Sermon: "Jesus Wants Us to Straighten Up"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17
Have you ever noticed how biblical accounts of God’s call typically meet with objection? Think of Moses’ words: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt?” And again, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” And again: “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.’” And at last, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue . . . O my Lord, please send someone else” (Exodus 3-4; NRSV). About this time, God began to get angry! Moses’ apprehension and reluctance were grounded in fear. Remember, he had killed an Egyptian; he was wanted for murder. Moses feared the Hebrews wouldn’t believe him and he feared he could not speak adequately. You might say, by our standards, Moses was only marginally qualified for the job!
In the reading from Jeremiah, God informs Jeremiah that he was consecrated before he was born, that he was appointed a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah responded, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1.6; NRSV). Jeremiah feared that he was too young, and unskilled in communicating with others. God replied, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (1.7-8; NRSV). In other words, “Put your fears aside, Jeremiah. I will tell you what to say! And by the way, your fear of speaking is the last thing you should fear, but I will deliver you!” The Lord touched Jeremiah’s mouth, then said, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms” (Jeremiah 1.9-10; NRSV). God tells God’s messengers what to speak, but in my experience I have found the message sometimes come late Saturday! Just-in-time delivery.
God calls us; our fears intervene! We might fear lack of ability or preparation; the loss of reputation, friends, or material comforts. But God wants something more from us and for us. God wants to free us, to deliver us, such that we live into faith, hope, and love. Yet we so often assert our independence and choose to remain captive to our fears. We need to learn to pray with the psalmist, “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge . . . In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free . . . Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked . . . For you are my hope, O Lord God . . . I have been sustained by you ever since I was born” (Psalm 71.1-6; BCP).
We find a beautiful example of God’s deliverance in our reading from Luke. Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. A bent-over woman who had been crippled for eighteen years entered. Jesus saw her, called her over, and said, “Woman, you are free from your ailment.” Then Jesus laid his hands on her and she immediately stood up straight and began praising God. One commentator points out that the Greek actually reads she “was straightened up” (David Jacobsen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2956 ). The action was not on the woman’s part; it was on God’s part. After eighteen years of suffering, she was set free, and she began praising God.
But not everyone was happy. The leader of the synagogue was indignant – why is Jesus healing on the sabbath!? He kept repeating, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13.14; NRSV). Notice how he indirectly addressed his words to Jesus.
Jesus strongly replied, “"You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" (Luke 13.15-16; NRSV). While his opponents were put to shame, the people rejoiced at all Jesus was doing.
On no less than eight occasions, Jesus challenged the people’s understanding of the sabbath through healing or questioning prevalent sabbath theology (Neuchterlein: http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/proper16c/ ). On one of these occasions, once again in the synagogue, Jesus called a man with a withered hand forward, asked the crowd if it was “lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” His query was met with silence. Jesus, grieved at their hardness of heart, told the man, “Stretch out your hand;” he did so and was immediately healed. The account concludes: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3.1-6; NRSV).
So what practical applications can we draw from these passages?
First, Jesus want us to “straighten up.” Let’s face it – when we come to Jesus we are all crippled or bent in some way – either physically, spiritually, emotionally, or psychologically. In Jesus’ day, people believed physical ailments and afflictions were caused by demonic activity; they reflected one’s lack of righteousness. While this view has changed, we must recognize that we are bound by bad habits and bad faith. We are clothed in cultural trappings that emphasize the acquisition of wealth, consumer goods, style, and sophistication. We carry burdens of guilt from our offenses. We come bent over, unable to stand. Jesus wants us to straighten up, and he relieves us of our burdens if we are willing to surrender them.
“Straighten up!” carries another sense which I remember from my childhood. Sometimes when I was acting up, my father would say, “Straighten up!” It was an admonition to put aside my foolish behavior. Jesus would also have us “straighten up” in this sense. On a humorous note, I also remember my father saying “Hark!” when I and my siblings were getting more than a bit rowdy. I have often wondered why we didn’t chime in, “the herald angels sing!”
Second, when God calls us, God delivers and empowers us. I fully believe that God presents us with opportunities for growth – the chance to acquire a new skill or ability. Yet we so often fear to seize the opportunity. We need to ask God to deliver us from that fear and trust that God will empower us. God gives us the words and the skills required to serve God’s kingdom.
Last, we must remember to praise God for our deliverance and empowerment. When the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years was able to stand, she immediately set about praising God. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12.28-29; NRSV). Ideally, worship is a place where we come bringing our fears and transgressions; God straightens, delivers, and empowers us; and we leave singing and praising God.