University Congregational Church
Nov. 15, 2020
Sooner or later we all face the frightening thought that we are stuck with ourselves. Maybe at one time, in more heady days of our youth, we thought we might grow up to be this or that. We entertained the idea that by getting a certain level of education, by marrying the person of our dreams, by landing the kind of job we always wanted, we ourselves would, in the bargain, transform into a different kind of person altogether.
But the day comes when we wake up, wipe the sleep out of our eyes, take that first glance of the morning in the bathroom mirror, and who we see staring back at us is the same person with the same flaws and weaknesses and blemishes as we’ve always seen. Eventually, we all must face the idea that we are stuck with who we are.
I realized recently that I am living in my grandmother’s body. It was not a particularly enjoyable thought. Sure, I have choices about exercise and eating right and other impacting factors. But there are just some things I must learn to live with.
I know that the advertisers would like to give us another message. Just go through your spam email titles and you will see that about 90% of them say something like:
Fountain of Youth!
Defy Old Age
Lose Weight Fast
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Amaze Your Friends
Become Your Own Boss
Secure Your Financial Future
Become the Man She’s Always Wanted
The message is forever the same: we can improve you… and fast. You do not need to be stuck with yourself. The advertisers know that we fall short of even our own fondest hopes for ourselves, much less any grand hopes God had for us once upon a time. We worry that we will never become what we wish we could be. We will never be pretty enough, smart enough, thin enough, and we will not ever find the job satisfaction that could infuse our days with meaning.
That brings us to our first scripture reading for today…
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.
At a women’s conference, the speaker asked a gathering of women this question: “What in your own experience might cause a woman to be bent over for eighteen years?” A woman in the crowd quickly replied, “Her children! Eighteen years is the minimum sentence parenthood brings.
“Or, perhaps, every time she held her head up and tried to be somebody, the people around her – both male and female – did all they could to deflate and diminish her again.”
I like these suggestions because they open our minds to new ways of identifying with this woman. All of us are bent people in one way or another, at one time or another. And this passage marks good news.
Think for a moment about what bends you over… what beats you down, zaps your enthusiasm, or crushes your plans. What disappointments, failures or guilt bend you over?
The world tells us that you are what you do; you are what you produce; you are what you look like. But what happens when you do poorly? What then? It is over; you are wiped out. You think all those prophecies you heard in the dark have come true, and people can see the “real” you, see what a schmuck you are, what a fraud.
But Jesus, in this story, tells us a greater truth. For Jesus, God’s chief concern is not about obeying laws or doing what people think is right. And when we understand Jesus’ view of God, suddenly the focus moves to God’s love for people and for the world. Commandments, rules, guidelines, traditions, laws, guilt, wrong-doing, and even scripture are subordinate to God’s love for us. That is grace.
I cannot claim to understand the mystery of grace. It is far beyond what I can comprehend. But what I do know is that grace is the force that infuses our lives and keeps letting us off the hook. It is unearned love – the love that goes before, that greets us on the way, and changes us. It is the help we receive when we have no bright ideas left, when we are empty and desperate and have discovered that our best thinking and most charming charm have failed us. Grace is what straightens us up when we have been bent over for years.
In Romans 5, Paul tells us that grace is a gift and that there is an abundance of grace for all of us. He goes on to say that when bad things happen, grace abounds in even greater force!
But the free gift (of grace) is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 5:15-21.
Kathleen Norris tells about an experience she had: “One morning I noticed a young couple with an infant at an airport departure gate. The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking, he would respond with absolute delight.
It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I was awe-struck, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted and to bless us with the words, ‘This is good.’ I suspect that only God, and well-loved infants, can see this way.
Peter denied Jesus, and Saul (who later became Paul) persecuted and killed those who followed Jesus, but God could see them, forgive them, and offer them acceptance and even love. This is grace.
Grace not only meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. It can be received gladly or grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny tastes, like a deer at salt, says Anne Lamott.
Sometimes we throw the word “grace” around as if it is a normal, accepted and rather mundane thing. Do we have any clue about the real nature of grace? Do we realize that we are stuck with ourselves; that we are bent over in pain and sorrow; but that there is incredibly awesome news?
And this news is not some misguided program to improve this or that part of life. It is not a stopgap, temporary measure to prevent bags under your eyes or make your teeth whiter. This gift will not put more money into the bank and will not necessarily make your boss treat you any nicer tomorrow than he did last Friday. Still, it is a wonderful thing. It is grace.
It is the promise that every dark thought that has ever plagued your mind, every shortcoming you could ever name is not a mark of your value. We do not have to live that way! We do not need to be bent over with the problems that plague us. We do not have to allow the old tapes, the failures and sadnesses in our lives get the best of us. Jesus wants to heal us with a grace that accomplishes not a little improvement in our lives, but a restoration of the life God always wanted us to have in the first place.
Jesus says, “No, my child. You are not stuck with yourself. You are stuck with me, and I will never stop loving you. Never. You have value and purpose and meaning. You are precious and beautiful and loved. You can stand up straight – healed completely – forgiven and accepted. Without doing or accomplishing or achieving, you are perfect just as you are!”
That is utterly amazing, abundant grace! The next time you are feeling bent over, stressed, ugly, and at your worst… think for a moment about grace and straighten yourself up a bit. You are like that child at the airport gate. Think about how you are loved and accepted just as you are and straighten yourself up a bit more. And then realize that you are a creation of God’s and stand up completely tall and thankful for the gift of life and grace. You are forgiven. You are loved. You are accepted. Amen.
Lamott, Anne. Amazing Grace. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2018.
“Grace All the More” sermon by Rev. Scott Hoezee
“Bent” sermon by Dr. Mickey Anders