Confession from a Sabbatical Priest

The Rev. Mary E. Davis

Proper 16 Year C
Luke 13:10-17
Good morning- - It is amazing to be back from sabbatical - - which was a blessed time of rest, of freedom to explore and heal, and then explore some more. I know that many of my experiences will wind up in sermons, announcements, and adult studies as the next year unfolds, but this morning, I want to begin THIS sermon, my first one back in the pulpit, with a confession.
A confession from a sabbatical priest.
You see, one of the things I looked forward to most during my 14 weeks of sabbatical was worshipping in different congregations. Being able to sit and sing and pray in the pews, without the pressure of preaching or leading worship . . . being able to sit beside my husband. It’s been over a decade since I’ve been able to do that! So I carefully made a list – a list of churches I wanted to visit, preachers I wanted to hear, places I wanted to glean ideas from – so that no worshipping opportunity was wasted.
But even with all of that, with the best of intentions, can you guess how many times I went to church on a Sunday during my 3+ month sabbatical? Just 3 times!
Because each time I went somewhere else to worship something was missing. I was a visitor. A stranger. Not part of the community. I was just someone taking up space in a back pew, where no one knew my name, my gifts, my weaknesses . . . my needs. And I found it anything BUT worshipful. Now don’t get me wrong. This was NOT a case of not being welcomed, or of the particular community not being “nice” to visitors.
But each time, I left church, I left LONGING for something. Something I couldn’t even name. That is until I started to reflect on this morning’s Gospel.
You see, in this morning’s Gospel reading, Luke writes about a woman – a woman in need of healing, bent over for nearly two decades. Luke doesn’t name her, and in fact, he pretty much races past the healing portion of this story – giving it only minimal air time – which in and of itself caught my attention. To me, it seems as if a healing like that . . . which took place right there in the synagogue, in the middle of Jesus’ sermon, with witnesses on every side . . . again, for a woman who hadn’t stood up straight for nearly 20 years . . . should have been on their neon billboard! On the Main Street Banner. In the Local News blotter. But Luke raced right by it, giving more words to the interaction between Jesus and the synagogue leaders.
It made me wonder - Perhaps the reason he didn’t give it headline status was because this woman’s healing was an all-too-common occurrence? Perhaps it was common knowledge that healings took place in the synagogue. Maybe this week the woman who had been bent over for 18 years was healed, but last week, maybe it was someone else? Or perhaps the week prior to that it was the young man lying on a mat who got up to walk? And the week before that, the blind child received her sight? Suppose healing was just matter-of-fact, something that happened all the time in this religious community, so much so that Luke didn’t really need to report it? We don’t know, but the point is, Jesus healed the woman, and he did it right there, within the community.
And THAT, I realized, was exactly what I was missing during my sabbatical. Community. Authentic community where weaknesses are known and shared. Where the “bent over,” the vulnerable, the sick, the estranged, the desperately anxious . . . where we all gather together serving as the antidote to each other’s loneliness and isolation, and by being together, here, we are able to more fully know the heart of God.
You see, our relationship with God is not just a “Vertical” relationship: God-and-me. If it was, I would have been perfectly fulfilled and restored by my worship in the back pew of various congregations. But our relationship with God is also “horizontal.” It’s about you and me and every other person in this community. Again – it’s so much more than being “nice” or “welcoming” – it’s about knowing and being known, and it’s about being in relationship with each other.
The “bent over” woman was healed and set free from her bondage – not so that she could walk OUT of the community and go out on her own – but she was set free to continue to be part of the community. To bear witness to Jesus’ healing power, and to be a blessing to all those who gathered that day and in the days to come.
Community is, in fact, how our relationship with God grows. It’s how we practice and experience love. It’s how we practice and experience forgiveness. It’s how we practice and experience compassion. It’s how we practice and experience hope. We can’t do all of that on our own. Only together.
Of course, when I say all of this – I don’t want to minimize how difficult being in this kind of community is. As Henri Nouwen liked to point out, community is always THAT place where the one person you least want to be with always is! And I was kind of put off by a church banner at a church in Charleston last week – the big banner read, “It’s Easy, just show up.” Well, that’s NOT true. It’s not easy. Being in community is hard. Because only together can we screw up and make amends. Only together can we make room in our hearts to love that person who drives us insane. Only together can we be jolted out of our complacency and grow in compassion for those in need. Only together can we witness to the day-to-day experiences of resurrection which, of course, only happen in those incredibly painful places of darkness and death.
It’s hard work, but it’s blessed work. Community is how we survive as faithful Christians.
My major learning during this sabbatical season was that the times I felt God’s “absence” was because I was trying to sustain my life all by myself. Independently. I suffered constant relapses of “me-do-it-itis,” an illness I’ve had since I was 2! But at least I realized that it was in those moments when others stepped in – when others healed me from my so-called ‘independence’ – whether it be my husband, or my family, or friends, or even my doctors or nurses – that’s when I found God again. In community. That was where I found the Holy, the powerful, light in the darkness. That was where I found God – and that was what I was missing, terribly, by being away from you this summer.
Starting tomorrow, we are going to welcome children who are on the autism spectrum into our community through our “It’s My Turn” Day Camp. It has been, for the past two years – and will be, again this year – yet another opportunity for these children to be known, loved, and healed by God, through this community. And of course, that’s my prayer for all of you gathered here – and for me as well – that we will continue to lean into our relationships together. Healing one another from our independent “me-do-it-itis” – that just like the formerly “bent over woman,” we reveal the beautiful heart of God to one another and the world . . . praising God as we do.