“Why It Couldn’t Wait”
A Sermon on Luke 13:10-17 for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Preached August 25, 2013, at the Storrs Congregational Church, UCC, Storrs Mansfield, Connecticut, by the Rev. Matthew Emery
Perhaps you, like me, are familiar with having some recurring stressful dream, some repeating “nightmare”, if you will. From whatever recesses of our psyche dreams come from, time and again over many years there’s that one scenario that always seems to pop up and play out while time moves the world around your slumbering body. Each time it comes, maybe the setting is different, or maybe other details have changed, but when you awake in the morning and feel that anxious stress contorting your shoulders, even though all you’ve been doing is sleeping… you remember having passed through the scene and the stress before, many a time even.
For me, it always has to do with being late. But actually, it is more specific than that. My recurring stress dream is of being late for Sunday morning worship, and not only being late, but somehow unable to ever free myself of whatever it is that is keeping me. And by “late”, I don’t simply mean a minute or two or three late, the sort of tardiness that someone like our wonderful director of music Trisha Snyder can cover—and, admittedly, has on occasion—with a little vamping and improvisation on whatever she was playing. No, rather, I mean really late. Quarter hours, half-hours, and more… even so late that the service was supposed to have been over by time I got there.
In this recurring dream of mine, its never anything so simple like having overslept. It’s instead always some sort of feverish scene where I’ve realized I don’t have some critical item, requiring some epic journey across town or something to retrieve. Or I get caught having to fix some item, some piece of equipment, like my wireless microphone or a worship banner or or the printer I need to spit out my sermon text, and I keep on thinking that the very next jiggle will get it working, and suddenly it is 20 minutes later and I’m still there. There’s even been the ones where I’m just about to go in, and I realize I have on what I believe to be the wrong robe, and I run back to my office, and then I can’t get some piece undone. Finally I get that robe off, get all dressed up in whatever the correct vestments were to be, and then I realize I forgot my microphone, and so I have to take it all back off again, since that has to go first. Of course, the clock is ticking onward, the worshippers are waiting in the other room, and what was really the central matter at hand has gotten pushed off from its time.
While my recurrent nightmare may have its own stress related to being a worship leader, I know that I’m not the only one who’s had an anxious dream or two about being late. For those of you here this morning that are among our newcomers this fall to Storrs as freshmen at UConn, perhaps in your new living environment you have nightmares about being late for class on the first day. (Don’t worry, at the risk of raising an eyebrow or two among the faculty types here today too, I have this to say to you with that nightmare: it won’t be the end of the world if it happens.) Others of you may have had this dream about a final exam or your wedding or an important interview. Even for people a little less “type-A” than myself, our society’s sense of timeliness attaches significant weight to having things happen at their appropriate time.
That is, of course, all that the synagogue leader wanted too, right? For things to happen at their appropriate time. And Jesus working healing miracles on the Sabbath day was not the right thing happening at the right time.
The practice of observing a Sabbath day—of taking one whole day and stopping all work, having a day simply of rest and, in some cases, religious observance—had long and deep roots among Jesus’s Jewish community, descendants of the ancient Israelite people. Echoing all the way back into one of the stories our tradition tells to understand the creation of all the world, we hear in that story how “on the seventh day God finished the work that [God] had done, and … rested on the seventh day from all the work that [God] had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that [God] had done in creation.” Picking up on that pattern of the day of rest in God’s work in creating the world, the Israelite law—their covenant and code of life practices that made them who they were as God’s people—enshrined that observing of the Sabbath day in one of the Ten Commandments we find in the Exodus story. “Remember the sabbath day,” that commandment said, “and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
“For six days you shall labour and do all your work” the commandment said. That’s what the synagogue leader knew. For that matter, that’s what Jesus, a knowledgeable and accomplished Jewish teacher in his own right new. And even an act of healing, of transformation, of making a woman stand who had been stooped so low that all she often saw was the dust of the earth—this was work, was it not? It was not the appropriate time. And anyway, couldn’t she come back tomorrow, one of the other days, to get healed?
Yesterday, on the grassy greens and sidewalk paths of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., tens-of-thousands of people gathered to remember—and, in a sense, to embody anew—the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This coming Wednesday will mark the 50th anniversary of that march, and of the famous speech delivered there by Dr. King.
Another 50th anniversary passed by earlier this year, back in April, the anniversary of another significant moment in Dr. King’s work—and it is that piece of his ministry that sits on my mind this morning as we watch Jesus heal the bent-over woman. On April 16th, 1963, as Dr. King sat in a jail cell in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, he wrote a profound and convicting letter to eight of his colleagues in ministry. You see, earlier that week, these eight white ministers—a couple of Episcopal bishops, three Methodist bishops, a Catholic bishop, a Presbyterian minister, and a Reform Jewish rabbi—had published a letter criticizing the protest efforts in Birmingham, including a thinly-veiled swipe at Dr. King himself. These eight white clergymen were not radical segregationists or white supremacists by any measure: a couple of them had already taken controversial desegregationist stands in their own ministries, others would become ardent civil rights advocates in the long-run.
But to these eight on April 12th, 1963, while they could “recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized,” they were “convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” They felt that the pursuit of the civil rights cause should be done in the due course of proper action in the courts, that in the meantime existing rules and rulings should be obeyed, and they appealed to all Birmingham residents to “observe the principles of law and order and common sense.” Quite simply, in their eyes, it just wasn’t the appropriate time yet.
In his now-famous response, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King calls out these colleagues in ministry of his on every account and point they raise—the methods, the persons involved, the motivations. “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham,” Dr. King writes, “But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. … It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
And then, of course, he takes up the central matter of his colleague’s complaint, that the protest actions in Birmingham are “untimely”. “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights,” Dr. King writes. “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” Later in the letter, in words fraught with emotional depth, he admits to them his honest disappointment with the ‘white moderate’. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion,” he says, “that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; … who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
Wait for a more convenient season. There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured. Those always seem to be the refrains, do they not?
We like things in their appropriate time, and we—human as we are—like to be in control of just when we ourselves think that appropriate time will be.
In the case of our scene in the synagogue from today’s gospel, it is pretty easy, when it comes down to it, to make an argument in favor of the synagogue leader’s position. After all, if this woman has been bent over for 18 years, what would one more day be? She could come back tomorrow, be healed then, and what is a mere 24 hours more?
But you see, when God gets involved, you had better know what time it is. When God gets involved, you’d better realize that the time is always now. Another 24 hours? No, God’s time is now. Wait a few months? No, God’s time is now. Maybe things will get better in a few years? No, God’s time is now. “See, now is the acceptable time,” the apostle wrote; “see, now is the day of salvation!”
The problem with the synagogue leader, I don’t think it’s so much that he was too caught up in the letter of the law to know its spirit. No, I think he was too caught up in his own time to know just who it was teaching in his synagogue that morning. When Jesus shows up, every time is now time. With Jesus around, the day when God brought up the Israelites out of Egypt—that day becomes now, today, here, for you. With Jesus around, the day when David toppled Goliath—that day becomes now, today, here, for you. With Jesus around, the day God showed such love as to take on our own death and trample it down—that day is now, today, here, for all of us.
And let me say this, my friends, and then I’ll sit down. The truth is, sisters and brothers, another 24 hours would not do… another 24 hours will not do, because eighteen years was too darn long—is too darn long—in the first place. The day for you to claim liberation from whatever is keeping you bent over, that day is today, that time is now. Is it an addiction that keeps you looking at the ground? Today is the day Jesus wants you to be clean—tomorrow will not do. Is it self-doubt or fear or anxiety that has you bent such that you cannot breathe in the fullness of life? Now is the time Jesus wants you to stand up straight and hold your head up high and see all the wonders God has surrounded you with. Are you locked up with the oppressive snarl of others or our whole society, even, because of who you are, or what color you are, or who you love, or how much money you don’t have? Well right now the Holy Spirit is here, not just to help you stand, but to make you jump… to make you jump high and fly up and up until you can grab hold of that great moral arc of the universe, long though it may be, and help it bend ever faster toward justice.
There is no need, my friends, to be caught up in anxious dreams any longer… no need to fear that God is off in some distant place and some distant time. Today is the day… that that with me: Today is the day. Now is the time… Now is the time. Praise God… Alleluia… and amen!
 Genesis 2:2-3, NRSV, alt. for non-gendered language.
 Exodus 20:8-11, NRSV.
 C.C.J. Carpenter, et. al., “A Call for Unity”, letter to the editor, 12 April 1963, Birmingham, Alabama; The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, accessed 24 August 2013 at http://mlk?kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/popular_requests/frequentdocs/clergy.pdf. Emphasis added.
 Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, 16 April 1963, Birmingham, Alabama; The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, accessed 24 August 2013 at http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf.
 2 Corinthians 6:2