Who has encountered God? What was it like?
Mine was in my first communion, done not as a baby or as an elementary school age child, but as a 25 year old. I encountered God through the words and hands of a young woman experiencing homelessness, who after being kicked out of her house for being gay, came to worship. At a time of testimony, she told her story about she hoped that the story of the prodigal son would become her story, that she would be able to reconcile with her family one day. It was then that I had the realization that the stories in the Bible were not just bronze age fairy tales, but powerful and alive as we are. But I encountered God when during our communion in the round, with one person serving another, she offered me the cup.
That night, in March of 2013, changed my life. Encounters with God often change our lives. It’s inevitable when you catch a glimpse, however brief, behind the curtain of the workings of life, the universe, and everything that how we see the world changes. Divine encounters snap our heads around as much as a sudden cold wind does, causing us to refocus from whatever was distracting us. They reveal truth that we had not seen, and sometimes, that we wish we had not seen.
Our readings today are both about encountering God. Our Hebrews Reading is about the majesty of God as cosmic creator, the God of blazing fire, of smoke clouds and trumpet, whose voice is enough to overwhelm us. God the inescapable, God and the angels of the heavenly host, I am who I am, the ground of being. God is the consuming fire.
Our reading from the Gospel of Luke is also about an encounter with God, and although there are no flames or trumpets in this story, it is as full of God’s glory and majesty as any divine encounter in the Bible.
Let us remember that the gospels tell us that these healing stories are in there not just to make us go, oh wow look at that Jesus guy, isn’t he just great, but they also serve a didactic, that is, a teaching purpose. This story is a bit more explicit about its lessons then some others.
The first lesson we should consider is the explicit one, about the Sabbath. It is hard for us to understate, or even really understand, just how important Sabbath was and is for many Jewish people. Actually it’s easier for us to understand in Miami than in many other places; people who have Orthodox Jewish friends, family, or coworkers or who have been in those neighborhoods know just how serious that community takes the Sabbath.
This extends to understandings of the Jewish portion of the Bible, the Old Testament as well; my understanding is that for Rabbis, most important part of the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis isn’t Original Sin or creation vs evolution debates, but the creation of the Sabbath, when God rested on the seventh day.
So Jesus’s teaching here about the Sabbath would not have been obscure in any way to his audience in the synagogue, nor would it have been obscure to the people who first read Luke back in the first century. It would have been a debate that everyone would have been familiar with. The argument that Jesus uses, one commenter notes, was a common one- if this idea is true on a lesser principle than it should be true on a greater principle- if you would save and care for a farm animal, surely you would do so for a human.
But I believe that this is the less interesting teaching that is happening in this healing story. The more interesting one is embodied in the woman Jesus heals, and how Jesus speaks about her.
This woman is hunched over, so severely that she cannot look ahead. This is something I’ve seen before; it physically happens with people with severe arthritis and other pain.
But we can, on top of that image of physical distress, imagine people who are so bound by pain and strife and trauma that they psychologically, mentally, spiritually cannot see the way in front of them. That even the very idea of hope has been denied to them. Perhaps we are or have been those people, who see no future ahead of them, no horizon beckoning them onward. It is not that she is a sinner and this pain is divine punishment; she is captive to evil forces beyond her, oppressed by chronic pain.
And in addition to her healing her physical issues, Jesus liberates her from the forces of desperation and isolation binding her. Metaphorically and physically she can now see ahead, see the horizon calling her forward. Her isolation from the community is of course not her fault, and to fix that Jesus reminds her community- not her, because she already knows it, but her community- that she is a fellow daughter of Abraham, and had always been, even in the most difficult times of her infirmity, an integral part of the community.
Her life is changed by this encounter. This happens when anyone encounters God.
What about our own encounters?
In Pentecostal churches, encounters with God- usually the Spirit, happen all the time. Indeed, in many of these churches, it’s not really worship until the Holy Spirit shows up. People will shout, dance and sing as the music builds, and as the spirit catches them. You may have seen videos of people getting slain in the spirit, shaking or falling down while dancing to the music. Many worship services are half day or all day affairs. The worship and praise time at many Pentecostal and charismatic churches is longer than our whole worship service.
That’s not how we tend to encounter God in churches like ours. That’s just not really our thing- it might be cultural or theological but maybe if a song is really good we’ll applaud quietly at the end. We have our deep breaths and still yet compassionate prayers. Many of us also encounter God through nature and through human kindness. Sometimes a song we sing or the words of the sermon are exactly what we need to hear. We love that verse about the Hebrew prophet Elijah encountering God not through the fire or the earthquake, but through the still small voice.
Yet both are valid ways to encounter God. Indeed, I believe that God’s vastness and ultimately, incomprehensibility, mean that any time we try to limit who or how or when people encounter God, that usually says more about us than it does about God.
Whether it’s through flame and earthquake, dancing and singing, word of God rightly preached or the silence and breath of meditative prayer, I hope you encounter God, and it sets you free.