August 25, 2013 Luke 13: 10-17
Rev. Catherine Purves
It seems appropriate somehow that last week our young and athletic Student Intern would have preached about how the life of faith is like running a marathon. Now that your old minister is back we are just trying to stand up straight, and that seems to be plenty challenging. But in order to run, you do, first, have to be able to stand.
“Stand up straight!” is something that I associate with grandparents, for some reason. Maybe I did a lot of slouching around my grandmother. There are other situations in which good posture is considered a virtue. I think of models balancing books on their heads, competitive divers getting ready to launch themselves off of the high dive, and drill sergeants ordering new recruits to “Stand up straight!” But what if you can’t? What if your bent and painful back won’t allow you to stand up straight? What if the burdens you are bearing are just too heavy and your very spirit, as well as your body, is weighed down by them?
That was the situation of the woman Jesus encountered in the synagogue in our reading from Luke’s Gospel. Telling her to “Stand up straight!” would have done no good. She had been trying to stand up straight for eighteen years. She was not intentionally a cripple. She couldn’t straighten her own back and then stand tall simply by willing herself to do so. The power of positive thinking was not going to solve her problem. What she needed was to be set free from her ailment. And that is what Jesus did. He set her free! At that point, and not before, she was ready to begin her marathon training.
I’d like you to try to hold Charissa’s sermon from last week and this sermon together in your head, because I think they are complementary. Sometimes people mistakenly think of these two messages as alternative perspectives on the Christian life. Either you must tackle the challenges of life like a marathon runner and persevere through the pain, looking for grace along the way, but running your race with all of the determination and will that you can muster, or you see faith as a total work of God in the midst of your powerless life, so that grace is everything and everything is grace. But, if you can hold those two images together, then you will get a more accurate understanding of what it really means to live in Christ. Charissa did that last week when she talked about the orange slice, remember? (That sermon is on the ledge in the back hall, if you missed it.)
So, it’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and. The Christian life is like a marathon that we must train for and persevere in, as Charissa said, but it is also a free act of grace on God’s part, a gift, a healing, a power from God alone that allows us to cast off our burdens of sin and brokenness, that lifts them from our shoulders, so that we can stand up straight because we have been made whole in and by Christ alone.
If we try to apply this both/and perspective, then we must remind ourselves that everything must be done in and through Christ. We don’t have the power to put on our running shoes and lift ourselves out of our sinful lethargy apart from Jesus. And we shouldn’t expect others to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stand up straight and get on with their lives if they are not in Christ. This should change the way we look at the poor, the elderly, those who are mentally challenged, the infirm. Like the crippled woman in our Gospel reading, their predicaments are not something that they can rise above or overcome by sheer willpower, grit, and determination. Remember what Jesus taught his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, [but] apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15: 5) In Christ all things are possible, no matter how beaten down and burdened someone may be, but only in Christ. In fact, this should change the way we look at young, healthy, and privileged people too. They are not ready for the marathon of the Christian life either, until they encounter Jesus Christ and he has set them free.
Did that phrase stand out for you when Barb read the story of the crippled woman? Jesus said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” That’s an unusual way to announce a healing. You are set free. It’s as if Jesus was saying that the woman was imprisoned by her condition. Later, in his confrontation with the leader of the synagogue, Jesus actually does say that she was in bondage, bound by Satan for eighteen long years.
If we think of all of the things that can weigh heavily on our shoulders, bending our backs so that we can’t stand up straight before God, then this notion of bondage and the need to be set free makes sense. Consider the weight of past sins – even those sins which we have confessed and for which we have been forgiven – do we still carry them around on our backs? What about worries for ourselves and our loved ones – do we not bear those burdens daily, bending under the weight of those worries and concerns? And in the midst of all that, do we then begin to question our faith, adding the extra burdens of uncertainty and doubt? It is no wonder that we sometimes feel that we are bent over double and, virtually imprisoned by our own sins and fears and doubts.
You can’t run a marathon with all of that on your back. But Jesus encounters us when we are crippled and bent under those burdens, and he announces to us, “You are set free!” By his grace, we can stand up straight, and then he hands us our running shoes, with the promise that he will be running alongside us, each and every step of the way. We are set free by the grace of Jesus Christ, and then the road opens up before us, and we can run.
“Not so fast,” shouts the leader of the synagogue. The woman was stopped dead in her tracks. “This was not done decently and in order,” he complains. There are rules for what you can do on the sabbath and what you can’t. Setting crippled women free was not on the list of permitted activities. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the midst of a power struggle between two different perspectives on the life of faith. The leader of the synagogue saw the healing of this crippled woman as an interruption of the smooth running of his religious marathon of following the letter of the Law. Jesus knew that without the surprising and undeserved infusion of grace no one can run in faith. This face-off shows how radically new the Christian faith would be. In healing the crippled woman, Jesus reveals to us how grace can free us to run a race pleasing to God, because we would then be running in the power of Christ. But the leader of the synagogue still expected the people to run the race by following the Law so that the grace of God could be won by their own faithful perseverance. He didn’t seem to understand that you can’t run a race when you are bent over double with sin. The grace of God in Christ must intervene at the start of the race, and not just at the finish line.
This is the faith that we are called to share with others. This is good news. Jesus does not simply order people to “Stand up straight!” He sets them free so that they can stand up straight. He sets us free, so that we can stand up straight, put on our running shoes, and begin the race. We run together, and he runs with us, and, by the power of his grace, we can invite others to join us, to stand up straight and to take that first step of Christian faith, as they allow the burdens of sin and fear and doubt to be lifted from their shoulders by Jesus. This is good news that we must share: Jesus has set you free. Now everyone who has been crippled and bent over by the burdens of life can stand up straight and start praising God, like that crippled woman. Now, in the strength of Christ our Savior, we are all able to put on our running shoes and run the race of our lives.