Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (8/25/2019)
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The time is now. God’s will is for freedom and fullness of life. Our reluctance delays but cannot ultimately deny the fulfillment of this purpose. So, God grant us the faith and fortitude to partake in, and not to impede, God’s work of liberation for all who are still captive.
This month marks the 400th anniversary of “Landing Day,” the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on the shores of the English settlement that would become Virginia. The ship had originally carried about 350 Africans, forcibly removed from their homes and corralled like animals, but as many as half of them died en route, the first of millions who did not survive the Middle Passage in the centuries that followed. Another ship took some of the surviving captives aboard and landed at Point Comfort in late August 1619, where twenty-some Africans were sold in exchange for food. This was a landmark event at the outset of two hundred and fifty years of systematic dehumanization and exploitation on the basis of race. The first twelve generations of Africans living in the American colonies and the United States were enslaved.
Slavery was outlawed one hundred and fifty years ago. Still, people of African descent living in the United States have borne the burden of its legacy ever since – repressive Jim Crow laws, unequal access to housing and resources, intimidation and mob violence, state-sponsored segregation, racial disparities in criminal justice, mass incarceration, and persistent casual prejudice. Over the course of American history, racism has repeatedly transformed itself in order to survive in each successive generation. It is, to borrow Jim Wallis’ term, “America’s original sin.”
It’s not easy to talk about. And, those of us who’d rather forget about the role race continues to play in American life may bristle at those who insist on reminding us. We resist acknowledging and addressing our ugly heritage. But the ongoing movement for racial justice demands an unflinching examination of the interrelated problems and the will to change both our hearts and our systems.
Of course, there is renowned precedent for this hard work. In April 1963, with the Civil Rights movement well underway, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for his role in nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama. At the time of the protests, eight fellow clergymen published a statement criticizing the strategy of direct action. “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized,” they wrote. “But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” It was a classic case of people who are not harmed by injustice dictating to people who are how and when justice should be done.
Much like the complaint of the religious authority figure in our Gospel from Luke today: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he scolds the crowd in the synagogue, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Jesus’ healing of the bent-over woman does not conform to the prescribed timetable. According to the religious establishment, the guidelines for Sabbath observance are inviolable, even in extenuating circumstances. And after all, if the woman has suffered for eighteen years, surely she can wait one more day. The leader of the synagogue might as well have said, I recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But I am convinced that this healing is unwise and untimely. Of course, it’s easy to counsel someone else to be patient.
But, the story in our Gospel is about much more than an individual healing. It’s a story about the purpose of Sabbath in the first place, and God’s purpose in general. Sabbath observance is rooted in the memory of the people’s liberation: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” Moses proclaims to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, “and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” Jesus’ healing, therefore, does not violate the intent of Sabbath, but honors it. By lifting up the bent-over woman, he accomplishes God’s will to free the captive, while simultaneously laying bare the cruelty of maintaining barriers for the sake of barriers:
“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
In similar fashion, Martin Luther King rejects the complaints of his detractors, responding to their statement in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” one of the most significant American Christian documents of the 20th century:
“Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well-timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ …We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ …I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society… when you are… plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’; then you will understand why it is difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corresponding despair.”
Dear church, the time is now. God’s will is for freedom and fullness of life. That’s as true now as it was at the time of the Exodus, in the first century, the seventeenth century, and the twentieth century. Our reluctance delays but cannot ultimately deny the fulfillment of this purpose. So, God grant us the faith and fortitude to partake in, and not to impede, God’s work of liberation for all who are still captive.
 E.R. Shipp, “1619: 400 years ago, a ship arrived in Virginia, bearing human cargo,” https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2019/02/08/1619-african-arrival-virginia/2740468002/.
 Ronald P. Byars, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, 385.
 A Testament of Hope, 292-3.