Here is a repost of a sermon I preached years ago in my small congregation:
Just a Spirit of Weakness…
Painting by James Tissot
In God’s eyes there is no “just a” as in “we’re just a small church.” When I hear people in small congregations use those two words “just a,” I suspect that a spirit of weakness has hold of them. Like the bent over woman in the synagogue in Luke 13, small churches often have a hard time looking the world in the face. Christ the healer is at work doing something about that. Here’s a sermon I preached on Luke 13:10-21 some years ago. Notice that the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast immediately follow the healing story.
“Stand Up Straight!”
This story of Jesus is one of my all time favorites. And now it is especially poignant because my father is in the same fix as the woman in the story. He is bent over, and he feels too weak to stand up straight.
The Greek text says that a spirit of weakness had crippled this woman. For eighteen years it had held her down, so that she couldn’t stand up straight. Nowadays she would probably receive a diagnosis of scoliosis or osteoporosis. Think of what that means. Pain. Spontaneous fractures in her vertebrae. Think of what being bent all the time did to this woman’s lungs and her other internal organs. Think of what this woman had to do to her neck to be able to see. She would have to bend it backwards, like this, or else turn sideways and look at the world from the side. It took so much effort to look up and see that she spent most of the time looking at the ground.
Even worse, perhaps, than the physical suffering was the emotional suffering. In Jesus’ day people believed that disability was caused by a demon, and that it was a punishment from God. Just as they do now, people stared. They avoided her. They wondered what in the world this woman had done to deserve such an affliction. It was a source of shame.
Shame is very much a spirit of weakness. Shame makes it tough to stand tall and look the world in the face. It has many sources. Example: Appearance is so important in today’s world. If you can’t fit the ideal or even the norm, you are subject to harsh judgment and even ridicule. Heaven help you if you’re not thin! Heaven help you if you have some kind of deformity, or a condition that makes it hard for you to control your muscles! Heaven help you if you’re frail and require a lot of care! You will be stared at and pitied. And it hurts. It really hurts.
There are many sources of shame. Many folks are ashamed to let any weakness or hurt or inadequacy show. Even a single incident of abuse can be enough to break people’s spirits, leaving them feeling terribly ashamed. Shame has such a tight grip on some people that deep inside themselves they believe their whole life is a mistake. How can you stand up and look the world in the face gripped by such a spirit?
Even churches can be gripped by a spirit of weakness. This is a frequent problem among small churches and an issue at every small church gathering I’ve ever been a part of. These dear congregations describe themselves this way: “We’re just a small church.” “Just a.” What belittling words! “Just a!” They might not say this out loud, but they’re thinking it: “No pastor will ever stay with us long. As soon as she can, she’ll move to greener pastures.” Some churches are downright ashamed of being small. Any church worth its salt is supposed to have certain programs and resources. Even churches a lot bigger than we are ashamed of their struggles. Some congregations are so worried about their inadequacies they can’t see their strengths. It’s hard to see heaven when you’re looking down all the time. Why set their sights on anything, only to be disappointed? Besides, they figure their days are numbered.
While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue that day, the bent over woman watched the floor. Just surviving from day to day was her goal. Just get the most basic things done.
Others may have looked at her with pity, but not Jesus. When Jesus saw the woman, his gentle, perceptive eyes saw a daughter of Abraham, a child of God’s promise. A person oppressed for far too long by Satan, the enemy of God and of all that is good. Jesus stopped his lesson. “Come here,” he called to her. “Yes, come here.” I am sure the woman couldn’t believe her ears. Slowly she made her way to him. “Woman,” Jesus said, “You are set free from your infirmity.” Then he laid his hands on her. She straightened. She looked into his loving face. She looked at the people. She broke into praise. A psalm, perhaps this one: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! The crowd joined her in rejoicing.
Not everybody was happy, though. The leader of the synagogue tried to shame Jesus and to shame the woman for breaking the Sabbath rules. His focus was so narrow that he couldn’t see this sign of the dawn of God’s kingdom. Rejoicing was beyond him. Maybe it was because he couldn’t see his own need to be set straight.
Jesus immediately pointed that out: “you untie your animals on the Sabbath and let them out of the stall to get water. Ought not this woman, this daughter of Abraham be set free from Satan’s stall on the Sabbath?”
This is no animal! This is no second class citizen! This is a child of Abraham, a daughter of the covenant! Satan, the adversary, the embodiment of all that is evil, likes nothing better than to push people down and hold them there. Satan likes nothing better than to see congregations in the body of Christ belittling themselves and focusing on everything they lack. Satan doesn’t want the people of God to experience hope. Satan wants to chain us with depression and bitterness and shame!
You are set free, declares the Lord Jesus Christ this very day, laying his hands on all who are bowed down. The world calls you a hunchback, a loser, a dinky little church, and maybe that’s what you call yourself. But Christ calls you a son of Abraham, a daughter of Abraham, children of the covenant.
Christ Jesus lays his hands on every one of his children and declares, “You are children of Abraham!” Hold your head high. Stand up and look the world in the face. Open your mouth and declare my praise!
The Lord lays his hands on people like Jeremiah who think they’re too young, or too old, or too this, or too that, to do his work. “Don’t you say you’re only a boy,” exclaimed God to Jeremiah. “You go where I send you and say what I tell you.” “Don’t you say you’re only this or only that, God says to us. You are my servants, and you will fulfill my mission.”
The Lord lays his hands on the members of the body of Christ who think they’re only secondary, too weak to be valuable, and not even needed. What would happen if a foot said, “I’m not a hand, hands can do so much that I can’t, and so I don’t really belong to the body?” Paul’s right: absolutely every part is needed. Every part is critical, even the small parts, like the tiny bones inside your ear that are absolutely essential for hearing. So why do small churches say because we’re not big and wealthy, we’re only second rate in the body?
Jesus Christ is laying his hands on this body, our congregational body, to stand us up straight and tall. What was the very next thing Jesus taught, according to Luke? Remember the tiny mustard seed that a man sowed in his garden, and it grew, and it became a nesting place, a home for the birds. Remember the handful of yeast that a woman mixed into her bread dough. The yeast made the whole thing rise. That is how the Kingdom of God is, and that is how we are in the kingdom of God. We are mustard seed churches. We are yeasty churches.
Stand up, people of God. We’re in the process of being healed. God is working in and through us. Don’t let the enemy hold us down and kill our joy! There is no need for us to apologize for who we are. There is no need to apologize for what our congregation is in the body of Christ, for being a mustard seed, for being link a pinch of yeast. Look into Christ’s loving eyes. See how much he loves us. He wants to lift us up. We ought to see ourselves as he sees us.
If we catch ourselves saying, “We’re just a small church,” or “People won’t be interested in us. We’re not very big,” or “We’re mostly older people” as if that’s a negative thing, we ought to stop and listen for the voice of Jesus. Jesus says, “You are set free from a spirit of weakness. Stand up straight!”
When Jesus Christ looks at our church, he does see a mustard tree where people can make a nest. The young do find a home here. Christ may not see a big youth group that goes on trips to Kings Dominion. But what he does see is a few precious children being loved and nurtured by many genuinely interested adults. He sees younger people and older people working side-by-side in the name of Christ. They may not go to Kings Dominion, but they do go out and deliver meals on wheels together.
The sick and those in the nursing home, and those that are dying do find a nesting place in the arms of this church. We may not be leading worship services at the nursing home, but we do go and bring the gift of music. We do go and visit, offer the gift of touch, and pray. If you need prayer, folks in this congregation will see that you get it. In so many quiet ways you do share the love of Christ with people in need. Stand straight, because people can see Jesus Christ in you. And praise God.
Here is a congregation where every single Sunday we are invited to observe what God is doing in our lives, to receive God’s care, God’s challenge, all God’s blessings, and to go and participate in what God is doing. The bread of life is here, and it is here abundantly. Stand up straight. Look the world in the face, and praise God sons and daughters of Abraham!
I pray that God will lay gentle hands on my father, and help him to stand straighter and stronger. But even if his body stays bent, may God raise his heart and his soul to the heavens, and make him to know joy.
And that’s my prayer for you, too.