August 25, 2019: The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

August 25, 2019: The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

From this morning’s gospel,“Jesus said to (the woman) ‘You are set free...’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,Amen.

     Many years ago – I was living in the Boston suburbs at that time – I was cleaning my house in preparation for my annual Christmas Party. At the last minute I decided to “skootch” a two-drawer file cabinet into a back hallway. Well, I underestimated the weight of that cabinet and within seconds I was writhing on the floor in agony from a slipped disc. Those of you with similar injuries know all too well how disabling such can be. I could no longer sit down or lie down for any length of time, and daily tasks like dressing and bathing or walking were incredibly painful and difficult. And when I was able to walk, I did so bent over appearing twice my age and certainly as feeble. I could not stand up straight. While I am grateful for skilled physicians, the truth is that during the next six weeks of intensive medical treatment and physical therapy, I was angry at everyone, especially myself, and angry with God for not answering my prayers for instant relief. Folks, you don’t realize how much you need your back until it hurts too much to use it.

     Understandably, I have deep appreciation for the woman described in today’s gospel reading: the woman Luke describes as bent over and unable to stand straight not just for six weeks, but eighteen years. Eighteen years! I wonder what could she do? What couldn’t she do? And what things caused her great difficulty that most people didn’t think twice about?

     Now, I am one of those Christians who believes that the healing stories of Jesus as told in the gospels are more than metaphors. I believe they are true stories that actually happened to real sick, paralyzed, blind and bent over people, just as I also believe those stories contain a deeper Truth for us to explore and be challenged by. And today’s gospel story is no different.

This wonderful story of physical healing – and imagine this woman’s incredible joy at hearing those words, “Woman, you are set free” and feeling Jesus’ hands upon her and the instant disappearance of any pain or disability – imagine it! What an incredible moment in her life and the lives of those around her. This story of physical healing then becomes a parable for a people and society that is spiritually sick, blind, paralyzed and spiritually bent over. It is not hard to see that the religious leader who chastises Jesus for healing this woman, for performing an act of God, on the Sabbath day is himself disabled. He is bent over by a religious establishment so caught up in rules and doing things just right, that he misses the whole miracle of this occasion and the incredible grace and power of God unfolding right in front of him.

No. The religious system in Jesus’ day, the gospels tell us again and again, couldn’t move. It was paralyzed. Everything was difficult – including, according to this story from Luke, rejoicing at the healing of someone else. The religious system was so bent over by the weight of doing everything just right, saying the right words, wearing the right clothing, offering the correct prayers, that it was crippled when it came to basic ministry, loving one’s neighbor, and understanding that God always acts in unexpected people and ways.

     The Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah was seen by the religious establishment of his day as seditious and a troublemaker. He was an outsider – notone of the religious leaders from the Temple in Jerusalem – an outsider whose ancestors had backed Solomon’s rival for David’s throne and been exiled as traitors. Nevertheless, God calls Jeremiah – an outsider - as a prophet of God. Now, realizing he is an outsider and slow of speech, Jeremiah balked at God’s call, so God touched his lips. Our Old Testament reading this morning tells us that Jeremiah, himself bent over and crippled with fear, now stood tall, proclaimed God’s words of healing grace, and went forth to plant and build up God’s people. And while he was despised by the religious establishment of his day – religious leaders who were incredibly corrupt and self-serving, an establishment bent over by its own rules of exclusion and oppression of the common people - Jeremiah is remembered today as one of Israel’s greatest prophets.  

     The writer to the Hebrews reminds a soon to be persecuted Church that while life might be falling apart around them, while their hearts might be bent over in fear, they can stand tall because they not only have the promise of God’s unshakeable kingdom, but today, they have already “come to Mount Zion” and dwell in the incredible presence of God who knows them, loves them, and has a plan for them, a plan as simple as walking and living what they say they believe with their lips, a way of life marked by spiritual health, hope and freedom.

     Last week, our scripture lessons challenged us to look beyond the external storms brewing around us and confront any physical, emotional or spiritual storms brewing within us. That challenge continues with today’s readings. See, returning to today’s gospel lesson, I believe Jesus saw not only the pain in this poor woman, but also the burden of those oppressed by rules – rules that say unless you do this or that one is unworthy of God’s love and grace – rules that build walls between us even as people of God. See, there’s lots of talk these days about walls at borders and communities, but there are also walls, beloved, being built within and around us- walls of our own creation – walls that seek to shut out those who don’t necessarily agree with our particular politics or focus.  Our gospel lesson demonstrates that Jesus sees all people, the woman, the religious and us: sees our infirmities and weaknesses and divisions, and wants to heal us all. Yet, he desires to see us not just physically healed, but our very faith straightened out and standing tall. Even on the Sabbath. Maybe especially on the Sabbath. A faith that makes a difference in who we are and how we live and choose to relate to God, our neighbor and one another each and every day not by building walls, but by conversing and seeking to understand one another. A faith marked by spiritual wellness that brings hope and enables each of us to stand tall, to be free, and walk in the boldness and confidence of the grace and love of God that heals and redeems. 

     Our Collect this morning asks that we might together– as a parish, as a community of faith – show forth God’s poweramong all people. The power that lifts up and builds up, heals and sets people free from all that cripples them, cripples us. I wonder what that would look like. I wonder where my faith, your faith, needs to be straightened this morning? For the truth is, if our faith causes someone to be bent over by rules, by walls and division, by exclusion and unwelcome, like I learned with my back-injury years ago, not much good can happen. Jesus desires that everyone be transformed by the power and grace of God. A power and grace that says, “Woman, (man, child), you are set free today!

     Lord, help us to embrace this moment. Heal us. Free us - now and always. Amen.