Grounded in Love and Belonging

Grounded in Love and Belonging
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
November 6th, 2022 (50th Anniversary Celebration)

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God. 

Lately I’ve been loving audiobooks, especially the end-of-the-world novel variety, because for me there is something strangely grounding about stories of folx who keep on finding ways to live in love and community when the world is a dumpster fire all around them.

My latest read, which I’m in the middle of now, is called “Future Home of the Living God,” the story of a young Indigenous woman who is pregnant and trying to survive the takeover of a Christian nationalist regime that seeks to control women’s bodies and reproductive capacities. So, y’know, a scenario that is impossible for us to imagine, right? The author, Louise Erdrich, is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, so she writes from a lineage of Indigenous peoples who have survived many, many apocalypses already. As I rounded the lake on a run last week, listening to her read this audiobook in her own voice, I was quite literally stopped in my tracks by a line from the lead character, Cedar, who is trying to grapple with the wild, overwhelming events happening all around her: “The first thing that happens at the end of the world,” Cedar says, “is that we don’t know what is happening.”

Confusion. Panic. Anxiety. That sense that “We don’t know what is happening.” It’s not easy to determine the exact context of this letter to the church in Thessalonica, but we can be confident that the writer of this letter is reaching out to a community facing the unsettling fears Cedar was discovering as rumors spread about the apocalyptic events unfolding all around her. When the writer pleads, “we beg you… not to be quickly shaken…”, that word “shaken” is a translation of the Greek word saleuō [sal-yoo-o], which can mean “a motion produced by winds, storms, waves”. (Blue Letter Bible)

If you’re anything like me these days, that “windblown by a storm” description resonates. I feel at times like those trees outside my window at home, blown about by every news headline and unexpected crisis. I can feel some of my wits dropping from the branches of my life like those red and gold leaves I see falling every day right now. This letter is for anyone who finds themselves shaken, windblown by the state of things, whether it’s a frightening diagnosis from the doctor, the endless news updates of things that are falling apart, the updates from loved ones who are going through hell and barely hanging on, the overwhelm of seeing so many needs and only having energy to respond to some of them. If the wind of life is making it feel impossible to plant your feet firmly on the ground, this writer is speaking to you.

And they give us at least two anchors for the storm, gifts for when we can’t stop the doom-scrolling on our phones, when sleep feels elusive because of anxiety, and when it is hard to take deep breaths. The first gift is a reminder of the very ground of our being, the one whose idea we were in the first place, the one who made us, our origin story. Listen to this verse again for the ways the writer invites us from up in the air, blown about, to the roots we came from: “But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” The author is setting the record straight, because though historians can’t nail down whoever that “lawless one” was at the beginning of the chapter, scholars suspect this was a reference to various oppressive rulers who claimed to be God themselves, literally putting their own image up to be worshiped in the temple. (The Man of Lawlessness and the Restrainer (2 Thess 2.3-4), “The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Second Edition / Fully Revised and Expanded – New Revised Standard Version”, pg. 429) And if we are honest, isn’t there a little bit of that in all of us? I wonder if part of the reason we get blown about up there in the air in these times of crisis is that we have slowly started to believe that we’re supposed to have God-like control over our lives. We may not be putting our image up in a temple to be worshiped, but I’m betting part of the frenzy of being alive right now is that the institutions and beliefs and ways of being we relied on to feel that Godlike control are failing us. 

And so the writer looks us in the eyes and says “We always need to thank God for you, dear ones beloved by the Lord, because God chose you.” God is God and we are not. And as we let those words seep into our souls, we can stop grasping at the air for a dominating control that was never ours. And we can get busy remembering whose we are, bringing us closer to the ground of God’s love.

The second gift this author gives us is a reminder of our kinship with each other – the people in the storm with us. Three times in just this section, the author addresses their audience by saying, “brothers and sisters.” Siblings. It’s a translation of the Greek word adelphos, and the root of that word, delphus, means “womb”. (Blue Letter Bible) The writer is addressing the hearers of this letter as “those who are connected through the womb”. It’s a repeated reminder to these beloveds – us – that we are part of a community that is a new kind of family, not from the womb of the person who birthed us, but birthed anew from the womb of our God. This new kind of family is beyond biology, all around us, right here, right now, even as the leaves on our branches are shaking.

There’s a common technique out there to calm anxiety that involves slowing down to name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. It’s a way to return to our bodies when fear is trying to run away with us. By calling them siblings three times in this passage, connected through the womb of God, I wonder if the writer is reminding this community to slow down and name five beloveds they can see, four who are close enough to link arms with, three who are just a phone call away to speak their name, two who are near enough to smell their perfume, one who is right there at the table ready to share a meal. The storm rages outside and it’s hard to know what the damage will be, the writer is saying, but you won’t be the only one deciding what to do next. God has designed it so you’ll never be alone in the strange and wonderful family of God.

I can’t think of two better gifts for us to anchor ourselves in on this Sunday celebrating 50 years of being a church family. I can guarantee that the founding members 50 years ago, some of whom are in this room, risked this grand adventure without knowing where it would take them. And today, as we look ahead, I’d venture to say we are in the same boat! But as the air whips around above us, we remember what we do have: a common baptism reminding us that we are not God, but that we belong to God. A common table surrounded by a new kind of family, reminding us in the fleshiest of terms that God is somehow here with us and we are not looking towards the future alone. Perhaps it is in and to these traditions that we are called to “stand firm and hold fast” as the storm rages, because it is those foundational realities that will strengthen us to keep fighting for and building the world God tells us is possible. And as they have these last 50 years, I have a hunch that somehow, these gifts of grace will be enough. Amen. 

From Debt to Life

From Debt to Life
Luke 19:1-10
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
October 30, 2022

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

1996, downtown Atlanta. My family had been waiting all day on the curb. We had our picnic chairs, games, and food as we waited and waited. My parents and two of my brothers had been waiting all day to get a glimpse of the olympic torch as a runner carried it to the Olympic Stadium where it would light the large torch that would stay lit for the entire Olympic Games. We could hear the crowd start to stand and cheer down the road so we knew it was coming soon. We stood up, dressed in our Olympic gear and facepaint, and right as the torch was about to pass by us, a man stepped in front of me and my brothers, blocking our view. And just like that the torch was gone. We had missed our opportunity to see it. 

Zacchaeus was also worried about missing this famous person, Jesus, as he passed by. This is the only appearance of Zacchaeus in the entire bible, a man whose name literally means righteousness. It is a memorable story even if we only remember it through children’s songs. Zacchaeus was a wee little man… The story makes sure we know that Zacchaeus was short in stature. So much so that he had to climb a sycamore tree just to get a glimpse of Jesus. Interestingly, he does not approach Jesus to be seen but is happy to be an observer on the side of the road. Did he stay up there at a safe distance because he was not sure he wanted to be called out? Did he stay because he had been overlooked his whole life and wanted to stay safe, knowing how Jesus calls out the rich? Did he stay up there because of his short stature and not wanting to receive any more comments about his body? 

We also know that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector and was rich. Luke’s gospel engages more with the rich than any other book in the new testament. Zacchaeus would have been raised in a Jewish home only to go out on his own to try and get some safety through the state sanctioned job of tax collector. However this would mean he was most likely shunned in his hometown and from his family. Being a tax collector required taking more than the state required to survive. They were responsible for getting their quota for the government but the only way to care for themselves was to take extra. People did not like to pay taxes to Rome or to have extra skimmed but this was a very common practice and not illegal under Rome’s imperial system. We look back and say that was so corrupt, but to them it was simply the normal everyday life of it. What is normal today that would be seen as corrupt in the future? What practices are harmful for our communal life that we let go because it is easier than trying something else?

Debt is an old strategy to maintain power and control, keeping some in high places and others in destitute places. The average credit card debt for Americans is reported at over $6,000! Forty-five million people in the United States owe $1.6 trillion in student debt. One in three people in our country have so much medical debt that they cannot afford safe housing, feed their families or themselves, or even receive the life-saving medical care they might still need. Debt is how ancient Rome kept its wealth gap and that practice continues today in the United States. (“Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Medical Debt Burden in the United States.”)

So here we have Zacchaeus in a tree, watching for the prophet who is feeding people without payment and healing them without medical debt. Jesus stops and looks up at Zacchaeus , a man short of stature who has worked hard in the current system to find safety and stability in wealth but still feels looked down on. The crowd starts to notice and is ready for one of Jesus’ fiery speeches condemning the wealthy, “Woe to you tax collector.” But instead Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’s house. Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from his lofty position but does not call him out of community. Zacchaeus is so moved by this tender engagement that he immediately vows in front of Jesus and all present to give away half of his possessions and return the money he has stolen 4 times over. Jesus responds then that “ today salvation has come to your house.”

According to Professor Amy-Jill Levine, sinners are “those who fracture community welfare.” (Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Z. Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. 1st edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.) Zacchaeus is being confronted with the role he has played in the debt-based system of maintaining wealth for some at the expense of others and sees that he has been the one to fracture his community by engaging in these corrupt yet legal practices. The only response to this sin is to offer restitution and reparation. The original harm of the sin might not be healed immediately but the basis for that harm is beginning to be compensated for and the influx of support will help the community survive. 

What if salvation is connected to wealth redistribution? Salvation has the same root word as safe. People are not safe when they cannot afford medical care or housing or food. People are not safe when they are promised a better life only to find the terms of the debt have increased the debt 100 fold. People are not safe when some hoard wealth in Wall Street and offshore banking and yachts and real estate while others toil for their daily bread. 

One of the primary themes in the books of Luke is the challenge to the rich to turn around their lives and their assets. This story about Zacchaeus is one of many where Jesus pushes back against the legal economic exploitation of the Roman imperial system and where the rich are offered good news through repentance, reparation, and restoration. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. We are lost when we fracture community through hoarded wealth. Our society is sinful when the richest country in the world has people die because they can’t afford medication or housing. But in response to sin and lostness, Jesus calls us down from our lofty places into repentance and restoration. Jesus is calling us to a more just and fair society. How will we respond when we are called?

Enough, Still Dreaming, and Poured Out

Enough, Still Dreaming, and Poured Out
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
October 23rd, 2022

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

16 At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God. 

It’s one of those days when the lectionary asks us to read someone else’s mail. In this case, we are reading a letter most scholars agree was written in the name and spirit of the Apostle Paul (probably not written by Paul himself) to Timothy, Paul’s younger companion, the next generation of leaders in the church. For some reason, church communities kept circulating this letter. And it is written in the context of the end of Paul’s life, as he sits in a prison cell waiting for his execution for resisting the forces of the Roman empire, deserted by some people he had been depending on during his literal time of trial, reflecting on what words of wisdom he had to give to those continuing the work after him. 

I wonder if you can relate to the feeling of reflecting on your life and work and wondering what it all amounts to. Or the feeling of looking ahead into what feels like a fog of hopelessness, longing for someone to speak a word of wisdom or encouragement so you’ll know how to take another step. Maybe that’s why letters like this one stayed in circulation, because there’s never going to be a time when the church isn’t having that conversation. Maybe there’s some goodness in this letter for us too.

First, this letter reminds us that God’s measurements for a faithful life are nothing like the world’s measurements for success. In our profit-obessed society, success means winning the competition, maximizing the money made, being on top. But I love Minister Candace Simpson’s comments on the way this letter challenges the world’s measuring sticks: “The writer of this text is clever…” she writes, “They say they have fought the ‘good fight,’ but they do not say if it was well fought. They say they have ‘finished the race,’ but they did not say that they won. They have ‘kept the faith,’ but no one mentioned that one night they cursed at the ceiling for the deep heartbreak and agony. All they say is ‘I have fought the good fight,’ ‘I have finished the race, ‘I have kept the faith.’” (Minister Candance Simpson, Liturgy that Matters: October 23rd, 2022 – 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, “enfleshed: spiritual nourishment for collective liberation.”) Our competition-saturated society tells you that you are only worth as much as you win. But what if you heard the countercultural words of this letter as God’s own voice speaking to you today? What if God looked directly at you and said, “YOU. ARE. ENOUGH.” This is why we practice baptism. Because we need to remember as often as we drink or see or bathe in water that we are beloved simply because we are God’s children, not because of our ability to win. Release the tension in your jaw. Let your tense shoulders relax. You are not called to win. You are called to offer what you have for the fight, for the race, and for the keeping of the faith. And in God’s hands, that offering is always enough. 

Repeat after me, church: Who I am is more than enough. 

Second, this letter invites us, in times of stress, not to shrink our dreams for this world, but to give our dreams space to expand wider than we ever thought possible. In verse 8, the writer says “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” This crown language harkens to the winner of an athletic competition in ancient times. We’ve already heard the twist that faithfulness is all about finishing and never about winning. But did you notice – even a race winner in this passage does not hold the prize alone! The crown isn’t just for them – it is for “all who have longed for [God’s] appearing”! And is there anyone in this whole wide world who has not longed for the appearing of Love in our midst? Paul’s community, in this letter, is remembering him as the apostle who, even while locked away inside a cage, was dreaming about the world he was being executed for helping God create – a world where love and belonging and resources were not just for a select few, but were for every last one of us. Paul, envisioned by the letter’s author at the end of his life, is the embodiment of what the prophet Joel foretold – what we heard Ron read this morning – that when God poured out Her Spirit upon all flesh, old men like Paul would dream dreams. 

What happens to our dreams when we find ourselves mired in despair as we look forward into the future? I know that, for me, my visions of what is possible seem to shrink down every time I hear people angrily rail at our city council meetings against those without homes, or when I hear stories of a teenager who can’t get life-saving medication because doctors fear they will be prosecuted for abortion care, or when I have to close all my windows in 80 degree weather because I don’t want the wildfire smoke to get inside. But if Paul can dream of a world where everyone belongs – can dream from inside a cage – maybe I too can let my dreams for the world be as big as my God. 

Repeat after me, church: Even in despair, I’ll keep dreaming with God.

Finally, this letter highlights a metaphor that is to be our guide for how to steward what remains of our lives on this earth: a cup poured all the way out. The writer imagines Paul saying, from inside his cage, “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come…” Pouring out does NOT mean giving of yourself with no boundaries. It DOES mean bringing your whole, messy, complicated, beautiful self to your community as your offering. As theologian Sarah Birmingham Drummond puts it, “Paul is departing this life, preparing to die, and yet the term he chooses for his poured-out self is one of renewal and refreshment. To drink something in is more intimate and personal than simply to conceptualize or understand it. To offer oneself as a drink for a thirsty people is quite different from fading away.” (Sarah Birmingham Drummond, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 4 – Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ),” pg. 210.)

Beloved, which parts of yourself do you check at the door of this sanctuary, worried that they will not be received, welcomed, or affirmed? Which part of your story is messy enough to convince you that if anyone found out, you would not be truly embraced? All I can say is find your safe people, some of whom I hope are in this very space, and pour it all out. Every last drop. Because you know what? We are all thirsty for honesty and authenticity in relationships, aren’t we? There’s no intimacy without that. We are not here to hide parts of ourselves away where they can never be seen or held by safe people. We are cups poured out to quench our thirst and the thirst of those around us. 

Repeat after me, church: My offering is my whole, messy self.  

We are not the first ones to find ourselves bedraggled with despair and exhaustion as we look ahead. We are not the first ones to wrestle with how to make sense of the meaning of our lives in times of apocalypse or to try to find ways to speak to each other across generations about how to be faithful to our common calling. Thank God we can read this ancient mail together, shared between communities as they struggled along, just like us. 

So, repeat again after me, church:

Who I am is more than enough. 
Even in despair, I’ll keep dreaming with God.
My offering is my whole, messy self.  


The Power to Change

The Power to Change
Luke 18:1-8
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2022

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Who is God? What images do we have when I speak this word? Do you think of images or words such as Love, spirit, Jesus? Or perhaps you think of images such as a harsh judge, strict rules giver, eternal tormentor? Can God be changed or is God unchangeable? Does your image of God care about the world? Does your image of God act in the world?

Here Jesus uses a parable of rhetorical comparison, a fancy way of saying that Jesus uses a small example to show that God is even greater and more than that example. Jesus says God is not like the unjust judge, withholding and mean, but if even that person can do a good thing won’t God do even better? This rhetorical tool helps us imagine just how good our God is! God listens to us and sees us and is working for us!

In this parable the audience would know well that a widow in that patriarchal and heteronormative society would be legally and socially powerless. The original audience would be familiar with references to widows in the Old Testament and the many, many requirements placed on folx to care for them due to the widows powerless situation. So much so that the word “widow” was often used to describe a whole class of people who were powerless rather than the strict wife who lost a husband. So the original audience would have all of this precedent in scripture of how to care for widows in their mind when Jesus tells this parable. They would be shocked to see a powerless widow turned away by a mean judge (surely I would never do that they think).

But then Jesus flips expectations as he so often does in his parables. The audience assumed this woman was powerless, unable to change her situation, unable to affect the world around her. An assumption that many of us might have of a seemingly powerless person in our society, such as an unhoused person or a child. But Jesus shows us that even the so-called powerless can cause great change in the world in pursuit of justice. This widow faces down a judge, who society has given all the power to determine justice for her and even rejected her, but does she give up? Absolutely not. The widow refuses to believe that justice should be delayed and she fights tirelessly for it. 

That is the crux of this story. This is the great irony that Jesus points out. The judge does not fear God or man, which the parable points out twice. But this widowed woman’s persistence causes him fear. The Greek here gives a little more insight into this fear. The NRSV translation which I read earlier and we normally read on Sundays says the judge is concerned she will “wear me out by continually coming.” But the Greek word, “Hypopiazo” has a much more specific meaning. It basically says that “she will wear me out and give me a black eye!” 

This widow is the exemplar that we are called to emulate by Jesus, to pray always and not to lose heart. Where in life have we lost hope for justice or change? Where have we given up because the odds seem too great? Pray always, and as demonstrated in this parable that means making our prayers a reality too. The woman desired justice and the way she enacted prayer was by pestering this harsh judge until he caved.

I am reminded of the Old Testament widows who refused to let society dictate their power status and worked for justice for themselves. Tamar in Genesis 38 and Ruth and Naomi, who all take matters into their own hands. I am also reminded of modern day heroes such as Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford demanding and pleading for justice in the face of unjust judges. People are gathering and demanding justice in our world. And in so doing are praying and trusting God with the future. Surely God will listen, Jesus makes this point.

How has this parable shifted who we think God is? Jesus tells us to pray always because God is listening and God will act. God has the power to change. This might sound heretical but it is in fact biblical. How many times does God’s mind change in scripture? How does Jesus change based on his situations in the gospels? God tells us to pray because it affects, not only us and the world, but even God. The gift in this is that God has the power to change, do we?

I believe that each one of us have times where we are the widow, powerless and demeaned, and each one of us have had times where we are the judge, refusing to listen to the voice of the oppressed. Society will give or take away our power depending on its needs. But it is up to us to pray with our feet and hands to make justice a reality. If you are feeling like the widow today, do not lose heart. Keep praying. Work with others and keep demanding justice. God is surely listening. If you are feeling like the judge, open your heart. Start listening to the voices of the oppressed and when you have the power to give justice, be open handed. And then, when the Son of Man comes, perhaps he will find faith on earth. May we make it so. 

All For One and One For All

Special Guest Preacher: Rev. Brian Ellison

Audio Only

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

All For One and One For All
Rev. Brian Ellison
Luke 17:11-19
Longview Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2022

Fiction to Freedom

Fiction to Freedom
Psalm 146
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2022

I want to invite you to close your eyes for a moment. As you close them, I want you to imagine heaven on earth. What does it look like? What does it smell like? Feel like? Who is there with you? What are your greatest hopes for this future? Okay, you can open your eyes now. I want you to hold that image in your head as we hear this psalm. Psalm 146 is the beginning of the last five psalms known as the Final Hallel because each begins and ends with that hallelujah which is translated as Praise the Lord in our translation! Hear now Psalm 146. 

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Did your vision of heaven on earth match what the psalmist envisions? What was the same? Different? The psalmist is calling us, the people of God, to a beautiful vision of the world. We know that the world does not look like this vision right now. We see wars and climate change and greed and racism run rampant throughout. But part of faith is hope. Hope in a better world. And not a passive hope, but an active hope that works in our own individual and collective ways to build this new world. But you can’t build unless you have a vision!

In the Hebrew, the language that this psalm was originally written and sung in, the psalmist uses the same verb, (ʿāśâ), to describe God creating the world, (yoseh) the world, and God’s giving of justice, (yoseh) of justice, for the oppressed. God’s creation and God’s liberation are tied together. The psalmist vision for the world and our participation in liberation are tied together. To create the new world we also need liberation for the current one. 

This psalm gives us a beautiful and compelling vision of a world healed, people restored, and all of creation becoming whole. As people who live in this world but also have a vision for a better world where all are cared for, we have to keep this vision in front of us. We are given promises of God’s creative and liberative actions that we can hold on to on those days when it just seems out of reach. We can pray the Lord’s prayer with assurance that God is working for earth as it is in heaven. 

One of my favorite literary genres is fantasy and science fiction. In the last two years I have learned about a subcategory of these genres called speculative fiction or visionary fiction. This genre uses fiction to help people dream about a better future. It calls us to imagine what the world could look like in different futures. It might also be used to show us futures that could happen if things do not change. Think about Star Trek for the positive view and Handmaid’s Tale for the negative view. But this genre is being used today in organizing spaces for justice. Check out Octavia Butler, Ursula le Guin, and adrienne maree brown. It is being used by people long oppressed to envision a different future. To give us hope. To give us courage. To give us the determination to make it happen. (adrienne maree brown “All Organizing is Science Fiction.”

Verse 5 of this psalm begins with the word “happy.” “Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob…” Professor Nancy deClaissé-Walford showed me this week that this Hebrew word for happy, ‘ešer, which is used 26 times in the psalms, is probably derived from a word that means “to follow a particular path.” (Nancy deClaissé-Walford.) This shows us that the happiness that the psalmist speaks of is one that comes from following the right path. From choosing the path of creation and liberation. Choosing the path that tries to find heaven on earth. The path that dreams and works for a better world for all. 

So church, we see that the psalmist encourages us to envision heaven on earth. The psalmist shows us that God’s creative action of making this beautiful and wonderful world is working in tandem with God’s liberative actions of justice for the oppressed. Even as we enjoy the fruits of this world we also see the oppression and in God’s world the fruits of the world and the freedom of prisoners go hand in hand. And this is where we come in. We have a vision to work toward. We have a promise that God is working with us. So we must become the hands and feet, the eyes and ears, the muscles and organs of Christ to start this work together. We must envision the future and turn that fiction into reality. 

We are encouraged by activist and speculative author, adrienne maree brown, who reminds us that we are living inside someone’s imagination. The systems we have. The divisions we have. The boundaries we have. These were all created by people. So if we are brave enough to imagine something new, then perhaps we can start to work with like minded folx to build that future. Hold onto your visions. Build upon them with your neighbors. And experience the happiness of God as we follow the path to flourishing of all!

The Descent Into Solidarity

The Descent Into Solidarity
Luke 16:1-13
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
September 18th, 2022

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
This is the Word of the God. Thanks be to God.

The manager stood there, terrified, his heart in his throat. When he’d left his wife and kids at the house on the way to work, he had wondered what this summons was going to be about. He needed this job. Thank God he wasn’t in the position of some of the people who owed his boss money, who he knew he was helping his boss take advantage of by charging them interest on their debts that was not allowed under Jewish law. But what could he do? He was just a working man, trying to feed his family.

His boss cleared his throat, interrupting the manager’s anxious, racing thoughts. “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” The heart in the manager’s throat felt like it fell right out of his body. Fired. Just like that. What was he going to say to his family when he got home? Shame, then rage at the rich man filled his body. He used to admire this guy, his boss. There had always been this lingering hope that maybe, just maybe, if he could hustle hard enough, he could ascend to his boss’ level of wealth too. At the very least, he had hoped his many years of service to his boss would mean that when lean times came, the rich man would take care of him and his family. But it looks like he had been wrong. He realizes now that that hope had been a lie. A lie that had helped him sleep through his guilt at night when he knew he was participating in the oppressive system keeping those in debt from ever getting free. A lie he had relied on to distance himself from those poor folx he visited every month to take money he knew they didn’t have. The lie that the way to true safety and security for himself and those he loved was an upward climb, a ladder he just had to work hard enough to find his place near the top.

So, now that the myth of finding security in climbing that ladder had been debunked, the just-now-fired manager had some choices to make. “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” Those faces of the folx he always collected too much money from – they were coming back to him now. He had thought he would be saved by distancing himself from them and the poverty this system trapped them in. But he realizes now that it is actually solidarity with them that will be his own pathway to freedom. When his boss’ door finally slams shut on him, perhaps it’s the doors of these other neighbors that might welcome him and his family if he can do right now what is in his power to find freedom alongside them. “Those 100 jugs of olive oil you owe?” he says to one, “Cut that bill in half. Those 100 containers of wheat you’re supposed to pay?” He says to another, “Take 20 off the price.” Theologian Nicola Torbett points out that, “The percentages by which the debts are reduced suggests that the steward is eliminating the interest on the debts. Although this does reduce the rich man’s profit, it also brings him into compliance with Jewish law, which forbids the charging of interest to begin with.” (Nicola Torbett, Liturgy that Matters – September 18, 2022 – Luke 16:1-13 – enfleshed: nourishment for collective liberation.) “I’ve got nothing to lose by betraying my boss’ exploitative practices now,” the fired manager thinks to himself as he makes a slashing pencil mark through the original debt and writes in the lower amount. He doesn’t know yet if these people who owe money will become his friends because of this – after all, he was the one staying afloat by participating in their oppression every day until today. But he knows that doing the right thing now, turning around, is a start onto a new path, a path he now believes could lead to the true safety he has been seeking, the safety found in a community of solidarity and trust.

To his surprise, a messenger shows up at his door with a note from his former boss. “Thank you,” the note reads at the top, “I’m impressed.” What on God’s green earth?! He can’t begin to know what’s going on in the rich man’s head, but he does know that his own chest isn’t so tight with the shame of oppressing others now that he has started on this new path. Could it be that his boss is having a change of heart as well, now that the manager has betrayed his quest for maximum profits? Could it be that when those being crushed under oppressive systems get free, the rest of us get free?
It says something about me that I’ve always assumed the rich man, the boss in this parable, is the stand-in character for God. But Jesus’ parables, these stories he tells to challenge and provoke us, are almost never that simple. I wonder if the God we encounter in this parable is found in the whoops of joy that were let loose when folx who owe the boss money heard that the debts that had been crushing their families were being reduced. I wonder if God is in the moment when the rich man says yes to his path being turned away from greed and towards justice, even though he wouldn’t have chosen that path for himself. And I wonder if God is in that moment when the scales tipped for the manager, when the truth that the ladder to wealth was not going to keep him safe became crystal clear and he decided to throw in his lot with the very neighbors he had been oppressing. “Perhaps this is where God is in this parable,” Nicola Torbett says, “not in the rich man but in the spaces between the wealthy, the middle management class, and the poor, who for at least a moment join together in collective liberation.” (Nicola Torbett, ibid.)

Who do you relate to in this story? If you are in the top 10% of wealth-holders in our own community, how might God be inviting you to release practices of wealth-building that oppress and find freedom in the wild joy that comes with redistributing your wealth so that everyone has enough? If you are currently living at the bottom of the oppressive system that takes and takes and takes from you, know that the God in this parable is first and foremost on your side. How might you speak up and speak out, to tell the truth about the ways a community like ours needs to do better and change our ways to show up in solidarity with you? And if you relate to that manager, caught in the middle, with systems above you that feel too big to tackle alone and people you know are being crushed below you as a way to keep you afloat, have you had that moment yet, like the dishonest manager? Where you have realized that protecting your own wealth at the expense of the poorest people in our communities is not going to keep you and your loved ones safe? If not, what’s getting in the way of that ‘come to Jesus’ moment? What are the tangible ways that Jesus is inviting you today to take a bold risk like this manager, to stick your neck out, to stop the upward climb and start the downward descent of solidarity with the very people your community doesn’t give a damn about? Beloved, it is impossible to serve wealth and serve God at the same time. And in this truth, we find God’s invitation into the grand adventure of creating a new world together. So, let’s follow this God all the way to the bottom. The Kin-dom of God is there waiting for us, just a decision away, an eternal home for every, single, last one of us, if we will just take the plunge and say yes.

God of the Lost

God of the Lost
Luke 15:1-10
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2022

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We had just moved into a new apartment to start seminary and we splurged with a purchase of a book shelf from Ikea. I laid out all the pieces and started pouring over the instructions. I had the little hex tool ready to go and I dove in. The book shelf started to come together and as I was approaching the final pieces, all of a sudden I could not find the next piece! I looked under the couch and all around the room. I checked my pockets and the box and the bags that the Ikea stuff arrived in. I got down on my hands and feet with a flashlight to try and get the piece to reflect but I could not find it anywhere!

Have you ever had the experience of losing something and spending a lot of time and energy searching for it? What did that feel like? Were you worried, frustrated, angry, sad, exhausted? 

Well Jesus is at it again. He is getting a reputation for doing things that he was not supposed to do, and people are starting to complain about it. Jesus is eating with sinners and tax collectors, people who he is not supposed to be eating with. Jesus is eating with those who have been excluded from polite society’s meals. 

But Jesus wants more for the people following him than just complaints and misunderstanding at his radical inclusion. Jesus wants us to learn about a reordering of society and uses the hearers’ conscience to make a point. Jesus starts the parable by saying, “Which one of you… does not… go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Jesus appeals to their better nature in order to make this point. 

Jesus goes on to show that Jesus is a searcher of lost things and lost people. Jesus is a shepherd who lost a sheep. Jesus is a woman who lost a coin. Jesus searches and searches until finding that lost sheep or that lost coin. Then Jesus celebrates the joy of finding that which is lost.

First, let us consider how this parable has perhaps been misinterpreted over time. How many of you were taught, like me, that the lost are those outside of Christianity? How many were taught that we need to go out to non-Christians to bring them back to the flock? But if we look closely at this parable, the lost are actually already part of the flock or part of the coin purse. The lost are people on the inside already. This story is not about evangelizing to those people out there but caring for those who are here and have been lost for whatever reason. It is about people in our community who have been pushed to the margins. 

Second, these parables seem to suggest that God loses things! This is not the normal image I have for God. It is hard to imagine God leaving ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to go climb through bushes and look over ledges for a lost sheep. I don’t normally think of God as a woman bent over looking under furniture and in cobwebs hoping to find a glimmer of gold in the shadows. It is hard for me to imagine the Creator of the universe seeking out the small and seemingly insignificant things in our world. 

But this points us to a larger truth that I think it is important for us to hear today. God is where the lost things are. God is searching in the hidden corners of the world, in the places that others do not want to go, the places where people who have been pushed aside reside. Meaning, if I want to find God, I have to seek out the lost and maybe get a little lost myself. I have to leave the safety of my people and my house to go out to where the lost are. 

The good news is that I did eventually find that missing piece of the Ikea furniture. And there was much celebrating as the emotional roller coaster rolled on. The joy we discover when the lost things are found is multiplied even greater when people who are lost, discarded, and pushed aside are brought into communities of care and support. Because like that piece of missing furniture, it was absolutely essential to the whole. Without it the book shelf would not work. Without that sheep the flock would not be whole. Without that coin the purse would not be full. Without the lost we are not living into the wholeness of creation that God desires. 

I have two takeaways from these parables that I hope will go with you. God is searching for you and for all those who are lost. No one is insignificant. No one is unworthy. Everyone deserves to be found. Especially those who have been most lost, those who have suffered because of systematic oppressions of greed and fear. And we can go out with God to search for the lost because without all of the pieces, we will be incomplete. We will not fully function.

So where are the lost places in our world? How will we as a church community go and seek out those places? How will we live into this divine call today? Let us follow God into the lost corners of the world and perhaps be found ourselves. 

Who’s At the Table?

Who’s At The Table?
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
August 28th, 2022

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God. 

In this 1st century setting, where you were seated at the meal table gave away your social status. Meals were one place that social disparities were on display. Perhaps it is not so different with meal tables today. Some people can afford to go out to lunch. Some cannot. It’s a casual afterthought for some to pick up a bucket of chicken on the way to the potluck. It’s a major expense on a tight monthly budget for others. Some can say yes to the dinner invitation without having to consider if there will be stairs at the restaurant. Those in a wheelchair or with a walker or cane have to think about those stairs, and if their body will be able to make it to the table at all. The table, then and now, is a place where social, class, and disability status become glaringly clear. 

Jesus knew that his society centered certain kinds of bodies in their gatherings of power. That’s what he is observing in this Sabbath meal he is attending as an invited guest. And he starts his teaching by first trying to guide those around him in how to live out the values of the Kin-dom in the world as it is. “Don’t seek out the highest seat, but go to the lower one.” On one hand, this is sound, practical “Miss Manners” advice for his time, advice that accepts the world those in power have designed – where some bodies are honored and some are ignored or thrown away. On the other hand, maybe Jesus is using this as an opportunity to emphasize that if his followers have to navigate this stratified world, they best choose the path of humility – seeking the low seat first. If you have to accept the unjust premise of your host, at least your humility will later exalt you!

But then Jesus does something unexpected. He turns his attention to the host – and all hosts of tables from here on out. “Hosts!” he says, “when you throw a dinner party, don’t invite the people you always do, who you know – or at least hope – can return the favor. Invite those who are poor, who cannot walk as able-bodied people do, people who cannot see! You’ll be blessed because they can’t pay you back. You’ll be paid back at the resurrection of the righteous.” Apparently just giving advice for navigating an unjust world as it is was not enough for Jesus. He looks to the hosts who wield the power of deciding which bodies matter at the table and he says, “Do not accept the world as it is! Reorder it all! Practice something new! Center the voices of the poor and disabled at your table, and resurrection life will start to grow!” 

This theme of grand reversal is all throughout Luke’s Gospel. It begins with Mary’s protest song where the hungry and poor are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. Given that context, we can be confident that Jesus is not suggesting that rich hosts invite poor and disabled people to the table because they feel bad for them or to soothe their guilt. No, Jesus is inviting hosts to center the voices of those who have been fighting the empire’s forces of oppression all along because they know the way to freedom for all of us. As Alabama Poor People’s Campaign tri-chair Carolyn Jean Foster puts it in the ‘We Cry Justice’ book our church has been reading, “Justice looks like poor people at the table, having meaningful conversations with equal voice to articulate solutions to problems that directly impact them. All too often,” Carolyn writes, “people in power pose solutions to systemic issues without engaging people who are directly affected. People who live in poverty know the solutions that would alleviate their suffering; they just do not have the resources. They need to be at the table. Place matters.” (Carolyn Jean Foster, “Band-Aids or Justice”, We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign, edited by Liz Theoharis, foreword by William J. Barber, pg. 217.)

In the days to come, we know that every body will at some point fail to perform the way our capitalist, constantly-producing society wants. If it hasn’t already, movement will become more difficult as we age. Eyesight and hearing will change and even fail. Having an able body is always, always a temporary situation. In the days to come, as we have already seen in times of increasing wildfires and flooding, the infrastructures we depend upon will fail us.  Doesn’t matter how much money you have in a bank account if the electricity grid goes down and that credit card won’t work. So many living at or near the poverty line already know the necessity of depending on their neighbors, their community networks, to find ways to take care of every body’s needs. As Nicola Torbett puts it, “people with disabilities, and especially people of color with disabilities, already know about how to survive, because really they have already survived multiple apocalypses…” (Nicola Torbett, The Word Is Resistance Podcast, “Episode 105: What Wondrous Love Is This? 5.12.19” transcript and SURJ Website)

That’s why it is so often those who have suffered in our current medical system that are the first to demand universal healthcare that would provide for all of us. This is why years of accessibility demands from disabled communities for online event access were not-so-magically put into place almost overnight when able-bodied people suddenly needed that access in the pandemic too. What disabled folx had always been asking for was something we all ended up needing. This is why those most impacted by police brutality and incarceration have been the first to model safety teams made up of grandmothers living on their block that do not rely on the police, because they know that every last one of us will thrive if we respond to harm not by calling 911, but rather by showing up for our neighbors with shared resources, compassion, and creativity. Those on the margins have always been the leaders in practicing the new world Jesus came to bring.

One of the things I love about the Presbyterian theology of baptism – which includes our practice of baptizing babies – is that for us, baptism is a sign with water that we are loved before we can ever do anything productive, before we can ever be of any use to a capitalist society that wants our labor to make the rich richer. Our baptism is a tangible sign of the reality that we are loved not in accordance with our ability to fit society’s standard of a white, cisgender, male, straight, able body, but because God made us and we are precious exactly as we are. Period. It’s right in line with what oppressed communities have been saying all along – that every body deserves a seat at the table simply because they exist. So, I had this bright idea not too long ago that I wanted more opportunities for y’all to remember your baptism. You may have noticed that, on occasion, I’ve been moving the font – full of water – to the entrance of the sanctuary as you come through the doors with a little sign that says “You are loved!” But it only took me one Sunday to realize that I had placed that font of our belovedness right in the pathway of anyone trying to use a walker or a wheelchair to enter our sanctuary. I have never had to think twice about how I’m going to get into a space as a person is able to walk unassisted. I’ve only recently been reading the work of disabled theologians and becoming more familiar with the disability justice movement. Unjust actions like placing a symbol of belonging in a place that literally blocks the entrance of some bodies from easily coming into this space is a sign of just how far I have to go in living Jesus’ teaching in this passage, to throw out the guest lists of empire-approved bodies I was handed throughout my life in church and at seminary, and to instead sit at table to listen deeply to the poor, the disabled, and all those who are oppressed by a society that only wants to use up our bodies instead of love them. 

To those here today in bodies that the empire will never validate as valuable, I promise to do better and I thank you for the vulnerability it has taken every time you have said, “I have an access need in order to join you – will it be met?” Your voices need to be centered at every table we set. To those here in bodies that are always just a disaster, accident, or year older away from not being welcomed on the world’s guest list as it is, let’s tune in and listen to our oppressed siblings who know the way for all of us to get to freedom. May church leaders like me ask, “Can every body join this gathering?” May we go out into this world and ask in every space we are in, “Can every body truly find welcome here?” Let’s reorder the world, dear ones. It won’t all change overnight, but we can practice together, here in this very church family, so that day by day our community starts to look more like Kin-dom of heaven where every body, claimed in our common baptism, is celebrated and loved. Amen. 

Healed Into Community

Healed Into Community
Luke 13:10-17
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2022

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 eighteen 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.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! 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?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We do not know this woman’s name. We do not know where she comes from, where her family is, or much else. And at the same time, it is easy to picture this woman, weary and resigned, unable to stand up straight. We know her strength and determination to continue to come to the synagogue, to be with God’s people in worship and life despite being bent over and unable to stand up straight. Her eyes remain lowered by the force on her back, never fully able to make eye contact. Constantly looking down, down at her sandaled feet, down at the road, down at the pew. She may want to look up to greet her neighbor or see the stars but her back restricts her from this. When was the last time she was able to look directly into someone’s eyes and feel seen?

I wonder how she was treated in the synagogue. If it was anything like the modern American church, I could imagine a few different responses. Perhaps she was always greeted by a friend at the entrance and they would sit together. Perhaps this friend whispered in her ear when something interesting happened up front that she might have missed. Or, and I know we can imagine this “or” as well, did she come in and sit in the back by herself? Did she faithfully attend this worshiping community but continue to be overlooked because of her back and not fitting in? I wonder how her community treated her? 

This woman arrived at worship one day, and probably noticed a general hubhub that was uncommon as Jesus started teaching. She may not have seen or recognized him because of her condition but I bet she knew something was different about this day. And while Jesus was likely surrounded by disciples and people seeking him, Jesus saw her, even if she could not see him. He saw her and knew her struggle. 

I want to pause her because there are possible misunderstandings of this passage that can cause harm. First, the healing of those deemed disabled. The demarcation between able bodied and disabled bodies is not always clear. Many people who fit the “disabled” label do not think of themselves as disabled. But rather look at how society privileges some abilities over others and creates spaces where the privileged bodies can participate and the unprivileged bodies cannot. So when we look at healings from Jesus, we should not see disabled as wrong or bad or even sinful. I believe we need to look at God’s liberative action and restoration into community in those stories. This is about more than a physical healing, it is a restoration to wholeness in community. (To learn more about disability justice, check out The Word is Resistance podcast.

Second, we have a synagogue leader who seems to be upset about this healing. I know we have looked in past sermons about the ways anti-semitism is interpreted into the Bible and sometimes actually shows up in the Bible too. This is one of those passages where it has often been interpreted into the text. Those bad interpretations say, “Look at how strict the Jews are. They do not want healing. They want rules. Jews are bad. Jesus is good.” Now, I know that is fairly derivative but that is often what is taught. However it misses a major point. Jesus is Jewish! He went to a synagogue to teach about God’s laws. While Jesus and the synagogue leader might have some different interpretations and experiences, this passage is not about Jews being bad. 

Okay. Back to the story. Jesus sees this woman. He knows her crippling pain for many, many years. And here we see the liberative action of God in this story. Jesus’ healings are always more than just a cure. They are focused on liberation. This is a healing because it restores her to full participation in her community. Jesus calls her a “daughter of Abraham,” reaffirming that belovedness that no one can take away. It may make us wonder, “What aspects of society were keeping her from full participation?” 

I imagine many of us have been on both sides of this woman’s story. Many of us know what it is like to have circumstances that are out of our control but used to define us, exclude us, distort us, and even harm us. Some of us have had our agency stolen because of our class or race or gender or ability. Some of us are seen to be “crippled” because we do not fit the social narrative of normal. Especially in places like churches that promise to be a community and promise to be welcoming but are not. 

How does our community respond to these different access needs? Do we participate in the crippling of communities by making access different for different bodies? Do we focus on the cure while ignoring the liberation of the person from systemic oppression? Or are we a church community that sees people as cherished, beloved, called, and invited to praise God with our unique stories? Are we a community that works towards liberation of all people regardless of ability, race, class, gender, orientation, immigration status, legal status, language spoken, education level, religion, respectability? 

Because the truth of our faith and the truth shining through in this story – that I need each and every one of you to take to heart is this: There is no disease, no pain, no boundary that can keep you from God’s love for you. Just as you are. Warts and all. You are deeply, deeply loved from the foundations of the earth to the farthest reaches of the universe. You are loved. 

And so is the person sitting next to you. And the person down the street. We are called as a community of faith to remove those boundaries from participation in our community so that all can experience their belovedness. Can we do this church?