Sermon: Sunday, 25 August 2013
Sermon for 25 August 2013, Proper 16, Year C
The Rev. Theo Park
A printable PDF file of this sermon is available here: 20130825 - Proper 16, Year C - The Rev. Theo Park
An audio recording of this sermon is available here: https://soundcloud.com/amindtowork-org/sermon-20130825
Do you know that this Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom March for Civil Rights? 50 years ago people from all walks of life and from all across America came together in Washington to take a stand for the dignity of all people. The moment has gone down in history, of course, not only as the watershed event that it was, but also because it was the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, one of the greatest in American history. It so clearly and beautifully articulated not only his dream, but the people's dreams, dreams that I hope we all share – dreams of justice and equality and mutual respect; dreams of how the world can be, rather than how it sometimes is; dreams of letting freedom ring all across our land. Reading the text does not do the speech justice. You need to hear his voice – sometimes slow and drawling, sometimes quick and fast-hitting. You need to hear the way he used the phrase "I have a dream" not just to begin each sentence, but by moving quickly from one sentence into the next sentence and then pausing, making it serve as both the end and the beginning of each idea. If you haven't heard it recently, I encourage you to go online and find it.
The speech is filled with other powerful lines, among them: We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. And We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. A beautiful, articulate, and powerful speech.
My preaching professor taught us that a good sermon should have one function: to encourage the congregation, to challenge the hearers, or to teach the people. Well, Dr. King certainly did not follow these rules! His speech in Washington had way more than one function. It encouraged the people to keep up the fight. It assured the opposition that they would not give up. It warned the people against violence and hatred and bitterness. And most of all, it was a call. It called the people listening to a journey and a new identity, a journey that would not be easy, but one that would change their lives – and the lives of those to come.
Dr. King was a man of God whose notion of the Gospel wasn’t restricted to the pulpit. He was convinced that you have to take the Gospel out onto the Streets. The Gospel demands that we all fight injustice with every non-violent means possible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!, King said.
It is not enough for us to stay at home and pray. It is not enough for us to devote time to Bible Study. It is not enough for us to love the Lord in our hearts. All these things are important but if that’s all we are going to do as Christians when God’s plan for all human children is being so willfully ignored, then we may as well not bother! If the Gospel means anything at all we have to live it in our daily lives. Not just play lip service to it but actually make it a reality for all God’s children. If we stand back and let injustice happen then we have no justice at all. It’s all or nothing!
This is a tough act to follow. It’s a standard that we all find difficult to meet. God’s standards often are. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother trying. That we shouldn’t offer ourselves, our lives, our failures up to God and ask that God may sustain us as we struggle to be the people God has called us to be; God understands that it isn’t easy. Giving up was the only thing that Martin Luther King would consider as defeat. Our enemies cannot defeat us if we walk with God. We can only defeat ourselves by giving up the struggle to create God’s Realm on this earth.
Which brings me to today’s gospel. Luke tells us a story of a woman who is weighed down under the circumstances of her life. If you’ve ever seen a woman with this condition, you know it’s got to be painful. You see it most often in elderly women who didn’t get enough calcium over the years. Some are bent almost like a question mark, and the vertebrae in their spines are fused together so that they are unable to stand up straight. It’s a painful condition, and the poor woman in this story endured it for 18 years.
Jesus notices her, Jesus calls out to her, Jesus acts. In effect he says, “It is not enough to be religious if God’s people are not free. God’s justice and righteousness are more important than your rules.” The language that Luke has Jesus use is important here. He doesn’t use the word for healing; rather, he says that Jesus releases the woman, frees her from her bondage. I believe the point is being made that something greater than healing is going on here. And here I come back around to Dr. King and the good news, the hope, I find in the gospel and in King’s message.
Many of us live every day with the painful fact that life is difficult. It may not be the crushing weight of oppression or illness, but we are burdened. And that burden often feels like our whole identity and keeps us from acting. I want to suggest to you that the freedom that Jesus brings works for us right here and now. The love of God in Jesus releases us to be more than our burdens, so that they no longer define the limits of who we are. I think it quite significant that Jesus calls the woman a “daughter of Abraham.” She has an identity that is greater than her burdens, one that gave her hope during those 18 years of suffering, and that was the identity of being a child of her Creator, the identity of being special to God, the identity of being the apple of God’s eye. You may feel weighed down by your burdens, but God sees you as so much more. God sees you as a delight, and calls out to you, “Come rest in me and be free.” And the passage closes by telling us how we should respond to that freedom. When the woman was freed, she stood up and began praising God. Later, after Jesus explains what he is doing, the entire crowd begins rejoicing.
When we embrace our true identity we respond with praise and rejoicing. Martin Luther King knew this at the center of his being. I’m sure he was afraid many times. I am sure the weak human child that is within us all wanted to run, wanted to hide, wanted to go back to the quiet life of preaching he once thought was his calling. He knew his particular burdens. I am sure he did not feel big enough to deal with the enormity of the events that he was facing. But Dr. King loved God, and believed with all his heart that God’s plan for humanity would triumph. He stepped out in faith. What God offers us all is truly wonderful. Each and every one of us is loved unconditionally and is of equal value. We are called to live our lives in recognition of this and to offer that freedom to others. The world we would create in so doing would be wonderful: a real heaven on earth! The chance of creating such a world must be a priority for us. It is the prospect of our failure that we should fear more than any human danger we may face in trying to achieve it.
So what is it that weighs you down? What makes you feel defeated? What are those things in your life that sap your strength and vitality, and your energy? Some of you may have a debilitating illness, like the bent over woman. Some of you may have a besetting sin that you just can’t lick. Some of you feel outcast at work or at school or even here at church. Some of you look to your future and see nothing but a question mark.
The world can burden you. The world can weigh you down and abuse you. The world can even take away your life. But it can’t take away your freedom – your freedom to live, and to act, as a child of God. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Praise God, praise God, praise God.
This sermon owes a debt to two sources: a sermon by Stephen Harte, MCC Edinburgh, no longer posted on-line: and “Freedom,” by Russell Smith, posted at Third Mill Magazine Online: http://thirdmill.org/newfiles/rus_smith/pt.smith.r.luke.13.10-17.pdf
This sermon was created by The Rev. Theo Park for The Episcopal Church of Gethsemane, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sources are credited where applicable.