Isaiah 58:9b-14 ~ Hebrews 12:18-29 ~ Luke 13:10-17
I’ve always had pretty good health and I try not to take that for granted. But I’ll never forget one back day in 1992… I tried to stand up straight…and I couldn’t. My back was suddenly wracked with pain and I just couldn’t straighten up. This happened while I was pregnant, and after a few days’ very uncomfortable rest it went away almost as suddenly as it had come on. But I sure had a new appreciation for what people with back pain have to endure!
I was reminded of my few days of excruciating pain when I thought about the woman in today’s gospel story who was bent over for eighteen years. I was bent over in pain for a couple of days—but I can’t imagine what it would be like to be bent for 18 years—it would color her whole way of life. She may have been bent so far she couldn’t even look people in the eye. Couldn’t glance up at the sky to see where the sun is, or if there’s cloud cover. And think about the trouble it was for her to walk around. No question, life was hard for this woman, bent over for 18 years.
But we have to notice something important in this story. This bent-over woman, bent for so long she’s probably given up hope for any other way of being, was at the synagogue listening to Jesus teach. She didn’t approach Jesus. She didn’t ask him to heal her. She was just listening, when Jesus noticed her! And he didn’t ask her if she wanted to be healed, to stand up straight. He didn’t check to see that she had the right belief, or had prayed hard enough. He simply he called her over to where he was, and spoke. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And then he did something even more surprising…he touched her. Here he was, in the temple. And remember there were lots of rules about being CLEAN in the temple. And touching a sick person was a sure way to become unclean. But Jesus didn’t care about that. He only cared that this bent-over woman, this “daughter of Abraham,” needed to be healed and needed to know his loving touch.
And the woman immediately stood up straight and began praising God. IMEDIATELY! She didn’t look around to be sure Jesus really meant her. She didn’t ask him any questions. She just embraced the joy and gratitude she felt at Jesus’s touch, at being able to stand up straight.
Perhaps she used the words we prayed earlier from psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.” She couldn’t keep it in. Bless the Lord, O my soul!
Of all the healing stories in the Bible, this one seems to me to be the most “Lutheran.” If there’s one thing we Lutherans like to talk about, its grace. We don’t earn the gifts God gives to us. We don’t earn our salvation. We don’t have to get the prayers “just right” in order to receive blessings from God. God gives gifts freely. We don’t even have to ask! God offers us the chance to live as God’s children, to be enfolded in God’s family. Because, really, how many of us would even think to ASK for the blessings God heaps on us. Would we dare to ask for God to send God’s own son to live among us?
Just like the bent-over woman didn’t ask Jesus for healing…we don’t have to ask. But God delivers! God will straighten us out, heal us, without our even asking. That’s our Lutheran grace at work.
The next things is really Lutheran too. The woman’s praise and thanksgiving…that’s how we respond to the good that God pours into our lives. With gratitude and praise. I noticed that Psalm 103 rolled off our tongues pretty naturally. God reaches out to us…welcomes us…heals us…and we sing God’s praises in return.
And if we were to look more deeply at the text, we could learn that in the original version, the woman doesn’t just praise God once, or for a little while. The way it’s written in the original language, it tells us that she begins to praise God AND KEEPS ON DOING IT. This isn’t just a one time “thanks a bunch, God”. It’s a new way of life for her, a new way of being in the world. She’ll live every day expressing her praise to God for the miracle of being able to stand up straight, to look people in the eye, to see the sun, moon, and stars in the sky.
Another cue for us, isn’t it? We don’t just say “thanks, God” and then get back to business as usual. Living as God’s children, loved and forgiven, changes the way we see the world, changes the way we go about our daily lives.
But I think there’s something else to learn from this story. There are other ways to be bent over. Maybe we can think about ways that St. Peter has been living “bent-over”. Is there an “ailment” keeping us from living fully as God’s church here in Trenton? Are we unable to look around us? Are we missing opportunities to share God’s good news?
For much of the past 8 or 9 years you’ve been struggling to be God’s church without consistent pastoral leadership. You’ve cared for one another, worshiped together, and served the community with the Agape Free Store. But there’s a limit to what you can do without a pastor who’s here regularly. I hope that in the coming weeks and months we’ll feel able to stand up straighter as together we praise and thank God, and explore what it can mean to live as God’s church here in Trenton, Ohio. Just as the woman from Luke had a new way of living, we’ll figure out a new way of living…and we can know that we’re not on our own. Our God is with us every step of the way.
Many of our ELCA brothers and sisters recently returned from New Orleans, where they met in our church’s national assembly. This great coming together of Lutherans happens every three years and is a time to do the church’s business, to worship and serve together, and to remember who we are and whose we are. The assembly’s theme this year was “Freed and Renewed in Christ: 500 Years of God’s Grace in Action.” Freed and renewed…doesn’t that sound a bit like what we’ve been talking about? Freed and renewed…thanks to God’s grace. ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has a vision for the ELCA that centers on standing straight and tall as God’s beloved children, but not just standing…she wants us to take the gifts that God has given us and get busy. To live that transformed life of praise and thanksgiving, which has to be also a life of action. She closed the assembly with these words: “We have work to do. God will give us energy and the courage and the will to do it. Let’s go, church.” Let’s go, St. Peter! AMEN.
Preached at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton, Ohio, August 21, 2016