A modern day story:
It was a typical Sunday, but then one of the ushers came to tell the pastor that there was a strange woman at the back of the church. The church was lovingly maintained by a dedicated crew whose work it was to ensure that all was as it should be, as it had been for centuries. The candles are the right height, the flowers in place- the stray petal that had fallen to the floor, removed. The beautifully gleaming altar properly set. The bulletins proofed and re-proofed were now in the hands of those who greeted and distributed greetings, smiles and handshakes to those expected, who were then handed off to those who would seat them in the usual spots. All was ready so that at the appointed time worship would occur in the time honored ways, quietly, respectfully and thoughtfully, where everyone knows when to sit, stand, sing and pray, in a dignified and orderly way with reverence. Because that’s how the typical SUNDAY is done.
The usher is clearly flustered by this woman. “Is she in any distress?” the pastor asks, putting on a robe and microphone. “Well, no, but we don’t know why she is here or what she wants. If she needs a voucher for groceries she can’t get that today, and we don’t have anything to give her. We wondered if maybe YOU knew her, or knew what’s going on because we’ve never seen her before.” The pastor peeks out and sees “Anne,” easily recognizable by the blue ski cap and long down coat she wears regardless of the season. It’s a lot of work being homeless, shuffling through downtown from sunup to sundown. Each day rising at the emergency shelter, trudging to the free breakfast with the Episcopalians, then to the public library until lunch with the Catholics, followed by hanging out around town until dinner somewhere else, then waiting for the shelter to open. Once a week the free meal is here at the pastor’s church. Anne has come weekly for years, longer than the pastor has been the pastor, towing a metal cart on wheels containing her possessions, tarped to protect her belongings. She walks head down, and often seems preoccupied and distant, slumped over her cart. Week after week she’s walked past these ushers to breakfast seemingly unnoticed by them as they were focusing upon their work. The pastor wonders what led Anne to change her routine and worship, but remembers the usher still standing waiting, and says, “Why, yes, that’s Anne!” The usher stares awkwardly, The pastor to ask if there is a problem. “Well, you see, it’s just that she has this cart full of who knows what with her.”
“Yes,” the pastor smiled, “she usually does.”
“Well, it’s in our entryway. We don’t know what to do and it’s in the way. Frankly, I don’t know how she hauls it all around in the first place. It’s not a good time for her to be here with all that stuff!
The pastor heads to where she is sitting, usher in tow. Anne’s tired face crinkles into a smile. She straightens up and it’s clear she is wearing bright pink lipstick- she has “dressed up” for church.
“Hey there, Anne! It’s good to see you came inside today!”
“You know this is such a beautiful, peaceful place,” she says. “I come here during the week when no one is here and just sit in the stillness, just me and God. Usually after breakfast I sit in your library and read a devotion book, but today I just needed to come.”
At this point, the usher points to his watch- it IS almost time for worship to start.
But the pastor sits down in the pew with Anne who keeps talking. “You know I’m not always sure about this whole church thing. It seems like there’s a difference between what Jesus says and how people in the church act sometimes. I can get pretty angry with how people treat me and look at me when I am walking around. And I’m not stupid. I know what they’re thinking. They try to pretend like they don’t see me or if they look at me it’s not friendly. It wears me down. But when I come in here, I know I God is here. I can put it all aside and we’ll talk, God and I, and somehow, things get straightened out and I can stop being bent out of shape.”
And each week after that day, Anne could be found in her “usual” spot, smiling, sometimes with a friend she had encouraged to come. And Jesus continues to teach and heal.
Maybe we can say that here at the campground we don’t wrestle with these issues as much. But what about when we go back home? Those whose existence is restored, whose lives are transformed, immediately go on to praise God and tell everyone- to teach with their lives. Every day the woman labored to walk by the place where people worshipped, for years unnoticed- until Jesus saw her. No one called out to her, or heard her. Are we ever people preoccupied with our work each Sabbath, observing all the formalities of worship so much that we hear God’s word taught, but are not living the Sabbath with others in need? Every healing is a moment used by Jesus to re-shape understanding.
Let’s start with how we see ourselves. You may not realize it but we are crippled too. When we are slaves to “our work” in life and forget to set it down, we don’t even realize the ways this distorts us and weighs each of us down. We become inflexible, and bent over our own “to-do” list. We may think that others are the downtrodden and crippled, but they are us. And even here today, each of us entered this space with the work we can’t put down that keeps us from really worshipping. Each of us, you and I, need an encounter with God to reshape us. Without it we’re unable to see eye to eye with our world around us. We need God to tell us we are free from what keeps us hunched over. Again this day Jesus calls to us to come and be in God’s presence this Sabbath day. Hear the good news that though we have again become crippled by sin, we’re again set free-by a God who steps into our midst and sees us when others don’t and who loves us when others won’t. By the power of God in Christ we are healed!
If you’re still with me, it’s time to think what it means to live as the healed. A few years ago, I visited the basilica of Sainte Anne de Beau Pré outside of Quebec. For hundreds of years, pilgrims have journeyed there believing it’s a site where God is especially present for healing. When you enter the enormous worship space, before you can even take in the stained glass, or the carvings, you are confronted by columns of crutches, leg braces, walkers, and canes that are strapped to the columns from floor to ceiling. Brought back immediately by those no longer crippled and offered as a witness to God’s healing in their lives because everyone needs to know. Today as you leave, leave your crutches and props behind. Walk out empowered to live as those whose lives have been transformed for Sabbath living, to tell everyone what God has done and there’s nothing typical about it!