Today’s sermon is an expansion of my post on posture from earlier this week. You can read on, or give it a listen here.
Every year, the Church Pension Group puts out a calendar of Episcopal cartoons drawn by The Reverend Jay Sidebotham, Rector of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, Illinois. These cartoon depictions of the imaginary Saint Swithin’s Church poke fun at all areas of life in the church from hair-brained schemes to bring in new members to life as a clergy person. One of my favorites, one of the two that hangs behind my desk, is from November 2008 and is called “New in the Pew.” It depicts five people sharing a pew, two standing and three kneeling, all looking very confused. Each person has a thought bubble above them:
- The first gentleman is kneeling, holding a Prayer Book thinking, “OK, I just found my place in the Prayer Book and now they’re in the Hymnal…”
- A woman is standing, holding an upside-down Hymnal thinking, “It says kneel or stand. So which is it anyway?”
- The next man is kneeling thinking, “This is more of an aerobic workout than I get at the gym!”
- A third man has the bulletin in one hand, a Prayer Book in the other and a Hymnal under his arm and his thought bubble reads, “How am I supposed to juggle all these?”
- Finally, a fourth guy is kneeling, obviously exasperated, having dropped his book, and says, “I’m not sure I have the manual dexterity to be an Episcopalian…”
I thought about that cartoon several times this week as I read the Gospel lesson about the woman who had been doubled over for nearly two decades and wondered exactly what Jesus did for her as he “set her free from her ailment,” and why is it so important that it happened on the Sabbath? I keep coming back to that cartoon and the question of the woman, “It says kneel or stand. So which is it anyway?” Because I think that posture plays a very important role in worship and I’m afraid we never give it any thought.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are the woman bent double for 18 years. Think about what the world would look like for you. Imagine feet, dirt, dust, and ugly carpets being the extent of your field of view for the same length of time it takes to go from birth to high school graduation. This is a very lonely world: one that misses out on the smile of a child, the look of concern from a friend, and the eyes of deep affection from a spouse. Physical posture directly impacts the way in which you see the world: figuratively and literally. For 18 years, this woman entered the Synagogue in order to worship the Lord God Almighty and missed out on the beauty of its space, the nuances of body language from the Rabbi as he taught, even the sun on her face as it came in through the windows. For 18 long years, this woman missed out on the fullness of worship as her posture pulled her down, further and further, toward the ground.
Then, one day, it all changed. The Sabbath started like any other. Of course, for this particular woman, the Sabbath, like every other day of her life, required a lot of work. She got out of bed and went through the contortions necessary to put on her Saturday best. Slowly, she shuffled her way from her one room shack, up the hill toward the Synagogue. If she was going to make it on time, she had to leave long before the Shofar was blown announcing the start of worship. She arrived, early, like always, and found her way to the place where women were permitted to congregate. And she waited. Waited for worship to begin. Waited for anther Saturday in which she’d hear of God’s great dream for his people to be set free. Waited and wondered if any of it was really meant for her. As worship began, she noticed that the tenor of the room was different; people seemed excited – on edge. A guest Rabbi was in town and would be offering the lesson. She listened as he spoke of the Kingdom of God that had come near, the promise of release to the captive and restoration of sight to the blind. And then suddenly, the guest Rabbi stopped talking. After a short pause, she heard him say, “Woman, come here.” Who was he talking to? Certainly, he didn’t mean her. Then, all of a sudden, she saw him. This Rabbi, Jesus, had stooped down in order to look her in the eye and said to her, “You are free from your ailment.” He laid his hands upon her back, and immediately she stood up straight.
Luke tells us that her first response was to praise God. She had been set free to praise God for the first time in 18 years. As I said, posture plays a very important role in worship, and this woman had, for nearly two decades, had plenty of time to think about it. Her posture was, whether she wanted it to be or not, a posture of reverence and penitence. The weight of her ailment made her sinfulness abundantly clear. It wasn’t until Jesus set her free that she could stand up straight and praise the Living God.
“It says kneel or stand. So which is it anyway?” asks the woman in the cartoon. She asks because she has the freedom to make the choice. She asks because she hasn’t experienced the sadness associated with being bent double for 18 years. She asks the question because, like so many of us, she really doesn’t know the answer. So, which is it anyway?
A good rule of thumb in reading Prayer Book rubrics is that the first choice is always the preferred option. After the Sanctus, when we join with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven and proclaim “Holy, holy, holy,” the rubric actually reads, “The people stand or kneel,” so the preferred posture for the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer is actually standing which is according to liturgical scholar Byron Stuhulman, “the normal posture for prayer and the customary posture for praise in the Christian tradition, for we have been ‘raised’ with Christ.” Kneeling is better suited for other parts of the liturgy as it is “the posture for prayers of penitence and confession as well as prayers of fervent supplication.” The posture of the woman in the Synagogue, bent double or a “solemn bow” is a gesture of respect. Now I know that this short explanation of liturgical posture probably won’t change decades of habit as Keith celebrates the Great Thanksgiving in a few minutes, but I hope you’ll think about what your posture says about how you relate to the Lord God Almighty.
Jesus didn’t come to weigh you down with burdens; he came to set you free. He came to free us from the ailments that keep us doubled over spiritually and keep us from fully praising God. To me, this is nowhere more apparent than in the story of his healing the bent over woman on the Sabbath. Jesus gave her so much more than the ability to stand up straight. He gave her the gift of praise on precisely the right day, the Sabbath, and in precisely the right place, in the midst of the Synagogue.
Today, each of us comes to worship carrying burdens. Some of them are life-long struggles: addiction, mental illness, past abuse, etc. Some are self-inflicted: materialism, work-aholism, infidelity, etc. Everyone knows what it feels like to be weighed down with stress or pain or struggle. Which is why this story is so powerful. Jesus goes out of his way to heal this woman. He breaks down barriers to help her stand up straight. He risks his whole ministry, even his very life, to make sure this woman is set free from her bondage.
And he’ll do it for you too.
The Kingdom of God is a place where everyone is able to stand up straight – freed from the shackles of sin that weigh us down – and praise God. Like the bent over woman, you are invited to that Kingdom – right here and right now. Be set free. Stand up. Praise the Lord. Amen.
 Copyright 2007, The Church Pension Group https://www.cpg.org/global/online-resources/cartoons/services/ (Accessed 8/21/2013).
 Stuhlman. Prayer Book Rubrics Expanded. 22.
 Ibid. 23.
 I’m thankful to Kathryn Matthews Huey for suggesting this line of thought – http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/august-25-2013.html (accessed 8/19/2013).