Mind The Gap

Jack and I have a new son-in-law whose name is Jamie.  He is an Englishman and last summer he and our daughter Beth were married.  What I have noticed about Jamie and about the British in general is a sense of politeness.  When Jack and I were in the UK a couple of years ago we fell in love with the people. They were always so helpful.  

There was the time we were staying in a little village in the Cotswolds. I ventured out to a little coffee shop in the center of town while Jack was fishing.  The coffee and biscuit were delicious, but when it came time to pay, I realized I had forgotten to bring my money. I was horrified, imagining the public shaming I would receive for breaking the most sacred of rules, “You have to pay for what you get!”  But the waitress simply said, “Don’t worry, you can pay later.”

And then there was the time we tried to sort out the parking in Stratford-on-Avon.  It was a bit vague as to which of the several “blue pay stands” we were to use, but we did our best to put the correct money in the right place.  A couple hours later we came back and found a warden just about to give us a ticket. We told him we did pay but we may have used the wrong “pay stand.”  

He said, “But did you have a good day?”  

We said, “Well yes, we had a lovely day.”  

“Well that’s all that matters.  I hope you enjoy the rest of your day!”

These stories speak of a culture that cares for people.  More to the point is the priority of people over the rigid enforcement of rules…Enjoy the rest of your day!  Don’t worry, you can pay later!

Our text this morning illustrates a much different kind of culture.  It’s the story of a woman known only by a label that described her infirmity.  She was the “bent over woman.” She had been that way for eighteen years. The cause of her condition is unknown but the effect of her ailment was her separation from the community.  She was ostracized, seen as the victim of an evil spirit. So, we read this text in the 21st century as metaphor.  Perhaps she was the victim of a name that had been imposed on her.  It happens all the time doesn’t it? Someone is told they are unlovable or insignificant or not enough.  Someone is given a name or has a reputation that marginalizes them.    

Unfortunately, the church has often given this message of not being enough for God.  Exclusion, supported by arbitrary rules and/or a wrong-headed devotion to the words of scripture rather than the Word of God…we are familiar with that.  We know it can be devastating. We know the church of the 21st century has some of the same problems of this early Lukan community. 

The woman in the text, subject to such exclusion, responds as you might expect:  she draws into herself, looks at the ground rather than risk making eye contact…she is held captive by her circumstances.  

So what did Jesus do? He noticed her, he called to her, he healed her, causing her to stand up straight.  He reminded her of her truest, most authentic identity as a daughter of Abraham, a child in God’s family.  Whatever anyone else had said to her in the past, the grace in that transforming moment was enough to heal her broken spirit allowing her to stand to her full height.  

Now, the leader in the synagogue was outraged.  Jesus had ignored the rules of appropriate religious behavior.  He healed on the Sabbath. It’s hard to understand how someone could be upset by Jesus’ healing of a woman who had been suffering for over 18 years.  Rejoicing would seem the most natural response. That’s certainly what the woman does, she praises God, which is really the essence of the Sabbath.  

There are two themes in the Hebrew scriptures that help us define what it means to praise God by celebrating Sabbath.  The first is to enjoy creation. God worked six days and rested on the seventh day just to experience the “wow” of all that had come into being:  the sun, the sky, the stars, the animals, the trees, the mountains. It was all so good.  

But here’s the other theme of Sabbath that often gets ignored.  It’s the theme of Sabbath that is grounded in liberation. It’s found in Deuteronomy 5:15.  

15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

On the Sabbath, we stop our striving in order to remember the liberation we receive as a gift from the God who brought our ancestors out of bondage “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”  The God of the Sabbath is the God who liberates us…the same God who wore the flesh of Jesus…the same God revealed in this story of releasing a child of God from her bondage. On the Sabbath we praise God who is both Creator and Redeemer.  And so yes, of course Jesus healed on the Sabbath. He liberated this woman; he reminded her who she was. She was a child of God.    

And then what?  I want to know what happened the next morning when she woke up. Did she stand up and stretch?  And surely if she did, she realized that she was seeing the world in a totally different way—from a totally different angle.    The world was no longer a small space around her feet, but it stretched in every direction, filled with possibility. And as she looked out rather than down, did she begin to notice the people who were still unable to stand up to their full height

You see when we are liberated from what keeps us in bondage, when we stand up to our full height and look beyond what is right in front of us, we begin to notice all the other people who are held captive by their pain: physically or psychologically or spiritually.  We can’t help but see others who continue to suffer with their problems. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian. He was intolerant of faith without action.  He lived and died by his theology. During WW II he was teaching at Union Seminary in New York but was compelled to return to Germany where he could be a pastor to his people.  Consequently, he was taken by the Nazis and executed in Flossenburg Concentration Camp for his role in plotting the assassination of Hitler.

Maybe the connection between faith and action that Bonhoeffer found compelling explains why Jesus gave such attention to healing.  It wasn’t only to eliminate pain, physical or otherwise. Healing puts us in touch with the powerful grace of God.  Bonhoeffer understood that healing reveals to us our true identity as children of God, as beneficiaries of Christ’s unconditional grace.  Healing enables us to sense our connectedness with each other so that we never feel alone. Healing results in our ability to stand up to our fullest height and claim the gifts God has given to us.  

Most importantly, Bonhoeffer would tell us that while healing is very personal, it is never private...there is also a social dimension of healing, as the entire community receives the gifts that are given by a person who is healed. 

If the woman in our text was healed today, if she experienced grace and then looked out into the world around her, she might see children crying for their parents and parents willing to risk anything to get their children to safety.  She might see parents wondering if their children would be subject to violence or racism simply because their skin is dark or they wear a hijab. She might see children of God who are left out, excluded from the faith community because of who they love.  She would see exclusion supported by the wrong-headed devotion to the words of scripture rather than the Word of God.

My favorite British phrase is, “Mind the gap!”  We heard this polite reminder over and over again.  On the train or on the bus, over loudspeakers, “Mind the gap.”  You see when you step off a train or a bus there’s a gap between the train and the platform, or between the bus and the sidewalk…between where you are and where you are going.  So there is always the reminder to “Mind the gap.”

The gift of the woman who was healed is that she could mind the gap.  When she was only able to look down, all she could see was the gap. But when her eyes were lifted up she could see beyond the gap and into the world she was called to serve.  She could empathize with others who still struggled, who still faced the vast gap between where they were and where God wanted them to be. She could empathize and she could act out of that empathy, just like Jesus did.  She could mind the gap.  And mindful of that gap she could act to heal.

As a church, God is calling us to stand up to our full height so that we can see the beauty of creation, but also have perspective on the suffering of the world.  It’s easy for us to look down and see only what is right in front of us. But God calls us to acknowledge the gap and mind the gap.  

You probably know that Bono, the leader of the band U2, is a deeply faithful Christian.  He is enormously generous and committed to confronting the world’s problems. A while back, he spoke at a Prayer Breakfast and said this:

 “A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord's blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it God. I have a family, please look after them too God. I have this idea...

And this wise man said: stop.

He said, stop asking God to bless what you're doing.

Get involved in what God is doing - because it's already blessed.

Well, as I said, God is with the poor. That, I believe, is what God is doing.  

And that is what God is calling us to do.”

May it be so.