Sunday, October 18, 2009

What I Preached on the Feast of St. Luke, Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sermon for the Feast of St. Luke, October 18, 2009
St. John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

St. Luke. The Physician. And, it should be noted, St. Luke the Ox.

Yes, it’s true: Just like St. John, the Eagle, St. Luke has an animal symbol, his very own patronus charm, extrapolated from a few obscure passages in Ezekiel and Revelation and handed down through the annals of a wilder and woollier Christian history than we Protestants like to remember. An Ox. Which is why St. Luke is also the patron saint of butchers. Yes, it’s true: St. Luke is the patron saint of both doctors… and butchers. The man casts a wide net. These are just good things to know.

Anyway, the truth is we don’t know much about St. Luke – who he was, where he lived, when he was born or how he died. The name Lukas only shows up three times in the entire New Testament, when Paul mentions him in his letters to first-century churches. Paul and Luke, it seems, were traveling companions, friends in the faith.

We first find Luke mentioned at the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, when Paul passes along greetings from those who are with him. Here’s how Eugene Peterson translates the letter.

Aristarchus, who is in jail here with me, sends greetings; also Mark, cousin of Barnabas (you received a letter regarding him; if he shows up, welcome him)… Epaphras, who is one of you, says hello. What a trooper he’s been! …Luke, good friend and physician, and Demas, both send greetings…

Later Paul writes a letter to his colleague Philemon, and again he sends a list of hellos.

Epaphras, my cellmate in the cause of Christ, says hello. Also my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke…

In these letters you can imagine Paul with his friends around him. “Oh, you’re writing to Philemon? Hey, tell him I said hi, would ya?”

Paul, Mark, Aristarchus, Epaphras, Demas, and Luke. It’s quite a little gospel gang they’ve got. And it has to be. They’re constantly under threat, marked for death by their involvement with the Christian Underground.

And when we read Luke’s Gospel, we can feel the influence of these fierce friendships, forged in a furnace as fiery as anything Daniel faced. The words are soaked with the love Luke has for his companions. The other gospel writers address their work to a general audience, but not Luke. Luke addresses his gospel as if it were a letter written to a particular person. For you, Theophilus.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus finds the bonds of love everywhere. When the sun went down, Luke writes, everyone who had anyone sick with some ailment or other brought them to him. One by one he placed his hands on them and healed them.

Did you hear the crucial detail? It isn’t simply that sick people streamed to Jesus, but their loved ones brought them to Jesus. And through this faith Jesus heals. Listen to how this is detailed in just one of Luke’s healing stories.

Some men arrived carrying a paraplegic on a stretcher. They were looking for a way to get into the house and set him before Jesus. When they couldn’t find a way in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof, removed some tiles, and let him down in the middle of everyone, right in front of Jesus. Impressed by their bold belief, he said, “Friend, I forgive your sins. Stand up, take your bed, and go.”

It’s crucial to note here that when Jesus heals the man, he commends not his faith but their faith, the faith of the friends. Jesus looks at human friendship and he says, This is good.

Throughout Luke’s gospel, these human relationships are a crucial way that God works healing in the world.

It is Mary’s visit with Elizabeth that brings forth her prophetic Magnificat, her song of good news for the poor, the oppressed, and the hungry.

It is when the shepherds are gathered together in the fields that a messenger speaks to them, sending them to wrap the Holy Family in a swaddling cloth of community.

It is a group of faithful women who together provide resources for Jesus; they pool their finances to support Jesus’ ministry.

And it is, finally, these same women who find the tomb empty, and who run to tell the others the best good news.

Again and again, God works through the fellowship of God’s people.

In Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice, author Stephanie Paulsell tells a story of how God heals through a people gathered together. Paulsell writes:

A group of friends responded when one of them became terminally ill.

As he grew sicker, his body first became a stranger and then an enemy to him, a source of nothing but anguish. In the last months of his life, he told his friends of his feeling of having been abandoned by his body.

They began reading about and training themselves in therapeutic massage. They began to gather regularly in his home, to stroke his hands and feet, to touch his skin, to offer his body back to him as a source of comfort, not of pain alone.

Through these sessions of therapeutic touching, he found himself more able to speak freely about his illness and his inevitable death. Through the practice of touching, his friends found themselves able to respond with compassion rather than fear, with openness rather than denial. And when their friend died, they found comfort in the healing touch of one another.

That group of friends challenged me to enlarge my understanding of healing. How wonderful it would have been if those friends had touched their dying friend, and his sickness had disappeared. But that didn’t happen. He remained sick. And he died. But there was healing in the midst of his illness, healing in a deep sense. Before he died, he was able to experience his body as a good and holy creation. His friends returned his body to him, broken, yet beautiful, a temple of the Holy Spirit still.

Paulsell’s story confirms something true about the way God works, the way God heals: through people, working together, on behalf of one another.

But Luke knows the flipside, too. That fellowship fails. That friendship fractures. That the ties that bind, even when they are bonds in Christ, can fray and leave us hanging, alone.

The neighbors of Elizabeth and Zechariah grow afraid, and spread gossip throughout Judea, isolating the parents who have a strange son.

When Jesus begins his ministry by echoing the words of his mother, proclaiming good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed, he is rejected by those closest to him. The people of his hometown, the people he had grown up with, desert him.

So Jesus makes new friends, disciples who travel with him throughout his ministry. But they, too, desert him at his hour of greatest need, first falling asleep when he asks them to be vigilant, then leaving him altogether.

Peter’s betrayal, how he denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed, is a story told in all four Gospels. But only Luke mentions the devastating detail that after the third denial, Jesus turns and looks at Peter, and allows Peter one vivid, horrifying moment to linger over the terrible truth that the bond between the two men had been torn apart.

It’s no wonder, really, that Luke would give us this particular detail. He, too, knew the pain of a broken relationship.

The last time Luke is mentioned in the Bible is in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, from which our Epistle reading for today is taken. Throughout the letter, Paul’s mood is upbeat, but the details betray his situation.

He is in jail, again. But this time there is no list of friends sending their greetings. Here at the end of his life, Paul is almost entirely alone. Do your best to come to me soon, he writes, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you… There is not even mention of Aristarchus or Epaphras. The fellowship has fractured.

And yet, and yet. Somehow Paul still writes to Timothy, encouraging him to keep the faith. Somehow Luke still writes his gospel, reaching out to Theophilus.

And the reason, I think, is that Luke knows that God’s healing power does not rest on our faithfulness. Earlier in 2nd Timothy, Paul writes something that he tells Timothy to repeat over and over.

The saying is sure: If we are faithless, he remains faithful.

If we are faithless, he remains faithful. No matter what we do, Jesus remains faithful, still gathering us together, still healing our brokenness, still sending us out to give good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed. I work, God says through the mouth of Isaiah, and no one can hinder it. No one.

Near the end of Luke’s gospel, Jesus dies. But God’s work does not. Within days of the cross, Jesus is back on the road, making friends. He gathers people together. He breaks bread. He sends people out. And God heals again.

God heals through friends who gather to care for one another.

God heals through communities who come together to face common problems.

And God heals, finally, through God’s people, gathered, fed, and sent.

Just ask St. Luke.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

God's Dirty Work. Our Dirty Hands.

The following is a post I wrote for my seminary's blog. They're celebrating "Earth Year" for 2009-2010, and my post is a response to one a friend of mine wrote kicking off the year.

The clearing rests in song and shade
It is a creature made
By old light held in soil and leaf,
By human joy and grief,
By human work,
Fidelity of sight and stroke,
By rain, by water on
The parent stone.

We join our work to Heaven's gift,
Our hope to what is left,
That field and woods at last agree
In an economy of widest worth.
High Heaven's Kingdom come on earth.
Imagine Paradise.
O dust, arise!

-Wendell Berry, "The Clearing Rests in Song and Shade"

A few weeks ago Zach Parris challenged his fellow SS bloggers to think and write about our next steps during LSTC’s Earth Year. In classic Zach fashion, he urged us, as we seek to join the growing green movement, not to shirk the strengths of our theological heritage, nor to skirt the messy nature of ethical choices in a sin-soaked world.

Zach is right. If we fall into the trap of thinking that voting for a Democratic president, eating organic food, and buying a Nalgene bottle is all it takes to save the world, we will indeed build up a "works-righteousness bubble” that will be punctured as soon as we encounter a political headwind, read Michael Pollan, or see REI’s new BPA-free Nalgene bottle. As the air rushes out, we finally realize that no cobbled-together cure-all, taken on its own in increasingly desperate doses, can save us. We are grateful for Luther’s rediscovery of this crucial truth, and we Lutherans would do well to carry our forebear’s insight with us into the future.

Yet our goodly heritage has, unfortunately and for a variety of reasons, too often been used to justify an all-too-typical Lutheran quietism. The story of Lutherans in North America – and in Europe, for that matter – is ripe with examples of our church giving short shrift to the world-changing work God has called us to do. Trapped halfway through our paradox, we have sat out too many social movements. Oh, we have our heroes, and rightly so – our Dietrich Bonhoeffers and our Jon Nelsons – but as a church we have too often been inactive enablers of evil, often with our theology as an excuse.

But – thanks be to God! – we are sinful and forgiven, sinner and saint, dust and yet arising. It is well past time that we claimed our full Lutheran heritage, the one that declares the great paradox that we are sinners, yes, truly, but we are also saints, yes, truly, empowered by God through our baptism to, as Zach puts it, “act and move” for justice. And though we, the sinner-saints, work in “what is left” of a world – indeed, a creation – already devastated by sin and its brutal effects, we are freed by the cross and yes, called through our baptism, to, in the words of Wendell Berry, “join our work to Heaven’s gift.”

So, in answer to Zach’s question, what’s next in Earth Year for me? It is the work of joyful discovering that - much to my surprise - this sinner-saint work-joining is already happening!

I am blessed this year to be on a pastoral internship in a place where I am seeing God working through our hands every day through communities of faith in the Pacific Northwest. Three-fifths of my time this year is spent at St. John United Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington, a congregation already engaged in innovative Care of Creation ministries. (The other two-fifths is at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State, but I’ll say more about my Earth Year discoveries there in a future post.)

Several years ago St. John United, together with its then-intern, decided to reclaim a sidewalk and adjoining parkway in a residential neighborhood in the heart of urban Seattle. Over the past few years God put their dirt-covered hands to good work: They planted crops, from green beans to bright yellow sunflowers, adding new varieties every year. They invited others in the community to join in planting, nurturing, and harvesting. They built an irrigation system to run through pipes under the parking lot. And they grew more and more wild plant life to beautify the neighborhood, and produced more and more good food to donate to their weekly soup kitchen ministry.

Of course, the harvest is still small by most standards. We often bring in only a shoebox full of veggies – a harvest that pales in comparison to the one reaped by Celebration Lutheran Church in East Wenatchee, Washington, where I am visiting this weekend. They regularly cover several fellowship-hall sized tables with food (big orange pumpkins this Sunday!). And if I were to compare our crop to the big industrial farms that stock the Safeway grocery store, well… let’s just say the economists would tell us to give it up. But, as we well know, they’ve been wrong before. And so we press on, confident of what God can do with a few loaves and fishes – or a few green beans and sunflowers, for that matter.

As for me, I still have a lot to learn about gardening. On my first garden work day, I pointed at an ugly-looking plant that had pricked me and asked whether it was a weed.

“No,” a fellow garden steward told me. “That’s a wild rose.”

I stepped back to marvel at the mystery of God’s creation, and to marvel even more at the mystery that God can do such work through such clumsy, dirty hands as mine. Heaven’s gift, indeed.