Raised up to raise up others

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A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, and Luke 13:10-17.

The Gospel today tells us about a woman who was bent over, for some reason.  She had some sort of ailment and couldn’t stand upright.  Jesus heals her and Luke says she stood right up, straight as an arrow.

I believe that Luke believed that’s what happened.  I’m sure the people who were with Jesus in that town “saw what they saw.”  But I wonder if it happened in exactly that way and I wonder if the literal “straightening up” of the woman is the point of the story.

You see, I’ve never been to a “faith-healing” service.  I’ve never been to one of those worship services we sometimes see on television or in movies.  Though I’ve been to shrines and churches where crutches and wheelchairs and testimonies line the walls—and I don’t doubt that such things can happen through the power of God—I’m just saying that I haven’t seen it.  I  HAVE seen people healed of their sickness, their disease, their ailment; and so, I know there’s such a thing as healing.  And so, I pray for healing. I pray for wholeness.  But as I hear the Gospel today, I think there’s a message there for all of us, and it might have to do with our leaning over in order to raise up another.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. He could have just kept on teaching.  He could have ignored the woman who was bent over.  In his day, there was a lot of superstition around sickness and disease.

It would have been normal for many to have assumed the woman has sinned in some way, or someone in her family had sinned.  The woman presumably has come to the synagogue to pray for healing, but she doesn’t even ask this of Jesus.  But Jesus sees her and goes over to her.  He makes the first move.  He moves across a barrier of gender, of decorum, of religious practice, and of social custom.

He lays his hands on her and she is healed.  Luke says she stands straight, and maybe she did.  But I think that whatever Jesus said to her, however he touched her, he gave her spirit a lift that was beyond anything physical.  He elevated her soul.  He raised her self-esteem. He lifted her higher.

And the synagogue leader did not like it.  For whatever reason, the leader of the synagogue liked the woman in her place and wanted her to stay there.  We can imagine his attitude:  “No, no, dear, please come back on Monday, today’s not the day for healing, since the Law of Moses forbids work on the Sabbath.”

Jesus points out the hypocrisy.  He points out the sinfulness of the synagogue leader and those like him who would keep this woman bent over and weak.  Jesus shames his opponents and the crowd is filled with joy.

Whether the woman who is healed is raised up physically or emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically, what’s clear to me is that Jesus is the ultimate “stand up guy.”  I’ve been hearing that term, “Stand up guy” a lot recently, so I looked it up.  It means a loyal and reliable person, first used in the 19th century sense of “standing up and being counted.” In the 1930s the term appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper referring to someone who was prepared to stand up and fight on your side if called upon.

We are called to stand up for others.  The reading of Isaiah uses a series of “if,” and “then” statements, making it clear that the peace and welfare of the community, the success of the city, the pleasing of God all depends upon the faithful standing up for those who have less.  “IF you stop pointing the finger, or blaming the victims; if you offer food to the hungry; if you remember the Sabbath Day and the balance of God’s creation, if you set aside selfishness…. THEN, the Lord will guide you; then what was ruined will be rebuilt and raised up; then you shall know great delight in the Lord, and your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

At yesterday’s march on the mall, Cory Booker recalled his father’s advice around being careful that we don’t confuse being born on third base with having hit a triple.  He remembered his father saying, “You are enjoying freedoms, opportunity, technology, things that were given to you bought by the struggles and the sacrifices and the work of those who came before. Don’t you forget where you come from,'” Booker said. He continued, “The truth of the matter is, that the dream still demands that the moral conscience of our country still calls us, that hope still needs heroes. We need to understand that there is still work to do.”

Though we often tend to describe the actions of Jesus in very traditional terms, (i.e. Jesus is merciful and shows loving-kindness…) we could also look at his life using the contemporary language of privilege.  Jesus is one that never—not for a second– took his own privilege for granted.  As a Jew, he learned from a Canaanite to be open to minorities and those left out.  As a man, he was taught by Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, the female disciples, and many along the way to not use his gender as power.

When those who were married tried to pull him onto their side, he changed the focus and talked about fidelity to God first.  When the religious and political leadership of his day tried to draft him into their own systems, Jesus refused.  Over and over again, Jesus refused to act out of his privilege, never for a second assuming that he had anything to do with his station, his abilities, or his opportunities.  All came from God.

And “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Yesterday, your vestry (and I mean the entire vestry, plus our volunteer treasurer, spent about seven and a half hours together at a planning and visioning retreat.  Ben Hutchens joined us for part of that time, and through the day, we planned, and prioritized, set goals, and talked about challenges.  We prayed, and we studied the Bible.  In one of our bible studies, we focused on Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, from the first chapter of Luke.  Through our discussion, we affirmed that her song continues to be a part of our dream for this place, and that just as Jesus reached out to welcome, acknowledge, heal, and include the woman who was bent over, we will continue to do our best to live out of the Magnificat, (in the words of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Luke 1:46-55) “dancing the song of our Savior God,”never forgotten and always in God’s mercy, celebrating the God who “scatters the bluffing braggarts, knocks tyrants off their high horses, and pulls victims out of the mud.”  We worship and seek to make known our God who makes a place for “the starving poor [to sit] down to a banquet; [while] the callous rich were left out in the cold.”  God embraces his chosen, just as he has promised, just as he has done in Christ, just as he empowers us to do in his name.

Wherever we are in trying to live out the dream of God, may Christ raise us up and help us to raise up others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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