Stand up straight

RCL Year C, Proper 16

How many of you had a mother who always told you to stand up straight? Did you? She was right: Good posture is important. So let’s work on this together. Take a book from the rack in front of you – any book will do. Put it on your head so it balances there. Now sit still, and see if you can keep it there till the end of the sermon.

A few years ago, I was recovering from a running injury, and someone recommended I try Pilates. Pilates is a system of exercise that focuses on the core muscles, the deep muscles of the torso that support the spine. So I tried it, and found that I liked it. And I also found out that Pilates helps your posture, because you spend a lot of time strengthening and stretching the muscles that help you stand upright. My instructor was always telling us, ‘Crack a walnut between your shoulder blades!’ – trying to get us to put our shoulders back, because, she said, women in particular tend to round our shoulders forward more and more as we get older, causing tension in the neck and shoulder muscles, among other problems. Especially for those of us who hunch over computers all day, we can really get all humped and crooked if we don’t pay attention to our posture. Aren’t you glad we’re working on it today? How’s that going?

Ok, you don’t really have to keep it there through the sermon. But you can if you want to. See, church is good for you for a lot of reasons, including spinal health.

In today’s gospel reading, in the middle of worship, Jesus restores good posture to a woman who had been bent over for eighteen years. Can you imagine being bent over for 18 years? Can you imagine right here today in church being healed of that? Because this is indeed a healing, and a very public one, in a synagogue on the sabbath day, outraging the authorities and gaining the admiration of the crowds. Jesus clearly has a point to make: He agrees with your mother. Good posture is important.

Interesting thing about this story. There’s another story of Jesus healing in a synagogue on the sabbath, when he cures a man with a withered hand. That one is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all three. But this story about the woman standing up straight is only in Luke. The fact that it’s about a woman is a clue that it’s not just a story about physical healing. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is always reversing the status quo, bringing people from the margins to the center around Jesus. And women were on the margins, especially women without a man, like widows or unmarried women or prostitutes. The woman in today’s story – and actually, in pretty much every story in Luke where a woman approaches Jesus – is definitely without a man. If she had one, he’d be her intermediary for the outside world. But here is this woman, bent over for 18 years, coming to worship in the synagogue, maybe to hear Jesus teach – and Jesus notices her. She is bent over from age, perhaps, or her spine is crooked from disease or a childhood accident – whatever it is, she has been on the margins for 18 years, so long that she is one of the ranks of the unnoticed and disregarded.  But Jesus notices her and calls her over and lays hands on her, saying, ‘You are set free,’ and she stands up straight. And the first thing she does is praise God. Right there in the synagogue in the middle of worship, in a place and time when women were not to speak, not to stand, not to praise God aloud, this woman from the margins raises her voice and speaks. This is a big deal.

This is more than just a physical cure. It’s a story about real liberation – Jesus tells the woman she is set free from her ailment, and she is set free in that instant also from what has bound her to silence and life on the margins. To call it a story about good posture doesn’t quite seem to do it justice. But I’m not just being facetious here: posture is more than how we stand. We use the metaphor of posture more than we realize – we talk about our stance toward something – whether we are living in an upright way – we say it is time to take a stand on this – and so on. Good posture means a lot.

There is a particular posture of prayer that the church has used since the earliest days.  It’s called orans, what you see when the celebrant stands at the altar during the Eucharist, with arms outstretched like this. In the early church, from what we can tell, all the worshipers would have stood like this, not just the priest. In some more charismatic churches today, where the Spirit is allowed to actually move the body from time to time, people still do. And the thing is, you can’t hunch your shoulders over when you do this – your arms are outstretched and raised to God, your chest is lifted, your face is lifted, you are entirely open to God and the world. I imagine the woman in the synagogue standing this way as she praised God, able at last to stand up and offer her prayers and adoration to the one she loved.

That is the posture that Jesus calls the woman into – and that God calls all of us into. Good posture is important. Good posture – the posture of prayer and praise – is how we’re called to live each moment. We’re not meant to stay looking at the ground, as if we don’t count for anything. We’re not meant to stay looking at our own navels either, as if we were the most interesting thing in the world. We’re not meant to be closed in on ourselves for any reason whatsoever – we’re meant to be upright, looking up and out at God and those around us. Yes, our own troubles and anxieties are absorbing. When hard times come, we can all of us get caught in what is happening here, the fear or the pain or the despair. But full and true healing comes only when we look up from ourselves again and look at others and at God.

Of course, that posture of prayer and praise has its risks.  With your arms up and outstretched, you can’t protect yourself very well. Your vulnerable soft parts are all out front and center. And your hands are up and out – you can’t make them into fists to strike out as you try to make your way through the world. And you can’t very well hold onto things either. Imagine standing this way and holding on to, say, a heavy wallet full of money – it would get pretty tiring. Or imagine trying to read the important new message that just came in on your phone. Too far away. And you can’t really hold onto your children this way either, or anyone else you want to keep safe and close. You have to relinquish your grasp on pretty much everything, except for your trust in God to care for you and those you love.

But this is the posture of liberation. You could say that God notices us, each of us, and calls us over. And then God wants us to stand upright. After all, good posture is good for you. It feels so much better to stand upright than to hunch yourself up. You can see a lot farther; you notice other people who need to be healed, who need to learn good posture too. And you use your muscles and your voice to do what you were designed to do by God:  to praise, to sing, to speak the truth, to love and to rejoice.

So this week, pay attention to your posture. Pay attention to your physical posture, sure, because that’s good for you, but pay attention to more than that too. Open your heart a little more. Look at the world around you a little more. Give thanks a little more for what you have. Because child, Jesus says, you are set free. Stand tall. Amen.