Monthly Archives: August 2013

Seeing and Being Seen

Luke 13:10-17

by Barbara Brecht & Jeanne Kaliszewski 

There is an old adage that two heads are better than one, and we are going to test that today. Before Sara left on sabbatical, she thought it might be interesting to have a homily in which two people participated. She asked for volunteers. And after several puzzled moments, Jeanne and I stepped forward.

We’ll see how it goes.

This has been a wonderful opportunity for Jeanne and I to get together and share some time focused on discussing today’s gospel. It has been interesting to discuss what we have observed and what particular aspects of this passage engaged us. In particular, we noted a kind of wide ranging display of compassion that Jesus manifests in this passage and wanted to reflect on these observations this morning.

This feels like a different kind of healing.  Unlike many of the healing narratives we have heard in the Gospel, where Jesus is asked, is begged, is implored to heal, in this Gospel reading Jesus sees and calls:

“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

This woman, bent over and crippled, troubled and disabled for 18 years, is seen by Jesus and called by him to be healed.

This is the sabbath, and by now Jesus surely drew a crowd, so he was likely surrounded by a sea of people that day. Yet Jesus saw this woman, and there is tremendous power in that simple act. I can only imagine that this woman, a woman in biblical times, a disabled woman in biblical times, was rarely noticed, and when she was it was likely as an object of ridicule and derision.

It is so easy to look past someone in front of you. And I do not just mean the homeless man on the corner, but it is also easy to miss the person who sits across from you at the dinner table every night or next to you in the pew.

And it takes tremendous courage to allow yourself to be seen. When Jesus called to this woman, how hard it must have been for her to walk past the judging eyes of the crowd and the leaders of the synagogue and to answer Jesus’ call. This woman who had for 18 long years been looked over or past had the courage to be seen, to accept the help and healing that Jesus offered.

Our pain can become a comfort, its familiarity makes it a companion. It takes courage to share our pain with others, to allow them to help us.

And in that emotional transaction, in the seeing and being seen, the holy is brought to life.

This week in Georgia a school clerk named Antoinette Tuff averted a school shooting tragedy by doing something unexpected, by confronting an armed gunman with love and compassion.

Listen to the 911 call here

When the mentally ill young man walked into the school where she worked in suburban Atlanta, Antoinette Tuff was able to see the human being in front of her, someone, as the Psalm reminds us today, that God has known since he was in his mother’s womb.  Antoinette spoke to him:

“It’s going to be all right, sweetie,” she tells him as recorded on the 911 call, “I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life. No, you don’t want that. You going to be OK. I thought the same thing, you know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now. I’m still working and everything is OK.”

This is heroism, the bravery to confront a gun with love rather another gun; to face rage and mental illness with compassion and caring rather anger and judgement.

Antoinette Tuff is an ordinary person like you or me, but she became extraordinary by truly seeing the crippled human being in front of her, calling to him with love, and recognizing him as a child of God.

And we can all follow her example, the example of Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Jesus.  We can follow their examples every day, have the courage to really see those people around you: those you love, those who annoy you, those who make you crazy. And have the courage to really be seen, to let those people in, to really see your joy and hurt and everything in between. It is not easy, but it is powerful. And as Antoinette Tuff showed us this week, it can truly save your life.

Seeing and being seen. Jeanne’s reflections identify both the longing and the anxiety that seeing and being seen can bring. And we should all thank God greatly for the compassion and courage shown by Antoinette Tuff and the example she is to us.

We all love and are grateful for the compassion Jesus demonstrates in his healing ministry.

But there is another side to his compassion. And I want us to reflect on it for just a bit.

In the gospel passage, the leader of the synagogue certainly is cast as the man with the black hat, indifferent to the needs of those in the synagogue, keeping the rules at any price and seemingly an all around oblivious guy.

We may be a bit hasty on this. This man, and it was a man, had a responsibility to uphold the settled issues of the faith in this particular congregation. And “keeping the Sabbath” was an important issue. In my discussions with Jeanne, she noted that a commentary stated that there were a number of rules and traditions that had been developed to identify acceptable activities on the sabbath: untying a donkey or ass and leading it to water, thus keeping the animal alive but not spending any more activity than was necessary in doing so and certainly not using to for work. Jesus alludes to this notion as he creates an opportunity for this leader to see what has just happened in a larger way.

I initially read Jesus comments to the leader, as a sort of “yeah, take this, you twink. How stupid can you be, how ill informed to not understand what is happening here.” And maybe it was like that.

But in reflecting, I think Jesus’ response demonstrates a creative compassion or, if you will, a chiding compassion: an attempt to create an opportunity for the leader to reflect and ponder on the wonderful thing that was happening. And that it was in line with the compelling notion of observing the sabbath.

This is the kind of compassion Jesus often displays. Creative compassion, chiding compassion, challenging compassion but always within the framework of regard for the listener. Always with the intent to widen a point of view that seems accurate but may be ossified or simply cannot contain the larger goodness that is at work.

Jesus refuses to be manipulated by the leader’s insistence that there are other days on which this healing could happen. As if that would be preferable. Instead, Jesus models and discusses creative compassion. He does not submit in fear, obligation or guilt in order to stay in line with the settled way of observing the sabbath. In this event, Jesus speaks to power. Not to show it up. Not primarily to prove he’s right, and they are wrong. Jesus uses his creative compassion and frame of reference to enlarge opportunities for life and goodness instead of resting in the status quo.

Creative compassion can often be upsetting. It challenges us where we do not want to be challenged. And it asks us to challenge while always holding the other in unconditional regard. It causes us to reflect anew on issues that we think are settled. Creative compassion is not directed by fear, obligation, or guilt. Creative compassion holds others with unconditional regard while speaking and acting with integrity.

This coming week we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. And this morning’s paper has the full copy of Martin Luther King’s speech on that day. And I plan to read it every day this week with the hope that those words further confront that within me that needs to be confronted.

That speech remains profound in its compassionate, insistent tone and content. It speaks to both the powerful and the powerless. We will do well to hear it again and let it energize our own creative compassion as we live into the issues in our day and time, following the examples of Jesus, Antoinette Tuff and Martin Luther King.





Name Him Lo-Ammi

From the July 28, 2013 Sermon by Barbara Brecht

Hosea 1:2-10

Colossians 2:6-15

Luke 11:1-13

“Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God”

What a way to start a meditation.

We have had a run of some of the more troubling old testament texts this summer. And today is is no different. Today continues this run with the story of God’s call to Hosea to marry a wife of “whoredom.” in order to demonstrate to the people that they have been unfaithful in their relationship with God. And as a result, for a period of time, they will not be considered God’s people nor will God be their God. Very bad stuff.

But not only are they to marry. They are to have a family and give their children names assigned by God. And of these names, I find the third child’s name most painful: Lo-ammi, meaning “you are not my people and I am not your God.”

Over the years I have tried to understand this passage, and other complicated old testament passages in a way that fit these seemingly strange stories into some sort of order that made sense. As a young Christian I read quite a bit of classical theology. I probably am the only person in the room, or one of a small demented company, who has actually read most of John Calvin’s Institutes of Biblical Law.

It did not help. I would always come back to how in the world did it get to this in the first place? Why would God give a name to a new being on the plant that dooms this child to a life of aloneness and being cut off from God. All to prove a point?

I have come to a clear understanding that the how and why of these complicated stories is definitely way above my pay grade. But I also now understand, that what I really want to observe and discern, is how these horrific situations are somehow redeemed and transformed. Not in a way that dismisses the pain and the confusion, but in way that can honor and incorporate that pain as part of moving forward in becoming the people of God: How we move from being not God’s people to becoming God’s people.

I have met many “Lo-ammi”s in my professional work as a social worker. As the Director of a psychiatric facility for children I worked with a number of children and youth who lived in great pain. Often they had little or no contact with their families. And their parents, who did love them, struggled mightily to mobilize in effective ways on behalf of their child. The children had brain illnesses and disruptive behaviors that made their lives so difficult. One of my colleagues aptly described many of them as “the new orphans of our age, psychiatric orphans.” These kids longed for connection and yet so often experienced a sense of being cut off from the rest of the community.

They experienced being and feeling Lo-Ammi, seeing themselves as if they were no people and had no God.

We all observe the experience of Lo Ammi, feeling cut off, in our own individual lives and in our society. The experience of being devalued or unseen because of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, developmental abilities, physical challenges, brain illness, political orientation, age . . .the list goes on.

And most of has can identify with the feeling of being cut off in one way or another. Some far more, some far less.

And yet the text in Hosea says more. It says that a time will come when the state of Lo-Ammi shifts, and it will be said: “you who are not my people” will change to “you are Children of the living God.” In one sentence the possibility and reality of becoming the people of God is articulated with all the hope and promise it offers.

We live in this dual state of belonging and not belonging. Derrick talked several weeks ago about the peace of God. And he noted that the Peace of God often does not look like our view of peace. It seems this may also be true of what it means to be becoming the people of God. What we think it should look like and what it actually looks most often does not mesh. And yet we are called to live into this relationship of being and becoming the people of God.

So how do we practice living into this hope and how do we bring it to others while honoring the pain and grief that is so often present in our lives? I don’t have any big, hot, all encompassing answer. But I would like to suggest a few practices and thoughts that can assist us as we live into our lives as the people of God.

First, today’s Gospel from Luke affirms our understanding of God in Christ as one who is far more interested in bringing life rather than delivering death. After Jesus talks with the disciples about how to pray, he spends time talking about God’s desire to give good gifts, not crummy ones. And he specifically notes that the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is one of the great gifts we are given.

I find it helpful to see the Holy Spirit as helping me to develop more skills in the practices of observing and discerning while decreasing my more elaborately developed skills of judging and dismissing. Our Buddhist friends have greatly helped us with the notion of mindfulness practices that help us practice letting go of judgmental practices and behaviors which so paralyze us and others.

The skill of observing without judgment allows us to see more clearly and embrace compassionate responses to others and ourselves. It allows us to see and experience our pain and others pain without trying to dismiss, minimize or explain it away. We can simply be in that moment and allow it to help transform others and ourselves.

Jesus is the living example of showing us how this works. Instead of judging the woman caught in adultery, he chooses to speak words of hope and life. Instead of yelling at Zacheus for being a no good, stinking, IRS agent, Jesus chooses to invite himself to dinner at Zacheus’ house.

Jesus actions come from observing and discerning. Not from rushing to judgment and dismissal. They come from paying attention to the Spirit.

We do well when we incorporate these skills of observing and discerning. And then figuring out how to act on them. My partner, Carolynn, has a prayer practice which she has done for years. We both start the day reading the paper and having a cup of coffee. I often observe Carolynn reading, then stopping, closing her eyes, putting her hand on a section of the paper, and quietly praying. It is a way for her to invite God’s presence, it is a way to connect with others pain or joy and choose to become part of the pain or joy that is represented. It is a way to invite the possibility of God’s presence and unconditional regard to people in the midst of pain and sadness. It is a useful practice.

In today’s reading from Colossians, Paul encourages us to continue to live our lives in Christ, abounding in thanksgiving. Perhaps there is no more important practice in becoming the people of God and seeing God in all people than practicing gratitude. Gratitude does not demand that all pain and hurt is gone. On the contrary, gratitude lets us experience what is real while being able to discern that God is in the midst, bringing good, both seen and unseen. Gratitude frees us to see the larger picture and better embrace and tolerate its constant complexities.

Most of us have experienced the profound grief at the loss of a loved one. And it can be heartbreaking for a while.

When my oldest sister died unexpectedly several years ago, I was overwhelmed by grief and sadness. I came to the church and and cried and prayed in the chapel very early every morning for several months. And during that time, a verse from Lamentations I had learned years ago came up over and over and over. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.”

Saying and reflecting on this verse did not take away the deep grief I felt. But it helped me ponder that my grief and pain were not the only things at work. In the midst of the grief, I became aware of God’s presence in this situation and that the work was not over. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.”

We all have experienced feeling at one time or another that we are Lo-Ammi, that we are not a child of God. And we have received good news. We are the people of God and we have the opportunity to live and lean into this reality.

I love that Sara or James or Neysa every week invite all here to come and share in our common meal as the people of God. Because it is a real invitation to all. Not a marketing slogan. Not a feel good throw away line. All that has separated us from the love of God has been broken down and we all are invited to practice sharing our common life as children of God and celebrate our lives as people of God.

So, on this day and on this morning, let us move forward. Let us eat together, celebrate together and rejoice that we are the people of God.