Proper 16C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“She stood up” (Luke 13:13). We don’t know her name. 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).  A woman who spent long days staring at the ground, looking at her own feet, watching 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).

I know. It’s astonishing!  This is not the sort of thing we expect in church.  But for Jesus, the Church 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 LGBTQ community, the poor, the homeless, the elderly, the incarcerated, the mentally ill, the differently abled, the uneducated or under-educated, the spiritually broken—Christ calls us into a place where our dignity is restored and our full potential realized when we cannot stand up on our own. (Debi Thomas) This is the place for what is crooked to be made straight; and the rough places 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).

Yet the moment Jesus unbinds the crippled woman the leader of the synagogue voices his displeasure and indignation.  His angry criticism drowns out her joyful praise: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he tells the crowds, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day”(Luke 13:14). 

Sadly, this does not surprise us.  Tragically, we are not astonished, but could have predicted, that 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.

We know this.  It’s one reason the church has lost its standing in the wider culture today.  Yet, we also know there is power in the gospel and in God’s grace.  We are called to throw off the weight of this painful history and reclaim the beauty and the power of the gospel, just as the nameless woman did long ago.  

Notice, for a moment, the synagogue leader is not a bad man. Our history, theology and religious traditions are valuable and worthy of respect.  “But what the leader misses is the heart of the Sabbath, the heart of God’s law, the heart of the tradition. What the leader misses is compassion. The kind of compassion that trumps legalism every single time.  The kind of compassion that doesn’t cling to orthodoxy simply for orthodoxy’s sake. The kind of compassion that consistently sees the broken body, the broken soul, the broken spirit — before it sees the broken commandment.” (Debie Thomas, “She Stood Up Straight,” Journey with Jesus, 8/18/19)  

Can our church community be a place of unbending? Saint Augustine, echoed centuries later by Martin Luther, defined human sin as being incurvatus in se.  That’s Latin for saying we somehow always manage to bend in on ourselves, rather than live outward toward neighbor and God.  Worship every week is chiropractic treatment of the mind, body and soul.  By grace we are unbent. The crooked is made straight so we may stand erect and celebrate our dignity as children of God.

Often, we don’t realize how bent-in we have become.  Once, I sat with a large group of people with a big pile of paper clips. (Have you done this?)  The facilitator said, ‘give yourself a paperclip if you had books in the house growing up.’  Take a paperclip if neighbors tend to welcome you in a new neighborhood. You get a paperclip if your parents went to college and/or if they benefited from the G.I. bill.  Conversely, give up a paperclip if you were homeless as a child, if a parent or caregiver suffered from mental illness, addiction, or died prematurely. You probably know what happened. Pretty soon I had a very long chain of paperclips—and so did the other educated, affluent, English speaking, mentally sound, straight, able-bodied, white, Christian men born in the U.S. in the room.

I’m ashamed to say, I felt pride at winning this game.  I sat there smiling when I noticed one of my colleagues holding back tears. He was visibly upset.  He had no paperclips.  Even those he had were taken away. That exercise held a mirror up to myself and the image reflected back was pretty twisted.  All the privileges afforded me by luck and the accidents of birth are connected to the suffering of my brothers and sisters who are being denied that same privilege. It was one step among thousands through which God has slowly, patiently, persistently transformed and matured me. It taught me how persons of goodwill, who want to do everything right, like the synagogue leader, perpetuate the suffering of others. 

Through anointing for healing (which our Parish Nurse, Marcia Smith makes available to you at the back of the church during Communion today), we receive a cross made with oil on our forehead.  A gesture for our body.  An invitation for our soul.  Our restless minds and hearts may go through all kinds of posturing, trying to figure how we can make our lives better, how we can survive our hurt.  We come forward to the Table this day with our hands open, our hearts open, our minds open.  We pray that Christ will show us the living bread that is real and everlasting.  Postures of waiting, postures of trust. Through these sacrament and symbols of the gospel, 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.