The Rev. Karen B. Johnson
A resource I have often turned to during these years of COVID is Matthew Fox’s 2020 book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond. Julian, a 14th century English mystic who endured the intense suffering of the Black Death plague, at the age of 30, lay near death. On that threshold she experienced 16 revelations which came to be known as her “showings.” In them, the crucified Christ in utterly compelling ways ‘showed’ her the love of God as marked by unconditional grace and mercy poured out on all without partiality. When it came time to write this sermon, I sensed parallels right away between what the crucified Christ revealed to Julian in those ‘showings’ and how Jesus embodied that unconditional, impartial love in today’s Gospel story.
Let’s focus on the ailing woman first.
While teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, Jesus notices a woman whose 18-year affliction has kept her unable to stand up straight. He immediately initiates engagement with her. In Jesus’ day, afflictions of almost any kind were attributed to an intangible reality, separate from and in conflict with God, which could wreak all sorts of havoc. At the beginning of the story Jesus names this as a ‘spirit.’ At the end as ‘Satan.’ Our baptismal service names this as spiritual forces of wickedness, evil powers which corrupt and destroy, and more. We might prefer more technical language – harmful genetic anomalies, environmental factors, cultural influences, and the like. No matter the description, however, all are a reality in conflict with God.
But the story, rather than focusing on the cause of affliction, depicts the power of Jesus’ loving grace and mercy in overcoming it. He calls the woman over, and with word and deed, brings healing. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He lays hands on her, and immediately, she stands up straight and praises God. The love of God, marked by unconditional grace and mercy, poured out on all without partiality has blessed this long-suffering woman.
But another ailment in the story also needs Jesus’s ministrations: the indignation of the synagogue leader. This probably devout and respected head of the worshipping congregation (I am conjecturing here, but giving him the benefit of the doubt!) knows the ten commandments well, and the fourth one is to keep the Sabbath holy. Keeping it holy meant in part to do no work and to observe it as time for worshipping and resting in God. Concerned that the people are being led astray by this Sabbath-day healing, he turns to them and paraphrases the commandment with the words, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”
His indignation is directed both at Jesus and the woman. When he says, “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” his target is Jesus. When he says, “Come on those days and be cured,” his target is the woman. But it is his indignation that concerns Jesus, whether directed at the woman or at him. And apparently there are other indignant opponents there as well, for when Jesus speaks, although he speaks directly to the leader, he uses the plural.
The Scripture reads, The Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites!” Lest we think Jesus is harshly name calling here, he is boldly speaking the truth. A hypocrite was, and is, someone who pretends to be virtuous, but actually behaves in another way. And this is what they are doing. They, knowing their animals’ needs, do not stop caring for them on the Sabbath. They untie them from their feeding troughs and lead them to the watering sources. Compassionate care, whether for ox or donkey or woman, is not work in conflict with the fourth commandment. Instead, it is action in harmony with God’s moment-by-moment, loving grace and mercy in the face of need, poured out impartially on all, no matter the day of the week.
The opponents are put to shame but clearly not toxic guilt, for the final line of our text reports that the entire crowd, and I think we can infer this includes those opponents, rejoices at the wonderful things Jesus was doing. When Jesus corrects, there may be an “ouch” in it, but it is enlightening and freeing and has the deeper effect of evoking gratitude, even joy. God’s love, marked by grace and mercy, poured out on all without partiality, has blessed the opposition by gifting them with better understanding.
But a question arises. What can be said about long-afflicted people whose ailments are not healed or those whose behaviors and perspectives are not transformed? What can be said of God’s impartial loving grace and mercy in these circumstances?
I hope a story can shed some light on this timeless conundrum.
A seminary classmate and soulmate friend of 45+ years, who just celebrated her 80th birthday, has endured serious chronic illness for seventy of those eighty years. More than a dozen surgeries, countless hospitalizations, a colectomy, metastatic breast cancer, a liver transplant, hearing and visual impairments, and now dialysis due to kidney disease are only the physical afflictions. The emotional, familial, marital, and professional misfortunes which have befallen her have been bewildering at times. She has been on disability for decades after becoming unable to continue active ministry in the Methodist Church.
Over the decades, we have visited and revisited this topic of what can be said of God’s grace and mercy when there is little obvious evidence of it. With her permission that I share bits of her story.
Janna was raised in the Church and, for the first 18 years of her disease, from ages 10 to 28, felt somehow responsible – that she wasn’t praying enough or good enough or worthy enough of being cured or hadn’t learned intended lessons. She continued to believe she would be cured if only she could get it all right. At 28, when major surgery was required to remove her colon, angry and feeling defeated, she gave up on God altogether. But occasionally something happened – usually something small, but sometimes not so small – which kept her connecting with faith communities. She got a job that included working with a Black Church, and began to sense that their prayers, added to those she knew others were offering, were actually sustaining her when her own faith had gone dry. And once in a while a vestige of God’s reality was reawakened.
Her health issues continued, her marriage failed, and questions persisted, but small and big things kept happening until their fruits became an irresistible longing to give her life to living those questions. She entered seminary. Academic and professional experiences became nourishment for this hunger. Still plagued with increasingly serious medical matters, and once again in the hospital, she was visited by a friend who asked if he could just sit by her bed, silently praying. She welcomed his offer, settled back, closed her eyes, and let go of resistance. Minutes passed. Quite gently, yet powerfully, there was a Presence at the foot of her bed. Not a Presence she could see or hear, but a Presence that simply was. And it was more Real than real. Its quality evoked her adoration unlike anything that could even be imagined. Questions no longer mattered. This encounter with what was sacred had a self-authenticating quality about it that made all her questions superfluous.
Janna’s ailments did not stop. Times of anger and depression and despair sometimes returned. But the occasional small experiences, and the sometimes powerful big ones, had given birth to a hope that could not be eclipsed even by relentless challenges to it. And those small and big experiences kept alive a hope that wondrous things can happen, while generating an even more precious hope. This was not a hope for a particular outcome, but in the reality of a Presence, full of grace and mercy, experienced at the foot of her hospital bed. As our reading from Isaiah expressed, then light can rise in the darkness and gloom become as noonday.
It has become common in recent years to counsel the suffering not to ask that confounding question, “How can God’s love, full of grace and mercy be understood as impartially poured out on all, when so much evidence is to the contrary?” Of course I know there are theological approaches which helpfully address the question (Susannah preached a brilliant sermon on this topic on July 24), but I am talking experientially this morning. I sometimes hear otherwise sage people counsel the angry to focus their ire not at God, but at those intangible realities, separate from and in conflict with God, which are wreaking the havoc. But I actually think when questions about God plague, asking them over and over may be just what is needed to stay engaged. And if anger at God – or some other feeling – is what is felt, unabashedly expressing it can also foster staying engaged. And engagement can make room for small and big things to happen, things whose fruit can then lead to hope which both hopes for and also hopes in.
Back to today’s Gospel story. God’s impartial love filled with grace and mercy penetrates what is in conflict with God and heals the ailing woman’s condition and the indignant opposition’s false teaching. I hope my friend’s story may encourage us to trust that even when the desired healing and transformation are not the outcome, staying engaged can lead to small and big things happening which can make light rise in the darkness and gloom become like noonday.