Sermon for Sunday, August 21st, 2016 || Proper 16, Year C || Isaiah 58: 9b – 14; Psalm 103: 1-8; Hebrews 12: 18-29; Luke 13: 10-17 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Those of you who were here last week will remember that Jesus sounded pretty scary in the gospel that morning. Seemingly angry and frustrated, Jesus announced that he’d come to bring fire to the earth (and couldn’t wait to get it kindled!) and that he meant to bring division rather than peace to households.
Well, the liturgical scholars who devised the lectionary—the appointed scriptures we read each week—apparently decided that two weeks in a row of scary Jesus would just be too much. Because this week they skipped ahead to the middle of the next chapter in Luke’s gospel, skipping over the part where Jesus repeatedly says that unless we repent we’ll all perish, and then tells a thinly-veiled story about chopping down a fig tree if it isn’t fruitful.
Of course, we could locate ourselves in this morning’s gospel by identifying with the leader of the synagogue who gets a tongue-lashing from Jesus for making the right way of doing things more important than the loving way. And we could consider how and when and why we sometimes forget that in the Kingdom of God to which Jesus calls us, the pastoral always trumps everything else. We could reflect at great length, I imagine, on how challenging it can be to remember that in God’s Kingdom, love and compassion and mercy always take priority over rules and regulations and anything else that gets in the way of lifting up a person’s dignity and humanity and seeing in them not just who they are but who God created them to be.
But that’s a sermon for another day. Because today I’d like to invite us to locate ourselves in this story by identifying not with the victim of the tongue lashing but with the recipient of God’s freely-given grace—the woman who was crippled by a negative spirit until Jesus healed her and set her free.
We all have spirits that bind and cripple us. In today’s lexicon we might call them anxieties, fears, or phobias… depression, despair, or low self-esteem. But they’re still spirits that cripple us. And worse, they get in the way of our ability to serve God’s purposes.
Spirits like the chatty inner voice that says you’re not good enough, smart enough or successful enough…Spirits like the many “isms” that plague us: workaholism, perfectionism, narcissism, escapism, egoism, consumerism. Spirits that drive us further from, instead of closer to, the Kingdom of God.
We all have roles and responsibilities—real and imagined—that weigh us down, feel oppressive, bend us over and cripple us. And then there’s the addictive power of pretty much anything that helps relieve that sense of burden: whether it be food, cocktails, or careers…shopping, sports or sex… an obsession with good health or a predilection for bad relationships.
All of these things—these negative “spirits” if you will– warp our perspective. They make it impossible for us to embrace the Kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming, impossible for us to experience the deep spiritual freedom we need to become the men and women God created us to be: Men and women who are spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically free to love God with all of their hearts and all of their minds and all of their souls, and to love their neighbors –their still suffering, bent-over neighbors–as themselves.
For the last four chapters of Luke’s gospel Jesus has been trying to teach us this every which way but sideways: that nothing is more important than our commitment to loving God and to loving God’s people. All of God’s people. One gospel story after another has illustrated this fundamental truth, that nothing–not material security or family ties, cultural norms or personal safety, or– as we learn today–observance of religious tradition– nothing is more important than the imperative to love God with all that we have and all that we are, and to love God’s people –especially God’s most vulnerable people–as we love ourselves.
And therein lies the rub. Because despite appearances to the contrary, a lot of us don’t really love ourselves for the precious creatures of God that we are. One look at our over-programmed, over-worked, constantly plugged-in lives, and that’s pretty obvious. If you still need convincing, just witness our reluctance to bathe in the healing, restorative, life-giving power of real Sabbath time…our inability to be still and know God… our twitchiness at the very suggestion of silence and solitude!
We all know the truism that “you can’t love others if you don’t love your self.” But we’re not free to love ourselves when our modern versions of negative spirits keep us turned in on ourselves like the bent over woman–looking down at our own brokenness, absorbing the insults and indignities we either experience or imagine.
In the gospel this morning, Jesus calls this woman over, and when she responds we then hear, “Woman, you are set free…” This broken soul is healed and free, finally able to be the woman God created her to be, free to live her life as both loved and loving.
So the woman stands up straight and, Luke says, begins to praise God. Now, I’m thinking she “begins to praise God” not with her words, but with her life—by loving God with all that she is and all that she has, and by freely loving others now that she’s free to love herself. And I’ll bet her love reaches out beyond itself to those who are still bent over and broken, those still marginalized or oppressed, those still absorbing the insults, injuries and indignities of life.
Because that’s what the Kingdom of God looks like. Jesus’ top priority is always to free us from whatever cripples us or binds us, so we are then free to love God and to love our neighbors—especially those neighbors still bent-over by oppressive spirits.
This morning’s gospel teaches us that Jesus wants to free us, just as he freed the bent-over woman. He wants to straighten us up, so like her we can praise God– each in our own way– with our words, our music, our art…our work, our relationships, our priorities… by praising God with our lives: Kingdom lives–lives in which it’s clear that nothing is more important than loving the Lord our God with all of our heart and all of our mind and all of our soul, and loving our still suffering neighbors as ourselves.
Jesus so wants to free us! He’s calling each of us out of the crowd, today, just as he called the bent over woman. I wonder if we, like the bent over woman, will respond? Amen.