world continues on its weary, wicked way as though nothing had happened or would happen.

I share John’s disappointment whenever I imagine how life could be or, arrogantly, ought to be or whenever I join in countless prayers and efforts to bring dreams to light and to life, yet behold the vision evaporate in the heat of the world’s stubborn resistance to change. (Truth be told, sometimes my desolation is about my reluctance to engage and enact my vision to do something different, to be someone different.)

Long ago, at moments like these, I’d cry out to God, giving God another chance to prove that God is God, in charge of the world and in control of me. But God always declined my graciously offered opportunities to fulfill my visions. (My disillusionment with God often led to my deeper, personal discouragement, for I believed my dreams were flawed or, worse, false, thus unworthy of being fulfilled as, indeed, I myself, the dreamer of my dreams, must have been.)

Today, I no longer wishfully theologize about a god of my imagining. Yet, after 2000 years of Christianity, in the face of sadly abundant signs of humanly sinful, sin-fueled suffering, I still share John’s soulful lamentation: Jesus, are you the one or must I look for another? Usually, I raise the question in curiosity. For John, imprisoned, awaiting execution, it was a matter of life and death: Jesus, are you the Messiah or has my ministry, my life been a lie?

Now, there are times when John’s cry is an issue of critical concern. Whenever the hungry again plead for bread and the homeless for a bed and an uncaring world shrugs, “There’s no room in the inn!” Whenever a prayer for peace again is drowned out by the deafening sound of war. Whenever the call of the oppressed for freedom again is reduced to a whisper under the weight of bondage. Whenever visions of love again are vanquished and dreams of justice again denied. Whenever and wherever, we might cry: Jesus, are you the Messiah or have we been fools to follow you?

Nevertheless, I believe that John asked his poignant question, yes, in despair, yet also with hope that Jesus would answer. Jesus did answer. Though not saying, “Tell John who I am, that I am the Messiah!” or “Tell John what I say!” but rather, “Tell John what I do. The disabled, diseased, deaf, dead are made whole.”

Yes, the world goes on its weary, wicked way. Jesus never promised anything else. ‘Til Judgment Day, there will be sin and suffering, hunger and homelessness, war and strife. Yet whenever and wherever we, who follow Jesus, do what he did – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, pray and work for freedom and peace, act in love where there is hatred, welcome and acceptance where there is exclusion – there and then Jesus advents, he comes with hope and healing.

John was God’s messenger proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Yet he could not perceive that Jesus, as Messiah, rules with love, not force, governs with justice, not judgment, whose power is revealed in service and sacrifice, not violence. Therefore, “the least in the kingdom of heaven”, the least of Jesus’ followers, those who behold, however imperfectly, who Jesus is and those who do, however partially, what Jesus does, even we, are greater than John.


Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: St. John the Baptist in the Prison (1565-1570), Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1538-1579), The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Note: John is depicted with his wrists bond, his head bowed and eyes downcast in disconsolation. His camel hair garment (Matthew 3.4, Mark 1.6) lay at his side, above which, partially visible is the head of the staff, often associated with John the Baptist in art, bearing the scrolled Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (see John 1.29, 35).


[1] Matthew 3.8, 10, 11b, 12. From the gospel passage appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.

going out to see John

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Matthew 3.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

Today, I seek to enter and inhabit, live the scripture. I invite you to join me.


About three years ago, I first heard about John. All Jerusalem was abuzz about a man who came out of the wilderness, preaching repentance and the kingdom of heaven. Messianic talk. My people know that repentance, turning around, returning to God, is necessary preparation for the Messiah’s coming to restore Israel to glory.


Curious, I went out to see John. I wasn’t alone. Multitudes from Jerusalem, the Judean countryside, and along the Jordan gathered on the riverbanks.


He was something to see! Bony, yet brawny. His hair, long, unkempt. People said, “He looks like Elijah!” Though gone a thousand years, our sacred history describes Elijah as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.”[1] Four hundred years ago, the prophet Malachi foretold Elijah’s return to announce the Day of the Lord[2] when God intervenes in human history to set things right. Elijah…John…close enough!

It wasn’t only how John looked, but also what he said. “I cry in the wilderness! Prepare God’s way!” Six hundred years ago, Isaiah, with those same words, declared the end of our ancestors’ captivity in Babylon and return to the Promised Land.[3] But now the Roman Empire holds us captive in the Promised Land! So, when John spoke like Isaiah, I dared to hope for liberation!

Some Pharisees and Sadducees were in the crowd. Odd seeing them together. They don’t agree on much, politically or theologically. John saw them and all heaven broke loose! “Vipers!” he screamed. Snakes haven’t had a good reputation since Adam and Eve! Terrible thing to call someone, especially our most respected people! Nevertheless, he said: “Vipers! You claim to be Abraham’s children, God’s chosen, but it’s not enough to be upright in outward behavior. You must be righteous in your inward being and, in this, you aren’t faithful and true to God. Vipers!”


In the past, others came from the wilderness claiming to be prophets. John was different. He didn’t say he was a prophet, he acted like one! And he preached and practiced baptism. No one baptized except the desert-dwelling ascetics, the Essenes, and then only for members of their community. John called everybody to be baptized as a sign of repentance in preparation for the Messiah, whose sandals, he said, he wasn’t worthy to carry. John never promoted himself, always pointed beyond himself. What humility!

I’m a skeptic, but I was impressed. John had charisma. A gift of truth-telling. And I went to him, begging, “Baptize me!” With strong hands, John plunged me into the water, holding me under, finally letting me go. Gasping for air, I didn’t know if my life had turned around, but I did see it pass before me! Yet I felt different. Expectant. Ready for a brighter, better day.

Then nothing happened. Well, something happened, but nothing good. King Herod arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded John. Just before that a man from Nazareth, Jesus, came to John to be baptized. Incredible stories were told about his preaching, teaching, healing, raising someone from the dead. People called him Messiah and followed him, expecting God’s kingdom to come. Then the Romans crucified him.

Promises, hopes, like all before and since, come to naught. I wondered then, I wonder now, why did I bother to go out to see John?


John burst onto the first century Palestinian scene with incandescent temperament and intemperate tongue. His words inflaming minds, igniting hearts. His urgency suffering gladly no hypocrisy or subtlety.

Why would anyone go out to see John? Perhaps because his message of repentance resonated in human hearts. People knew that they were soul-sick, in need of healing. They knew that they, even at their finest, falling short of their best, were in need of help. They knew that they, in their wildest imagining envisioning who they were destined to become, needed hope. In the ferocious sincerity of John’s language, they heard a word of truth and new life. Not happy-ever-after-fantasy, for given what we know of the world and ourselves, life was not, is not like that.

John spoke truth. About new life through repentance, our turning around to face anew God and ourselves and our reality. All of it. Our highest, unspeakable joys and our deepest, unspoken fears – love and hate, assurance and fear, trust and betrayal, communion and separation, intimacy and abandonment, life and death. New life that lives in the power of the paradoxical peace that nothing, even the worst of everything will not, cannot destroy us, for we are a part of something greater.

John proclaimed and died for the truth of this reality, preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah, who not only proclaimed, but personified the truth of God, for which he was crucified. A crucifixion that led to a resurrection. A resurrection that is the foundation for a community of life-giving love. A community for two millennia through which people have sought to live the life of God and in which we gather today going out to see and to hear John to be reminded afresh of how real and new and true the life of God is.


Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)


The Voice in the Desert (La voix dans le desert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot


[1] 2 Kings 1.8

[2] Malachi 4.5

[3] Isaiah 40.3

see? see!

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 17.11-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016

Today, as on all Sundays, we gather for worship; the word, a contraction of “worth” and “ship.” Thus, we gather to worship the only One worthy of our adoration, God, the creator and preserver of life, now and forever.

That is why we have come. That is what we are doing. In our coming and doing, what do we see? Here. Now.

A people gathered. Yes.

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

In this sacred space, unassuming in its straightforward Greek revival and semi-Gothic design and yet, in that eclectic simplicity, profoundly serene. Yes.

With our material resources of  prayer books, hymnals, service bulletins, and foremost our human resources of ushers greeting us at the door, worship leaders guiding us through the liturgy, and all of us raising our voices in song, opening our hearts in prayer, lifting our hands to receive the bread of life and with our lips, tasting the wine of heaven. Yes.

Yet again I ask, what do we see? Not with our physical eyes, but with spiritual sight. For to see with that gift of God’s grace is to know more fully, to be more faithfully what we do this day.

Blessedly, we have companion to point the way…


Of the eleven protagonists in our gospel passage, he is one of ten who has no name. He introduces himself to Jesus and to us by his condition, his affliction. Leprosy. A horrible life-altering, inevitably death-dealing and contagious disease, resulting in exile, banishment from the community. Later we are told one additional detail. He is a Samaritan. That cultural designation telling us that his fellow lepers likely are Jews. That fact demonstrating the proverbial insight that misery loves company and that shared suffering perhaps more than any other motivation can eradicate societal, racial barriers, in this case, quelling the historic animus between Jews and Samaritans. That fact explaining why these beleaguered souls, cast out of their respective societies, welcome nowhere, dwell in the no-man’s land “between Samaria and Galilee.”

(I digress. Truth be told, there is no “region between Samaria and Galilee.” That’s akin to saying there’s a place between Laurens and Spartanburg Counties. There’s not a place, only a boundary line. Yet, this scriptural detail emphasizes for us that for those suffering from leprosy, their exiled existence was like that of ever walking a fine line, never to step again on the soil of their birth, families, and former lives.)

Jesus encounters the ten afflicted with leprosy “on the way to Jerusalem.” That fact alerting us that the denouement of his story is soon to be written, the closing curtain of his life and ministry soon to be drawn, his destiny soon to be fulfilled with a final showdown with the secular and religious authorities proclaiming, confronting them with his status quo destabilizing, status quo destroying word of God’s unconditional love and universal justice for all.

There in “the region between Samaria and Galilee”, a middle place, a liminal space, a threshold between one state of being and the next, we behold something about God’s kingdom and realm, God’s life and nature: wholeness.

The action quickens. The lepers cry for mercy, Jesus, observant of the law, bids, “Go, show yourselves to the priests,” who, from the time of Moses and Aaron were given charge to pronounce those afflicted with leprosy ritually unclean and, when healing had occurred, to proclaim their restoration to the community,[1] and they, on their way, are healed.

Nine, doubtless thrilled to be cured, continue on their way. “One of them,” this one, this Samaritan, seeing he is healed, recognizes Jesus for who he is, the bringer through his proclamation, the bearer in his person of the activating, animating saving word of God’s kingdom. Seeing he is healed, he “turns back, praising God,” prostrating himself at the feet of Jesus, giving thanks.

See? This is what we do today! Turning back for a moment from the daily courses of our individual lives, gathering in this sacred space as one body, one voice praising God, prostrating our souls at the feet of Jesus, our only Lord, no one else, nothing less, and giving thanks. All so to rise, returning to the world of our lives as we know them, yet to see with newly, spiritually refreshed sight.

To see in every good pleasure of this life a reason to render all glory to God…

To see in our worries and woes a reason to rely on God for solace and strength…

To see in the gifts of life and health and wealth opportunities for service with others…

To see in the face of family and friend, stranger, even enemy another child of God…

To see in our past, even our darkest days of failure and fear, the pathways that brought us to this new day…

To see the world around us with its daily triumphs and tribulations and behold God’s saving hand in all of it…

To see in the farthest horizon of an always uncertain future the possibilities of hope…

To see our faces in our mirrors and no matter how our day has gone, whether revealing our brightest virtues or our darkest sins, most probably both, and behold the countenance of God’s beloved…

This is what it is to see ourselves, others, and all things with the eyes of our faith. Our faith, as Jesus said to that Samaritan, so he says to us that makes us well, whole, healed, saved!

See? See!


Photographs: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan); Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, façade

Illustration: The Healing of Ten Lepers (Guérison de dix lépreux) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum


[1] See Leviticus 13.2-3, 14.2-32

standing up straight

preaching a sermon, based on Luke 13.10-17, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2016

“…there appeared a woman…crippled…bent over…unable to stand up straight.”

Christ healing an infirm woman on the Sabbath, James Tissot (1886-1896)

For nearly a score of years, she moved through her world largely gazing at the ground, staring at her feet, having to hold fast a staff lest she fall over, her palm chafed and roughened, craning her neck, now with a persistent, permanent ache, whenever someone spoke to her, striving, straining to respond with the common courtesy of showing at least a part of her face. After nearly twenty years of this, she barely remembered her former life when she stood upright looking at life eye to eye, seeing herself as healthy, whole, and good.

That day, come heaven or high water, she was determined to make it to the synagogue. Jesus of Nazareth had come to town. She had heard about him. His passionate preaching, his authoritative teaching, and his healing power; all signs of the presence of God’s kingdom. Dare she believe any of it, especially the healing? And if it was true, dare she hope that she could, would be blessed by him and set free from her infirmity? None of her daring, believing, or hoping mattered if she didn’t get to the synagogue. So, broken-bodied, yet strong-willed, shuffling her feet as fast as she could, she made it!

There he was. In the custom of rabbis, standing to read from the scroll of the prophets, then sitting down to teach.[1] The room was quiet, all listening. Suddenly, a strange sensation, something far gone in her past, almost too long ago to remember, ran up spine; her body responding to the sound of his voice calling her. Amazingly, her step quickening, she hastened to him and a seeming eternity was enveloped in spare seconds. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” he said, then touched her, warmth flooding her body, casting out a cold spirit. Immediately she stood up straight and praised God.

But straightway the beatific moment was overshadowed by the leader of the synagogue. This biblical legalist, literalistkept saying to the crowd,” repeatedly shaming Jesus with that heavily morally-weighted-and-freighted word “ought”, for healing on the Sabbath, thus violating the law to do no work.[2]

I digress to address the nature and meaning of God’s Law, which, for example, the Ten Commandments are expressions. God’s law is not aspirational, not outside of us, not something we must strive to attain (for, as God is perfect and we aren’t, we can’t!). Rather, God’s law is inspirational, abiding within us through the Holy Spirit who leads us to the fulfillment of what God wills for us.[3] So, there is the letter of the law, the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” embraced by the leader of synagogue and the spirit of the law that Jesus embodied, which or rather Who is God – love and life, goodness and righteousness, health and wholeness.

So, Jesus inaugurated his ministry in a synagogue in Galilee, reading the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointing me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” then saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[4] Then, in a synagogue at Capernaum, healing a demon-possessed man.[5] Then at Simon Peter’s home, healing his mother-in-law of her fever,[6] then “all who were sick with various diseases.” Then continuing his journey, saying to his disciples, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities, for I was sent for this purpose.”[7]

So, in that spirit, Jesus answers the leader of the synagogue. If, on the Sabbath, you would help an animal in need, how much more a human being? Even more, the “ought” of God is not strict observance of the letter of the Law, but faithfulness to its Spirit, which is liberation, emancipation from any kind of bondage on any, on every day!

This day, Jesus speaks to us, as he spoke to that “daughter of Abraham,” as daughters and sons of his Father, our Father, as his sisters and brothers, declaring our freedom from whate’er binds and bends us over in spirit. Here, honesty compels my confession that every example I give is borne out of my experience of life and of me. Thus, none of this may apply to any of you. Still, my decades of pastoral ministry, listening to and being with folk in moments of difficulty, suggest to me that some of what I share may not be at all foreign or strange to you…

Our past failures over which, when they often unbidden come to mind, we brood with the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” of “I wish I had…” and “I wish I hadn’t…” Jesus says to us, “You are set free.”

Our rote repetitions of old behaviors, which make our past failures ever new. Jesus says to us, “You are set free.”

Our memories of poor, uninformed or impulsive, choices. Jesus says to us, “You are set free.”

Our masks, false faces of all-sufficient, omni-competence that camouflage from the world and from ourselves the whole truth of who we are; perhaps because we fear that if others really knew who and how we are, they wouldn’t love or like us, welcome and accept us. Jesus says to us, “You are set free.”

Our resentments about hurt and harm done to us by others that strangle our capacity for kindness and forgiveness.  Jesus says to us, “You are set free.”

Believing, receiving this good news, let us, no longer stooped over in spirit, stand up straight face to face with Jesus, eye to eye with God, trusting, knowing that we are fulfilled and filled with God’s life and love, goodness and righteousness, health and wholeness.


Illustration: Christ healing an infirm woman on the Sabbath (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)


[1] See Luke 4.16-17a, 20a.

[2] See Exodus 20.9-10, Leviticus 23.3, and Deuteronomy 5.13-14.

[3] One biblical reference point, among many, to which I hearken and upon which I base my view of the inspirational nature of God’s Law is the prophetic word found in Jeremiah 31.31-34: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (emphasis mine).

[4] Luke 4.18-19, 21

[5] Luke 4.31-35

[6] Luke 4.38-39

[7] Luke 4.43