Standing Up Straight

“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “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?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

– Luke 13:10-17

From kindergarten through junior high, I was the tallest girl in the class.

Those were not the days of the lanky supermodels who routinely top six feet.  Instead the ideal was the short, perky, blonde cheerleader.

I developed some coping strategies. For group photographs, I would shift my weight onto one leg and bend my knee as much as I could and kind of sink down to look shorter.  Of course, I always dreaded gym class when I might be paired up to dance with a really short boy — I’m sure the boy dreaded it, too!

By the time I got to college, the fashion models had gotten way taller.  The boys seemed taller, too.  I stopped slouching and wore cool sandals with heels.

However, then I was instructed to tone it down in other ways.  On the University debate team, my partner Sherrill and I were coached that women had to be careful not to come across as too aggressive and that male judges would react against us if we weren’t sufficiently ladylike. “So smile while you stick the knife in, our mentors urged.

Understandably, I love today’s Gospel.  While Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, a woman comes in who for eighteen years has been crippled, bent over, and unable to stand up straight.  Jesus heals her and, Luke says, she immediately she began to stand up straight and praise God. But then the leader of the synagogue blames the woman for coming to the synagogue for healing on the wrong day, the Sabbath.

Jesus reminds the Pharisees that they break the commandment not to work every time they lead their oxen and donkeys to water on the Sabbath, and that healing a person is more important than getting animals to water.  The crowd cheers.

What does it mean to stand up straight? To assume the full stature God gives us all?  What can we learn from the example of Jesus in the synagogue?

Standing up straight can refer to posture, words, actions, and prayer.

Standing up straight means honestly naming the situation in front of us.  Jesus did not shrink from correcting the Pharisees.  In fact, this is the second week in a row that Jesus has called the people in front of him hypocrites! Last week he said this: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Jesus is loving and compassionate but outraged and vehement about injustice, greed and arrogance.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy was embarrassed by the CIA-led fiasco, the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, and it profoundly changed the way he handled meetings of his Cabinet.  Before the Bay of Pigs blunder, Cabinet members told the President basically what they though he wanted to hear and held back their critical arguments.  Afterwards, Kennedy charged them all to speak up with their concerns, no matter how critical, because keeping things to themselves to be nice had resulted in near-disaster for the country. Standing up straight means having the courage to name your reality, with clarity, conviction, and civility.

Standing up straight does not mean only naming problems, but also naming blessings.  The healed woman’s first words are to praise God.  In the book The Color Purple, the character Celie says, “I think it make God mad if you walk by the color purple in the field and don’t say nothing’.”

Sometimes, we are overwhelmed by our blessings, especially compared to most other people in the world.  Last Thursday’s paper reported this: “Imagine that every man, woman and child in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana were homeless and without access to clean water and food. This is the situation for twenty million people in Pakistan today because of the floods.”

It’s almost impossible to take this in.  I’m sure our government is helping; even arch-enemy India is helping.  I expect the church is doing something, and you may feel called to as well.  But as I look at the blessings in front of me in my life, and at our blessings in this church, it seems that the least we can do is put a prayer of gratitude permanently in our hearts and on our lips.

Besides prayers of gratitude, another way to praise God is to engage with each other, whether by affirming good work, complimenting the thoughtful gesture, or simply giving another person a part of our greatest gift: time.

I don’t know about you, but for me sometimes it feels like giving a compliment to a friend, affirming good work, or just a quick “thanks” costs me something: energy, time off-task, interrupting the comfortable activity I’m engaged in at the moment, thinking “they probably know it went well without my saying so,” or just looking the other way because it’s easier.  For me, perhaps the best thing about Frank was that he never took us for granted, and the first and last words out of his mouth always seemed to be thank you. And he never stood up straighter than when he said it, nor did we when we received it.

To stand up straight effectively, it helps to have the confidence that comes from having done your homework.  Jesus is a rabbi.  He cites chapter and verse when discussing the Scripture with Jewish leaders.  For us, this means being informed about our faith, about what the Bible says  and doesn’t say– and the historical context in which statements were made.

In the Hebrew Scriptures — reflecting the cultural norms when they were written (and probably the best thinking of the day) — we can find permission for selling our children into slavery (Exodus 21:7); putting to death anyone who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), and stoning anyone who plants different crops side by side (Leviticus 19:2).  We can find Jesus,telling us not to get divorced (Mark 10:11).

We find nothing about gay clergy, abortion or women priests.

Knowing the major themes of the Scriptures vs. the cultural realities reflected in single verses is vitally important today when the Bible is being used as political capital.  No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, you stand there as a Christian, who should not allow selected texts from our faith to be used in ways that refute the larger themes of the Hebrew Scriptures AND the Christian Scriptures, which is love of God, neighbor and self.  We may fervently believe in the separation of church and state, but if others drag our church and faith into the political arena, we need to stand up in some way.

Honesty, confidence and knowledge can help us stand up straight.  Speaking, acting, praising.  And sometimes we stand up straight in ways that only we can do.

Bill Millin died last week at age 88.  He was a 21-year-old private in the British army when his unit landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944, in a critical battle between Allied and German forces in World War II.   Shortly before the landings, Millin was approached by his Brigadier General and told to play his bagpipes on the battlefields once they landed to raise morale.  Millin pointed out that was against military policy because of the fear it would attract enemy fire.  But the Brigadier responded “Ah, but that’s the English War Office.  You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”

So after wading ashore in waist-high water that he said caused his kilt to float, Pvt. Millin reached the beach and marched up and down, unarmed, playing the tunes the Brigadier had requested including  “Highland Laddie” and Road to the Isles.”  With German troops raking the beach with artillery and machine gun fire, the young piper played on, as his fellow soldiers advanced through smoke and flames on the German positions, or fell on the beach.  Almost 4400 Allied troop and countless Germans died in the first 24 hours of the landings, but Millin played on.  He found out later, after meeting Germans who had manned guns above the beach, that “they didn’t shoot me because they thought I was crazy.”

Sometimes it takes creativity and even recklessness to stand up straight.

Today we baptize baby Tasman, into our community and into the larger Church.  He will soon stand up and walk on his own two feet, supported by his parents and community as he finds the way to his own truth.  The world he is coming into is a dangerous one, and he will need all of us to ease her way.

There is a reason the church no longer does private baptisms with only the family present.  It is because Baptism is initiation into a community.  Baptism represents parents’ and sponsors’ commitment to this community and faith tradition, and ours to the baptized.  Today, after Tasman  is baptized and carried down the aisle, we all stand together on his behalf.   When he’s older, he will decide for himself is he wishes to stand with us.  We need to stand up straight, but some times we don’t need to do it alone. Baptism reminds us of this fact.

I have spent much of my life encouraging and preparing people to stand up and speak their piece.  For some it was easy; for others, excruciating. I’ve learned that you can stand up straight at a podium, a pulpit, or laying in a hospice bed … a wheelchair, in a meeting, on a phone call or on a beach… in a whisper or a shout, with a word or an embrace.

Here’s the main point: stand up and –through a kind word or by telling your truth, be Jesus to the people in your world, and not just comfortable spectators.  In today’s lesson from Jeremiah, God says, “Don’t tell me you’re only a boy,” or only a this or only a that.  My Spirit will help you, and the stakes are huge.

I wouldn’t give up an inch of my height now, and neither should you. It is your legacy and your mandate.

In closing, I want to read you the statement I handed out the first day of school for 25 years in my Communications classes at Blake.  It is from a sermon given in Frankfort, Germany, by the Rev. Martin Niemoller in January of 1942.

“First they came for the Communists,

and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up

because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me

and by that time no one was left to speak up.”


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