Rise, Stand Up!

Proper 16C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“She stood up” (Luke 13:13). We don’t know her name. She is as anonymous as her village. We don’t know where she came from. We don’t know why she was in the synagogue. But we can picture her. A weary woman, resilient and resigned. A woman “bent over,” and “quite unable to stand up” (vs. 11). She lived in a posture of forced humility all the days of her life. She spent her days staring at the ground, looking at her own feet, watching the dusty sandals of passers-by on the road. She cannot make eye contact, or see the sunrise, or remember what the stars look like, or raise her face to the evening breeze. She has suffered this way for 18 years.

Presumably, she came to the synagogue to commune with God, not to talk to Jesus. Jesus is teaching—probably surrounded by a crowd. She doesn’t approach him. She is no Cinderella. No one notices her enter the room—but Jesus does. She didn’t see him, but he saw her. He put his teaching on hold, called her over, and said the thing Jesus always says when he encounters the sick, the broken, the dying, the dead: “You are set free from your ailment” (vs. 12). “He laid his hands on her [and] immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (v. 13).

For Jesus, the worship space is exactly the place where hunched, crippled, and exhausted people are invited, encouraged, and released to “stand up straight.” Women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQI+ community, the poor, the homeless, the elderly, the incarcerated, the mentally ill, the differently abled, the uneducated or under-educated, the spiritually broken, the chronically ill—Christ calls them into a place where their dignity is restored and their full potential realized when they cannot stand up on their own. (Debi Thomas, “She Stood Up Straight,” Journey with Jesus, 8/18/19) This is the place for what is crooked to be made straight; and for the rough places to be made smooth, so with all flesh, we may see the salvation of God again reflected in the beauty of the sunrise, the splendor of the stars, and the feeling of the evening breeze upon our face. (Luke 3:5).

This would seem obvious. Yet, the very moment Jesus unbinds the crippled woman the leader of the synagogue voices his displeasure and indignation. Because Jesus healed this crippled woman at an inappropriate time—on the Sabbath—the leader of the synagogue got all bet out of shape. His angry criticism drowns out her joyful praise: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he tells the crowd, “Come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13:14).

Tragically, we are not astonished, but could have predicted, all too often religious communities are not a place of healing but of further bending. There is an unfortunate tendency to bend people over under the weight of shame, judgment, invisibility, false piety, condemnation, prejudice, legalism, and harmful theology.

What’s going on here? Jesus names the power binding both the woman and the synagogue leader as Satan. Satan, who name means, the Accuser, has bent them out of shape. The objection to healing on the sabbath is an example of religion that accuses rather than sets us free. Why do we think we can be more religious by making others feel small? The hunched over woman is suffering from a spirit that crippled her. She and the synagogue leader are loaded under the yoke of oppression of the Satanic power of judgement and accusation.

Notice, Jesus does not do what you would expect him to do if today’s gospel were a movie about exorcism. He doesn’t stand up, point a finger, and shout, ‘Satan be gone!’ Calling someone else Satan, identifying the other as evil, is Satan’s masterful, poisonous game. Instead, his response, his remedy, is compassion, not judgement or revilement. Jesus administers the same medicine the prophet Isaiah declared, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:9b-10).

Faith must proceed from our heart. It cannot live stuck in our head. The Scottish pastor and author and mystic, George MacDonald, the man C.S. Lewis called “my master,” said this about the mission of Jesus: “It was not for our understanding, but our will, that Christ came. He who does that which he sees, shall understand; he who is set upon understanding rather than doing, shall go on stumbling and mistaking and speaking foolishness.”

“We live in a culture of “automation” that locates our faith life in the head, not the heart. An automated relationship with Jesus replaces doing things with understanding and talking about things. I mean, we use our words about Jesus as an effort-reducing substitute for actually living like Jesus.” (Rick Lawrence, “Less Head, More Heart,” Friday Thoughts, 8/19/22)

I gotta say, I’m guilty. I’ve been a word person my whole life. My practiced ability to explore and describe things can become a barrier to protect me from doing the things I’m describing. Then my spirit is weighed down and bent out of shape. “It’s safer to explore ideas about Jesus, or consider how tasty his recipes for Christian living are, than to actually know him and live like him experientially.” (Lawrence) Like the woman in the synagogue, I stop looking for Jesus.

Yet even though I don’t see him, Jesus sees me. Contrary to our expectations; contrary to what we think we need; despite our misgivings; and often overruling our impassioned, self-righteous objections; Jesus touches and moves us into a new kingdom, a new life, a new mind, a different way of seeing, hearing and speaking. When we let ourselves be shaped by God, none of us can know how that might change us, our church, or other people around us.

The great pastor, author, and theologian, Frederick Buechner, died this week at 96. Buechner realized that the problem with steeling yourself against pain, or walling it off with our words, is that you simultaneously close yourself off from being transformed by the power of life itself. In one of his frequently quoted passages, he wrote: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace” (David Brooks, “The Man Who Found His Inner Depths,” NYT, 8/18/22).

Follow me, Jesus says. Imitate my life with your hands, your feet, your body, and soul. “You will become like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry” (Isaiah 58:11b). The accuser shall be driven away. Christ bids us to rise, to stand up. To receive the dignity that is ours. To look others in the eye. To see, even when bent over, our worth as children of God. To notice not the mud below but the sky above. And finally, to give thanks. To give thanks for such a beautiful world and a compassionate, gracious God.