Worthy to Stand: A Sermon for 11 Pentecost, Proper 16

“Whenever one person is able to rise from a situation that imprisons – illness, oppression, cruelty, misunderstanding, poverty – that story becomes part of the larger human narrative. It’s important to create a landscape where everyone has the opportunity to rise. Because the truth is, when any person rises, we all are inspired to stand a little straighter.” These words from Melissa Bane Sevier get at the heart of our gospel lesson today. And it gets at the heart of holy baptism, which we will celebrate in a few moments.

The woman in Luke’s narrative has been crippled by a spirit for nearly two decades. Whatever this spirit was – a demon, perhaps – it caused her to be hunched over. So for eighteen years, her eyes remained cast downwards, towards the ground. As Jesus said to the leaders of the synagogue, this woman had been bound – imprisoned - by her ailment, and he saw no issue with breaking the law to break the chains that bound her.

The conflict between the synagogue leaders and Jesus actually wasn’t over the healing itself – it was over the fact that Jesus healed her on the Sabbath. But this conflict was really about vision and perspective. Unlike the others, Jesus saw this woman, in spite of the fact that her eyes were cast downward. In the very nature of a God who would condescend himself to become incarnate in human flesh, Jesus was able to stoop down low enough to be on this crippled woman’s level. He met her where she was, just as God did with us in Jesus. And when he took the time and effort to truly see this woman – this human being – as a child of God created in God’s image - he was able to heal her and make her whole. What made this healing possible was that Jesus cast his eyes – and his heart – towards what was most important. Jesus never said the law wasn’t important. He just always kept the law in perspective, and he never put the law over and above the mission of ushering in a new creation, where, as we heard in the letter to the Hebrews, “sprinkled blood [of reconciliation] speaks a better word than the [vengeful] blood of Abel.” Jesus remembered that the Sabbath was not only connected to the creation narrative – where God rested on the 7th day, but also with the Exodus, where God freed his people from the bondage of slavery. And thus, Jesus found it not only acceptable, but entirely appropriate, to free this woman from the bondage of the spirit that crippled her.

In the Christian Church, Sundays are the principal day when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead – when he broke free from the bondage of sin, evil, and death, which in turn freed us all from that same bondage. So every Sunday for us is a day to celebrate this new life and freedom in Christ. In Eucharistic Prayer B, we that in Christ, “[God has] delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before [him]. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” These beautiful two lines draw my mind towards the crippled woman who, when she encountered Jesus, was made worthy – after 18 long, painful years – to stand before him – upright, dignified, and whole. Through Christ, she was delivered  into  new life that day.

Regarding this story, New Testament theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, “Imagine how it felt to stand up straight, to lift up her head, to look around and see faces instead of the ground. A new way of life open[ed] before her. And this woman knew whom to thank. She praise[ed] God for showing her tender mercy through the kindness of this prophet and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.”

And through the waters of baptism, Millie Buehn will be raised up and made worthy to stand before God, and delivered into new life in Christ. At her age, she hasn’t had the trials and tribulations that the woman in our gospel lesson had today. And hopefully she never will. But the fact is, she is a girl who will become a woman in a world that still doesn’t see women in the same way that it sees men. Women, who form half of the world’s population, work three-fourths of the world’s working hours; receive one-tenth of the world’s salary; own one percent of the world’s land; form two-thirds of literate adults; and together with their dependent children form three-fourths of the world’s starving people.[1] 

Elizabeth Johnson points out that “this is not to make women into a class of victims but to underscore statistics that make clear the struggles women face in society because of their gender…The goal is not reverse discrimination, a community where women dominate men; this would just continue injustice in a new form. Rather, women dream of a new heaven and a new earth, with no one group dominating and no one group being subordinated, but each person cherished and participating according to his or her God-given gifts, in genuinely reciprocal relations.”

This dream of a new heaven and a new earth – a new creation – is the dream that Millie is being baptized into today. In her baptism, we are celebrating the claim that God has on her, the claim that she is God’s beloved child, in whom God is well-pleased. And it is our role – the church’s role – to make sure that she never has to cast her eyes downwards, that she can always stand up tall and proud, knowing that she is a beloved child of God. As she grows older, we are to embody for her the baptismal covenant that we will reaffirm for ourselves today, and that her parents and godparents will say on her behalf. If she grows up in a church community that boldly claims Christ in an increasingly secular world, all while respecting the dignity of every human being, she in turn will be empowered to go and do likewise.

One of Jesus’ great gifts was his prophetic imagination. He was able to imagine and enact a world other than what was the current reality. As such, Walter Brueggemann says that “God is a lively character, and a real agent who acts in the world, who causes endings and who causes new beginnings.” Our gospel lesson today is a story about endings and new beginnings in Christ. And our baptism today will also be about a new beginning in Christ. May we all stand upright, free from the bondage of sin, death, and evil, and rejoice at all the wonderful things that God has done and is continuing to do in Jesus Christ. “Because the truth is, when any person rises, we all are inspired to stand a little straighter.”

[1] Statistics from the United Nations