I preached this sermon on August 21, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 58:9-14 and Luke 13:10-17.
Out in the western part of the United States, one thing that you will often come across is a ghost town, tucked into some forgotten valley or huddled along a lonely highway. If you have ever traveled out there, perhaps you have heard of or even visited one—Bodie, California, famous for its gold mines and its lawless inhabitants; Rhyolite, Nevada, which boomed and went bust over the course of just five years; or, one of my particular favorites, Glenrio, Texas, an abandoned town on Route 66, bypassed by the interstate, in which you can wander down the middle of the abandoned highway, where the only remnants are a crumbling gas station, a shuttered diner, and an empty motel in which the only guests are the occasional wild animal and the desert wind blowing through the cracked windows.
What is it about ghost towns that captivate our attention, maybe even send a chill up our spine? Most of them, as far as I know, don’t have a ton of actual ghost stories associated with them—they are less haunted place than they are haunting places—haunting us with their faded memories of something that was once vibrant but is now only a shadow of itself. A place that, for one reason or another, has outlived its usefulness.
I think ghost towns compel us and scare us a bit because, we, too, live with the prospect of loss, of dereliction, the fear of what it might feel like to watch the years go by as one forgotten, to wait for visitors that no longer come. They remind us of the fragility of things, of ourselves, even, and they teach us that communities are not inevitable—they must be built and tended and invested in, lest we all find ourselves cut off from one another, living with ghosts.
The Scriptures are full of people who are themselves cut off from the living, from any sense of community. Think of the Gerasene demoniac we heard about several weeks back, the man who was plagued by demons and who lived among the tombs, an outcast in a literal city of the dead.
Or the woman in today’s Gospel lesson, who has been afflicted with an unnamed illness for 18 years, bent over, unable to stand up straight, in a time and culture in which disease and disability isolated one socially as much as it did physically (not that much has changed in that regard). She herself, like so many who are burdened by physical limitations, is treated as a ghost within her community, practically invisible, unheard, disregarded and forgotten, perhaps even thought of as someone who has outlived her usefulness, such that her healing by Jesus is received more as an affront to religious order than as a miracle of restoration.
Because this is the accepted way of things, isn’t it? Whether its with towns decaying along the side of the road or people decaying along the side of the road—there is a certain measure of acceptance that this is just the way it is, that perhaps that place or that person just couldn’t keep up with the pace of society, perhaps it’s just the sad state of affairs in a competitive and changing world that some communities must die, and that some people must be left behind. It’s tough out there. Can’t save ‘em all.
And so we visit ghost towns with their broken buildings and we see the haunted faces of our broken neighbors and we shudder at the brokenness but we accept it. We accept it all as part of the landscape, because, what else can we do? Ruined cities and ruined people, always there, always just beyond the edge of where we dare to look.
But God looks. God sees them, the fallen cities, the stooped over women and men. God sees them. And God does not accept it. God says: no, another life, another world is possible.
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.
Where we see a ghost town, where we see a lost soul, a regrettable curiosity, God sees and speaks of possibility, of healing, of hope.
This is why the healing power of Jesus, and the perspective of God that it signifies, is so radical, so shocking, so powerful, because it flies in the face of all our expectations, all of our resignation to the decline and decay of people, of places, of ourselves.
“Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” Jesus says, and he speaks the same word to all who will hear him. Rise up, daughter of Abraham. Rise up and reclaim your place among the living. Stand tall again and know that you were not meant to be forgotten, that you cannot outlive your usefulness, because to God you are infinitely precious, and there is never an expiration date on your belovedness nor on your promise.
As Isaiah proclaimed,
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.
So rise up again, you who have accepted your home among the ghosts. Rise up and be who you always were, inhabit your life fully once more, for in the reign of God you are not collateral damage to progress, you are not lost to time, you are part of a life, a community, a story that will never die. All you have to do is accept that this is possible, despite what the world seems to suggest, despite the ruins all around us. That is faith. Have faith that life—your life, our life together, the life of this earth—will find a way. With God’s help, it can. It will. We were never destined for dereliction. We were never meant to be ghosts.
In one of the places I mentioned earlier, Rhyolite, Nevada, there are actually some sculptures in the desert just beyond town. An artist put them there decades ago in a sort of open air museum. And one of them is called the Last Supper—its a platform of life-size figures in a tableau, all draped in white shrouds, like ghostly disciples waiting for the meal to begin in the middle of the wilderness.
It is a haunting piece of art, but when I look at it, it is also strangely encouraging. For it seems to say that there is nowhere—not even in the most remote, most forgotten place, not in the most remote, most forgotten life—nowhere that God will fail to show up and prepare a feast. There is nowhere, n one that God will pass by. God will find us. God will not forget. God will lift us up.
And on that day the ruins will be rebuilt.
And on that day we will stand tall, and we will live.