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Stand Up Straight
March 16, 1997

LUKE 13:10-17

"The kingdom of God is at hand," preached Jesus as he and his team walked through the villages of Galilee. The kingdom of God is where God's will is done on earth as it is done in heaven. Jesus talked about and demonstrated the presence and accessibility of the kingdom of God. In the lesson read today, Jesus demonstrated the power of God.

Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. It was the custom in those days to invite visiting rabbis to speak during synagogue services. Word had spread that Jesus was in town. They had heard how the kingdom of God was in their midst, how Jesus had cast out demons, made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to leap, and the poor to sing and dance with joy. They probably crowded in that day to hear Jesus, the men sitting in the main area of the synagogue and the women separated and hidden behind a kind of grill with the children and slaves.

While Jesus was teaching, he saw through the grill a woman with a grotesque shape. She was bent over. Curved and folded in upon itself, the deformed body had been her burden to carry for 18 years. And worse, it was said that she was bound by Satan. The gossips and self-appointed judges decided that surely she must have sinned mightily to have been afflicted with such a terrible, ugly visible sign of her disobedience. She was probably ostracized and had to live her life without companionship and contact. She was probably treated as a "no thing." This crippled, bent-over woman reminded too many people that they too might be afflicted by Satan for their sins. The woman represented their secret sins and the culmination of their worst nightmares. Probably, they were so intent on listening to Jesus that day, they didn't notice the bent-over woman. If they had, they might have prevented her from entering the synagogue.

Jesus broke their rigid segregation rules that day. He spoke to the bent-over woman. Out loud. In public. Men did not acknowledge a woman in public, and certainly not in the synagogue. But, not only did Jesus speak to her, Jesus touched her! Not only did Jesus speak to and touch the crippled woman, he did it on the Sabbath, breaking the holy Sabbath laws. Jesus was a trouble maker, wasn't he. He flaunted bigotry. He violated age-old laws when compassion was at stake. He considered an ostracized, crippled woman more important than propriety, customs, traditions, and laws. He confronted the synagogue leader with common sense, "You water your ox and donkey on the Sabbath. Isn't it more important to free this woman of her bondage, so she can stand up straight!" Jesus called the leaders hypocrites-- people whose actions betray their beliefs, people who say one thing and do another, people who don't walk the talk. Jesus embarrassed the leaders, but he won over the people. They rejoiced. They celebrated all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing. When the bent-over woman was healed, the community stood straighter.

There are literally millions of people in the world today who are bent-over in bondage, and who cannot free themselves, bent-over by unfair customs, prejudices, traditions, and poverty. If the entire world consisted of 100 people, 67 of the hundred would be poor, 50 of the 100 would not have safe drinking water, 35 of the 100 would be hungry and malnourished, 6 of the 100 would be Americans holding more than 33% of the world's entire income, and only one of the 100 would have a college education. If the world's hungry were to line up, single file, in front of your door, the line would continue out of sight, over the continent and oceans, around the world, encircling the globe more than 25 times! Bent-over with hunger! The problem of poverty and hunger seems insurmountable, yet there is enough food in the world. Feeding the hungry is a matter of distribution and priorities. What can you do to help people bent- over with poverty and hunger stand up straight?

Another crippler is a low self esteem. Too many children are bent-over with a poor self image, caused by poverty, deprivation, or how they are treated in the home. Helen Bruch Pearson, in her book, Do What You Have the Power To Do, writes about Jonella. Jonella was 12 years old. She was a victim of oppressive circumstances: inadequate health care, improper diet, poverty, racism, and child abuse. She moved frequently from place to place and from school to school. Helen was a volunteer teacher in Jonella's learning disabilities classroom. Jonella had been in school for over six months, but she had never spoken a word, nor would she read or write. Helen sat beside Jonella day after day. Sometimes she talked to her. Mostly, she was just there-- present. Jonella sometimes would whisper something, but she would not pick up a pencil or crayon. One day, as Helen was leaving, Jonella ran after her, took her hand, kissed it, and thrust a wrinkled piece of paper in her hand. Jonella never came back to school, but she walks a little straighter because of Helen, her volunteer teacher. This is what the note said:

Dear Mrs. Pereson

I no you like buterflys and rainbos. Now I like them to. When you came to my room nobudy evre talked to me or nuthin. Nobudy choze me. Nobudy tuhced me. Nobudy called me by my name. I was invizible to most everbudy, but you sat with me close in my seat. You talked with me not past me. You tuhced me. It felt good to have sumone hug me. When you say my name I'm not invizible anmymor. I'm ME! I didn't understand about buterflys and rainbos at furst but now I do. My heart has helped open my eyes; I see buterflys and rainbos lots of places now. I even feel safe to tell you I love you. Jonella

Jonella stands straighter, because of the power of a teacher! What a ministry teachers have, freeing children bent-ver by low-self esteem and abuse. What a thrill it is to see children standing up straighter. How proud you can all be of your church's CATCh (Children At The Church) program. Every Tuesday afternoon, we have new children appear. CATCh is growing. The word is spreading throughout our neighborhood and city that kids are affirmed, appreciated, and loved here. Teachers in public school these days are hesitant to touch and hug children; but here in the church, hugs are given! What can you do to help bent-over children stand up straight?

Another crippler is racism, people bent-over because of prejudice against their color. None of us got to choose our color. Our congregation was given an opportunity to make a strong witness when Mt. Pisgah burned and we shared our facilities and our friendship. When Mt. Pisgah was rededicated, we held a 2 1/2 hour service here and then drove in a caravan over to Mt. Pisgah. The AME Zion bishop, Bishop Carr, cut the ribbon at the door and we entered. Most of the congregation who followed didn't see what was inside. Streamers had been hung between the pews, extending across the center aisle. Bishop Carr cut each streamer as we walked through. The streamers were titled "Hatred, Oppression, Prejudice, Violence," but the very first one we saw when we entered the sanctuary, was "Racism." Praise God for the opportunity we had to break the bond of racism. This past week, a Caucasian woman, and I don't even know her name, said to me, "Thank you, Rev. Norris and your congregation, for reaching out to Mt. Pisgah. I saw several news items on TV, and you folks made Merced look good!"

Back in 1978, long before Apartheid was abolished in South Africa, Allan Nelson was in Soweto on business. As he is a Christian, he and a friend decided to go to church. They decided to break the color barrier and worship in a black church which was located five blocks from the hotel. As they walked the five blocks, they were reminded of the racial barriers. Everywhere there were signs: "Whites Only," "Blacks Only." There was no mingling of the races anywhere. They were early when they reached the church, but they went inside and sat down. Gradually the black congregation began to arrive. No one said anything to them, and no one sat beside them. In fact, by the time the sanctuary was full, they were surrounded by a wide circle of empty seats. A lump came to Allan's throat. His fears now drowned out his hopes. Perhaps it was too much to expect that the color barrier could collapse in church.

Before the service started, a woman in the congregation stood up and started singing, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound." Allan was moved by her singing. It was beautiful, so beautiful that when she started the second stanza, some impulse prompted him to join his tenor voice to her song. Black and white together, they sang how grace relieves fear. An old woman from the back of the church came forward and touched him. "Jesus," she said softly. Jesus can break barriers. Jesus can set bent-over people free. Amazing grace! And then Allan committed an illegal act. Like Jesus, Allan broke the law, broke the customs, broke tradition, and broke the barrier of racism, by standing up and embracing the woman. They wept. Suddenly, people from all over the church came and joined them. They all stood up straighter that Sunday. What can you do to help people bent-over by racism stand up straight?

Jesus 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.

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris