“Bent Over Backwards” Luke 13:10-17

I am a fairly accommodating kind of person.  When approached about a need, conflict or criticism, my first instinct is to try to find a way to accommodate.   That’s not always possible, and sometimes it leaves everyone involved feeling a little, shall we say, “stretched?”

We even have a convenient phrase that we use to describe our actions of accommodation or compromise.  We might say, “we bend over backwards” ….to try to please, to solve the problem, or to do something for someone else.

“Bend over backwards.”  — The phrase has really two connotations.  At its best, it means that we reach in an awkward way to do something.

At its worst, it means that we contort or stoop to painful measures for the sake of someone else.

Either way, “bending over backwards” is often an unpleasant place to find one’s self.

In today’s Gospel lesson we have a series of events that unfold, that curiously all have to do with “bending.”

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was often his custom we are told in Luke’s Gospel.

This is Jesus’ “bent” if you will, what he finds himself inclined to do on the Sabbath.   He is committed to being in a place of worship.   This is where you will find him if you’re looking for him on this particular day of the week, as is witnessed over and over again in the Gospels, and particularly in Luke’s Gospel as Luke wants to make painfully clear to his Gentile audience that Jesus is rooted in Jewish tradition.

As Jesus is worshipping in Synagogue, a woman enters who is bent and quite unable to stand up straight.  She has been this way for 18 years, we are told, so she is obviously known as a regular in this community.

There is no mention of her seeking Jesus out, but rather she comes to his attention.   When he sees her, he calls her over, and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” and then he touches her in such a way that she straightens up and stands, and begins to praise God.

I want to stop there for a second, and ask a question of you.  How did you come in here today?  What were you “bent” on?

Were you bent on hearing some church music?  Is that your major reason for being here?

Were you bent on meeting your friends?

Were you bent on coming out of a sense of obligation, or because you are a “regular?”   It’s Sunday, and so church is the place to which I go.

Maybe you came today because you have felt the burdens of the world on your shoulder.   You were “bent” on trying to find some relief.

Perhaps you feel a bit bent over by the cares, worries and concerns that are a part of your life, and were looking for something to ease your load.

Or, maybe you came with the burdens of the world on your shoulders with no particular expectation of things changing at all.  You came just bent over, as usual, hunkering down to get yourself through another week.

I want you to think about that, ponder that for a moment, for in this Gospel we are given a very clear image.  No matter what you were bent on, or bent over with today, it is Jesus who first notices you.

Let that just sink in for just a bit.

Too often we’re bent on trying to get God to take notice of us, feeling as if God isn’t paying much attention to our troubles or our needs, but here it is clear that it is always Jesus who first sees what is wrong right away, and then has words to speak to what he sees.  They are peculiar words, particular words.

He does not say, “You are healed” to this woman.

He says rather, “You are set free…..”

Now think about that for a moment.

No matter what you came in here with bent on, or bent over with, the words of Jesus to you today are “You are set free….”   What would that be like for you?

What is it that you would like to be set free from?

What is it that you would like to be set free to do?

Could you dare to imagine that this is what Jesus has to say to you today?  You are set free!

What would you do with such a word given to you?

It is an amazing thing that we witness in this Gospel.  Here in the midst of the Synagogue a miracle takes place, a woman that everyone had known for years as the “bent over one” is now standing tall and straight and praising God.

Could you imagine yourself joining in her praise?

Or would you fall more in line with the role of the leader of the Synagogue?

There is a skeptic in every crowd, and one has to sympathize with the leader of the Synagogue here because what Jesus is doing is a kind of threat to the institution.    There is a reason why the leader of the synagogue gets “bent out of shape” by Jesus’ actions.

“Healing”, strictly speaking is a work.  It is an occupational task.  It is something that should properly be done on the other six days of the week.

The Sabbath is meant to be a day of rest.

By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus was calling into question the commandment of God.

Couldn’t Jesus have waited until tomorrow?

The leader of the Synagogue fears a world that is unhinged from decorum.   We’ve spent all the time since the Exodus trying to get people to observe Sabbath.  We fought with Pharaoh, and with all the pressures of this world and Rome to keep an Empire running 24/7.   Sabbath is the last thing we have left that makes us unique, distinct, Jewish!   Don’t mess with the Sabbath laws, Jesus.

We’re told the leader kept saying to the crowd the protest against healing on the Sabbath.  There is an insistence in the sense of propriety.

Yes, Jesus could have waited for another day, sought the woman out later, not upset the flow of the synagogue worship, but then strictly speaking, Jesus never was so much interested in healing the woman as he was in setting her free, and that is an action of the moment!

There is something more going on here than just a matter of tradition, or keeping of Sabbath laws, there is a divine imperative at work.

It’s not just that Jesus has taken notice of the woman, there is a claim made that God has taken notice of her, as a “daughter of Abraham.”   This is not just healing, this is a claiming of identity, and a release from bondage that echoes back to Exodus as well.   Here comes a new intervention by God into the events of this world.   The time for being set free is now, and it’s no use protesting it.  God will have it no other way!

We Lutherans and others who stand in a liturgical tradition have a troubling time with a Gospel like this, because we can better imagine ourselves as being right there with the synagogue leader.

We like our formality, our order, the “everything in the right place” comfort of the liturgy, whether that is the formal liturgy or 8:30 or the contemporary liturgy of 11, and to have an interruption of this kind would be both exciting and unsettling.

What if, on this Sunday morning, we saw someone so weighed down with life’s burdens that it was clear what they really needed was prayer and laying on of hands?  Would we be in tune with the moment enough to act as Jesus did? To interrupt the regular flow of the gathering to attend to what God will not let stand any longer? To see that person, call that person over, and do what needed to be done at the time?

Or would we try find a good place to put it in the liturgy, to fit it in?

Or, would we try to put it off to a later time?

Could we dare to hear Jesus’ words in our own tradition?  “You are set free!”

Free to move things around.

Free to respond to the needs of the people who have come this day, and not just be locked into the order of the service.

Free to straighten and stand and praise, in whatever way God moves you right now.

Would we be o.k. with that?

I don’t think I’m out of line in my interpretation here, because when the Synagogue leaders raise their objection, Jesus blasts back about how they are better at taking care of their livestock than at taking care of this woman.  You can make an exception to water the ox when you see they are thirsty or suffering, but can’t you make an exception to set free one bound by Satan for all these years?  You’d rather let them wait another hour, another day?

Jesus shames them!  Can you imagine that?   Feel the incredible contrasts of this Gospel story!

A woman set free, praising God.

A Synagogue leader, bending over backwards to try to keep things in line and running according to the rules of the day, shamed into acknowledging his own hypocrisy!

Bending over backwards is indeed an unpleasant place to find one’s self.

What would it look like for Jesus to call us over and set us free?

It is something for you to ponder, but only for a bit, because the real problem you have is that today, what Jesus does is seek you out and he does touch you!

You are set free.

You are set free from the things that have bent you over and bound you up.

You are set free from expectations and old burdens, or wounds.

You are set free to change your posture toward things, change your position, no longer hunched and hunkered in the expectation of what “has to be.”

That is the promise of the resurrected Lord, who comes, takes notice us our posturing, and moves to set us free and make all things new.

What will you do when you hear that Jesus has set YOU free?

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“A Baptism to Complete” Luke 12:49-56

We are in the midst of the Summer Olympics, and I’ve been enjoying watching the coverage as much as anyone.  Besides the events themselves, a mainstay of Olympic coverage these days seems to be including the “backstory” for various athletes.   That is meant to help us understand what this particular person has overcome, or their personal journey to making their way to the competition.

The “back story” provides us with perspective to understand the present moment, and what it means for them, and for us.

So for instance, we are being treated to the back-stories of Simone Manuel, the first African American woman to win a gold medal in swimming.

But curiously enough, the back story also introduces an area of conflict for us, for there are reminders of things that we would just as soon were not brought up.

Celebrating Simone Manuel reminds us of the deeper back story of Jim Crow laws in America, and the general denial of Blacks, Hispanics and Asians of equal access to public amenities.    It was just a generation ago that Dorothy Dandridge was denied access to a hotel pool because of her race.  As a black person, she was not welcome at the hotel pool.   And, when in protest she dipped her toe in a hotel pool anyway, the hotel’s action was to drain the pool and clean it to satisfy the complaints of white guests.

The back story of racism and swimming brings up the ugly reminder that the establishment of country clubs in this country largely took place so that whites could swim and recreate without having to intermix with other races.    Segregation kept people of color out of the water, and denied them access to swimming lessons and basic safe swimming education and practice.  It is a legacy that continues to this day as there are still a disproportionate number of Native American, Asian and Black drownings compared to whites because of the inability to pass along something as fundamental as learning how to swim or float.

We could use a little “back-story” to help us with this Gospel lesson for today, because it too tends to be a bit disturbing and troubling to us.  Why does the story of Jesus bring up these comments of conflict and division?

We want to think of Jesus as a “uniter” and so to hear him talk about how he comes to bring division within and among family members is unsettling.   We usually can handle mucking up our family relationships on our own, very well Jesus, thank you!   That’s not something we need your help with!

Many are the children who don’t see eye to eye with parents.

Many are the siblings who quarrel with each other, or who bicker over inheritances, how to run family businesses or what to do with aging parents and shared possessions.

We like to think that Jesus comes to bring peace, so to hear him talk about bringing fire is less than reassuring.  Do we really need that?

This is where a little “back story” to the Gospel is helpful.   When we read a segment of the story of Jesus in isolation on a given Sunday, we sometimes forget all that went into getting us to this point.

The key to this lesson is the flashback to the baptism of Jesus.

“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed.” Jesus says here.   So we have to go back and remember just what took place in the events of John the Baptizer and Jesus coming up out of the water.

John had announced it, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

There it is, the talk of fire.  The announcement of Jesus as one who will do some separating, winnowing of wheat and chaff, separating out the good from the worthless in this world and in life.

And if we look at what takes place with Jesus immediately after the baptism, we recognize that the confirmation of who he is as God’s beloved Son.  This baptism launches Jesus on a trajectory of conflict with the powers that vie or contend for control in this world.

Jesus finds himself at odds with Satan, who after being confronted in the temptation in the wilderness ends up not leaving, but simply retreating, looking for an opportune time.

Jesus butts heads with the hometown crowd over their expectations of him.  Surely you will do for us these wonders we have heard you can do?

Jesus finds himself recognized by the demons and spirits that possess in this world, whom he can cast out but who nevertheless still inhabit and vex.

Jesus finds himself going toe-to-toe with the religious authorities over interpretation of the scripture, and the observance of the law, traditions, and rituals.

Jesus floats in the political background of Judea, gathering large crowds in troublesome Galilee, contributing to the unrest and dis-ease of the countryside living under Roman occupation.

He is a specter of John come back to life to Herod.

He is a would-be Messiah to the Zealots, who look for a new King David to overthrow the current regime and put them back in power.

He becomes an eventual nuisance to the Temple and to Jerusalem, as the Chief Priests, Sadducees, Sanhedrin and to Pilate all struggle to understand what he is proclaiming when he talks about a Kingdom, one that is “not of this world” but one that is coming to Jerusalem and challenging authority.

Jesus’ “baptism yet to be completed” introduces conflict on many levels, but at the core is this solitary point, one pointed to in the words of Simeon all the way back when Jesus was presented in the Temple in Luke’s Gospel.

Simeon says, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

The solitary point is this… Jesus makes you think!

Jesus makes you examine things you would rather not be reminded of!

Jesus’ presence in this world tends to point out where the points of conflict are between God’s vision for this world, and the status quo.

Jesus does not present you with easy answers, quick fixes, or roadmaps to blissful living.

No, what the Son of God does in our midst is bring about questions.   Questions that are age-old, and unresolved, and deeply connected to God’s vision for this world and for God’s people.

Questions that are echoed in the words of the Prophets.   Like Jeremiah in our lesson today who is quick to point out the “yes men” prophets who are “dreaming” in Jerusalem are deceitful.   God is a God who comes near, and when God comes near, God tends to expose hypocrisy, and to show where things are out of whack.   “Is not my word like fire….like a hammer that breaks rock to pieces?”  Jeremiah proclaims.

The prophets and are quick to point out what God desires, but they are also often short on the specifics of how exactly to get there.

God desires mercy.

God desires justice.

God desires equitable dealings among God’s people.

How do you get there?  Well, there is no one preferred course of action!   There is no one “just” form of government above all others.  No one “merciful” type of leadership or action.   Seeking equitable dealings quite often involves what at first seems terribly inequitable, considering the plight of the downtrodden, the forgotten, the lowly and lifting them up which always makes the privileged and comfortable terribly uncomfortable.

Justice, mercy, and equal treatment in this world are always a matter of debate, conflict, and they come about from the compromise and intersection of actions and ideas, and where ideas and actions intersect, there is conflict.

God doesn’t pick and choose just one way, because the world is awfully good at taking even the best of systems and finding a way to abuse, miss-use and corrupt it!

So here’s the “back-story” to this section from Luke.   The Baptism of Jesus is one that begins to usher in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ presence causes friction, and debate, and calls into question the status quo of this world.  We see it on a variety of levels, and yes, it may even cause some discomfort in you.  For, as you seek to follow Jesus and live into the Kingdom Jesus comes to proclaim, you also may very well find yourself at odds with all the powers that vie for and contend for control of this world.

You may find yourself at odds with Satan, and all the temptations to look out for yourself first in this world.

You may find yourself butting heads with your own hometown crowd over their expectations of you, and of how thing should be done, or have always been done.

You may find yourself in the midst of various demons and spirits that still possess in this world, whom you are promised by Jesus that you can cast out, but who nevertheless still find a way to hang around and re-present themselves anew, in different forms and guise.    We cast out racism and bigotry, but it finds a way to rear its ugly head anew, in a different spot like demons moving to the herd of swine, and more disconcertingly the demons find an audience.

You may find yourself going toe-to-toe with others over the interpretation of the scriptures, and the observance of the law, traditions, and rituals.  What it means to follow Jesus and proclaim the Kingdom in our time, in our place.

You may even find yourself floating around in the political background, an eventual nuisance to the neighborhood association, or to City Hall, or to state or national legislators as you undertake proclaiming the kind of justice that is a part of God’s Kingdom, one that is “not of this world” but that comes to challenges authority on behalf of others.

This is the legacy of Jesus, and this Kingdom.   Not everything is right with this world, and probably never will be, but there are some things that we can see, some things that we can predict.  Like signs in the weather we can sense which way the wind is blowing, and what it may bring if allowed so to do, and so like interpreting the signs of wind and sky, Jesus urges us to interpret also the “present time” and to measure it against God’s call for mercy, justice and equality.   To measure our time against the vision of the Kingdom Jesus comes to proclaim.

If such things are not measuring up to God’s preferred vision of the Kingdom, then it is time to work for them, speak for them, or speak out against them, or to do what needs to be done.

There will be conflict, to be sure, so if there is going to be conflict, let it be the conflict that is born of living into one’s Baptism!

This is the “back story” for this Gospel.   Jesus is living into his Baptism, and urges us now to do the same.

The Kingdom of God is like a Cottonwood Tree Luke 12:32-40

Yesterday we finally had a day when I could go out and sit on the screen porch of our house to work on this sermon.

The weather was comfortable. The breeze refreshing.  I love sitting out there because it affords me a view of the bird feeders, and the great Cottonwood tree in our back yard.  The tree has gotten way too big and it has hollowed out as Cottonwoods will tend to do, so it really ought to come down before it falls down on the house or on the storage shed.

But I am a child of the great plains and of the farm, and cottonwoods for me have always been the sentinels of the great plains.   They tend to grow in places that no other tree would dare to take root and they weather all the wind and lightning that the world can muster and throw at them, year after year.   Even when they take a direct lightning strike they tend to come out scarred but none the worse for the wear.

Cottonwoods are survivors.

I remember them as if they had personalities.

A great grove of them grew in our pasture at the farm where I grew up on.  When I see a cottonwood it brings back the memory of me as a sandy haired kid riding his banana seated, high-handlebar bicycle out through the pasture following the cow paths to that grove.  It brings back the memory of the summer sun, the leaves rattling in the wind and how the branches would move in sweeping patterns, dappling the grass with shimmers of light.

A great Cottonwood grew by the small farm pond on our place, and under its shade with one set of massive roots stretching down right into the water’s edge I used to fish for bullhead and bluegill with my grandpa, and my dad.  When the pond silted so that it no longer had good fishing, I remember how a man used to come out and wade into it chest deep barefoot feeling for Snapping turtles with his feet.   He would drive a pitchfork down and bring up flailing turtle to make into soup.

Interesting what memories a chattering tree with puffs of fuzz will trigger, like the sneezes that tree causes for some, coming out of my brain.

There was a great Cottonwood that grew on Otto Ludwig’s place in the corner of the field near the pasture.   It was the designated meeting place for lunch whenever we worked over there, be that putting up hay, or harvesting, or take a break from walking soybeans.   Its shade had afforded, I imagine, at least three generations of farmers a place of respite.  It would probably still be standing if it hadn’t been felled by a dozer and ingloriously buried and burned without so much as a “thank you” when the farm was sold and farmstead razed, turning it into yet another “fence to fence” field.

There is apparently no purpose for a shade tree anymore in an age of 18 row planters, climate controlled tractors, and machinery doing the work that was once done with the cooperation of neighbors.

I was pleased this summer to see that the grove of Cottonwoods at Capital Reef National Park are still affording their shade to the picnic and campgrounds.  They are gnarled, old trees that it would take four or five grown men or women clasp their hands around.  Trees that had no doubt seen the passage of Native Americans on foot and horseback, settlers with carts and wagons, the first Model T’s that passed through the Fruita valley as well as now my SUV.

If they could talk, what stories they could tell!

Cottonwoods remain for so long because they are not much good for wood, or for building material, or for burning as fuel.   Some would see them as worthless trees.   They are however, for me a reminder of what the Psalmist proclaims.  A tree planted by streams of water will prosper… or at least be pretty tough to kill.

So my heart clings to the cottonwood.

I have come to realize slowly over the years that the tree has become a treasure to meIts value lies not in what it can be used for so much as what it brings out in me.   It does something to me, it brings out memories, and admiration, and a bit of sentimentality that borders on poetry.

And that is the tie in to the Gospel for today, this gathering of phrases from Jesus about giving alms, and not storing up treasures on earth, and being ready.  If there is a theme arcing through this gospel it has to do with what giving brings out in you, and in me, not what we get from it.

“”Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

            As I think about it now, cottonwoods are a lot like the Kingdom Jesus talks about.  They are a gift from God.

No one goes out and plants one.

No, a Cottonwood tree comes into your life without any action on your part at all, and you either take notice of it or you don’t.  But once you do begin to take notice of it, it stands there plain as day and begins to do things to you.

God’s grace is just like that, you know.

It floods you with memories.

It gives you shade and a place to rest.

It sometimes irritates, and occasionally looks a little precarious or dangerous.

Once you start to take notice of God’s grace in your life, you really can’t miss it, but if you try to harness grace, or try to make some use of it, or try to do anything besides rest in its shadow you will soon get frustrated.

Try to make grace do something for you, and it is no longer grace, it becomes a commodity.   Grace turns into a transaction that you try to control, or it becomes a nuisance that gets in your way, or a source of disappointment in its rate of return.

So the first order of business in understanding what Jesus is trying to tell us is to get this part right.

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.  The Kingdom is a matter of grace, pure and simple.

We don’t “bring it about.”

We don’t “plant” it.

Oh, we may sow the seeds of the Kingdom in what we do or what we give, but when we do so we’re largely unaware of just what we’re doing.

It is like the cotton in the wind.

Our best intentions of giving alms or doing works that we think will come back to benefit us in some way only seem to go awry.

When we give alms and gifts without expectation however, they will tend to blow far and wide where they will, and they will work quite independent of our intentions for them.

And, that is just fine.

So, understanding that, Jesus goes on to say,

Sell your possessions, and give alms.  Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Giving doesn’t come back to us you see. Giving plants the seeds of the Kingdom, far and wide, and seeing the Kingdom of God as it breaks in upon this world ends up doing something to us.   It makes us stand in awe of how that ever got there!

Once you realize that the Kingdom comes as a gift, everything changes for you.

The Kingdom becomes not some abstract thing that you hope to see someday for all you’ve put into it, or something that you give to in order to bring it about in your own place, but rather it becomes a present reality that does something to you when you see it.

You begin to see that the Kingdom of God does indeed give you much, but not in the way you expected.

The promise of the Kingdom starts to evoke things you in, treasures you didn’t know you had access to at all!  You see the Kingdom in all kinds of places, with their own personalities.

It’s not just about what my church is doing. It’s about what God is doing all over the world, and where I might glimpse it next.  It might be in my own church maybe, or maybe in the one down the street, or maybe in the ministry that we have nothing to do with at the moment.  It might be here, or in a companion synod half way across the world.  It might be Lutheran, or any number of other places, denominations, or expressions.

The Kingdom of God becomes, well becomes like Cottonwood trees.  They pop up everywhere, taking root where no other tree would dare to try to grow, and there are so many stories that could be told if they could but speak, or if we could but listen.

On its best days, this is what the church, the in-breaking Kingdom of God, is like for me.   It is like the cottonwood,  something that was here long before I was around, that I have the privilege to see, to feel, to stand in the shade of once in a while and to experience.

The Kingdom will be here long after I am gone, standing sentinel.

It’s a treasure that I didn’t know was there, or didn’t even see, given to me by God who hopes that maybe I will take notice of,  be moved to give to, but mostly will simply take the time to notice and stand in its awesome presence.