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The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16 C RCL 25 August 2013 St. Luke’s Calistoga
The French people have a saying that goes plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose – or, in plain English, the more things change, the more they stay the same…
Our national debate for some time now has concerned the Affordable Care Act – the federal medical plan insuring basic medical treatment for all Americans. The idea isn’t new: presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan to William Clinton have sought some version of universal health care for Americans. And this plan isn’t without controversy (as we all know.)
This morning we honor the contemporary ministry of Deacons in the Episcopal Church. The work of Deacons is not only to care for those poor, sick, on the margins of social existence; but to engage in the far more controversial work of drawing the entire Church to get actively involved in that ministry. Deacons are supposed to make us uncomfortable; to call us into action we might never have noticed the need for if it weren’t for those discomforting Deacons.
Certainly there is controversy in the Gospel this morning – and it’s a controversy that speaks to the debates over health insurance and care for those in need in our own time.
Let’s set the scene for the Gospel. It is the Sabbath, the day of rest enforced by rules that forbid most travel, most work. It is the time of worship. Men gathered in the largest space of the synagogue: women were in a separated area out of sight of the men. It’s surprising that Jesus even saw the woman. It’s amazing that Jesus moved so close to her that he could – and did – touch her – for men never touched women who were not their close kinfolk. Jesus spoke to her there in public: Woman, you are free from your infirmity. And she was made straight; her bones effortlessly sliding into proper place. And she immediately praised God. And controversy erupted in the synagogue!
We could sort the debaters of that day into two opposing camps. One group claims that Jesus disrupting Sabbath worship with a healing is just more evidence that Jesus could not possibly be a messenger of God, because he violates the Sabbath. The president of the synagogue and several righteous, upstanding men express their indignation in no uncertain terms.
Jesus counters energetically: You, even you who rest on the Sabbath, still work enough to care for your dumb animals. Are not human beings more than the animals? Jesus exposes the narrow-heartedness of those whose thinking is fenced in by rigid rules. To his supporters, the healing of this daughter of Abraham is part of the evidence that Jesus certainly is from God. Everywhere Jesus goes, hope, healing and joy accompany him. Those whose sickness, disabilities, and poverty have put them on the very fringe of existence are through Jesus welcomed into God’s new community distinguished by mutual love, care and merciful justice.
Compassionate action to offer each other affordable basics of pro-active medical care so that all Americans can be as bursting with health as possible, avoid preventable disease as much as possible, and seek care and treatment for illness is the course that we’d all likely choose if we were to ask that perennial question What would Jesus do? Such choices and action set us all free to be God’s people caring for each other as brothers and sisters, daughters and sons of Abraham.
But there’s another question that accompanies every one of the Gospel stories in which Jesus heals. You may have asked this question yourself. For you may be among the thousands and thousands of people who have prayed fervently for your own healing, and for others to be relieved of pain and suffering. You and your loved ones may have found medical options limited. You may have participated in healing prayers, been anointed, had loving hands laid upon you – and still found yourself struggling with pain, addiction, bodily and mental limitations. So you may have asked, as I for sure have asked, If Jesus could heal people, and did cure some people, why doesn’t Jesus cure ALL people? Why doesn’t Jesus cure me?
Those are really good questions. Those questions get to the heart of our real suffering as human beings. And none of the answers I’ve ever heard, from the four-syllable theological answers about why these stories might be in the Bible; to the terse grow up, get over it answers; to the really stupid statements such as suffering makes you be a better person, God wouldn’t give you any burden you cannot manage and so forth. You’ve heard them all. You’ve probably even heard the same thing the folks in the story likely believed: that if there is sickness, unremitting pain in soul or body or mind it is God punishing the person’s sin and evil. Or God punishing the whole world of humankind.
Maybe there are no responses to these questions that we are going to get answered in this life. I have a whole notebook full of questions that I don’t have answers for that I plan to ask God about when I get to the life eternal. I’m in good company, too. Paul asked exactly those questions. He also was plagued by relentless pain that he described as feeling like a thorn being thrust into his flesh. He says he asked God for relief three different times. Paul did not get cured. But he did get an answer. And that answer, in the 12th chapter of his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, was painted on the arch facing the congregation in the little church I grew up in. Sunday after Sunday I read: My grace is sufficient for thee. Sufficient grace is a peculiar expression. When God says my grace is sufficient – I believe God says, I am with you. I stand with you in this situation and you are not alone. God can and does heal, even when that healing does not mean a bodily cure. Sometimes healing means accepting that we are all mortal and we are all going to die from this life via some illness, accident or plain old age. Sometimes curative healing lets us have another breath of life, another graced time in which to do good. Sometimes healing comes as that peace which passes understanding so that we accept limitations and then get on with being fully free within those limitations.
So perhaps in today’s Gospel, Jesus has an answer for us to some of the questions we ask about suffering, and healing. Not the answer we want, but an answer we can live with. The very first thing Jesus did with the woman was to go to her, in the place where she was. He stood with her in her pain: his empathy and compassion were clear, and unlike some others, he had no criticism, no judgment. He was simply with her. And further, Jesus went beyond the law, out to where only loving kindness and grace can rule, for those are the characteristics of God. Jesus brought the grace of God to that very place, to that particular woman.
I believe Jesus is present with us and is healing us every moment of our lives -- and never more so that when we ask for that healing, for ourselves, for our close companions, for those we shall never see, for the whole of God’s creation. And when we mindfully put ourselves into God’s presence, I believe we hear again and again My grace is sufficient for you. When we live in that grace, we can practice God’s love. Even if we cannot force chronic disabilities out of human experience, we can certainly ensure that all people have sufficient to meet needs, to be cared for, to be accepted and guaranteed full belonging and access to the human community. That may be sufficient grace. Jesus never asks for our Medicare card, or how we are going to pay for treatment, or who of our relatives is going to be financially responsible for us. His grace is expressed in the simplest of terms: when I was hungry, you fed me; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was alone and in prison, you visited me. Love God: Love your neighbor as yourself. Today’s issues include but go beyond health insurance, beyond Big Pharma and who profits from providing medical care and who can afford such care. Today’s issues should get us Christians to see that our worship draws us toward godly action in our community and into the world. The only answer we shall get for sure comes as we get involved, as we notice and reach out to those so often hidden in the shadows. Our Deacons can help us see their needs. Gospel teaches us to choose godly action that reaches out, gets within touch, stands with others, in the compassion of Jesus the Christ for all who are hurting and in need. I do believe when we do that we shall find God’s word is true: my grace is sufficient for you, and you, and you. And just maybe, we’ll have fewer controversies fueled by indignation, and just maybe, the healing transformation that comes to you and me will make change that far outweighs things just staying the same. Amen.