Sermon Archives

Bent Over

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Aug 25

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17

Eighteen years … she was bent over for eighteen years.  That’s a really long time. Do you remember eighteen years ago?  I know exactly what I was doing 18 years ago, because this week we moved our 18-year-old daughter to the University of Pittsburgh to begin her college years.  In those eighteen years, she has grown from a newborn baby into an independent young adult. Eighteen years is a long time; so many things have changed. How do you stand up again if you’ve been bent over for eighteen years?

What do you remember about eighteen years ago, the summer of 2001?  It was, as we say, pre-9/11. It was a world that had its issues, but things seemed more manageable then.  Or did they? I have to say that what has surprised me most about these last eighteen years, from 9/11 to the current Presidential administration, is a realization that I hadn’t had before, and that’s wondering whether we might be witnessing the fall of the American empire.  

There’s a refrain in the musical Hamilton that King George sings – sort of as comic relief.  It’s a refrain that he sings three times interspersed throughout the musical, as the story line traces our new nation from cooperation with England, to the struggles of early independence, to George Washington’s decision to step down from the presidency and have different people fill that role.

Oceans rise, empires fall

We have seen each other through it all …

Oceans rise, empires fall

It’s much harder when it’s all your call …

Oceans rise, empires fall

Next to Washington they all look small.

(That last one was a dig at John Adams from Massachusetts, who apparently wasn’t very tall!)  Some days, I’m not so sure our country will survive, and definitely not without some significant changes.

    Think back with me to that summer of 2001.  We had recently survived the transition from the 20th to the 21st century.  We weren’t quite sure if the new century had begun on January 1, 2000 or January 1, 2001, but either way, we survived it without the chaos that we had dreaded as the midnight ball fell, wondering if our computer systems would grind to a halt.  2001 wasn’t quite the space odyssey that we had imagined, although since then we’ve come a long way with cars that almost drive themselves, drones that deliver packages, and phones that instantaneously connect us to most anywhere in the world.

    Thanks to google, which has also developed quite a bit since then, we can now find out that about half of Americans had a cell phone back in 2001.  The figure today is closer to 95%. Do you remember the phones from 18 years ago? They didn’t have a camera, that wasn’t developed until 2002. They weren’t smart – the smartphone wouldn’t debut until 2007.  In fact, we couldn’t even get our e-mail on our phones back then, imagine that! Americans averaged 35 texts per person per month before the qwerty keyboards became available on our phones about 2001. Now it’s well over 2,000 texts and messages per person per month.  (They must be averaging in a lot of teenagers!) That’s a lot of time spent hunched over our phones.

And apparently, it’s even having an effect on our skeletons.  A recent Australian study, somewhat disputed, but definitely entertaining and intriguing, showed that some teens are growing a bony horn on the back of their skull – a sort of counterweight.  Is it an adaptive change -- to counterbalance the weight of skulls that are always looking down? Whether or not you have grown a horn, we are definitely more bent over.

Now thankfully, you can now purchase a device that you can stick on your upper back, between your shoulder blades, which will vibrate whenever you slouch, reminding you to sit up straight or stand up straight.  Is that all it takes? I don’t know about you, but if I remember, I can sit up straight. It’s just that within a few moments, I’ve forgotten, and slipped back to my usual slouched-over-my-keyboard position.

    I wonder if the woman who was bent over ever forgot that she had been healed?  After Jesus invited her to stand up, and laid his hands on her, was that it? Did she never retreat to her familiar former posture?  If only it were that easy!

    Now, I’m not casting doubt on the power of healing, or the moment of transformation, when Jesus says, “Stand up” or “Be healed” or “Go and wash” or “Your sins are forgiven.”  But I’m suggesting that such a specific moment of change is only the beginning of healing. Our bodies, our minds, and our souls have to adjust to this new way of being. And that can be hard and difficult work.  But it can be done.

    That’s why I’m able to find a shred of hope in our current situation.  Whether it’s climate change, race relations, immigration, or the economy, or gun violence, many of us have had moments of eye-opening revelation – moments of learning more and more about our history – environmental, political, technological, and economic – and finding that much of it is disturbing and problematic.

    Think about all you have learned about our world since 2001.  Think about what you’ve learned about the environment: about plastics, about trash, about recycling, about energy development and production.  Think about what you’ve learned about immigration. Think about what you’ve learned about economic justice and injustice, or institutional racism.  We are learning more and more. The question is what we do with that moment of revelation. Do we shrink away from the enormity and horror of it all?  Or is it the beginning of healing?

    New insights in a moment can be transformative for the individual involved and also for the community.  In our gospel story for today, the leaders of the synagogue were not happy that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath.  They complained that he had healed on the Sabbath, but if you read the whole gospel, you can’t help but imagine that if he had healed her on a Thursday, they would have found something else to gripe about.  Because healing disrupts the status quo. It disrupts the way things had been. It changes the way things were. So I’ve been thinking about that: about the individuals involved, about healing, and change and transformation.

    I’ve been thinking about this in the context of this week’s 400th anniversary of the landing of a certain ship, the White Lion.  The White Lion and another ship, the Treasurer, were two English ships flying Dutch flags.  They attacked Portuguese ships that were carrying hundreds of Angolan Africans who had been captured by the Portuguese and were being taken to Mexico.  The English ships were privateers (that is, pirates) who stole about 50 people off the Portuguese ships. Then the White Lion landed at a port in what is now Virginia where the people they had stolen were sold in exchange for food.  

    These were not the first Africans in North America, nor were they the first people who were forced to labor.  But they were the first who were sold … and bought. If you think about that, or if you look at the scripture, notice what the leaders of the synagogue said to Jesus.  They didn’t tell Jesus not to heal on the Sabbath; the way Luke tells it, the leaders of the synagogue told the people not to ask Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. So, remember that there were people who were privateers who stole people and sold them, but when they got here, there were people who purchased them.  Selling and buying. The arrival of the ships in 1619 can be seen as the introduction of the transatlantic slave trade to Virginia.

Forty-three years later, in 1662, Virginia passed a law that decreed that a child’s status would match that of the child’s mother, thereby making slavery a perpetual generation-to-generation institution.  But it wasn’t just Virginia. It wasn’t just America. In fact, less than 10% of the 12 million Africans who were taken against their will were brought to what is now the United States of America. Many were shipped to Brazil and the Caribbean.  This is a hugely complex issue, and I encourage you to observe a piece of this anniversary learning what you can about its history. Take a small piece and learn what you can about what has transpired these 400 years.

So what do we do with this complicated legacy?  I love the juxtaposition of the Isaiah text with this Luke text.  Each week, when we choose texts from the lectionary, we have a choice of 6-8 total.  Isaiah is the alternate text for this day, but I love what it says about the Sabbath, and how Jesus played that out in Luke’s gospel.  What Isaiah says that God says transforms the Sabbath from a day of doing nothing – a day of rest – to a day of refraining from going your own way, from serving your own interest, from pursuing your own affairs.  That’s a real difference: switching the Sabbath from a day of rest (doing nothing) to a day of serving someone other than yourself and the work you do to support your family. Jesus was healing, not for himself, but for others.  He was taking this Isaiah call to heart, and recognizing that the Sabbath was a day for him to do something for others.

So how can we start from where we are today and do for others?  I was looking for hymns for today and picked one from my childhood.  I saw that it was written in 1846, the note says, just after a war with Mexico.  Now, I grew up with thinking there was the American Revolution, then the Civil War, and then the World Wars, and Vietnam, but I didn’t know about the war with Mexico until recently.  It is yet another of those things that I’ve learned in these eighteen years. This was this war that Henry David Thoreau protested by not paying his taxes, being jailed, then getting angry when someone paid his taxes to bail him out after only one night, and ultimately writing his treatise, “Civil Disobedience.”

    To end that war, Mexico ceded to the United States nearly all the territory now included in the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, and western Colorado for $15 million.  I’m not sure why as a schoolchild I didn’t put 2 and 2 together and realize that when the US gained 7 new states, there were Mexicans living on the land previously known as Mexico.  But my family had built a new house on a “vacant” lot when I was in 2nd grade, and as a 7 year old, I transferred that dualistic understanding of land – either entirely vacant wilderness or occupied with houses -- to the history I was learning in school.  When the US added these 7 states, there were 100,000 people who were granted automatic US citizenship by the Treaty that ended the Mexican-American war on July 4, 1848.

Then, in the early 1930s, when the US economy was struggling, the US government deported somewhere around a million US citizens to Mexico.  If you do the math, it was eighty years and three generations later. Unless they were deporting only those older than 82, those deported had lived their entire lives as US citizens.

    So how can we talk about immigration on that particular border?  How can we, with our history, talk about race relations? How can we talk about climate change when we are using so much energy and throwing away tons of plastic?  How can we heed Isaiah’s call to be “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets to live in”?

And how can we possibly stand up straight under all of this stress?  What would it take, not only to stand up, but to stay up? Strengthening those muscles, one by one, strengthening our backs vertebra by vertebra, until we can stand taller for a little bit longer each day.  So if you’re like I am and you get overwhelmed by all that appears to be falling apart, think about the woman bent over for eighteen years. After her life changed when she was healed, when Jesus gave her new life, she found a way to stay standing.  Think about what she may have done to strengthen her back to stand taller, and do the same. When you find yourself bent over, then learn new things, study our history, talk to people, so that you might be able to stand tall and proud as a member of this community, a resident of this city and this nation, and know that God is with us if we each do some small part for others.  Can you imagine if 330 million people each did one small part for others? Because there are about 330 million things we need to do to save our nation. Amen.

1. From Hamilton: An American Musical, by Lin-Manuel Miranda

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