Luke 13:10-17

Our reading today comes to us from the Gospel of Luke chapter 13. Let us listen now to what the Spirit is saying to us today:

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

The story continues with the religious leader, angry that Jesus has violated religious law, and Jesus replying in effect—what better day, what better place to heal and be healed, to free and be freed than this one here and now. Its what we are here for.

Today is Welcome Back Sunday, so let me begin with a welcome to one and all: welcome, old timers, first timers and one timers; regulars and (especially) irregulars. Welcome back to all who have been elsewhere this summer, especially Shepherd students; Shepherdstown just never feels quite right when you are not here.

And welcome please, our new and improved SPC website—shepherdstownpresbyterian.org-- launched at last, halleluia! It is live, it is lively, its informative. It is also, in a very real sense, another critical way that we extend our welcome to the world. It features this statement:

We welcome all people regardless of age, race, ability, sexual orientation, marital status, social class, religious affiliation or none.

Let me pause and point out: this is no random list. Each category named is currently excluded from full participation in certain so-called Christian congregations, often actively, systematically and in the name of Jesus.

Ourstatement continues: We understand hospitality to be central to a life of faith. We aspire to practice the radical inclusion that is at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching. We are committed to the movement to full inclusion and equality in church and society for all people including our GLBTQ brothers and sisters.

Pausing again: why, given all the justice work to be done, do we single out that one category for emphasis? Many reasons, here are two—1. the struggle for GLBT equality is happening here and its happening now, its happening in families, culture, our legal system, in legislatures across the land, and within the Presbyterian Church USA. None of those other categories can currently be legally denied employment and housing just for being who they are. For no other of group is it illegal to marry as it is for gay and lesbian people in most states including our own, further denying them an additional 1,138 federal rights and protections that the rest of us take for granted. It is still illegal in the Presbyterian church to consecrate even a legally sanctioned same sex marriage in states where this is possible. These injustices are of immediate pastoral and personal concern to many members and families within this congregation and therefore, to this community as a whole; and 2. The institutional muscle working to prevent full equality is coming almost entirely from Christian churches (in the name of Jesus!) So communities like ours, that understand the gospel differently and have the freedom to say so out loud have a critical role to play in working to correct these injustices. In other words, if the church is part of the problem, it had better be part of the solution. Later this fall we will be holding a series of events to help equip and empower all of us to do just that: stay tuned.

The statement continues: We understand faith as trust in the power of Love rather than intellectual assent to beliefs. We welcome questions as precious tools of the human quest for meaning, and doubt as essential to a healthy spiritual life. (end of quote)

So welcome goes way beyond being friendly to strangers. it is, more importantly, a whole way of being in the world, that I think is at the heart of who we are, or at least intend to be, as community. We do not always get it right, but at our best, we do welcome all kinds of people and we do delight in diversity. We also love ideas, dissent, doubt, and different ways of knowing and expressing. We welcome mystery, and education and science, and the wisdom and practices of many different spiritual traditions in addition to our own. We delight in art, technology and popular culture, the life giving bits, anyway, BECAUSE to quote the great Jewish mystic Rabbi Elimelech “Whoever does not see God in every place” (and face!) “does not see God in any place.”

Welcome is a foundational spiritual practice, central to our tradition. As Parker Palmer writes, in all the different biblical stories, this simple message recurs: “if we fail to offer hospitality to the stranger, we will never have a chance to learn God’s surprising, unsettling, liberating truth.”[i] In other words, we are called especially to welcome people and things that make us uncomfortable. Pay attention to that!

In our story today, Jesus: 1. reaches out and touches a woman, and 2. heals her 3. In the synagogue, an act of welcome that shatters religious convention. And this amazing exchange ensues—how dare you heal on the Sabbath exclaims the indignant leader. What do you think we’re here for, replies the indignant healer. Jesus welcomes the broken woman and she welcomes him; only in receiving his touch is she healed.  

Authentic welcome, given and received, leads to deep healing, in private and public life. These are connections that we will be exploring in detail together in our Sunday seminars this fall with an exploration of Parker Palmer’s newest book Healing the Heart of Democracy—get it and read it now.

Palmer’s central claim is that we must cultivate and practice certain habits of the heart if there is any hope of rescuing any sense of a common good in our nation. Among the most important habits he names are 1. Extending hospitality to those who are different (and please remember that “different” comes in many forms) and 2. Cultivating hope. These habits, he suggests, are supported by 2 core attitudes: 1. an attitude of humility, accepting the fact that my truth is always partial, so in order for me to be whole, I need to remain open to those who differ; and 2. chutzpah, undertaking these practices—hospitality, hope, humility--with courage and joy. [ii]

Habits of the heart are essential because heartbreakis universal.  Palmer writes “as long as we are mortal creatures who love other mortals, heartbreak will be a staple of our lives.” The real question, he says, is whether we allow our broken hearts to be shattered into pieces, and become unresolved wounds we inflict on others, or find a way to be broken open into “largeness of life” and an increasing capacity to hold our own and the world’s pain as well as joy… [iii] It is only with practice and intention (and, I believe, the support of a spiritual community) that we can continue to stand in what he calls the tragic gap, the chasm between our knowledge of what is and our hope of what might be. We inhabit a broken and heartbreakingly beautiful world. Holding that tension breaks our hearts, again and again, but in the process it can also expand our empathy and inspire us to become hopers and healers.

Long long ago when I was lost in a difficult spiritual wilderness, a member of this church overhearing some lament or other, reached out and touched me with these simple words: “you could come by my church sometime. It’s a really healing place.” I never forgot it: her words, her welcome, her promise, in part perhaps because, given my experience at the time, healing seemed like the most oxymoronic description of church I could imagine. Years afterwards, when the heartbreak got bad enough, that simple welcome guided me here. I will always be grateful.

And I have found healing, for myself, and so many others. There is amazing power in a simple welcome, a word of acceptance, a non-judging presence. I’ve come to believe that this spirit of healing that seems to hang around this place is indeed the product of hearts broken open, ours and all those that went before us. Quoting again from our website:  “in 1862 SPC became a hospice for the wounded and dying from the Battle of Antietam—the single deadliest day of war on America soil. Ever since those tragic days, we have "heard" cries and prayers for peace arising from these bloodied floorboards. It has led us to become a house of peace and healing for all people.”

Welcome is a whole orientation toward people and our own everyday experience, and its not an easy way. And so, we practice. We practice together, in relationships and common life, in conflict, in study and in prayer. We practice together in part to inspire one other to take that way of being—a deep and intentional openness to what is—into our individual lives. We will experience difference, difficulty and conflict. We will encounter joy and beauty and heartbreak. So, let us continue practicing together, welcoming all beginning with this prayer from Thomas Keating:

Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me today
because I know it's for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons,
situations, and conditions.
I let go of my desire for control and security.
I let go of my desire for approval and pleasure.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, person or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God and
God's action within.  Welcome.

And the people said: Amen

Song: All Are Welcome

[i] Parker Palmer, The Politics of the Brokenhearted (The Fetzer Institute, 2005), 13.

[ii] Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

[iii]Parker Palmer, Politics, 2.