Proper 16C, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Kelly
I love Appalachian Trail stories. You know, those amazing people who through-hike the entire 2200 miles from Georgia to Main and then tell their story of the journey, the challenges and times they almost quit. My favorite of these was published in a book by hiker Bill Irwin who died in 2014 at the age of 73. When Bill Irwin hiked through Damascus, a friend who had joined him for part of the hike broke her leg and ended up in the emergency room where my sister-in-law was working and she was his friend’s nurse. Bill came along to see about the friend and he inspired my entire family through his story, even though only one of us actually met him in person. (He later published his story.)
You see, Bill was completely blind. He was the first blind person to make the through-hike. His seeing eye dog, a German Shepherd named Orient helped him. His friends helped him. But he took every step of that journey himself. He fell a lot, he got discouraged, but he kept going. His was a spiritual journey in which he decided to practice his faith after having been reunited with Jesus at a crucial time in his difficult life.
The bent over woman in today’s Gospel lesson meets Jesus in the very middle of the Story according to Luke. Both of them have been on a path, a journey, headed somewhere or maybe, for her, just putting one crippled foot in front of the other and doing the best she can. But this woman has traveled a very long way and feels she is at the end of her journey, the end of her rope, perhaps.
Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem as we are told in a previous chapter (Luke 9:51-56). Jesus has a definitive destination. The bent over woman somehow traveled to the synagogue that day, probably to see Jesus, to hear him teach, perhaps she hoped of being healed, perhaps she merely wanted to hear a message of hope.
They both traveled a long way to the point of meeting each other. And they would each go on a long way from that meeting.
Several weeks ago, when we were closer to the beginning of our journey of this summer of sermons on discipleship, Deacon Jon preached on this text that described Jesus as setting his face to Jerusalem. Jon talked about setting your hand to the plow, another image from that Gospel reading. Jon reminded us that it is essentially impossible to not look back, to not take your hand from that plow. He reminded us that our discipleship, that is our best plans to follow Jesus, get waylaid by our human nature, by sin, by unavoidable willfulness.
Just as we are right in the middle of Luke, we are also right in the very middle of this season of Ordinary time which calls us to look at how we’re doing in our best efforts to follow. And Jesus is in the very middle of his journey on Earth in this part of the story.
Back in January, I told you in my sermon about one of my favorite movies which I used to watch with my Dad when I was little. It is an old classic called The African Queen. African Queen is the name of a boat on which Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart endured maladies and dangers as they sailed down a river in Africa on a makeshift mission to sink a WWI German Warship. It’s a crazy plot but they make it through three sets of rapids and waterfalls and gunshot until they get close to their destination but they get stuck in the mud of the marshes. And then they give up.
I bring this memory, this film back today as a sort of book end. If you were here when I told it before you may have forgotten it. But I told this story on the Sunday which is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. I can’t recall how I tied that together, but that particular Sunday is a sort of beginning place in the liturgical time called Ordinary. Since the Sunday after that we have been plodding through lots of parables and instructions and stories of Jesus healing and casting out demons and all of this is a journey through the summer months in which we are given the opportunity to examine our discipleship. In a few months, that journey will end and we will start the liturgical year over again with Advent, then Christmas then Epiphany, then Lent, then Easter, etc.
As we near the end of this journey of examining our discipleship this year, I ask you to consider the times in your life when you crossed paths with Jesus, when you had extraordinary experiences with the Holy Spirit, when you were stopped in your tracks as you gained a new awareness of the nature of God.
When Humphrey Borgart and Katharine Hepburn gave up in that movie. They decided to lay down they efforts, their bodies, exhausted in the crippled boat and stared up to the heavens.
The camera panned out into an arial view of the little boat and the audience could then see what the characters could not. They were just feet from their goal. But not knowing this, they decide they would die and prayed to get into heaven as they went to sleep and while they slept a steady rain filled the waters of the river and lifted the boat out of the mud and through the marshes to complete their journey. They awoke to friends from the other side of the conflict and they were saved.
One scholar said that we may be mistaken when we see this bent over woman as aged. He said that people only lived to be an average of 35 years of age at the time. That is likely true, especially of the poor, the widowed, those without healthcare. So she is crippled, but not necessarily old, and certainly not useless.
So Jesus heals her when they meet on the Way.
And the powers-that-be didn’t like that very much.
The Pharisees watch Jesus perform a miracle. They watch as this woman who has not been able to lift her head for nearly 20 years stands up straight and praises God because Jesus laid hands on her. He didn’t even quiz her about her faith. He performs this amazing miracle, and they’re worried about the law!
The Pharisees are more worried about the letter of the law that forbids working on the Sabbath than they are about the wellness of the people they supposedly shepherd. Jesus is reminding them, and us, that healing people is more important than structuring them.
On Tuesday, there was a very long article published in The Episcopal News Service, an excellent newspaper produced by the “national” church. You can find this free news source on-line. This article was shared to our Facebook page and Samantha will share it again in the manuscript of this sermon on our website this week, because Grace Church, Radford was in the national Episcopal news!
The article was written by a young journalist who came and attended the Pilgrimage for Racial Justice which our diocese organized and which took place through a series of events at sites throughout our diocese. It started, though at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria the night prior, last Friday night. That nighttime candlelit march caught the attention of national news services like The Washington Post. Then early Saturday the pilgrimage continued in Staunton in the morning, Roanoke mid-day and then came here, to Radford. Grace co-sponsored this event locally with First Baptist Church, the one on Rock Road and the speaker was Tech professor, Dr. Wornie Reed who wowed the crowd with very interesting history of the slave trade in Virginia.
That is what the event was commemorating and lamenting, that this week marks the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved African people being brought to the shores of Virginia.
After coming through Radford, these pilgrims went on to St. Thomas, Abingdon where there was a Eucharist service at the end of the day. Several African American clergy members from neighboring churches in Abingdon were invited to participate. These guests read the scriptures, preached, led music and participated as congregants from the various churches and also led a Litany of Repentance and Commitment similar to the one used in Staunton. We used a modified version of that litany here.
The Episcopal News Service article when on to say that “perhaps the most moving aspect of the service happened during Communion, when the invited pastors offered healing prayers for all, embracing those who approached them and anointing them with oil. By the time everyone had returned to their seats, several people remarked that the atmosphere in the church seemed different – that something had changed. ‘I believe that this is the beginning,’ said the Rev. Joseph Green Jr., who gave the sermon. ‘This is a moment in time that we can use to propel us into the next generations.’”
These pilgrims journeyed across the state, remembered and lamented the slavery of the African peoples, and then met and anointed each other and knelt together at the Lord’s table. Of course the atmosphere was different after!
They met each other along the Way, the Way of Jesus. They also answered the invitation to join together for this event. And they were transformed by showing up. They were transformed by meeting each other in their journeys.
So, whether it is through social justice work in our community around this need for continued racial reconciliation, or perhaps in other ministries to which we have been already called, like supporting Boys Home or Our Daily Bread, homelessness, and campus ministry, we have to realize that we are on a journey. Sometimes this means moving on to a next calling while someone else takes up the mantel of work we have been doing in the past. It also means always being open to answering the invitation to show up. Mostly, it takes constant prayerful discernment to listen to God’s call for our ministries, so that we can better answer our call and better know what is needed of us in the Kingdom.
The epistle reading today is a letter of invitation of sorts. It reminds the Hebrews that they have responded to the invitation and have journeyed thus far and “have come to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” . . . “and to Jesus.”
The Prophet Jeremiah begins his story, which we will continue for the next several week, remembering the very beginnings of his journey. He recounts this with the familiar lovely poetry, “"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”
Each of us was known and hoped for and purposed by God before we were born. God has longed to guide us on our journeys ever since. Sometimes on our journey we have faltered but we came back and we are here today. At some point in our journey each of us encountered the living God in such a way that we committed ourselves to that God, we experienced joy, relief, clarity and gratitude in those encounters. Other times we felt lost, we felt discouraged, we fell down a lot, but we kept going. And we are here today.
Hero’s like Bill Irwin and his dog Orient remind us of the beautiful, messy, challenge that is our life’s journey and remind us to persevere. And we won’t give up because just around the river bend may be the next best thing, the greatest joy of the journey, the clarity found when we answer God’s longing for us, when we answer God’s call for our lives. Because if we show up and keep following that call we will meet Jesus on the Way, over and over again, and he will heal us and make us whole and then we will know where next to go and we will be strong enough for the rest of the journey.