10 December 2017 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: “The Ministry of Magic is in a sticky spot in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. If they admit that Harry witnessed the return of Lord Voldemort, the most powerful dark wizard ever, magical people will realize the Ministry is unprepared and incompetent. They’ll lose all confidence in the Ministry…” Click here to listen.
29 October 2017 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: “Five hundred years ago this Tuesday a monk posted a statement on a church door in Germany expressing some disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church. What he said resonated with people. They supported him—princes and priests and ordinary people alike. …” Click here to download an mpeg and listen.
27 August 2017 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: “My grandfather, Captain William Eigel, Jr., served in Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War. He landed in Normandy only a few days after D-Day and joined the long, hard push eastward towards Berlin. …” Click here to download an mpeg and listen.
22 January 2017 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: “Wide gaps between the haves and the have-nots. Stark ethnic and racial divisions. Conflicts about the role of women. Hostility to the poor. Battles over sexual ethics. Fractures along party lines. Divisions so intractable that some people refuse to share meals with each other…” Click here to download an mpeg and listen.
8 January 2017 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story? Fifty years after Alexander Hamilton’s death in a duel, his wife Eliza is reaching the end of her very long life. She’s collected her husband’s thousands of pages of writing…” Click here to download an mpeg and listen.
13 November 2016 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: “Can you believe these lessons? I can’t decide if they are the most inappropriate readings imaginable for the Sunday after an election or a pairing of sheer genius. The lectionary, our three-year cycle of readings, is like that sometimes…” Click here to download an mpeg and listen.
4 September 2016 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: “Back before seminary I worked as the communications director for a large Episcopal parish. Part of my job was preparing the service bulletins every week. This parish had a teeny, tiny problem with perfectionism…” Click here to download an mpeg and listen.
28 August 2016 — Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin: “Sometime this month, millions of Americans will step into one of the most fraught places in our society—a middle school or high school cafeteria. Middle and high schools have a strict social pecking order and the cafeteria is where it is most visible…” Click here to download an mpeg and listen.
21 August 2016 — Dr. Irene Lawrence: While you were hearing the gospel read just now, there’s a good chance you said to yourself, “Oh, it’s just another healing story” and promptly tuned out. It’s true that Jesus spent a lot of his time and effort healing people, and the stories tend to run together in our minds. And there certainly are commonalities among the stories—in broadest terms, that God loves us and wants us to be whole. But the details of how each different story is remembered and told offers offer us different nuances and insights—not necessarily unique, but more obvious in the way some stories are told than in others.
One thing to notice is that Luke is the only evangelist who tells this particular story. If either Mark or Matthew knew this story, they did not consider it necessary to include it in their written Gospels. So the fact that Luke includes it means he thinks something about it is important and needs to be emphasized. Let’s look at the story.
Jesus has been traveling around, preaching, teaching, healing, and generally working for the Kingdom of God. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly where he is at this moment, but it’s the Sabbath and as seems to be his custom he goes to the local synagogue. A bent-over woman comes to church. I am picturing her as old, crippled with osteoporosis and arthritis. Jesus sees her, gets her attention, and says, “Ma’am, you’re well again.” And she is.
What is unusual about this story is its simplicity; there are no embellishments. There’s no dialog between Jesus and the unnamed woman before he heals her: she doesn’t ask to be healed, Jesus doesn’t ask if she wants to be healed. For that matter, there’s no dialog between Jesus and anyone else before he heals her, not even the spirit that is said to be causing her deformity. Jesus doesn’t ask about her faith or comment on her faith or forgive her sins. Jesus doesn’t perform any intricate manipulations with mud or spit, although he does lay his hands on her. No one goes to any trouble that we are told about to draw Jesus’ attention to her—the synagogue’s roof remains whole and unbroken—in fact, no one in particular brings her to Jesus at all; she seems to have arrived under her own steam. She’s not a foreigner, not a Syrophoenician or a Samaritan woman; she seems to be a local and a well-known woman. No one questions her morals, or sniggers about what kind of woman she is, or says that she doesn’t deserve to be healed. No one asks whether it was her sin or her parents’ sin that caused her suffering. In this account, Jesus simply sees her and heals her. End of story. You might think.
Except it wasn’t of course. The “leader of the synagogue” objects to the healing. Actually, he doesn’t object to the healing in itself; he’s perfectly happy to have the woman or anyone else healed on any other day of the week, just not on the Sabbath. Because there are none of the other distractions about other things that appear in most of the other healing accounts, this is clearly a bare-bones account centering around working on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue objects on the grounds that work is forbidden on the Sabbath; Jesus shoots him down by reminding him that everyone cares for their animals on the Sabbath, so he can very well care for a human being on the Sabbath. In this story, the issue is about what counts as work—and Jesus is clearly saying that caring for other living creatures does not count as work for purposes of this commandment.
We don’t recite the Ten Commandments much in church anymore, and on the rare occasions when we do, we shorten them, so perhaps it’s appropriate for me to quote the full commandment about working; in our numbering system it’s the fourth commandment:
(Ex 20:2-17, CEB)
This is serious stuff. While I don’t suggest that we give the leader of the synagogue a pass, we might consider his context. By Jesus’ time, Jewish worship had been pretty much centralized in the Jerusalem temple. That was fine for the local people, but what about Jews who lived further away? Jesus’ family is reported as making the trip to Jerusalem a couple of times during Jesus’ childhood, but that can’t have been easy. And for Jews of the diaspora—those who had been exiled or emigrated and lived still further away—it would have been impossible. Imagine being a sort of second-class Anglican if you couldn’t get to Canterbury for the major occasions in your life.
But just because you couldn’t get to Jerusalem didn’t mean that you gave up your hope of closeness to God. By Jesus’ time, there were many local synagogues—places of study and learning as well as prayer, which encouraged recognizing and honoring God in every aspect of everyday life through ritual and rule. The purpose of the ritual and rule—“the Law”—was not to be an end in itself, but to be a constant reminder of God’s continual presence. Think of our common custom of saying a grace before meals—it doesn’t make our food any more holy than it already is through God’s creation and human work, and God isn’t any more present than God was before we prayed, but the ritual reminds us of God’s presence and the whole created scheme of things.
The Jews who were most active in promoting this way of being Jewish were the group called Pharisees. The New Testament tends to give a one-sided picture of the Pharisees, including this leader of the synagogue; they are portrayed as legalists, putting blind obedience to the law above human welfare. My point here is that, while there are plenty of people who do that, not just Pharisees, those Pharisees who put law above compassion were not good Pharisees—they were not living up to their own ideals. Today’s lesson from Isaiah captures the intended spirit of joy that should come from keeping the Sabbath:
The successors of the Pharisees, beginning only a few generations after Jesus’ time, codified the principle of compassion above legalism. Healing in itself was not defined as work to be avoided on the Sabbath. Certainly ancillary activities might be work—gathering herbs or brewing a medicine, for example, would be work because harvesting and cooking activities were classified as work, and so to keep the Sabbath you had to plan ahead and make in advance any medicine you might need. But even after all these details were worked out, the Jewish law specifically stated that you must—you are required—to keep the Law by breaking the Law, by working on the Sabbath, if it is necessary to save a life.
And that brings me back to the story. Granted that this leader of the synagogue was not living up to true Pharisee standards, what was Jesus was doing that he so objected to—exactly what did Jesus do that the leader thought was work? Luke seems to think that he classified any kind of healing itself as work within the meaning of the commandment, but that really seems unlikely in the light of the later developments that I have described. So if healing is not classified as work just because it is healing, why did the leader of the synagogue accuse Jesus of working?
The story doesn’t describe Jesus as doing anything in particular that looks like work in the course of this healing—he calls the woman over, speaks to her, and touches her—but I wonder if we, and maybe Luke, are missing something here. Maybe healing costs Jesus something? Maybe the leader thought Jesus was working because it looked like Jesus was working? Maybe he observed that the healing tired Jesus, or even that he got a little sweaty, as if he had just done something strenuous?
Of course I don’t know. But it is consistent with other reports of Jesus’ activities—the time he felt power going out of him, for example, or the many times when he was exhausted and had to hide from the crowds—not always successfully—in order to pray and recharge. When you come to think about it, why we should assume that healing was easy for Jesus?
And why we should assume that healing is easy for Jesus now? Jesus continues to offer us healing—wholeness. Or put another way, is there a cost to God for loving us? Is it, in some metaphorical way—which is the only way we can talk about God—is it in some way work for God to love us and make us whole?
Some of us had early teaching that God was transcendent, which usually meant eternal, unchanging, impassive, remote, and untouchable. A reformation-era creed says that God is “pure spirit…without body, parts, or passions.” Perhaps that’s not quite the whole story. Our human relationships involve work. Especially if they need healing do they involve work. We are made in the image of God; Jesus shows us the image of God in human life. Perhaps, then, the work of a relationship with God is not all on one side. Perhaps the cost to God didn’t end on an Easter morning two thousand years ago. Perhaps God works as hard to heal each of us today as Jesus worked to heal the crippled woman we just read about. Her reaction was to praise God—and so should we.
14 Pentecost, Proper 16C trk2: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
26 June 2016 — Dr. Irene Lawrence: When I was about ten years old, I heard a story that at the time I thought was very funny. It seems that one night there was a very thick, dense fog that obscured everything on the ground. Nevertheless, some people had to be out in their cars that night, but of course it was very difficult because visibility was so poor. One particular driver seemed to be more confident than most, so another driver decided that the best thing to do would be to follow them closely, as they seemed to be able to tell where the road was. This worked well for a while, until the first driver suddenly stopped, and of course the second driver plowed into them. The second driver rolled down their window and yelled, “Why did you stop so suddenly?” The first driver answered calmly, “Because I’m in my own garage.”
At my current age, I see this story as more metaphorical than simply funny. Who or what are we following? Who or what is leading us? And where are they leading us? How dense is the fog? Maybe even what is causing the fog? Who or what should we decide to follow?
There has never been a lack of applicants clamoring for us to follow them. In this election year, of course, politicians come to mind instantly, but they’re not the only entities that are beckoning for us to follow. Organizations, including the church, claim our loyalty. On another level, we are constantly urged to drink this particular beer, or use that weight-loss program or hair product, buy this particular car, put our money into that investment, obey these particular rules. Our families, our clans, our tribes, and our cultures, whether related to us by blood, by law, or something else, define our comfort zone and thus our allegiance. How, then, in the midst of all these relationships, shall we know what to follow? How can we avoid the bumper bashing of my childhood story, or the more serious, even possibly catastrophic results of blind following in our adult world?
One way to approach it to ask where we are headed when we follow someone or something. As Christians, we have an ultimate destination in mind—or better, a combined journey/destination—for which we have many different names: the Reign of God, heaven, the Beatific Vision, loving God and one’s neighbor, the path of life, eternal life. Whatever name we use, to be true to the Gospel we have to remember that this “Real Life” doesn’t start after our death, but is present in our current physical life, if somewhat potentially—as a seed, an embryo, always present as both possibility and goal. One of the more contemporary descriptions that I like defines this “new life” as a state of “flourishing”—God’s work is being done when people are flourishing—and not just people individually, but all people in groups, and tribes, and nations, and cultures. And not just people, but animals, and fish, and coral reefs, and all living things. And not just living things, but the whole earth. And not just the whole earth, but all the planets, and stars, and comets, and black holes, and all twenty-six dimensions of string theory—in other words, when all of God’s creation, without exception, is flourishing.
But back to human-sized realities. So we have a rough approximation of where we want to go: we want to increase the total amount of flourishing in the world. And we believe that this happens most effectively when we follow Christ, directly or indirectly. There are certainly legitimate disagreements about how best to go about this, but I think the concept itself is non-negotiable for Christians: to work for the flourishing of all is by definition to love God and one’s neighbor. As always, the devil is in the details, but the theory is pretty clear.
I think this is what Paul is talking about when he reminds us that our freedom consists of loving our neighbors as ourselves, not of self-indulgence. It’s not just our personal flourishing, but everyone and everything’s flourishing. Elsewhere Paul suggests that his churches should follow him, Paul, but only because he is following Christ. Here he describes following Christ as living in the Spirit. And how can we know if we are following Christ and living in the Spirit? Because we are not encouraging anger, jealousy, dissensions, factions or any of the other things he lists, but are headed toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That sounds like conditions for flourishing to me.
Let’s focus on a couple of the negative things Paul mentions here: strife, anger, dissensions, factions—and especially factions. Right now, there seems to be a growing factionalism in the world, at all levels from families to countries. Countries are splitting along ethnic lines, moving from multi-cultural states to ostensibly uniform states, the European Union may be breaking up, the Anglican Communion is at loggerheads, American states are threatening secession, people who are different are demonized, some families are casting out those who are different. Corporate attempts at healing old splits and wounds have lessened or even ceased; instead we are pushing our one right way. We hurry to form our own enclaves of people just like us, thinking that flourishing is a zero-sum game, and that our welfare depends on excluding others from whatever goodies are at hand. I think of this as a kind of neo-tribalism—my group is number one—and I’m sure you’ll notice how easy it is to slip from “My tribe needs this more than anyone else” to “My tribe deserves this more than anyone else.” There is no lack of contemporary leaders who will lead us down conflicting tribal paths. Following these leaders along paths of exclusivity does not lead to the flourishing of all creation.
In today’s first reading, when Elijah calls Elisha to follow him, Elisha has to leave his family and tribe; he is called to move out of the comfortable exclusivity of his tribe. It’s not as abrupt as it might be; he can make a ceremony of it, a farewell feast that was probably long remembered, a proper goodbye to his family and tribe—and then he followed Elijah, who of course was following the LORD. Elisha probably thought he was moving out into a larger exclusivity of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but in his later career (somewhat checkered from our perspective) he is shown going outside the Hebrew world, for example, to heal Naaman, commander of the Syrian army. In this, he is only following the example of his mentor Elijah, who lived with a Baal-worshipping woman and resuscitated her son.
Finally, and most directly, Jesus himself has the last word on following him. Somehow he forgot to mention the warm, fuzzy, cozy, safe haven that we try to construct when we stick close to home and don’t let any strangers in. No, Jesus is heading straight into danger, setting “his face to go to Jerusalem,” passing through Samaritan—non-Jewish—territory where he won’t let his companions blast the rude unbelievers they encounter. Those he calls on this journey are warned that they will be homeless, and their families of origin and their familial duties will no longer be important. A few people may be called to live this out literally, but for most of us, Jesus’s words are an acted out parable. When we follow him, we step out of our enclave, we leave our tribe precisely to encounter God in other tribes. A snippet from a W.H. Auden poem keeps running through my mind:
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
The rare beasts are fine, and the unique adventures are inevitable—though we may hope they are not too adventurous—but Jesus’s route and ours goes through the Land of Unlikeness, not the land of Everyone-is-the-same-as-me. But as the Psalmist reminds us, just there God shows me the path of life; there in God’s presence there is fullness of joy, and at God’s right hand are pleasures for evermore and for everyone.
6 Pentecost, Proper 8C trk2: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62