“Mother Teresa Came to Town . . .”

The Rev. Gary D. Jones

Chapel of St. James the Fisherman

August 21, 2022 (Proper 16C)

Isaiah 58:9–14, Psalm 103:1–8, Hebrews 12:18–29, Luke 13:10–17

This morning’s Gospel lesson about Jesus, the bent over woman who is healed, and the leader complaining because healing shouldn’t happen in church, … it all had me thinking about the late John Wimber, the music arranger for the 1960’s band, The Righteous Brothers.  Wimber was also the founder of the Vineyard Church Movement, one of the fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world.  Wimber tells the story about his conversion to Christianity.  He simply fell in love with the stories about Jesus in the Bible, he says – healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, multiplying the loaves and fishes…. So, he went to church, on fire about Jesus, eager to participate in this miraculous movement. He got a bulletin at the door from an usher and settled into a pew, full of anticipation.  But after only a few minutes, he said he was just…bored.  So, he got up and went up to the usher.

“When do they do it?” Wimber asked.   And the usher responded, “Do what?”  “You know,” Wimber replied, “the stuff.  When do they start doing the stuff in the Bible?”  The usher was still baffled.  “What are you talking about?”  “You know, multiplying the loaves, feeding the hungry, healing the sick!  The stuff in the Bible!”  And the usher responded, “Oh, we don’t do that here.  We believe in it, we pray about it, but we don’t do it.”

“I was terribly disappointed,” Wimber said.  “So I said to the guy, ‘You don’t understand, I gave up drugs for this.  When I was aligned with the devil, I did the stuff the devil did.  But now that I’m aligned with Jesus, I want to do the stuff that Jesus did!’”

… Stuff like Jesus’ interaction this morning: … “Woman, you are set free from your ailment…” ?

Peter Jennings and ABC News did a story on the Vineyard Movement and videotaped worship services in which worshippers were shown being healed, sometimes shaking uncontrollably, falling to the floor, as they were released from some malady, that sort of thing – very dramatic, Pentecostal, charismatic sort of worship.  And then Peter Jennings interviewed John Wimber.  He asked Wimber, somewhat skeptically, “Are you 100% totally convinced that this is always the Holy Spirit?”

And without missing a beat, Wimber said, “No.  I’m convinced it is largely the Holy Spirit.  I believe it is a combination of the human and the Divine.”  He went on, “You have to understand, Peter, some of the people who come to us are not well.  They’ve been through some pretty horrific stuff – they’ve been beaten, abused, molested…, and when church people start lovingly praying for these folks and the Holy Spirit touches them, they do some things that you and I probably wouldn’t do.”

As a lifelong Episcopalian I hardly know what to do with such Pentecostal or Charismatic goings-on like you find in Vineyard churches, but if there’s an Episcopalian in today’s Gospel story about Jesus and the bent over woman, I’m sure it’s the leader of the synagogue who objects, “This isn’t how we do things.  If you want to heal people, do it another time, maybe on a Tuesday … at night!”

How easily our customs and beloved way of doing things can subconsciously become enormously precious to us, and the next thing you know, our cherished ways have even become more important than the well-being of other people.

NT scholars remind us that Jesus was known for many things in his day – he was known as a prophet, a rabbi, a teacher of wisdom, and the leader of a social movement…, but by far, he was best known as a healer – which has me asking myself, “Are we still healing people today?”

How are we tending to the reality that so many of us are bent over by an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, and depression that is so severe that both Great Britain and Japan have established cabinet-level Ministers of Loneliness?  How are we tending to the masses of people who are bent over by guilt or shame, by sins and mistakes we’ve all made and carry around like heavy burdens year after year, or bent over by wounds others have inflicted on us?

And what did Jesus mean when he said to the bent over woman, “Woman you are set free from your ailment”?  You ARE set free, as if there was a place or a life in her (and within all of us) that has always been free?  …

One of the most famous passages in all of Thomas Merton’s writings is the passage in which he tells the story about how, after 17 years in the monastery, he was sent on an errand into nearby Louisville, where, in the middle of the shopping district, at Fourth and Walnut, Merton says he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all these people.  Everybody he could see.  He saw their secret beauty, their hidden life – a life that was likely hidden even from themselves.  And he knew he belonged to him, and they belonged to him.  “How could I tell them that they were all walking around shining like the sun?” Merton asked.

We have to remember that Merton was not in the monastery, he was in a shopping district.  These people weren’t all monks; they weren’t even all Christians, … some of these people were surely atheists and people who despised Christianity.  But Merton saw what he called “the secret beauty of their hearts.”  That life and sacred presence in every human being, which is our True Life, that has never been touched by our sins or our mistakes, never been tainted by our shame or our guilt…. It is a life that is free of all that…and it is in every one of us.

“If only these people could all see themselves this way!” Merton wrote.  “If only we could see each other this way,” he said.  “Then there would be no war or anger or greed.  Our only problem would be that we would want to fall down and worship each other.”

Maybe this is what Jesus saw in the bent over woman: her True Life, a life that was untouched by her ailment or whatever had kept her bent over for all these years.  Jesus let her know what she was not seeing about herself (and about all of us):  There is a place in you where you are free – where you have always been free and always will be free, your eternal life calling to you, “Come to me.  You are bent over, and I will give you rest and restore your soul.”

Jesus healing the bent over woman is a beautiful story.  But this was the last time Jesus went to church.  It had always been his custom to go to the synagogue, he stopped after this experience.  The leader who complained that it was against the rules to heal on the sabbath, the ensuing controversy, … it seems to have been the last straw for Jesus. Customs and principles had become more than people. He needed to move on.

He would go on inviting people to see the healing love of God all around them and within them, but he realized that there were so many messages in people’s daily lives drowning out the still, small voice of God’s healing presence, so he started teaching a little differently.  His very next words in Luke’s Gospel are these, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.”  It’s so small, you might not perceive it, he seemed to say, but I’m telling you it’s real and true.  “The Kingdom of God is within you.”

After St. Paul finished chiding the Corinthians for being argumentative with each other, he sums up everything by saying, “Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?”  It’s true of everyone, God dwells in you.  “So be careful with each other!”

I was rector of the downtown Episcopal church in Charlotte, NC during the years when that city rose to international prominence as one of the world’s largest financial capitals – millions of dollars on the tables of banks and law firms every day, and more and more people going to bed at night in mansions under silk sheets, … in tears.  Clearly, more money had brought wonderful glitz, entertainment, and fabulous restaurants to Charlotte, but it certainly had not brought a greater sense of meaning, true joy, or purpose in life for those who lived there.

And one year, shortly before she died, Mother Teresa came to town.  She was friends with the Roman Catholic bishop in Charlotte, apparently, and as she was concluding a world tour, the bishop invited Mother Teresa to speak in the Charlotte Colosseum.

The day came, and traffic to the Colosseum was backed up for miles.  Parking was impossible.  Clearly, people were hungry for something more in their lives, something was missing, something was not right.  And when this tiny woman was finally ushered to the stage in the center of the packed Charlotte Colosseum, with people packed to the rafters, she said early on in her address, “Don’t come to Calcutta.”  (She knew that’s what many saw as their cure.)

“Don’t come to Calcutta,” she said.  “Go home.  Go home and love the people you find there – in your neighborhood, at the grocery store, across the breakfast table, and perfect strangers.  Go home and love the people God sends your way.  Because I’ve traveled around the world, and I have never found the kind of spiritual poverty that I have found here … in the richest country in the world.”

Maybe this is how God wants to heal this bent over world in which we are living.

I’m not convinced that it needs to be full of Pentecostal or charismatic drama.  Maybe for many of us, it’s just a mustard seed, a still, small voice within saying, “Come to me, you who are weary and bent over.  Because you are already set free from your ailment.  And you have the power to heal each other.”