In today's gospel reading, Jesus heals a woman who has been afflicted for 18 years by a spirit that, according to Luke, has left her "bent over and... quite unable to stand up straight."
The poet Miriam Winter says, "Surely / You meant / when You lifted / her up / Long ago / To your praise, / Compassionate One, / not one woman / only / but all women / bent / by unbending ways."
Is the poet correct? When Jesus healed the woman in the synagogue, did he mean to heal "all women, bent by unbending ways"? I think that's what he must have meant to do.
A few years ago, New York Times' columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a book entitled, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Among other things, Kristof points out that "although the world's population continues to grow, the number of women is declining. Already there are 60 to 100 million fewer girls than boys in the world, due to selective abortions, selective infanticide or neglect, and the uneven allocation of basic resources such as food, health care and education to girls. The battering of women results in more injuries requiring medical attention than auto accidents, muggings and rapes combined."
Notice something else about the woman in today's gospel reading: she never speaks. Sadly, this is true of most of the women in the Bible. Someone pointed out that of the 300 recorded prayers in the Old Testament, fewer than a dozen are by women. But do we have any reason to believe that women prayed less often or less fervently than men? Even the Bible leaves women's lives largely invisible and inaudible.
Of course, it is not only women who are "bent by unbending ways." Yesterday the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington for jobs and freedom was observed with events all over the United States, including here in Las Vegas. Confronting "unbending ways" and lifting up those who were bent by those ways is a pretty good description of what the civil rights movement was all about.
The leader of that movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is often said to have been a prophet. I think that's a good way of describing Dr. King.
Today's Old Testament reading is an account of the call of the prophet Jeremiah, and it reminds me a little of Dr. King.
"The word of the LORD came to me saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.'"
Like Jeremiah, King began his career at a remarkably young age. He was only 25 years old when Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, called him to be their pastor. And like Jeremiah, King was a reluctant prophet.
About 18 months after King came to Dexter Avenue church, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery city bus. The ministers who organized the Montgomery bus boycott prevailed on King to lead the movement, not because he was a political firebrand or an outspoken advocate of civil rights but because he was the newest minister in town and had not yet made any enemies!
To be a prophet is no easy thing. God says to Jeremiah, "Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
"...to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." It seems like an odd job description for a man or woman of God. These are violent images: pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow. Anyone engaging in these activities is bound to encounter plenty of opposition. And that is exactly what happened to Jeremiah.
One of my favorite scenes in Jeremiah occurs when Jeremiah goes to the temple in Jerusalem and says to the people going into it: "Do not trust in these deceptive words, Bet adonai, bet adonai, bet adonai... the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord..."
"Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are safe!'" (Jer. 7.8-10)
The people of Jeremiah's hometown tried to kill him; a priest of the temple had him beaten; and royal officials threw him into a muddy cistern and later imprisoned him.
Dr. King's life was not much different. During the Montgomery bus boycott his house was dynamited; he was jailed on several occasions; and finally, he was murdered on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968.
When Jesus healed the woman who had been unable to stand upright for 18 years, the leader of the synagogue took him to task for healing a non-life-threatening illness on the sabbath, a day so sacred that only the work necessary to save and sustain life was supposed to be done.
Jesus responded, "Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"
I wonder what Jesus would have said when Rosa Parks was arrested? "Ought not this woman, a child of God, be able to sit anywhere she wants to after working hard all day?"
Sometimes the task of a prophet is to "pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow." Sometimes the task of a prophet is to confront people dressed up in their Sunday best on their way to church and say, "What do you think you are doing? Do you really think that going to church will do you any good when God asks you why you didn't do more to feed hungry people or shelter the homeless?"
But sometimes the task of a prophet is to heal, to straighten backs that are bent down by heavy loads.
When I went to Bangladesh a few years ago with my clergy group, we were guests of Archbishop Joseph Marino. Archbishop Marino took us out into the countryside and showed us some of the schools that the Roman Catholic church supports there. At the first school dozens of young students greeted us with applause. They sang traditional songs and performed traditional dances. But as we left, they serenaded us with a traditional American song. I'm sure they wondered why these grown men, these Jewish and Christian, Protestant and Catholic, black and white clergy from Birmingham, Alabama, started to cry as they sang, "We shall overcome."
Before we left Bangladesh, Archbishop Marino had a dinner party for us. At the end of the evening, Rabbi Jonathan Miller said, "In Jewish services, we bless God for 'raising up those who lie in the dust,' and that is exactly what I have seen the Roman Catholic Church do in Bangladesh. You raise up those who lie in the dust."
When we look around at each other this morning, "prophet" is probably not the first word that comes to mind. We are more likely to think "middle class", "middle aged," "respectable", and so on. But I believe that God is calling us to be a community of prophets.
A prophet is someone who speaks the word of God. It can be a word of rebuke to the powerful. Or it can be a word of comfort to the afflicted. Or it can be a word of healing to the sick and wounded.
But the word of God is never just a way of communicating information. The word of God does something. It accomplishes something. It changes things.
But do not accept the commission to speak God's word lightly, because it can be a dangerous and costly thing to speak the word of God. Just ask Jeremiah... or Martin Luther King... or Jesus.
When you become aware that God is inviting you to be a prophet, you may have the same reaction that Jeremiah had: Who? Me? I'm nobody. I'm just a boy. I'm just a woman. I'm black. I'm poor. I haven't been to college. I'm gay or lesbian.
But God is not looking for the right people from the right families or with the right incomes or with the right education. In fact, I'm not sure that God is looking for the right people at all.
But God is looking for people to tell the story. Do you know the old spiritual, "Balm in Gilead"?
If you cannot preach like Peter
and you cannot pray like Paul
Just tell the love of Jesus
and say he died for all.
Here at Christ Church we have a story to tell, a wonderful story, the story of Jesus and his love, the story of the hungry fed, the story of the homeless finding shelter, the story of burdens lifted and back straightened.
I know I am biased, but I believe that that is what Christ Church does, too. When we feed the hundreds of people who come to us for food every month, we are raising up those who lie in the dust. We are straightening bent backs.
When was the last time you said to a friend, "I want to tell you about the wonderful things that are happening at my church. Last month we gave food to almost 2000 hungry people. We are sharing our church with a large and growing Latino congregation. We are a part of Nevadans for the Common Good and helped enact legislation that will limit human trafficking in our state. Why don't you come to church with me and get involved?"
If more of us did that, this church would not only grow, I believe that we'd have to add extra staff and clergy and maybe even additional services.
Unlike the woman in today's gospel reading, we not only have voices, we have the the opportunity and the obligation to speak out for those who are voiceless.