A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“She stood up straight and began praising God.”
When I rejoined you at Trinity earlier this year, I met with the vestry and we agreed that I would function here, as I did at previous parishes in California and New Jersey, as your Interim Priest. What does that word “interim” mean? I’ve been a priest for a long time, and expect to continue as one, pretty much permanently, so it’s not my being a priest that is interim. And Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania has been a church for quite a while, and will continue as a vital congregation in the Body of Christ, long after I have left, so Trinity is not an interim church. We are in a somewhat extended period between the last period when there was a settled priest living in the rectory, and the next era, when we expect to have consistent clergy leadership and a vision and plans for Trinity’s ministry in place. Together, we are in an interim season; a season of growth and discernment. The job of a priest in an interim time is to help guide the congregation into the best possible spiritual state, so that all the decisions of the congregation will be to choose the best possible blessing that God has in store.
But before we talk about the possibilities for the work that God has put us here to do, let’s turn to our Gospel lesson.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in a congregation, teaching. In that congregation is a woman who has been crippled, bent over and suffering, for eighteen years. Let’s pay particular attention to the text here. When we moderns see a description of a person who is suffering, we usually think of specific physical problems that we hope can be addressed by the wonders of modern medical science. But what the text in the Gospel says is that the woman had a spirit that had crippled her. Injuries or disease are not actually mentioned. In the Gospels, Jesus heals and casts out spirits as often as he teaches—perhaps more often. What are these spirits? They are not the horror movie creatures we think of, or the stuff of superstition. Spirits are not material—but they are very real. They are woven into our life to the point that we don’t even notice them.
God’s love is simple and God does not create malign spirits. Human love likewise should be simple, but human fear, hate, greed and many other manifestations of our lesser selves distort relationships. And it’s not just individuals—it’s the whole of communities and societies. Over time all of the negative things weave together and generate spirits. Since so many people’s fears and desires are involved, these spirits are beyond the control of any single person, rather, they influence people and groups in ways that the individuals themselves usually don’t understand.
And we can see that in this Gospel story. Jesus calls the woman over, lays his hands on her, and she stands up straight and begins to praise God. God healed her, the spirit that weighed her down was gone. But right away, the manifestation of the spirit shows up again. A leader of the congregation is very upset at Jesus for healing this woman. His reasons were actually bogus because pronouncing God’s blessing and touching another person are not prohibited on the Sabbath. But the man’s anger was real, and the argument was intense.
What’s happening here?
Psychologists and therapists use systems theory to talk about similar things that they see. Frequently, when a member of a family who has been ill or troubled in some way becomes well, someone else in the family becomes ill or begins to behave in inappropriate ways. The spirit that may manifest itself in an individual seeks to maintain itself, and it affects the other people who are involved with the person who has undergone a change.
This woman stands up straight and is healthy. And the leader attacks Jesus—making this woman well changes things, this man’s comfort and control of the situation, perhaps his prestige—are all destabilized, all called into question. He probably thought he was just enforcing the rules. But it was his fears, and the fearfulness of the entire community—going back at least eighteen years—that were speaking. It was definitely not the love of the God who had blessed Abraham and guided Moses through the wilderness.
How does Jesus respond to the man’s fear and anger? He doesn’t criticize those fears, and accuse those affected by the spirit, or try to diagnose them and tell them what they should do; he healed the woman and helped her to stand upright. He explains the law, in terms of the love of God. Everyone will lead their animals to life-giving water on the Sabbath, as Jesus led this woman to abundant life. It takes courage to be healed, and it also takes courage for a community to live with healing within it.
Spirits don’t quickly disappear, it takes honesty and acceptance, the courage perhaps to accept changes in one’s own position, to rejoice that others are loved and healed. Jesus came to heal us all—he paid the price for healing our spirits—and he rejoices with us, with that woman who stood up straight and with every healing of a person, or a relationship, or a community, or a world.
Trinity is a congregation of great courage, love and hope. I have seen this congregation face great hardship with great dignity and compassion. Our children are deeply loved and blessed and this neighborhood knows us for generosity and welcome. Every month our thrift store reaches out to the neighborhood—it provides some revenue, but more importantly, what I have seen is how our neighbors are helped—by getting clothing and other items that that they need—but also by receiving gifts of respect and neighborliness that helps to build up a community that has had more than its share of being torn down and disrespected. Our new fellows are just arriving. They are a big part of our ministry of respect in this neighborhood, as they learn and experience by serving in this city. Trinity is a blessing in this city. It has been a blessing for me and for my wife Paula.
Trinity is a blessing, but Trinity will continue to be blessed by God. Together we will discover that blessing.
As we follow Jesus together, there will be healing and change—perhaps mild, and not as dramatic as the story in the Gospel today—or perhaps unexpected and surprising. But Jesus will heal our spirits. This is how the Gospel lesson today ends: “The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
Let us pray, once again the collect for today:
Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.