A black mother tells her young black son before he goes out to meet friends to take off his hoodie so he doesn’t appear dangerous to someone with a gun. “Why?” he asks. “That’s just the way it is.”
A single mother who works three jobs to make ends meet has to tell her children that there’s not enough money to buy them new clothes and supplies for the upcoming school year. “Why?” “That’s just the way it is.”
A young black man asks his wife before he goes out jogging if the clothes he’s wearing make him look like a threat in their mostly white community. “I don’t think so, why?” “That’s just the way it is.”
In 2015, women, on average, still made 79 cents to every dollar that a man made. “Why?” “That’s just the way it is.”
A man approaches a restaurant in his wheelchair to attend a special event with his seminary classmates who have been seated upstairs in a private dining room. “Sorry sir, we don’t have an elevator to get you upstairs.” “Why not?” “That’s just the way it is.”
“That’s just the way it is.”
What we have in Jesus, if nothing else, is someone who died trying to show us that the “way it is” isn’t the way things always have to be.
In this morning’s gospel reading from Luke, we find Jesus in the synagogue – a place where he’s been known to cause quite a scene – and again, he’s doing just that.
A woman who has been crippled by an evil spirit for eighteen years comes into the synagogue, and Jesus sees her, calls out to her, and heals her. He is immediately rebuked by the leader of the synagogue for working the sabbath. And of course, Jesus puts him to shame, pointing out the fact that he leads his animals to water on the sabbath day, so ought not this daughter of Abraham also be set free from bondage on the sabbath day?
Now, I’ve heard this passage approximately one million times before this week, and something jumped out at me this week that I had never considered before. If we put aside for a moment the legalities of what it means to do “work” on the sabbath in Jesus’ time, who’s the one doing the work here? Is it Jesus? By laying hands on this woman and freeing her from the force that has crippled her body for 18 years, is Jesus doing the work? Or is this woman, this crippled woman, the one who’s really doing the hard work? For 18 years worth of sabbaths she hasn’t had a choice but to work; she has been carrying around her broken body, taking twice as long to complete her daily tasks, being ostracized from her community, being constantly reminded of the evil forces that have power over her life by a body that won’t allow her the freedom to live the life that she dreams for herself.
Isn’t she the one who’s doing the real work? Her whole life is work.
It’s not that different for many people that you and I know today, and maybe even some of us.
I know there were plenty of times when I felt like I was spinning my wheels in college just trying to make it to my next pay check. My family had fallen on hard times, and all of a sudden I had to make enough money to pay my rent, buy new books for my classes, pay my utilities, buy groceries, put gas in my car to get back to work, and I never, ever, seemed to have enough money for everything I needed. USBank must’ve made a fortune off me in overdraft charges while I was in college. During those few years, my whole life was work, and by comparison, I’m still an extremely privileged person in this country. I was able bodied so I could work long hours, including overnight shifts, and perhaps more importantly I was white, so I was more likely to be hired for additional jobs when I applied.
And ultimately, I was able to recover from that difficult time because of my privilege, and the generosity of friends who could afford to help me, with no real lasting damage except maybe a brief moment of panic each time I receive a letter from the bank.
The woman we hear about in the gospel this morning didn’t have much of anything going for her, and until a miracle happened, she had no hope of recovering from this affliction. She was crippled, and in Jesus’ time that meant that she had an evil spirit, which made her an outcast to society. She likely would have had no way to make money other than begging, and no community support to take care of her.
I think about this woman, and I can’t help but think about the people I know who are not physically disabled, but who have been crippled by evil forces in our world today.
The evil force of racism keeps our black and brown siblings in Christ living in fear of the police, many living in poverty, living in a world where they are statistically more likely to go to prison, and/or receive a sentence that is disproportionate to their crime. This evil force of racism makes it ok for a 32 year old Ryan Lochte to get drunk and vandalize a gas station restroom then claim to be robbed at gun point because quote “he’s just a kid,” while Gabby Douglas has been relentlessly criticized in the media for not holding her hand over her heart for our national anthem. This is a crippling force of evil that overcomes the body and the spirit, making it impossible to take a sabbath from this kind of work.
The evil cycle of poverty keeps people from getting ahead, and makes it so hard to get by that something like a ticket for an expired parking meter or a minor traffic violation can derail a person’s whole financial life and sometimes land them in jail.
The evil forces of sexism and heterosexism have kept women from earning their fair share and prevented gays and lesbians from having the right to marry for decades.
This list could go on, and on, and on. There are evil forces at work in our world today that make it impossible for some among to us ever stop working. These evil forces constrict bodies and souls, and turn entire lifetimes into a constant, desperate, struggle for a break from the work that never comes.
It takes work to try to convince people every day that darker skin doesn’t denote lesser value. It takes work to try to prove that a woman’s work is worth every penny of a man’s. It takes work to make enough money to support a family when you are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty with a center so strong that it’s almost impossible to break out.
All of these evil forces, these “isms,” are made and perpetuated by human frailty and imperfection. These are the created things that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us will fall away, when God removes what can be shaken and leaves behind only that which can never be shaken, the kingdom.
This, I believe is what Jesus was constantly pointing to in his ministry. The way things are, isn’t they way things always have to be. These temple laws about working and not working on the sabbath aren’t what matters when all that’s left is the kingdom. What matters are the beloved children of God who were known and loved by God while they were yet in the womb. Jesus calls for the woman in the temple to be set free from that which binds her, and to be restored to the person God created her to be before the evil spirit crippled her body and dampened her soul. Jesus was able to do that work for her, so she could finally have her own sabbath, and she was set free to rejoice in the Lord.
I would stake my life that is Jesus were here, right now, today, that he would be in our churches pointing us away from these “isms,” these unspoken rules of our society, that seem to have existed before time, and pointing us toward the things of God’s kingdom that cannot be shaken; justice, mercy, generosity, equality, radical welcome and inclusion of the stranger.
The thing is, Jesus is here, right now, today. Jesus promises us that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he will be in the midst of us. Paul tells us that Christ has no hands and feet in this world but ours hands and feet. We are the ones who are called to take up Christ’s message that the “way it is” now, isn’t the way it always has to be. We are called to act on our belief that we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. When these human structures of racism, poverty, sexism, heterosexism are called out and acted against, they cannot stand. God, working through us, is able to shake them and make them fall away, but we have to take an active role in that, and that, for some of us, that will mean letting go of the power that those structures give us.
For me, the first steps of this long process look like educating myself on the ways that I, personally, have benefitted from white privilege, having a lot of awkward conversations with friends and relatives when I hear racist or hurtful language coming from them or from me. I have to stop using my privilege as a blindfold that keeps me from seeing the injustices perpetrated against people of color all around me, and bear witness against them the way Jesus shows me how to do time and time again in the gospels.
These are just the first steps in a journey toward justice that will never be fully realized until all of these human structures have fallen away and only God’s kingdom remains, but as believers in God’s kingdom, we are called to start taking these first small steps in the hope and faith that the kingdom of God is at hand.