20 Pentecost; Proper 22, Year C, Track 2
(Luke 13:10-17) Now Jesus 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.
The prophet Habakkuk looks at all of the strife and destruction, wrongdoing and injustice surrounding him, and he cries, How long, O Lord?! When will you do something? Then he takes his stand at his watchpost to wait. Answer me, God! And something happens. Something that has a touch of comfort in it. Habakkuk senses that there is still a vision. God’s vision. It is still true. It will still surely come. In God’s time, it will not tarry. Wait in faith.
I wonder whether I have enough faith to be comforted like Habakkuk. I think I’m more like Jesus’ disciples who cry out to him in frustration, “Increase our faith!”
Jesus gives them an answer that seems not much more comforting than Habakkuk’s. What’s the matter? he seems to say. It only takes a little faith, the size of a mustard seed. A little faith goes a long way.
Then Jesus shifts their expectations. Look! he says. When a slave comes in from the field, he doesn’t sit down and expect to be served dinner. The slave just does his job. He serves the meal to his master. That’s you. Do your duty. Your service is its own reward. That doesn’t sound particularly comforting either, does it?
One of the privileges of being a priest is the opportunity of being with people as they wait to die. Dying is a duty, an inevitable duty. It is a holy time, though; often very hard. It is mysterious. I’ve waited like Habakkuk with dying friends and with families crying, “How long, O God?”
I’ve told you before that I am a natural doubter. There aren’t many things that I approach with a simple faith. I tend to
struggle; I often ask “Why?” and “How long?” and so many other questions.
But, I’ve been through the death journey with enough people that I now approach the time of death with a very simple faith. I really trust God about our dying. I believe God uses the dense time before death to do works of healing or of insight that might otherwise be impossible in normal time. Sometimes I know the grief is so thick that everything seems only dark or tragic in its midst. But so often, in retrospect, I’ve seen grace and healing emerge out of that thin space before death. I’ve seen relationships reconcile; I’ve seen fears evaporate; I’ve seen trust deepen. Amazing things happen during the journey into death. Occasionally we experience them in moments during the journey. Sometimes it is only later when we realize in retrospect something significant has happened. But I’ve been in death’s presence enough to trust God deeply and simply. God uses our time of death to do good things. With that little faith, I find I am usually able to take my place at the watchpost and wait. There is some comfort in the waiting. There is a vision. God’s vision. There is hope, and faith, and love.
I recently read a wonderful book titled, “And There Was Light,” the memoir of Jacques Lusseyran, who lost his eyesight in an accident when he was eight years old. When Hitler invaded France in 1940, seventeen year old Jacques formed an underground resistance group. Jacques had developed such keen skills of non-visual observation that he could intuit through his senses when someone was truthful and trustworthy and when they were not. So Jacques was in charge of recruitment.
But the work was risky, and the Gestapo eventually found them. In prison as Jacques learned that his whole network of friends had been arrested, he knew it was likely they would all be killed. He prayed, he thought, he worried. “Then, by chance,” he writes, “I hit my elbow hard on the wall. It hurt a little, and then did me a lot of good. I cried aloud, ‘I am alive, I am alive.’
“One small piece of advice,” he writes. “In a spot like this, don’t go too far afield for help. Either it is right near you, in your heart, or it is nowhere… If you try to be strong, you will be weak. If you try to understand, you will go crazy… Reality is Here and Now. It is the life you are living in the moment. Don’t be afraid to lose your soul there, for God is in it.”i
Living in the moment, Jacques endured prison and brutal interrogation. Eventually he was crammed into a cattle car and transported to a German concentration camp.
He wrote about how the prisoners coped at Buchenwald. “All of us were naked, if not literally, to all effects. We had no rank, no dignity, no fortune left… and no face to save. Every man was cut down to himself, to what he really was.”ii Jacques was perplexed by a criminal who years before had strangled his mother and his wife, but now freely shared his bread with others “at the risk of dying sooner.” And an honest tradesman, the father of a fine family, who would “get up in the night to steal the bread of other men.”iii
Jacques said that it was especially hard for the religious whose God no longer worked for them; hard for the respectable “who still ran after their lost respect;” and hard for the intellectuals who found their knowledge useless. Jacques writes, “The rich were the ones who did not think of themselves, or only rarely, for a minute or two in an emergency. They were the ones who had given up on the ridiculous notion that the concentration camp was the end of everything, a piece of hell, an unjust punishment, a wrong done them which they had not deserved. They were the ones who were hungry and cold and frightened like all the rest, who didn’t hesitate to say so on occasion – why conceal the real state of things? – but who in the end didn’t care. The rich were the ones who were not really there.”iv
Like the old men over seventy, who seemed already “to belong to a better world.” Jacques “found nothing but gladness” in them. “They absorbed Buchenwald as part of the great outpouring of the universe…”
“That is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. The self-centered life has no place in the world of the deported. You must go beyond it, lay hold on something outside yourself. Never mind how: by prayer, if you know how to pray; through another man’s warmth which communicates with yours, or through yours which you pass on to him; or simply by no longer being greedy. Those happy old men… asked nothing more for themselves, and that put everything within their reach. Be engaged, no matter how, but be engaged.”v
There is a vision. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Live in the here and now. It only takes a little faith, the size of a mustard seed. A little faith goes a long way. So do what you have to do. Be engaged. Be absorbed in the great outpouring of the universe. Do not live for yourself alone, but lay hold on something outside yourself. Enter the mystery of life until by your final duty, you enter the mystery of death. And if you can, be rich before that time; be nothing but gladness. Eventually it will all be light. Eternal light. Here and now, it doesn’t even take eyes to see such light.
i Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light, Kindle location 3337 ii Ibid, location 3789
iii Ibid, location 3844
iv Ibid, location 3789
v Ibid, location 3836