In our gospel lesson today, Jesus saw a woman who had been ill for 18 years. This woman was in such bad shape that she couldn’t stand up straight, couldn’t stand upright. Instead, she was bent over, “doubled over,” as the lesson says.
Jesus and this woman were both in church. Other people were present, people who didn’t seem to even notice this bent-over-double woman.
Luke didn’t tell us this woman’s name. Maybe he didn’t know her name, just that Jesus had healed her. But we’re interested in this woman, as Jesus was, interested in her story, interested in what’s actually ailing her and keeping her from standing upright. So let’s give her a name. Let’s call her Resurrection.
I dug out Resurrection’s records, went back 18 years and read all about her life. The symptoms of her illness were quite obvious, even then. What was doubling her over was lack of money: Resurrection’s income projected for 1998, 18 years ago, was almost exactly $20,000 less than its projected expenses. That will double you over, particularly if you don’t have any savings. Turns out, Resurrection had given all of its savings away. What Resurrection had was the hope that someone next door would die and bequeath it money. The shame of that thought must have bent Resurrection down a bit more.
Not all was illness, though. 1998 was Resurrection’s “Year of Outreach.” The idea was to focus on helping others. The idea—and this was a very good idea—was that if Resurrection could do what it felt good about, could do what it counted as life, it would not get better, exactly, but at least stand more upright.
Resurrection’s $20,000 deficit budget didn’t include any money for outreach. No money for the school—lost people over that! No money to help others. So Resurrection held a silent auction to raise outreach money. Kathie Madden organized the event. Raised an impressive $7,300, about 3 percent of the budget, enough to give money to 21 of the 32 organizations which historically had counted on Resurrection for money.
So THIS is the woman in the temple in today’s gospel lesson. She’s very faithful. She’s in church even though she’s bent over double with illness. She’s trying mightily to do what our FIRST lesson today tells us we should do: she’s trying to offer food to the hungry and to satisfy the needs of the afflicted. But she’s bent over double from the struggle to do these things.
In 1998—just 18 years ago—Resurrection knew she was ill. A man named Clark Dobson (does anyone remember Clark?) wrote a letter to the Vestry with his diagnosis of the situation. “An earlier Vestry,” Clark said, “decided to [give away its] $200,000 [savings].” Clark called this an “irresponsible act,” given the age of Resurrection’s building and its needs. He named four signs of Resurrection’s illness:
- A roof that was leaking
- An organ that needed to be replaced
- A sound system that Clark called “a regular embarrassment” and
- A kitchen with equipment that doesn’t work.
I’m not faulting Clark for his letter, you understand, because here is Resurrection’s “illness” spelled out for you: We like to help others more than we like to take care of ourselves. Is this really an illness? This is always the tension in a church, isn’t it, or should be the tension? And, as “illnesses” go, isn’t this one of which to be proud? Our first lesson today says that if we do the things that Resurrection has done, “the Lord will… satisfy [our] needs in parched places…” Why should we be doubled over by choosing to do the very things the Lord God tells us to do?
In 1998 Resurrection’s Vestry came up with a plan. You can ask Betsy Raymond—she was Associate Senior Warden that year. The Vestry’s plan was to increase publicity to attract new members, and to reach out more to those rich folks next door at Goodwin House. God had a better plan, though: A new Spanish-language Pentecostal congregation showed up on Resurrection’s doorstep asking for a place in which to worship and offering a lot of “rent” money. Wasn’t this the Lord, satisfying Resurrection’s needs in its “parched places?”
As we look around today, the view is somewhat different than it was 18 years ago. We notice that other churches are now showing the signs of the same illness. These others just don’t yet have Resurrection’s experience with the disease. What does Resurrection have to teach them? What does Resurrection have to learn about being cured?
What Resurrection has to teach is that God provides. We might be bent over double with lack of money, but Jesus shows up and helps us to stand upright. Today Resurrection has a relatively new roof and a refurbished organ. We still do a great deal of outreach, even more than in 1998, things that directly help people in need. In the process we’ve discovered that some things we thought were essential—a working dishwasher, for example, really are not required. Our sound system is still a regular embarrassment, in a room full of about $80,000 of sound equipment owned by our three tenant congregations—congregations who God has sent, congregations who reach people for Christ whom we cannot, and congregations who enrich us beyond measure.
Resurrection is still ill, in a way. In its heart of hearts, Resurrection thinks that someone next door with real money will die and leave us their money. And yet, Resurrection is getting better, too. It is so used to Jesus showing up and healing it in unexpected ways that it is standing taller these days. Why? Maybe in the end, what a person dies of is far less important than how they lived their life. Maybe in the end, it’s far more important to have helped others at the expense of self than to have lived an elegant life. Maybe, in the end, the Christ who keeps showing up and healing us is telling us to “stand upright,” to “fear not” because he’s got us surrounded by his care.
Our response should be the same as the woman in today’s gospel lesson: she stood upright and praised God.