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.
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.