First Congregational Church
August 21, 2022
11th Sunday after Pentecost
“Living Between the Lines”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Ole and Sven were on vacation, hiking through the jungle when Sven noticed a lizard, standing on its hind legs, telling jokes. Sven turned to Ole and said, “That lizard is really funny!” Ole replied, “That’s not a lizard. It’s a stand-up chameleon.” I know. It’s been far too long since a really bad pun was part of the morning message.
This week commemorates some famous events. August 22, 1864, is the day when twelve European nations signed the First Geneva Convention, launching the international humanitarian law movement. Nurse Clara Barton lead the effort for the United States to join the Convention, ratified 22 years later.
August 25, 1916, is the day President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the 1916 act that established the National Park Service. Sleeping Bear National Park will remain a beloved and protected area in perpetuity.
August 26, 1910 is the birthday of Anjeze (an’ yes) Gonxhe (go ’n check) Bojaxhiu (boya’ g u) in Skopje (skow’ pee ya), present-day Macedonia. She took religious vows at the age of 21 and taught at a school outside Calcutta, but was deeply disturbed by the poverty that surrounded her. So she left the order, trading in her habit for a simple inexpensive white cotton sari with a blue border, and got permission from the Vatican to begin a congregation that would become Missionaries of Charity. By the time Mother Teresa died, more than 4,000 workers in 133 countries opened orphanages, homes for people with tuberculosis and leprosy, soup kitchens, hospitals, mobile health clinics and schools.
In 1940, a small baby girl, 4.5 pounds, was born to Ed and Blanche in Clarksville, TN. She was a sickly child … the 20th of 22 children. Before the age of five, she dealt with measles, scarlet fever, and a variety of other diseases, and eventually was stricken with polio. She was told she would never walk again. Known in her family as Baby Girl, when she and her parents got back from the hospital 50 miles away, everyone in the family was upset and crying. All except Baby Girl’s grandmother, known as Big Mama. Despite what the doctors said, Big Mama vowed to go into deep prayer for her grand baby.
When Baby Girl was about twelve years old, a revival meeting was held in their town, and Big Mama informed Baby Girl that they were going to go together to that meeting. Baby Girl didn’t want to go, because she didn’t like people looking at her legs with the braces on them.
When the preacher called for anyone in need to go forward, Big Mama looked over to Baby Girl and said, “It’s your time. Make your way to the altar.” As the elders and women of the church prayed around her, she said that she felt something from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet that said, “Baby Girl, it’s time to run.” Baby Girl tried to make sense of the conflicting voices - the doctors and the prayers - but after hearing the message, “It’s time to run,” Baby Girl started walking around the church. And then she started skipping and running around the church. And the braces started to come off as she ran.
And Baby Girl kept on running - all the way through high school, to Tennessee State, and eventually to the Olympics. Wilma Rudolph was acclaimed as the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s, the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games, and became a role model for black and female athletes, one of the most highly visible athletes in the world, all this despite becoming pregnant her senior year in high school.
10 On a Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
Thank you, Mike. I don’t know about any of you, but I feel bad for the gathered crowd that day. There’s the synagogue leader yelling in one ear and the woman’s praises in the other ear. The one who represents authority - the synagogue leader - reminds them of the fence of the law while Jesus reminds them that common sense makes sense. If you don’t water the livestock on the Sabbath, you degrade their physicality, damaging your own “bottom line” as it were. If animals get that which allows them life, then why wouldn’t a person afflicted with a malady be cured when it is available to them?
The religious authority figure keeps his hand on the necks of the crowd, causing confusion. Do they follow after their eyes and one ear and the miracle man and woman right before them, or do they trust their other ear and the one who shames them for wanting what she has and what Jesus could do? If anyone else wanted such healing, you’d better think twice! Part of the reason that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day get such a bad rap is that by falling into a pattern of strict obedience to the law, they become killjoys of God’s glory.
There are so many voices these days, some of them really loud, against the background white noise of life. Some days, it’s hard to hear, much less see, the miracles in front of us, and we can forget to lift up our heads because we are free in Christ.
“Don’t you all go get any ideas! You’ve got six days to get healing. If you want to be made well, you’re not going to get it today.” Imagine being at church and seeing someone become well and whole, only to be told that it might have happened for this one person - by accident - but there would be no more accidental healing - when it came to you.
The religious leader assumes that he understands what is right and wrong for the Sabbath. Yes, there is the command to keep the Sabbath holy, but even animals are worthy of care on the Sabbath.
As you try to envision this scene in your mind, is the synagogue leader shaking a finger at the crowd? His indignation roars! He implies that the woman is the reason the healing occurred when the real reason was Jesus. In his deflection, the leader’s voice is not really about the healed woman, but about himself. The woman may have been bent over because of physical reasons, but the leader is bent over because of religious reasons, rules that drag his neck down.
For something like seven years, Wilma Rudolph’s grandmother was in deep prayer for her granddaughter. The woman in this morning’s passage was crippled for 18 years and still went to synagogue. Sometimes, we want so much to “do” something for someone and the only thing we can do is pray. We all know that, but a good many of us need to be reminded to keep on a-prayin’.
I’ve known of two women and two men who live or lived life at 90 degrees. Most of us can only imagine just some of the realities of living such a life. Medications, dishes, and glasses have to be brought down to a reachable height. Conversation while standing comes from a side. People can literally talk over them, excluding them from inclusion and any sense of normalcy, unless they are sitting down.
Having cared for people that are so curled, I’ll tell you, it’s not easy. Their back and leg muscles just don't want to relax, even when laying on their back. So pillows are needed to help prop them - either so they stay on their back, or under them, so they don’t smash their face all the way into the pillow and can at least breathe. There are so many people, with so many struggles, a huge number of them being physical. It would probably be a moment of sad realization if anyone here who struggled with a physical malady raised their hand.
Rev. Otis Moss, III, Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, preached on this passage, and he pointed out how this woman was considered to have diminished capacity, which reminds us that some people link still link ability and intelligence. But she was still in church, even though she struggled with a condition that seemed to be permanent.
After eighteen years of struggling to see the faces of those around her, she had enough vision to make her way to the worship space. Rev. Moss’ best line was, “Even if this woman was never healed, she speaks to the boldness and tenacity we need to have in this day and age.” We get the woman’s example of going to worship, regardless of condition. And granted, Covid’s had a thing. But it’s reading between the lines that we see her boldness and tenacity, and that of Wilma Rudolph’s grandmother’s prayers.
It’s interesting that the woman doesn’t ask for help, there is no mixing spit and mud, no washing in a river. Jesus just sees her, touches her - risking contamination by a sick person, heals her, and recognizes her - daughter of Abraham. If you were that woman, and Jesus came and put his hands on you and you were “unfolded,” how do you think you’d react? Silent tears of gratitude? Great, loud whoops of joy? Not only is she healed, but now she can see again.
It’s an interesting thought, living between the lines of what is written in this holy book. And yet, it’s not so hard, because between the lines is love. Love that longs for wholeness - for each of us - for all of us - even the ones that are not our favorites.
As I was writing yesterday, I realized that I maybe need to change a way of thinking about life - that it’s so much easier living in a world that has clear boundaries, what we call black and white - which is in itself a phrase that needs changing. While it’s easier to live with clear rules and consequences, a good many of us live not in the black and white of life, but in the grey spaces of life. Except that maybe I - you - all of us - really live in all the colors of life - between the polarities of black and white. And isn’t that really what living between the lines is like - living in all the colors of love? So we pray.
God of Colors and Common Sense and Appreciation and Intelligence, thank you for so designing our world that we have the ability to live deeply - in all its aspects. Thank you for the hope of prayer and the answers of those prayers, whether we realize them or not. Give us the guidance and insight on helping those bent over in sorrow or fatigue or pain - to be able to straighten up; to be able to look up - to you and this glorious world that you have given us. Thank you for all your blessings, as all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.