Updated: Jan 15
Good morning. I am the Reverend Greta Ronningen and I am so pleased to worship with you this morning. I am new to this area having moved here last November from the Pasadena area. I am a founding member of the Episcopal monastery Community of Divine Love. We are Benedictines and we are all committed to prison ministry inspired by Matthew 25. Jesus asks us to visit the prisoner and says that this is one of the places where we will find him.
And indeed, it is where I am most keenly aware of the presence of God. It seems unlikely that in an environment designed to diminish the spirit or at least human flourishing – instead I find the most vibrant faith and presence of Spirit.
The story today of the bent over woman is such a touching one. I love that Jesus sees her and has compassion for her. It seems Jesus doesn’t even consider waiting until after the Sabbath to liberate this woman who is suffering. We are not told that she is there for a healing so it must be to worship God and then when she is freed, she praises God. I imagine her shouting and waving her arms around like folks do in Pentecostal churches. Liberation can be like that. The best cause for celebrating.
And yet not for everyone. The leader of the synagogue is upset and threatens Jesus for breaking the rules of the Sabbath. Sadly, he does not join in the joy of her release from eighteen years of suffering. He is so attached to following the rules that all he can think about is challenging this rebel Rabbi - Jesus.
And Jesus is not having it, he yells out: “You Hypocrites!” This is his most common criticism of religious folks. He really doesn’t like it when people of faith act righteous and accusatory. Jesus gets in trouble by standing up to this oppressive use of religiosity.
Eighteen years is not insignificant in the bible. In the book of Judges, it says it is the number of years that Israel was in bondage to Moab and 18 is the number of years the Israeli people had troubles with the Philistines and the Ammonites. It is also the number of people killed by the collapsed tower in Luke. Some scholars think that the number 18 symbolizes LIFE as the number 18 in Hebrew is equivalent to the word life. And all these situations, including todays bent over woman, are lacking full life.
18 is the number of years a young woman I know spent in prison on a wrongful conviction. Kiera Newsome was 16 years old when she was arrested and found guilty of killing a gang member. The amazing thing is that she was sitting in a classroom at the time of the murder and her teacher testified to that fact. Some eyewitnesses lied and pinned it on her and despite her perfect alibi she was found guilty and sentenced to 60 years to life. Once Kiera was in prison the nightmare continued. Due to her case, she was now identified as gang member (which she wasn’t) who killed a man from the crips, so she had a target on her back. She had to learn to fight to defend herself and was in danger every single day.
She did what she could to bring attention to her case including writing to the California Innocence Project. Years went by without hearing anything, and she lost hope. Even though she has a strong faith she was at her wits end and was preparing to kill herself, but exactly that day a letter came from the Innocence Project. They saw her and had compassion for her suffering. They worked hard for her and finally – after 18 years in prison Jerry Brown commuted her sentence and she went home.
She was on Dr. Phil telling her story and also the podcast Wrongful Convictions. Kiera now has a little boy named Champion.
Eighteen years is a long time to suffer. Honestly, I cannot imagine how hard it would be to spend years in the hell of prison for a crime you did not commit. Such resilience she has. She now facilitates programs in the women’s prisons as a way to support women inside.
All of us are carrying burdens – burdens that can even cripple us. Some of us live with the evil spirit of shame, others with the spirit of not-good-enough, others with fear, others with anger. All of these take their toll on our lives. But clearly Jesus wants us to live free – whole – not bent over.
One day in seminary my professor said, “Religion is meant to liberate us.” I was struck by this; on some deep level I felt the truth of this. Yes – this is my understanding of what Jesus did while he was among us and what I believe salvation means. To be liberated and to live into our potential. He spent his time liberating people from limiting ailments, like the bent over woman and the blind man. He also might have liberated the leader of the temple from his limited idea of the Sabbath – his need to enforce rules. He too is living less than.
What might Jesus free you of? What burden are you suffering under? May the God of love bring you all that you need to live free.
The Reverend Sister Greta Ronningen