September 29, 2010

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Holy Touch

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 13:10-17

These two stories from scripture – the call of Jeremiah and the healing of the woman in the synagogue –have some common threads. What strikes me first about the stories is the way they illustrate God’s unusual choices. They remind me of the little ditty: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” How odd of God to choose a child and a woman as agents of transformation and grace. But that is exactly what happened.

God’s call came to Jeremiah he was only a boy. The Hebrew word used to describe him is na’ar. A na’ar was a child no older than 12 years. God was calling this boy to a daunting task. Jeremiah seemed justified in his protest. “Oh Lord God, I won’t know what to say. I am just a kid.” How could he go to the rich and powerful and call them to account? How could he confront the religious leaders of the time with a call to repentance? How could he presume to speak the word of God in his wicked world? And yet all that is exactly what God intended him to do.

Jeremiah was wiser than his years. Even though he was just a na’ar, he understood that this was hard and disruptive work that God was setting before him. God gave him six things to do: “To pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” It’s interesting isn’t it, this list of the six things that God called Jeremiah to do, this list of the prophet’s tasks? Two-thirds of the list is about clearing out and getting rid of that which is no longer useful. It is the prophetic equivalent of taking out the trash. It is only then that the last little bit of the task, the building and the planning, can take place.

Some of those who seem to me to be self-appointed prophets, rather than God-anointed, lean to the first part of the list, the plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing. They are more interested in pronouncing judgment than sticking around for reconstruction. On the other hand, the folks I know in many congregation, maybe including this one, seem to be mostly drawn to the last two things on the list, the building ad the planting part, making something new, bringing something exciting into existence. We think that’s the good stuff, the true holy work. Whether it is a new program, a new mission, planting a new church or just building up and growing an old one – yeah, that’s the good stuff.

But the call of God is clear: The holy work of the prophet has both aspects. Tearing down does hand in hand with building up. And building up cannot take place until the old structures are gone. What lesson is there here for us? How does God touch us through these instructions?

Probably very few of us would gladly welcome destruction and overthrow. We want to keep the structures of our live in place, not pull them down. Isn’t it much better to have the same familiar patterns and people around, even when they aren’t perfect? You know the old saying: Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.

But think about this: if you have ever remodeled a kitchen or started a new garden or called a new pastor… you’ll know that there is a lot of plucking up and pulling down, a lot of disruption that has to precede the building and the planting.

That work is hard and sweaty. You have to get your hands dirty; you have to live in a place where you can’t see anything new and exciting except in your own imagination.

When God reached out to touch Jeremiah, to call him to a holy work, God set before him a difficult task. Jeremiah had to get his hands dirty, he had to put himself at risk, he had to be unpopular, to put it mildly. He was God’s messenger of restoration and wholeness, but he was also the one who reminded the people that they needed to change their ways in order to find that shalom. And remember, he was just a boy.

Like Jeremiah, the woman in the synagogue was also a most unlikely choice as one to embody God’s healing message. For eighteen years, she had been a prisoner of her own body, bound up in a terrible, crippling disease, one that left her bent over, unable to stand erect and look up. Eighteen years is a long time to live with the kind of limited perspective she must have had, full of pain herself and painful for others to see. When she came into the synagogue, she would have stood in the section with the other women, not in the place to speak or even be counted. Women would have been strictly segregated since there was always the danger that contact with them, even accidental, could render a man unclean and therefore unable to come into worship.

Given this practice, what Jesus did was especially astonishing, even offensive. In the middle of the services on the holiest day of the week, in the presence of all of them, he seemed to violate the very laws that had called them into being as God’s chosen people. He spoke to the woman. He singled her out and called her to him. He brought her into the center of worship. And he touched her. She was healed and began to praise God.

Just as God’s call and contact to the boy Jeremiah seemed odd, so was Jesus’ call and contact with the woman. The leader of the synagogue was furious. There was Jesus, participating with this woman in ways that seemed counter to some of the most precious teachings of the faith. If there was anyone there who was bent out of shape, it was not the woman, but rather the leader of the synagogue. Like the religious and political leaders of Jeremiah’s day, he was offended, irate, and (hmm) more than a little self-righteous. But as an old preacher once said: It is always dangerous to try to be more spiritual than God!

Both Jeremiah and the woman were odd choices. The fact that they were singled out for a holy role upset the status quo and angered those who were in charge. And there are other similarities in these two stories. Neither Jeremiah nor the woman was seeking a position of power. In fact, they both understood their place in society as being on the margins, not fully accepted or respected or valued in society. But it starts to seem that is where God might work the best -- on the margins. God seems to choose the least and the last, maybe because those are the ones who have the time to hear what God is saying.

Another common thread in the stories is an attentiveness to the word. Jeremiah and the daughter of Abraham were both listening. They may not have liked what they heard, it may have taken a lot of courage to respond, but they were paying attention. They were ready to hear.

And finally, they were both transformed by a holy touch. God reached out and touched Jeremiah’s mouth and said: “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Jesus laid his hands on the crippled woman in the center of the synagogue and healed her and she was able to look up.

Both the boy and the woman responded to the holy touch with words and action, prophecy and praise. And both of them created controversy.

God’s holy touch demands a response that might be prophecy or praise or both. God’s holy touch is transforming. Nothing will be the same after you experience it. God’s holy touch can lead you into a place of controversy and chaos, a place where you find yourself plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing, confronting and offending, associating with those on the margins. It is only then that you can build and plant. It is only then that you can look up and see what God has in mind for God’s creation.

God’s holy touch is a transforming, healing action. Those whom God touches are called respond in the same way, with their own actions of transformation and healing, their own words of prophecy and praise. Without a doubt, the world needs people to do this work. Are you one of them, one whom God is touching, one whom Christ is calling?

You are, all of you: women and children, young and old, men and boys and girls. God is choosing you, Christ is calling. Pay attention. Do not be afraid to answer and act. Let the holy touch transform and heal your life and then go and do likewise.

Thanks be to God -- may it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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