Sunday, August 25, 2013

Straightening that which is bent over


“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
that one day (right there in Alabama) little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom (to) ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The above quoted words are segments of the great “I Have A Dream Speech” by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., heard by about quarter of a million civil rights supporters; spoken in the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., back in August 28, 1963.

They were powerful words, very apropos in a time that reeked with bigotry, racism and social injustice. They were words of yearning and of hope, coming from a people whose preoccupations in life seemed to hinge on the hope that some form of recognition of their human dignity would be the norm of the day.

Those were very “prophetic” words that continue to find relevance in our time and are so reflective of our calling as a church being sent into the world to bring the gospel of salvation. Those are words that need to be re-echoed in our time and in the spirit of our missional character in order to bring about a paradigm shift from an assault to human dignity into an appreciation of the image of God that is in all of us.

It is with frame of mind that I now invite you to consider two of our lectionary readings for this 14th Sunday after Pentecost and look at a way where we can possibly relate to it.

Our Old Testament Reading (Jeremiah 1:4-10) talks about the calling of Jeremiah to be a prophet for God. Prophets, as a distinctly “gifted” people, are erroneously thought of as the ones who could see what the future looks like. A good example is Nostradamus and his predictions or “prophesies”. This is a common misconception that continues to be coaxed in the world of entertainment and superstition.

They are not, however, what biblical prophets are supposed to be. In the Old Testament sense, prophets were individuals who had a divine calling; called by no less than Yahweh and whose intended mission was to speak on God’s behalf.

By Jeremiah’s time, there had been several prophets and each had a remarkable, challenging career. Their vocation as medium of God’s prophecies was a tough calling, so much so, that Jeremiah didn’t think he qualified.

Notice where he based his hesitation to heed his calling; it’s on his young age – Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Perhaps Jeremiah had seen how the prophets in his time faired in their special calling on God’s behalf and how they would get in harm’s way and that just scared him. Or perhaps, Jeremiah had, indeed, quite a limited understanding of who were qualified to do such a huge task. He most likely have thought that only the seasoned ones could do it; only those whose lives were impeccable. This might have been a plausible basis for his refusal – but not with God. God didn’t buy it.

Here’s what God, instead, said: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

These words must have been the turning point for Jeremiah’s paradigm shift. God assured Jeremiah that there’s more to it than just his youthful appearance. After all, God does not look at the external qualifications when He makes His call.

Jeremiah was called by God not only to be a spokesperson for God’s good news but also “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” His mission included that of being the carrier or messenger of God’s corrective measures; to do what it takes so that something right can begin to happen. It could be a painful tearing down or a plucking up so that something new and something fresh can begin to happen; so that a new life could be had, however high the cost might be.

It is in this juncture where the main character in our Gospel lesson takes it to a higher level.

Jesus, according to our Gospel for today (Luke 13:10-17), was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. It was one of those gatherings where people listened to what someone had to say about the Scripture. It was there that a “bent over” woman appeared and Jesus noticed this woman. She didn’t ask for anything but Jesus went up to her and spoke the words of healing: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 

And then he touched this woman. Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. She was freed from her 18 yr. old ailment; freed from her limited vision, considering that she was constantly looking down at her feet for all those years. She was liberated from a form of social oppression as she ranked among others whose physical deformities were thought to be the outcome of their sins or their utter disobedience from God.

Not everyone present, however, viewed with gratitude such a remarkable restoration not only in terms of posture but also of gaining a new perspective. Unfortunately, It was viewed from a very myopic lens. This was demonstrated in the protest of the synagogue leader, who, in his overindulgence on the man-made interpretation of the Mosaic Law on Sabbath, failed to see the bigger picture of how a new life has just been awarded. The synagogue leader needed to have his paradigm shift; to broaden his interpretation of the Mosaic Law away from the rigid and almost absolute stance. His protest that “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” needs to shift to an affirmation that the bent over woman’s healing and restoration could happen, as it did, even on a Sabbath day.

Lest we get judgmental on the religious leader, it should be noted that he was not really mean-spirited; he was just trying to champion his cause for obedient faithfulness. But so was Jesus. They both wanted the Sabbath to be observed, but they were not on the same page on how to keep it. Jesus says the time for salvation isn't tomorrow; it's right now, no matter what day it is.

Notice that in the call of Jeremiah, God said: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” God did not say: “OK, Jeremiah, you’re going to do all this but make sure you don’t do it on the Sabbath.” Also, notice that in the case of the bent over woman, it took place in a synagogue and on a Sabbath.  So, just maybe, the Sabbath might be the perfect time for healing and the church become a good place from which to initiate such healing.

My dear friends in Christ, we are the church and we have a mission; we have a ministry to do. It’s our “Prophetic Ministry” and as in Jeremiah’s case, we too are “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

If we are called to be engaged in our prophetic ministry, then we need to do it the way Jesus did it. Both the stories of Jeremiah in his call to be a prophet and the one concerning the bent over woman give us a model of what it means to be the church - the Body of Christ.

We profess that we are the church, the body of Christ that God uses to further His ultimate wish for the Creation He has made.

Our mission then should include the plucking up and the pulling down, the destroying and the overthrowing, in order to build and to plant.” Our mission should include the straightening and the aligning of things that had been bent over by human sin. Our mission is to be the hands and arms of the Great Physician Jesus Christ, the Lord. We become the medium or the conduit through which some restoration and new beginning could take place. Our mission should include looking around us for those who are still “bent over” and pressed down and there are more than a few out there. All we need is to open our eyes and more importantly our hearts for though we may see something worth our attention sometimes our hearts prevail in our denying of them the healing so badly needed.

Let us remind ourselves that our mission should not be bound by man-made parameters, even by those made in the name of religion.

 It is also my prayer that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. would find fulfillment and complete realization. Until that happens, we, through the exercise of our prophetic ministry, ought to promote such dream until all God’s people shall have been freed from their seemingly endless “bending over”. Then shall that song resound once more: “Free, at last. Free, at last.”

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