Read Sunday’s Gospel, Luke 13:10-17 before proceeding.
I also call attention to a short passage from 1 John 4. “God is love… there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.”
When the boy was in second grade he began to stutter. By the time he was in later elementary school his stutter became so acute he could not say four words without blocking. He lived awash in anxiety that the teacher would call on him to read out loud in class. Kids would mockingly mimic his stutter. The boy hated school, felt alone, rejected and unintelligent.
He went through 9th grade without a single teacher ever saying one thing to him about it. He lived in his own private little hell of dread. Low self-esteem combined with a dysfunctional home life only served to exacerbate things. No place in the world felt safe to him.
By the Fall of tenth grade nothing much had changed for him. One day at the end of English class the teacher, Mrs. Swanson, asked him to drop by her classroom after school. He couldn’t imagine what she wanted.
She said she had noticed how his stutter appeared to trouble him deeply. The boy talked about it for the first time in his life. He did not realize how transparent he apparently was – at least to her. She expressed a desire to help him. She even made a promise that she would never put him on the spot in class in a way that would embarrass him. Rather, she made arrangements for him to come in after school to privately read to her and make presentations to her one-on-one without fear. She said she would speak to his other teachers and make them more aware.
At the time, the boy did not realize it, but Mrs. Swanson’s initiative was the beginning of a process of change in his life. It was the first step of a new journey. It took many more years to acquire greater mastery over his stutter, but for the first time he began to gain a little confidence, and he knew he had an advocate who really cared. He began to realize he was not unintelligent.
The boy went on to be a pastor. In 40 years of ordained ministry a Sunday never went by when he did not stand in front of the congregation and, running in the deep background of his mind and heart, a part of him was saying, “Thank you Mrs. Swanson for noticing. Thank you Mrs. Swanson for being concerned enough to notice and act.”
You see, the boy was me!
My point is: love notices – love acts – love makes a difference!
Mary would slowly, shuffle through the corridors of the dementia unit of the nursing home. She wore a sweater that was stretched and hung down almost to her knees that she would roll up and grasp tightly in both hands. I would encounter Mary every time I visited the nursing home. When I would leave, her image would linger in my mind’s eye: her frail frame, her hunched over silhouette, her empty facial expression were all etched into my psyche. One day after leaving her image remained so vivid that I experienced intense emotional turmoil. I needed to process my thoughts and feelings somehow and some way. I found myself scratching out a few lines of a poem about Mary as if she was the one speaking. Perhaps it was an feeble effort to give her a voice that she no longer could give for herself, or maybe it was just a way to process my own inner turbulence.
I call it, “Not Long Ago.”
not long ago
i was vital and full of life
but now I shuffle along corridors
with tiny silent steps
marching to nowhere
curled over like the last autumn leaf
looking at the floor
what happened? What happened?!
i see forms of people
i try to reach out
some part of me deep within still yearns to connect
something human remains that intuitively recognizes others
as a source of life and comfort
but more often than not
they avoid me
walk past me
talk past me
as if I am not there
but i am
i am not
why this sentence?
for what purpose
this living death
vital signs devoid of essence?
i exist only in the memory of others
does God remember me?
Mary was not forgotten. She was remembered and loved, at least by one special person. There was a volunteer, Judy, who worked in that unit who smothered Mary with love and attention. She would spend time with her – read to her – hold her hand – take her for walks outside through the garden. One day, I affirmed Judy for the compassion and love she lavished upon Mary. Judy said an astounding thing: “My family has a strong history of Alzheimer’s. In embracing Mary, I am also embracing who I might become in the hope someone might do the same for me.”
Paradoxically, Judy came to an Alzheimer’s unit for a sense of hope – not in the hope that she would not contract Alzheimer’s, but that she might be held in love if she did. Judy reached through her own fear to touch whatever vestige of humanity might have been left in Mary and, in so doing, fulfilled her own humanity in a beautiful way.
Love notices – love acts – love is fearless – love makes a difference!
Our gospel reads, “There appeared a woman with a spirit that crippled her for eighteen years.” I am compelled to wonder if she too, in a similar way, was as invisible to the people around her as the boy who stuttered or Mary of the nursing home. She too was bent low by forces she was powerless to counter. Who knows what physical thing it was, but if we embrace this gospel story beyond the literal we may see she that was also bent low by religious beliefs and cultural forces which only compounded and intensified her mental, emotional and spiritual anguish. In those days, it was commonly believed that infirmity was the result of one’s sin or the sins of one’s ancestors; a belief that served to only further magnify suffering and alienation.
It does not say but if she was a widow, but if she was she was also vulnerable to social disconnection because her primary source of identity and security that came with a husband would have been absent. Who knows?
Her distorted body was an outward symbol of a deeper inner agony that is shared by many others including – children who stutter, people with memory dysfunctions and millions of suffering others on this planet who often go unnoticed: the poor, the undocumented, the disabled, the homeless, oppressed women and girls in many places in the world today, those fleeing war torn regions for their own safety in hopes of finding some kind of quality of life for themselves and their children; on I could go.
The words of the Bob Dylan song the 60’s, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” come to mind, “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry.”
Did anybody really see her anymore – engage her as a person – take her seriously as a woman? Or did they walk past her – talk past her – dismiss her – forget her – not really see her? Did anybody remember her in affirming ways? Perhaps she came to the synagogue that Sabbath Day in the hope of finding some sliver of assurance or shard of hope.
Jesus knew unequivocally that healing on the Sabbath would get him into very serious trouble with the religious hierarchy. There was no part of the Torah more non-negotiable than Sabbath law. Any kind of healing was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath. Religious law superseded everybody and everything.
And, the religious hierarchy were to be feared. They had power and were not afraid to use it. They were a formidable force. But “perfect love casts out all fear,” says 1 John. Jesus did the unthinkable smack in their frowning faces. Empowered by the very essence of what God is – LOVE – he did two scandalous things. He took a fearless initiative and called the woman over to himself. Women were second class, relegated to the back of the synagogue, to the fringes of consciousness. The men were positioned in the front. That is where Jesus was, up front, because he was a man and he was teaching.
Jesus called her over to himself – that is, he called her to the front; out of the shadows into full view. Anyone who understands the geometry of synagogue worship understands the radical nature of this gesture. He affirmed her dignity, brought her out of the darkness of denigrating attitudes and into light of Divine love.
He then bestowed healing upon her in direct violation of Torah Sabbath Law. Again, seeing the deepest truth of these stories metaphorically, the woman was restored, not merely from her physical ailment, but from a harsh religious mind-set that rendered her invisible and could not celebrate with her in her restoration and transformation. She was restored to the community and affirmed as a woman. The common folks recognized it and they rejoiced, but the representatives of religion scowled and scorned.
“Perfect love casts out all fear.” Jesus was a fearless lover. That’s a huge part of what Jesus’ cross meant to his early followers. The cross was the inspiring core symbol that Jesus their mentor (Lord) was a fearless lover, and he challenged (invited, called) them into the same fearless love. To follow Jesus is to follow him into radical expressions of love; to not be stopped by any form of fear or external control applied by some authority of power.
1 John says, “God is love!” Grammatically, there are two ways to define love-as a noun or as a verb.
As a noun we mainly talk about love and describe love. We say love is this, or love is that, or love is some other thing, and we can be incredibly eloquent in our descriptions. But as a noun, that is as far as it goes – we talk and describe, even eloquently, but as a noun it is merely and mostly intellectual and does not really go any further or any deeper.
But to really know love; know the wonder and truth of it at a deeper level, is to experience it; to share it and receive it. In the end, love is a verb – an experience. “God is love.” Grammatically you can turn it around, Love is God. God is a verb – an experience – and God is known in the experience of love. Jesus calls us to be a part of and a partner in the experience of God.
For me, when I struggle with the idea of God, it is usually because I am defining God as a noun, and the best I can do with God as a noun is to talk about God. And no matter how eloquent my descriptions may be, how high and lofty my theology may become, I still am just talking about God – describing God as an object. But “God is love.” God is discovered and known in the experience of love. God is a verb and Jesus invites you and me into the experience to a place beyond eloquent words; beyond the words of dogma, doctrine and beliefs of the head to experience “God is love”; and in the process grow into our fullest humanity!
To affirm that God is love rules out images of God as an avenging judge out to destroy and condemn; or a God of the powerful lording over the less powerful. These views of God are merely projections of human rigidness, anger, self-righteousness and bigotry that are seeking justification and often use religion to do so.
The face of a child who stutters; or a woman who mutters, or the faces of millions whose lives sputter from hunger, or illness (physical or mental), or as victims of violence, or prejudice, or loneliness, or sorrow, or addiction, or some form of oppression – all parade past us – and we past them.
A friend of mine made this poignant point to me pertaining to the subject matter of this blog. He said, “Yes, perfect love casts out all fear. My concern in this election cycle is that perfect fear will cast out all love!”
Love notices. Love acts. Love is fearless. Love makes a difference!
“God is love” It is an Experience into which Jesus leads us.