Who defines your reality?

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor
Sunday, August 25, 2013

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:10-17

As reality shows have taken the forefront on television, my family has run the gamut of offerings depending on which generation held possession of the remote controls. First there was American Idol, then Fashion Runway. More recently, it has been Duck Dynasty and Drive-Ins, Diners and Dives. Now that the remote has fallen into Lloyd’s and my hands, we find that America’s Got Talent captures our attention. For those of you who do not know, this program is like a variety show where amateurs compete over several months for a million dollars and their own show in Las Vegas. The twist comes in that viewers may vote for their favorite acts as well as there are judges who determine if participants continue or not by their immediate evaluations. Their critiques may be encouraging, or they may be brutally honest. So I watch 10 year olds leave the stage in tears because they have been told their act is a glorified dance recital or adults who are told “what you did up there was just ok. It didn’t WOW me.” It seems to me that these who take the stage are inviting someone else to define their reality.

So I am wondering this morning, who defines your reality and why?
Who calls the shots to inflate or deflate your dreams?
Whose voice do you hear whisper in your ear, “You’re not good enough.” “You’re stupid!” “You’re too fat.” “Girls can’t do that!” “Blacks not allowed.” “Gays not welcome.” “Don’t get above your raising.”

The woman in our gospel reading has had her reality defined by several dynamics. She’s a woman in a patriarchal society. She has a physical infirmity that has bent her over for 18 years. Greater, however, than the gender issue or the physical problem, her culture holds the strong suspicion that such a severe disfigurement is the result of her sin. They think that, at the very least, she is in the grip and under the control of Satan. And so her condition is not only incredibly painful and physically awkward, it is relentlessly embarrassing and socially isolating. She is alone. She is lonely. Always. (John Buchanan, “Expansive,” Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, 8-26-07)

So with her reality clearly defined, the woman does not ask for a thing on that eventful Sabbath day in the synagogue. In fact, she slips into her pew doing everything within her power not to draw attention to herself. So invisible is she that not one disciple says, “Look, Jesus, you need to do something for that woman who just came in.” Not one religious leader takes Jesus aside to say, “There’s this woman in our congregation. She’s been like this for 18 years and maybe you could lay your hands on her or give her a blessing or share a simple word of encouragement. Could you do that Jesus?” No, she is invisible to them all. They don’t see her. Maybe they had seen her so often that she is overly familiar, like the wallpaper. Maybe she had once been brave enough to ask for help and was so summarily dismissed that she took on hiddenness as her disguise just so she can slip in and out of worship unnoticed. We don’t know that part of the story for certain, but what we do know is that Jesus sees her. He really sees her. He sees deep into her soul, and surmises her reality. Jesus speaks to her, saying, “You are now free of your infirmity.” Then He lays His hands on her, and she stands tall. His seeing and touching of her communicates the whole message of the gospel: that God enters her reality to love exactly who she is and that she is worth infinitely more than her community has ever communicated to her. So for the first time in 18 years, she stands tall and understandably, her first act is to praise God.

Now by this time in our journey, you know me well enough to anticipate my prejudices in identifying with characters in scripture. Let me warn you to be careful of jumping to conclusions today. Ordinarily, I would compare us to this woman, bent over by the things in our lives that burden and constrict, and that Jesus can set us free of these crippling things. While I do believe this and studied much that would lend itself to preach a sermon along these lines, this is not the path I wish to take today.

For you see, even though I fought with myself against it, I believe the truth is we have too long identified with the bent over and crippled of heart, body and soul. We fail to realize that we are persons with influence who have the power to bring about healing acceptance in others’ reality! But to recognize that we have power means that we must associate ourselves with the ruler of the synagogue, and this puts us in the most uncomfortable of positions.

When Jesus heals the woman in the synagogue, He does it on the Sabbath, and He does it in the middle of a crowded room with people sitting on benches. The men and boys are one side, and the women and girls are on the other. Immediately upon seeing the healing take place, the leader of the synagogue calls the church into business session! Unhappy that his Sabbath preparations have been upstaged, this leader of the synagogue turns to the congregation and says:
It is one thing to be a young idealist, passionate about human suffering, issues of justice and civil rights, but let’s be reasonable! There is a time and place for everything and what Jesus just did violates our sacred, holy law. Everyone knows that no work is to happen on the Sabbath, and healing is work, just like cooking and mowing the lawn and taking out the trash. We have six days for that sort of thing. The Sabbath is for God! Jesus is being cavalier about what we consider to be sacred. The Sabbath ends at 6:00 p.m., couldn’t Jesus have waited until, at least, 6:05 to heal her? After all, she’s been this way for 18 years, what are a few more hours?” (Buchanan)

And Jesus responds with: “Hypocrite!”

The problem is that in that little, hot, mud-walled synagogue is a leader. He is a good man, a religious man but in the name of God’s law, he misses an occasion of God’s love. The whole law is an expression of holy love. It is a gift given for the purpose of keeping a community healthy and vital. The law always points to God and the mysterious reality of God’s love. Yet, in this story (and others), while we see Jesus bring God’s mysterious love into an individual’s life, the resistance to His actions is powerful. Yet Jesus argues, if the law allows for bringing a donkey to water on the Sabbath, shouldn’t it allow for a woman’s reality to be transformed for the good? (Buchanan)

It is not an easy lesson for the faithfully religious to learn, is it? Our customs and traditions, buildings and grounds, rituals and liturgies too often become “sacred cows” so that we become rigid to change, indignant to diversity and loose the beauty and creativity originally intended by God. What gets lost is what is missing in the synagogue that day when Jesus heals the woman. It is the awareness of God’s love for every one; a love that includes all, reaches out to all deeply into and beyond the community of faith. It is a love that heals and does not harm; a love that recognizes each person’s worth before God and therefore, does not demonize, hurt or kill. It is such abundant love that it cannot be diminished or restricted or confined or denied by human prejudice, human laws, human customs, even the ways that we, as humans, practice our faith. (Buchanan)

“Oh, but pastor,” you may be thinking, “We believe this. We are so with you. We welcome all. We love all. We know and believe that we are all God’s children.” Are we sure?

On a panel at 16th Street Baptist Church, I recently heard Rabbi Jonathan Miller say that the ministers who received Martin Luther King’s famous letter written from the Birmingham jail were all good, religious men. What they lacked was the vision to see community in a new way. It is the challenge that presents itself in the gospel reading for today and it is the challenge I wish for us to consider. How do we envision redemptive community with eyes like those of Jesus when He sees this woman and redeems her life? Here is why I bring this challenge to you.

In my tenure as your pastor, I have been asked repeatedly about if I perform same-sex unions. For some, this is a question of clarification, a litmus test of my righteousness. For others, it is a genuine desire to have their pastor bring the blessing of Jesus as she stands with them at a most important juncture in their lives. It is this latter group for whom I hope a new vision of community.

For every request I have had, up until this point, I have referred gay and lesbian couples to one of the other 30+ ordained clergy in our congregation. I am finding, however, that with each request, I am more and more grieved not to be allowed to stand with the people to whom I am called to serve. I find that the word spoken by Jesus to the leader of the synagogue that day so long ago is the very same word being whispered in my soul: “hypocrite!” For you see, these members of our church dare to share their story with me in the privacy of my office. And when they do, I reach to place a blessing on their forehead as I say “We would love to have you be a part of us at Baptist Church of the Covenant.” I welcome them into church membership; I baptize them in the waters; I serve them communion; I dedicate their babies; I appoint and ordain them to positions of leadership; I receive their tithes and offerings; I offer prayers beside their sick bed and words of remembrance at their funerals, but what I have not done—what WE have not done—is honor their vows of covenantal relationship by permitting commitment services in the very place that they call their church home. It is at this point that the whispered voices of some define my reality. Like the leader of the synagogue, they say:
It is one thing to be an idealist passionate about human suffering, issues of justice and civil rights, but let’s be reasonable! There is a time and place for everything! Gay marriage is wrong! It’s against the law! Let’s not be cavalier about the law!

And in the same way, Jesus responds: “Hypocrite! You are missing out on God’s law of loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Regardless of what the outside world does or says, let us remember that THIS congregation was founded on the principal that there would be no second class citizens. So when we refuse this sacred space to those who wish to receive a blessing on their committed relationship, are we not asking gays and lesbians to sit in the back of the bus as we introduce them to our good friend Rosa Parks who sits proudly in the front? Are we not saying to them what clergy said to Martin Luther King junior that the timing is not right and that if they will just be patient, wait until 6:05, THEN we can set them free from the cultural restrictions and prejudices that bind them? The response of the synagogue’s leader points us to who is REALLY crippled in this story, and he is so bound by “right” doctrine that he is incapable of living in a free reality defined by God’s love. It is to this reality that I believe we are being called, so that we can stand tall in God’s love and joy.

So my favorite part of this story is really a detail at the very end when the narrator adds: “The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things Jesus was doing.” They didn’t listen to the leader of the synagogue. They didn’t listen to their culture. They let Jesus define their reality and as a result, they rejoiced. These ordinary people, living their lives as best they could, caring for their families, trying to make the best of every day and gathering once a week with other believers to be reminded that there is purpose to all of this; that each small life matters—all of it, mine and yours and this child’s and that poor crippled woman and the red and yellow, black and whites, the gays and lesbians—all of it matters. All of it is precious to God who loves us passionately, whose love will not be confined and restricted, and who will find a way to embrace each one of us. “The entire crowd was rejoicing,” because they knew love when they saw it. (Buchanan) Do we have eyes to see it?

When St. Benedict wrote his rule for monasteries in the sixth century, he included specific instructions for how a novice could be received into the monks’ community of prayer. (M. Craig Barnes, “Faith Matters,” Christian Century, August 21, 2013) The new novice would enter a room called the oratory and vow stability, fidelity and obedience. Then he would quote Psalm 119:116, “Receive me, Lord, as you have promised, and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope.” Then the novice would pull off his street clothes and put on the habit of the monks…an outward sign of an inner change of the novice’s reality.

It would make sense if those street clothes were given to the poor or burned, but the street clothes were taken and hung in the monk’s closet alongside the monk’s habit. This way, every day for the rest of his life, the monk was forced to make a choice: would he put on the habit of the monk and live within the monastic community OR would he put on his street clothes and leave the monastery for good? Either choice would define his reality, but what amazes me is the simple truth that the faith that defines our reality is a constant choice. It is not a once and for all done deal, but a daily commitment to grow in our understanding of and possess a vision for what it means to live by faith in the light of God’s love. Choice is the only way that our reality can include true freedom. It is the only way that we can use our power and influence to unbind others.

It is the only way to fulfill the prophet’s words when he says: ( Isaiah 58:9b-11):
… get rid of unfair practices,
 quit blaming victims,
 quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
 and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
 your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
 I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places— 
 firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
 a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
 rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
 restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
 make the community livable again.

May it be so. Amen.