Stand Up Straight

Psalm 71:1-6Luke 13:10-17

This past Friday I made a visit to the eye doctor. It’s one of those things that are hardly worth mentioning. It was a typical visit: covering one eye and then the other, reading the eye chart, getting my pupils dilated to let in more light. And they sent me away with that special ophthalmology door prize: the sunglasses. You know the ones: the stylishly-challenged kind, all plastic and cardboard, square and severe, wrapping around your face like cellophane, leaving paper cuts above your ears, frightening children and pets for miles around.

It was first thing in the morning, and I left the office blinking into the early sunshine, the sunglasses doing their fashion-less best to fend off the rays. I squinted, gritted my teeth, and made my way home just in time for breakfast.

It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I was able to stand being outside, sunglasses or not. The dilation lasted for a good six hours, and until it finally subsided, I was rendered pretty useless. I couldn’t see well enough to read; the glare of the computer screen was excruciating; even simple chores like washing dishes were painful, as the view from our kitchen sink looks out onto the front lawn and the unforgiving August Atlanta sunshine. At least, that was my excuse. In short, I was pretty much hopeless until my eyes returned to their normal functionality.

As I said, it’s hardly the kind of thing worth mentioning during a Sunday morning sermon. But as I hosted my little Friday pity party, I couldn’t help but think of the woman from this morning’s text. My discomfort was slight, no doubt. Even so, I still felt some momentary connection to this unnamed crippled woman, bent over, unable to stand straight.

Many, if not all, of us know what it means to be sick, whether permanently or only in passing. The aches and pains in our joints; the lingering, managed illness of a cancer; migraines; days spent collecting doctors like baseball cards: the chronic frailties which persistently wear us down. And even though it may pale in comparison, temporary sickness can give us some glimpse as well: broken bones that take their time knitting themselves back together; days in bed with that “sick as a dog” flu; the post-surgical recovery period; even a pitiful little visit to the eye doctor. Physical weakness saps our physical energy. It also drains our mind and our spirit as well. Days, weeks, months, even years can go by with our focus completely drawn to the pain; the discomfort; the anger; the frustration; the exhaustion. There is very little else to be done.

The woman in the lesson had been bent over for eighteen years. Imagine this with me, if you will. Even doing this for a short time, you begin to feel it. Bend over at a 45 degree angle. You certainly feel it in your back. The longer you stand like this, you begin to feel it in your legs. Soon you notice the ache in your hips, your joints. After a while, you realize that your eyes are forced to the floor, your only view is of people’s feet. You can look up, of course, trying to pull yourself beyond this downward focus, and then you begin to feel it in your neck. Better to look back down than to add another pain to the litany of others. It is, very literally, humiliating. Is it any surprise that this woman goes unnamed in our story? Another person on the fringes of society, cast aside, looking down while others look up without so much as a second thought?

She is the focus of the story. Unnamed though she is in this unnamed synagogue in an unnamed village, she is still the topic of discussion. Even our modern translations of the Bible seem to underscore her status. The lesson often has the heading of “the crippled woman” or “the bent woman.” Though she stands straight by the end of it all, we are still able to deny her that full dignity she so deserves.

Jesus is there at the synagogue on the Sabbath. He’s there to teach, making his way from town to town, speaking as he goes, gathering crowds, especially those at the margins who are there to hear and see this man. The woman seems to go unnoticed at first. Eighteen years into her chronic suffering, her face to the floor, standing at the margins, her body, mind, and spirit drawn to her pain, she still manages to gather with the rest of the community to listen to this man. And in the middle of his teaching, Jesus notices her when no one else would. He stops. He calls her over. He touches her. He heals her. And this woman, this bent, crippled, suffering woman, stands up straight. She has been noticed. She has been touched. She has been healed. Thanks be to God.

We might think that the crowd would embrace this miracle. How incredible it must have been to see this woman bent over stand straight. But then again, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know that Jesus is supposed to be the good guy. It’s easy for us to take his side. But time and time again, he finds himself butting heads against the religious authorities of his day. And as members of the Church, dedicated participants ourselves in religious institutions, particularly those of us in leadership roles, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn those synagogue leaders as they tried to preserve the traditions of their forebears.

It’s important to remember how the Sabbath was established in the first place. In the Hebrew Bible, in the story of Exodus, God finds the people in slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh lords it over them, forcing them to work day in and day out. Once they are freed, escaping their captors and making their way to the land of promise, the command comes to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Just as God rested in creation, so should we in our weekly lives. The Sabbath was created to remind the people which Lord they served. It was no longer pharaoh, the slave driver, who ruled them. Instead, they were servants of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one who gives them freedom, who redeems them from captivity, and desires their weekly rest.

It is this understanding of Sabbath which the synagogue leader and much of the crowd have inherited. The day exists to give rest, to remind us of whom we serve, to give praise to God for setting us free and giving us all the more reason to praise. This woman is an intrusion on such a day. Her condition was chronic – eighteen years and counting. She surely could have waited one more day to stand up straight!

Maybe so…but she wasn’t the one asking to be healed. It is Jesus who sees her. And this isn’t the only time he treads on the traditional understanding of Sabbath, either; it comes up again and again. There is something that Jesus is trying to teach us through this living parable of a Sabbath lecture and a woman healed.

This is what the Sabbath is all about! It is a celebration of our freedom in God and God’s life-giving power to us. It is a reminder that it is God whom we serve. It is a space to celebrate this redemption we have received. And it is a challenge to live into that promise of God’s goodness. “On the Sabbath,” he reminds the crowd, “you see it fit to untie your donkey. You free it so that it can drink water and live. What about this woman, tied around the neck and back and legs and joints for so long? Shouldn’t she be free, too? Shouldn’t she be given the chance to drink from the waters of life, to stand up straight, to look you in the eye, to raise her head and her hands heavenward and to give praise to God above? We may have forgotten about her, given up on her, cast her aside, set her at the margins. We may not even know her name. But her name is blessed, as a daughter of Abraham, as a member of the tribe, as one of us, created in the image of God before that holy Sabbath day of rest and deserving of dignity and respect. She is free. She is whole. May it be so for each one of you, sons and daughters of Abraham alike!”

So what about us? What is there for us to say and hear this day, O crowds? Are there those whom we have cast aside, marginalized, ignored, overlooked? Then let us open our eyes to notice them for the first time. Let us reach out our hands. Let us be the touch of healing in their lives, in our communities, in our world. And let us see them for who they truly are: fellow members of the tribe, our sisters and brothers for whom Christ has died, worthy of dignity and deserving of respect.

And what about us, O leaders of the synagogue? Are we so bound by the rules that we have forgotten the Spirit that gave them birth in the first place? Let us be willing to hear different voices calling us out into unfamiliar and yet deeply-rooted ways of faithfulness. Let us all remember that we, too, have been redeemed. And let us, in this new-found freedom, remember whom it is that we serve, whom it is that we call Lord, who it is that gives us that rest and nourishes us with the waters of life.

And what about us, O crippled ones? Is it that we, too, have our eyes cast downward? Do we ache in body, mind, or spirit? Are we plagued by our own weaknesses: physical pains, addictions, shames, humiliations? Is our focus drawn away from that which gives praise to God? Then may we hear our names called, children of God, may we know who it is that calls us, touches us, heals us. May we stand up straight, daughters and sons of Abraham, and give thanks in all that we do.

sermonsMarthame Sanders