The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
Sunday, August 21, 2016 (Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost)
Luke 13: 10-17
“What’s her name again?”
“I have no idea. We just call her ‘Bent over Woman.’”
People had watched this woman for eighteen years and, with each passing year, her head sank deeper into her chest, her gaze became hollower, and her spine protruded more grotesquely. She sat in front of the corner grocery store, year after year, and rarely did anyone stop to say hello.
Jesus did stop but the bent over woman didn’t even lift her head. She knew better. She had been rebuffed by too many people. Jesus had to invite her to come closer. He looked at her affectionately and called her the endearing name, “Daughter of Abraham”—not “Bent over Woman.” He then miraculously said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment” and, with a gesture more tender than words, he touched her.
Jesus’ touch calls to mind St. Francis of Assisi directive, “Preach the gospel and if necessary use words.”
Many theological words like faith and grace, mercy and salvation, become trite when used carelessly and too often. My seminary preaching professor, William Muehl, warned us to use such holy sounding words cautiously and sparingly. When worshipers hear them, they nod in sleepy assent rarely sensing what message is being conveyed. Think about it: what does the word “grace” convey to you? Mr. Muehl would want me to define grace this morning in a manner that touches your heart, maybe like this: “When Jesus looks straight into your eyes and you feel undeserving of such a loving glance, your heart skips a beat and you feel deeply touched. That is grace.”
The church, at its best, dares to look straight into people’s eyes and to touch them. When I say dare, I realize how hard it is for some of us to look someone straight in the eye, to touch them, or even to speak a few words to them.
In a few moments we will engage in the ritual called Passing the Peace. One will say, “Peace be with you,” and the other will respond, “And also with you.” The ancient church called this the Kiss of Peace. I suppose kissing in church is a bit too risqué even in our age. For some of us, even a handshake challenges our personal comfort zone.
We may feel threatened, even outraged, to be asked to introduce ourselves to others in Christ’s name. All of this chatter and hugging interrupts the solitude of our worship: “I came to be alone and to pray not to be involved in a seventh inning liturgical stretch.” This protest is nothing new. The leaders of the synagogue were outraged as well when Jesus healed the bent over woman on the Sabbath. Weren’t six others days sufficient to heal suffering folks? Why did Jesus have to ruin things and heal the tormented woman on the seventh day, causing all manner of chaos? Hadn’t Jesus’ childhood rabbi taught him in Bar Mitzvah classes, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy?”
Passing of the Peace is a remarkable opportunity to model grace to one another. This morning, as you Pass the Peace, I encourage you to do something daring: look around and find two people you do not know and introduce yourself to them. This requires courage. Some of you are already mumbling, “There is no way I’m doing that! This new pastor doesn’t have a clue about the sanctity and sensibilities of Holy Trinity worship.” But I wonder if there is more going on. Could it be that there are people here you have seen for years and still don’t know their names? As your pastor, I give you permission to chuckle a bit with one another, even to become a bit mortified when you say to the person next to you, “Welcome to Holy Trinity,” and they respond, “Oh, thank you, but I have actually been a member for thirty-three years!”
Let us start our adventurous evangelism program now just as Jesus did with the bent over woman. I guarantee you this will be one of the most important things we do at Holy Trinity in the months to come. We don’t need fancy programs, elaborate planning documents, or even sticky-notes on the wall; all we need is to say, “Peace be with you,” to someone we have never met or whose name we still do not know.
I recently read a study that claimed that first time visitors decide within ten minutes whether they will ever return to a church. Ten minutes! That is before we have sung the first hymn with astonishing accompaniment or listened to the sermon—decent or dreadful! Visitors decide straightaway how friendly we are and whether they feel welcomed. This study found that there are congregations with hideously ugly buildings, unbearably screeching choirs, and monotonously dreary sermons and yet people return in droves because they have been greeted with warmth.
Are you bent over? If you are, you know what it feels like when people pay attention to you and make you feel that you matter. New York City can be a lonely place. What a precious gift when someone calls you by name and even remembers your name the following Sunday. Wouldn’t we all join a church like that?
If you think I am mistaken, watch Pope Francis. I am not sure we hear many of the words he speaks. We are too enthralled watching him step out of his Fiat 500 and going over to embrace a teenager with cerebral palsy; we are challenged as he washes the feet of Muslim refugees on Maundy Thursday; we are exhilarated as he hugs and kisses former prostitutes, rescued from the sex trade. Pope Francis is capturing our imagination and we are prouder than we have been in a long time to call ourselves Christians. You see, he looks straight into the eyes of bent over people and touches them with astonishing tenderness.
We come here this morning longing for someone to do the same to us. I promise this will happen to you. Listen as someone says to you, “Peace be with you.” That, my dear friends, is Jesus speaking. Adventurous! Daring! Loving! Let’s call it Evangelism 101.