Preached as sermon at Croydon Minster on Sunday 25 August, Tenth Sunday after Trinity.
‘When Jesus laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God’ (Luke 13.12)
This morning’s gospel reading tells us about an encounter that is both beautiful and disturbing at the same time.
Beautiful: because in it a woman who has been bowed down for eighteen years regains her stature and dignity of herself in in the sight of others.
Disturbing: because the reaction to this act of restoration and healing sparks indignation from those who should be most joyful that another human being has her dignity restored.
The woman typifies those who are bent over and weighed down, physically yes, but psychologically or spiritually too. This isn’t just physical: how often are the physically afflicted spiritually upright?!
This crippling aliment, described as a ‘spirit’ by St Luke, but not defined by him, has oppressed her for eighteen years.
The period of eighteen years will have had interesting connotations for the people gathered in that synagogue on that Sabbath Day.
In the book of Judges it was for eighteen years that the Israelites had to serve the foreign king Eglon of Moab (Judges 3.14) and for eighteen years the foreign Ammonite kingdom ‘crushed and oppressed’ the Israelites (Judges 10.8). The number eighteen is associated with oppression and being crushed down.
Intriguingly also, according to the Jewish numerological tradition, the number eighteen also signifies ‘life’, ‘alive’ or ‘living creature’.
So a woman oppressed for eighteen years, becomes a newly ‘living creature’ who can stand up straight and praise God.
The fact this took place on the Sabbath Day is also deeply resonant and filled with meaning.
Observing the Sabbath is a good thing. A day of rest, a day when the pace of life changes, a day to know the gift of life; a day to honour God our Creator: it is telling that our society in all its turmoil and dis-ease neglects Sabbath.
But we miss the point of Sabbath if, like the synagogue leader, we cannot show mercy and loving kindness on that day. If we cannot show it on that day can we ever show it on the other six?
The Creation begins on the first day as God says ‘let there be light’ (Genesis 1.3) and unfolds over six days. The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week when God rested, seeing that all was good.
Yet the creation is marred and disfigured. People are oppressed, bowed down externally and internally, physically and mentally, and in the words of the hymn ‘Just as I am, without one plea’, we come to Jesus, the Lamb of God,
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings within, and fears without’
We, like the woman, come to him now. And he beholds her; he beholds you; he beholds me.
To Jesus Christ we are not problems to be manged we are living creatures, who are loved, to be restored to life, to be released from all that bows us down.
So this act of restoration on the Sabbath Day anticipates the eighth day of creation, the first day of the new week, the Day of Resurrection, the Day of Life, the day of the New Creation, a day that has dawned today.
In the act of restoring that woman to dignity the crowds came to see that God’s priority is the lifting up of people from the dust, the gutter and into life.
The action of baptism is the Church’s sacramental sign that raises up men, women and children sharing in the raising up of Christ through his Resurrection.
‘If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God’ (Colossians 3.1)
Being baptised is an act of restoration and with this gospel reading we learn how we might approach God and our neighbour.
As Christians we should not be able see another person without beholding them as Christ does. In a brief walk outside this church we will see many people bowed down in spirit: Christ raises them up when they are freed from addiction, poverty, pain and we respond to them with kindness, hospitality and love. That is a sign of the Kingdom of God.
And what of our approach to God? This question comes not least in relation to the first reading today concerning the awe and majesty of God which perhaps prompts us to fall to our knees in reverence and humble devotion. Kneeling is a right and proper posture in God’s presence: just as how we bow reverently before the cross; bend our knee in genuflection at Christ’s presence in the sacrament; or kneel to receive Christ in Holy Communion.
But that is not the only posture of a Christian. Christ says, ‘stand up’ to the woman, ‘reclaim your dignity as a daughter, a child, of the Most High. Our Eucharistic Prayer says, ‘We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you’ (Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, Prayer B). Standing as a posture of prayer bespeaks dignity, presence and attention.
In church standing when a priest enters is not about doing the priest honour but rather saying that together with the priest we are the church, ‘a royal priesthood, a holy people’. Worshippers are not spectators but participants.
We are citizens of the Kingdom not consumers of it. As Jesus says, ‘Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ (Luke 21.28).
Of course kneeling or standing is not easy for everyone, or not for prolonged periods of time. But even in sitting we can sit in an anticipating way, a receptive, attentive way, with open hands and relaxed shoulders; or we can choose to button up, with our arms folded, and sit as if at a show.
Liturgy is not a performance; we are all ministers of it. Never allow your posture to turn you into a spectator whatever is going on in front of you, because in worship we are in the presence of the Living God, just as the letter to the Hebrews describes:
…since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12.29)
It is for this that we are made, to praise and glorify God in the gift of life given to us by birth and renewed in baptism: ‘When Jesus laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God’ (Luke 13.12)