Come sit by me. Watch.
The following sermon was preached by David L. Miller, former Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation, Dean of the Chapel, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, August 29, 2007.
"Come sit by me. Watch." So goes Jesus' invitation. "What do you see?" he asks.
I am here for the same reason I am always here: I want to see Jesus. I want to watch the watcher as the broken woman drags her body across the synagogue. I want to study his face as his eyes drink in the decrepit form of human degradation. But he won't have it. Jesus invites me to ignore him that I might see him. He turns the question around: What do you see?
I see a broken woman, ill, incapacitated for 18 years. She drags her broken body, bent and burdened across his field of vision and mine. And still I want to see Jesus.
"What moves through you as you look at her?" I ask him, but he does not answer. He only looks at this woman, nodding in her direction that I might see what he sees. So I look, and suddenly, she grows transparent to others equally broken I have seen and known … and know still.
I see through her to two others whose bruised bodies and worn spirits immediately spring to view.
The year is 1993. The place is Baidoa, Somalia, the city of death. That was the name given it by those of us whose duty was to write daily dispatches of what transpired there. We saw things we won't soon, if ever, forget.
Each morning there were bodies lying along the dirt streets, 100, 200 of them. Each morning those still possessing some strength dragged the dead by their heels from thatched homes and huts, refuges pieced together from random fragments of corrugated metal and colored plastic roofing left scattered by bombs, bullets and scavengers. The bodies were left by the road waiting for crews hired by relief agencies to gather them for burial, lest disease and death claim more than the 50,000 who had already escaped this caldron of Hell.
I saw her on the streets of Hell. She was the color of dirt, coated with the reddish-brown soil which soon enough would cover and guard her from further degradation. Rags hung from her tiny frame. Less than five feet tall, less by far than 90 pounds, an old woman, made older by grinding malnutrition that soon would grind her into the dust on which she walked. A thin staff, a stick in her left hand, she balanced a small bowl for begging or gathering grain from one relief agency or another amid the chaos of civil war where all the structures of society had collapsed in a heap.
Her appearance so striking I followed her up the street like a good journalist, shooting off a roll of film, but never seeing her face. I stayed behind her, which was hard since she could barely walk. But I saw and knew: her stooped figure tells as much and more of the story of human suffering than most of us ever cares to know.
I look at the woman in the synagogue, but I see this broken soul on the streets of Baidoa.
But I see another bent and broken body. The time is today. The woman's skin is bleached pale as a sheet from age and wear. Dementia dims the eyes that once sparkled blue with life and love for children and grandchildren. The mind that once kept 1000 recipes in mind and penned clever skits for her 4-H group to perform at state fair is long gone. That woman is long gone. We don't know where she went. We only know we miss her, my wife and her siblings most of all, because this is the woman who wiped their butts and dried their tears and cooked thousands of meals on the old farm, all the while teaching them what it is to be gracious and responsible and human.
Now together, with all who love her, we watch and wait, praying for a peaceful end, fearing the day soon to come when she will no longer know our names, the names she prayed for and worried about and loved more than she, in humble simplicity, ever knew how to say. Much of our common past together is already long gone in what remains of her mind and memory.
I see her, too, as I watch Jesus watch the woman. She trudges her frame through the synagogue, cutting his sermon much shorter than this one. And I wonder: What and who do you see as you imagine her there? What need, what loved one, what indelible face or image? What do you carry with you so that you cannot escape it without losing yourself? It is not my question; it is Jesus' question: What do you see?
Watch. There is much more to notice. Jesus calls to the woman to himself. He puts his hands on her, hands that bear the blessing of Eternity. These are the hands that have cradled the heads of children and broken bread and blessed fish and encircled the shoulders of his friends. These are hands that often folded in prayer to the Loving Mystery he calls 'Father,' hands that opened to the heavens in startled praise for the gracious goodness to which he opened human hearts. These hands cast out demons and stirred in the dust and pointed out hard-heartedness and hypocrisy.
These are the hands we most want to touch us. And these are the hands Jesus lays on the woman. And he says what I would have loved to have said to that unknown soul on the street in Baidoa, and to my mother-in law: "Woman, you are set free from your ailment."
Jesus speaks and his words immediately transform the scene. Sinking sadness over human ruin evaporates in the heat of divine love. The haunting melancholy that hovers around us in this age so short of the rule of God's own desire disappears. The air glistens, and time grows transparent to God's desire as we watch Jesus touch and heal. He unleashes an uncalculating and uncontrolled joy that likely sent him running for cover lest a bent old woman hurt him in her excitement over the advent of a blessing for which she had long ceased hoping.
The scene changes from seeing to rejoicing. And again, there is an unspoken invitation to see, an invitation this community needs. The invitation is this: to enter a startling world of grace and joy. Jesus invites us to look at his hands on the woman, to hear his gracious words and know that you stand before the great narrative of all life and time.
The arc of history moves from brokenness to rejoicing, from sorrow to unexpected freedom, from the degradation of Baidoa's streets and my mother-law's vacant blue eyes to that voice that, with authority and amid great laughter, says: "You are set free from your aliment."
Does it shape your inner world, changing the way you see, receive, evaluate and imagine … everything?
I believe that is why you are here, right now, right here. Someone, somewhere, at sometime moved you to believe and imagine that the Loving Mystery we meet in Jesus is moving all time from sorrow to the joy of eternal morning, from bondage to decay to life unimaginable where the loving desire of God fills all things.
Despite loads of evidence to the contrary brought to you courtesy of the evening news, you are here because you suspect there is another great narrative of life that runs like a deep subterranean river in, with and under all that is apparent, and the author of that story is the One who says, "You are set free from the bondage of death, cynicism and despair, free from the bondage of whatever history has done to you. You are set free from the anxieties and hatreds that choke the life out of you.
You are set free from needing to keep a firm grasp on that empty self you project and protect as if it were all that you are. You are free to knock the world over with your hope even when tears over earth's pain all but choke you to death. And some of you will know this experience all too well.
You are fee, for you are possessed by an unquenchable, illimitable, sometimes utterly irrational hope that all of life and every future belongs to the One who says, "You are set free from your ailment."
Together, we dare to hope that this crucified and risen Jesus constantly moves all time and history, your personal life and even our community, from fear to joy, from pain to Presence, from death to life, from the dark streets of Baidoa and the vacant eyes of the dying to the startled joy of the bent woman in the synagogue as she realizes that the unspeakable is true.
And it is this hope, this audacity, this beloved and holy craziness that makes you my sisters and brothers, my mothers and fathers, the beloved community from whom I will receive far more grace that I can ever give. And that, dear ones, is why I am quite happy to be here.
Whatever happens in you and among us this year, open your heart and senses to hear the one who is always present to release us from the ailments that keep us from living full and free. Watch and wait. And the hope of Jesus will fill every molecule of your being that your joy and his may be complete.