Sermon–August 21, 2016


14 Pentecost—16-C

August 21, 2016

William Bradbury

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

When I was in Nicaragua in 2004 and 2005 the people of Managua were still talking about the 1972 earthquake that hit that city the night before Christmas Eve. 10,000 people were killed and 250,000 were homeless. One woman wrote that when they ran out of their homes that night the roads were moving in 4 foot waves. I hope to never have to experience such a mind-boggling, life threatening experience where that which is supposed to be stable and secure is moving violently, yet we have all experienced events in recent years that have profoundly upset us: for instance, we are coming up to the 15th anniversary of 9/11, which will fall on our first Sunday back from the summer.

And of course we all are sitting on the time bomb of a medical diagnosis like the one that hit a healthy, happy 45 year old woman I know who is now at Brigham and Women’s fighting for her life against a very rare form of cancer. She will not be able to join her husband as he takes their oldest child to start his freshman year of college in two weeks.

Your life and mine, as much as we deny it, are built on roads, real and metaphorical, that can be turned into waves of destruction at any moment.

We all know that what the prophet Isaiah said is true: “the foundations of the earth do shake.” Isaiah 24:18

Yet, the author of Hebrews proclaims to us that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”

Notice the verb tense: not “when we die and go to heaven we will receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken”, but “we are receiving”.

Another translation says, “We should be grateful that we were given a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” Contemporary English Version (CEV)

While the New Testament certainly believes that following death we will know life eternal in Triune God, it is proclaiming a fuller truth: even in this life, even in the midst of the shaking of the foundations we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Jesus spends so much time healing the sick as a foretaste of this unshakeable Kingdom.

Today Jesus is in synagogue, like he is every Sabbath and in walks a woman who has been bent over for 18 years. We don’t have a modern diagnosis for the cause of this illness. All Luke says is that she had a spirit that had twisted her spine so she couldn’t stand up straight.

Maybe she has an identifiable physical disease, or maybe she ends up in this situation because her mind was being twisted by a powerful negative story that had slowly compromised her body. Jesus does say Satan has bound for eighteen long years.

I’ve known people who every night before they go to bed, have a habit of reciting the litany of bad things that have happened to them that day: their spouse didn’t show respect, their boss criticized them, their kids didn’t mind them, and their body is slowly breaking down.

Then when they wake up they renew the negative litany and fully expect that all the bad things that happened yesterday will most certainly happen today, so they’d better be ready to defend themselves and fight back.

They are trapped in a false story that is daily destroying all possibility for joy and peace.

I knew a woman in North Carolina whose mother was trapped in this kind of negative story and who was eager to trap my friend in it as well by criticizing her for everything from cooking to childcare.

Maybe this is what happened to the bent over woman. She believed the negative story laid on her by others and has now made it her own.

But even if her spine is damaged because of a genetic flaw, after 18 years of having to live bent over, it would be surprising if this woman had not created a victim story of her life so that every night she would tick off all the bad things that had happened to her that day because she was a victim of a damaged spine.

But to her credit she still went to weekly worship and on this day she is encountered by Jesus of Nazareth. She doesn’t ask for healing or even agree to it, but Jesus lays his hands on her and says, “Woman, you have been set free from this ailment.”

And then Luke tells us, “She stood up straight and began praising God.”

Through Jesus this woman has been given a whole new spirit—a spirit of praise. Now every night she remembers all the good things that happened that and praises God for them.

 Instead of practicing grievance she now practices gratitude.

Now Jesus has made God’s unshakeable kingdom central to her story, and since this is the True Master Story of every life, she is set free in every way.

One of our members told me she heard a radio show about the power of practicing gratitude at the end of each day and that this had made a big difference in how she felt.

Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on the practice of gratitude has written that “in our studies, we often have people keep gratitude journals for just three weeks. And yet the results have been overwhelming. We’ve studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits”—physical, psychological, and social.

He says:

  1. Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present.It magnifies positive emotions…. And allows us to participate more in life…. We spend so much time watching things—movies, computer screens, sports—but with gratitude we become greater participants in our lives as opposed to spectators.
  2. Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness.
  3. Grateful people are more stress resistant. There are a number of studies showing that in the face of serious trauma, adversity, and suffering, if people have a grateful disposition, they’ll recover more quickly.
  4. Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. I think that’s because when you’re grateful, you have the sense that someone else is looking out for you—someone else has provided for your well-being, or you notice a network of relationships, past and present, of people who are responsible for helping you get to where you are right now.”

Saint Paul does not say, give thanks for all things, but he does say, “give thanks in all things.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18

I think about a woman named Barbara in North Carolina who in 1990 was successfully treated for breast cancer, but then ten years later she’s taking a bath and notices a new lump under her arm. I was shocked at her response: she said, “I thank God because if I hadn’t taken that bath I might never have noticed the lump.” Now I don’t think this was Barbara’s first response: I imagine at first she was scared and angry and depressed, but as a woman of deep faith in Jesus Christ she ended up just a few days later in gratitude.

I was back in my old church last August and she is still chugging along in her late 80’s.

The cross shows us that the earthquakes of our lives are precisely the time to look for that kingdom that cannot be shaken, because in the midst of the earthquake the Lord is always holding us tight and moving us toward new creation.

As Hebrews tells us this morning: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe….”