If you ever look closely at my hands and forearms, you’ll notice that there are quite a lot of little scratches and scars on my skin. That is because I have cats! And they can be a bit of a handful sometimes.
For example, my oldest cat, Iago, is 13 and he haaaaates having his claws trimmed. He was born a feral street cat and he immediately freaks out any time he feels like someone is trying to trap him or hold him down. It doesn’t matter how I try to do it. He squirms away and yowls at me when I try to get him to sit still and let me trim them. He snaps instantly awake if I try to do a sneak attack while he’s napping. And even if I pick him up and hold him so he can’t run away, he crunches up his abdominal muscles and scratches at my arm with his back feet until I let him go.
It’s like he forgets how much happier he is when his claws aren’t so long that they click on the floor when he walks and get stuck in things. It’s like he forgets that he’s known me for over ten freaking years and that I’m where the kibble comes from!
But I love that little stinker. We’ve been through a lot together. He was my Peace Corps cat in the Dominican Republic, and it was a huge hassle to get him back to Nebraska. But I was happy to do it, because I love him.
Now, I don’t have kids, but I would imagine that many of you who do can relate to this on an even deeper level. You’ve taken your kids to get their shots or told them to eat their vegetables or asked them to pick up their stinky socks, and you know that sometimes they can be little stinkers about it. But you do the thankless task of being a parent, because they’re your kids and you love them.
Yet even as much as you love your kids – and as much as I love my cats – all the love we feel is only a pale imitation of the love that God has for us and for all of creation. Imagine that. As much as we love the ones we love the most, God loves us more. God’s love is greater than we can even imagine.
That’s the love I see at work in a reading like our first reading from this morning. This text from Isaiah is one of my favorite passages in scripture. The promises that God makes are just so beautiful:
The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
That is a God who sees all our brokenness and all our stubbornness and loves us anyway – claws, hairballs, and all. God doesn’t abandon us to our ancient ruins and our broken bones, but instead has mercy on us, binding up our wounds and building us up in love.
It’s no wonder that the psalmist cries out in the words of Psalm 103:
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all God’s benefits–
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…
And we can plainly see God’s steadfast love and mercy at work in our gospel reading for this morning. Jesus goes to teach in a synagogue where there is a woman who has been living with a disability. For eighteen long years, she has been bent over, unable to stand up straight. Jesus has compassion for her. He touches her, and for the first time in a long time, she stands up straight. For the first time in almost two decades, she looks up – and just like the psalmist, she is filled with praise for God’s goodness and love.
And yet, even in this beautiful scene of healing, we see that there is resistance. The claws have come out. The leader of this woman’s synagogue ignores her and riles up the crowd. Instead of joining her in praising God, he starts criticizing Jesus, accusing him of “working” on the sabbath.
Jesus has zero chill about this. He calls the whole crowd out for their hypocrisy. He points out that any one of them would untie their thirsty animals and give them a drink on the sabbath and they wouldn’t consider that work – but they think it’s too much that this woman, a member of their community, a daughter of Abraham, is freed from her illness on the sabbath day. It seems like maybe this woman isn’t the only one in need of healing in this community – there are some hard hearts that need to be opened as well.
The conflict in this gospel reading is an echo of our gospel reading from last week. I’m sure you remember that one: Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” and, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” In our reading for today, we see that he is doing exactly that. It’s not that Jesus is deliberately trying to be divisive or to make people angry. He is trying to heal them and free them and give them life. But they are resisting him. Just like my ornery cats – and maybe like your ornery kids – they just can’t seem to accept that he is trying to help them.
Realizing this also makes me hear the rest of the reading from Isaiah in kind of a different way. Isaiah uses a lot of “if” language in this particular passage. If you just read it kind of quickly, it sounds like a lot of law – like, if you do X, then God will give you these blessings. But that’s not actually what Isaiah is saying. He says:
If you would remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you would offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted then your light would rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. If you would refrain from trampling the sabbath and serving your own interests, if you would call the sabbath a delight, then you would take delight in the Lord.
This isn’t about God. This is about you – about us. God is trying to guide us into living well. It’s just that we keep resisting. God is going to bless us, no matter what. Those beautiful verses I read earlier about satisfying our needs and raising us up are not conditional at all. Those are the things that God has already decided to do. The question is about what we will decide to do. Beyond blessing us, God is trying to teach us how to live good and holy lives. The trouble is that we just keep getting in the way. We keep putting up a fight.
But God is patient and persistent. However stubborn we may be, however proud or broken or just straight up ornery we may be, at the end of the day, our resistance is no match for God’s love. Heh – we can imagine God’s arms covered in lots of little cat scratches just like mine, lol. But God thinks we’re worth it. We are God’s own beloved children, and God’s not about to give up on us. God is out to liberate us and give us life. God loves us unconditionally – claws, stinky socks, and all.
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No cats or preachers were harmed in the writing of this sermon.