I say to you, rise

sermon on Luke 7:1-17

A Narrative Lectionary bonus! Two stories for the price of one! Not really much connected, but piled together. Maybe they both have healing and Jesus saving somebody, sort of like last week we had two different reflections about sabbath.

The second part seems like a bigger deal, but let’s not ignore the first part and so pause for a couple introductory observances.

One: I’m not sure of the centurion’s sense of how it works. I like his line for not troubling Jesus, which is repeated in Catholic churches before communion (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and your servant shall be healed”). But I’m not exactly sure what the centurion is comparing the business of his bossiness to.

Mostly when Luke uses the word “authority,” it is about having power over demons and unclean spirits. Jesus can share authority as he sends out the apostles with the same task. Very clearly it’s telling us that in Jesus, we are seeing God’s work. Jesus is powerful because God’s Spirit rests on him.

But it’s odd to me that the centurion would say that Jesus’ authority is in giving commands from afar, as if that’s the main point. Maybe he’s commanding the illness to go away, giving orders for some uncleanness to release the servant. If it’s not that, I’m not sure whom the centurion figures Jesus is in charge of. At any rate, it’s impressive that he recognizes Jesus’ authority from God, especially since he wouldn’t be obvious to compliment Jesus.

That leads to observance two about this first story: These should be opponents. Jesus shouldn’t want to help these guys. A slave would be written off as lower class, or not even quite human in some eyes, property instead of a person. But Jesus isn’t going to be held back by that negative or shameful view of humanity.

More surprising is the centurion. That title means he’s a commander of 100 soldiers. He’s living in Capernaum, next to the lake, where Jesus lived, a town of maybe 1500 residents, which would mean that for every 15 peasants, there was one soldier, all under this officer, there enforcing the empire’s intimidating order, collecting taxes, confining what was possible in worship and everything else. Maybe this centurion was a decent guy who tried to get along with his neighbors, but his role was still the office of an enemy and big enough that he was well-compensated for doing it.

We don’t have much way to envision this. We don’t have experience of being watched and restricted as we simply try to proceed with life. It’s some of what Palestinians have to deal with now, in the occupation under the Israeli surveillance state. We might make rough estimates of these weeks in Venezuela or the #BlackLivesMatter sense of police oppression, though those are both domestic forces and not a foreign occupier.

The point is, Jesus here is helping the empire, the opponent, the bad guy. He’s giving a gift to the commander of the powers that were violently against his own people and their way of life. If it’s about sides, Jesus is on the wrong side.

But this is bigger. This remarkable statement about the spread of salvation is God’s mission leaves nobody out, so all flesh and people of every nation may know it. Slaves won’t be disregarded. As much as we’d want to say the villainous deserve vengeance against them, to be burned by God’s wrath, this won’t exclude even them from blessing. This isn’t for Jesus’ siblings or compatriots alone, not even for his race and clan first. This is for all. And for his part, the centurion recognized that in Jesus.

This passage is one of the small turning points in Luke’s Gospel. In chapter four, Jesus had launched his public ministry with a declaration that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (4:18-19). For three chapters, Jesus had been doing more and more of that, healing and releasing from illness and for those trapped in cultural obstructions, offering life. And it keeps spreading.

His fellow citizens probably wanted him to proclaim release from captivity of the empire, a revolution to kick out the occupying powers, but instead Jesus is working something even bigger than that, so is liberating the captor, releasing the oppressor, helping the centurion.

That may not get our vote, and just how wide this spreads still continues to surprise us. We want to restrict it, to say it must be earned, to make it reciprocal, to qualify it with qualifiers or qualifications, to rule out some and maybe to question whether it could even be too good to be true in our own lives.

The book by kind of the premier Old Testament professor these days Walter Brueggemann that GEMS were reading has a good line: “It is as though Jesus starts every meeting by asking, ‘Are there any here with withered hands, any widows, any orphans, any aliens, any lepers, any blind, any poor, any homeless? Come forward and be the focus of healing attention.’”* Those we would be most likely to leave out, Jesus is most insistent on. Those we would reject, he includes. Those who seem beyond help are his first choice.

And then comes the grand capper, the top story, the ultimate surprise of this section of the Gospel. It includes not only a widow, but a widow whose son has died, a woman who would’ve been at risk anyway and now is entirely without assistance, as good as dead herself. Yet Jesus is intent on this spread of life and release from what would confine or destroy it. So he finds himself in the middle of the funeral procession.

Now, it’s one thing to bring good news to the poor. It may even be impressive to heal lepers or to offer restoration to untouchables. It may stretch our imaginations and risk our self-preservation to break protocols of decency in reaching out to those deemed socially unacceptable and outside the limits of typical concern. These are things Jesus has been up to, and it’s already been a lot.

But this will blow all that out of the water. The most we might think is to offer condolences to the mother, to set up some aid program to meet her needs, to create some new social bonds and structure now that her son is gone. But those still operate within the limits of death, and Jesus won’t be so confined.

Young man, I say to you, rise.

And he gave him back to his mother.

There is none who is beyond the help of Jesus. Ever. There is no physical way to be outside the bounds of his saving work. There is nothing that can shut up his word of life.

This is so phenomenal that words can’t quite express or capture it. I’m amused by the term here that seems to effect the miracle. Jesus says, “Rise.” On the one hand, it’s the word that applies for Easter morning, for the resurrection, for that lifesaving event that turns all expectations of existence on their head: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

But it’s also extremely ordinary. Rise is the word for standing up when you’ve been sitting. It’s a word for parents telling you to get out of bed. Even death is only like sleep to Jesus, as he gently rouses you saying, “hey, it’s time to get up.” Awake, O sleeper, rise from death, and Christ will give you life! (ELW 452)

While proclaiming the unstoppable goodness of God’s blessing and work of life, I would mostly like to let fly with the promise and let it echo as broadly and resoundingly as it should.

But I also want to make sure the qualities or qualifications of your life don’t let you feel removed from this release, beyond the reach, somehow left out. There are illnesses that don’t go away, diseases that never feel eased. There is suffering that just keeps going and going. There are struggles and sorrows we can’t get past. There are reverberating Why questions never answered. There are times when being told “Do not weep” would seem cruelly uncaring rather than reassuring. There is captivity much too long confining. There generally feels like more bad news piling up than good, not only for the poor but for many of our lives.

And especially when this isn’t ultimately our own story of a son brought back to life. We face death. We don’t want it to be the end. We want the funeral procession interrupted. We want Jesus to reach out with his miraculous and powerful word, with his full authority, to drive away the demonic enemy of death.

For you who have had to encounter the intimacy of death, who know its sting, who have asked why, who have wished it would be kept at bay, who haven’t gotten relief and have had to continue with the diminished dimmed life of your own but without a loved one, this story may bear the feeling of loss, of being ignored. Why did Jesus see that widow and call to this young man, but not to you?

But this story doesn’t stand as an isolated incident, a peculiar exception. This story is the assurance that salvation in Jesus spreads for all, that his gift of life will not be stopped. Just as much as infirmities and germs can’t stop this blessing, just as political boundaries can never wall it off, just as societal standards crumble by comparison, so not even death will be its undoing. The word of eternal life is already today for you to rise up. Get up. Go on your way. Your faith has made you well. Jesus saves. Awake and stay woke. As I say to all, I say to you, Rise.

* A Gospel of Hope, p63

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You Need New Life

(sermon for 5June16)

Luke7:11-17

 

This reading is happening here today.

That may sound surprising, that I’d try to claim that a Bible story about a dead son coming to life is taking place in our midst today. I understand that surprise; it sounded surprising not just in the miracle itself, but even in another precedent, in a previous declaration of that statement, originally from Jesus. In Luke chapter 4, back in January, we heard Jesus reading from a Bible passage. He went on to declare, “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.” And now I’m again making the same sort of proclamation.

Or in the verses right after this Gospel reading, John the Baptist sends some messengers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one, or are we still waiting?” Jesus replied, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

And so for you, who arrive here today wondering what God is up to, if Jesus is active and involved, or if we’re all just waiting, waiting for something to happen, yearning for something different, as you arrive here with those questions and those outlooks, again comes the message: see and hear! The dead are raised!

But at that point, you may not only be surprised; you may be confused, or on the edge of breaking Jesus’ warning against being offended. You may be turning around a bit in your seat, trying to spot what’s going on, looking somewhat skeptically for the mark of death in our midst. You may wonder where this body is that is being brought back from the brink, back to life. Not spotting a coffin here, nor seeing anybody who looks extraordinarily listless or worse than sick and tired amid our community this morning, you may think about giving up on glimpsing the one in need of life. Or you may try to give it a go with your other senses, and try to catch a whiff, wrinkling your nose, sniffing if there’s a stench of death like at the tomb of Lazarus. Go ahead. Inhale deeply. Can you smell it?

Nope. All you’re going to smell is diapers. When I proclaim that this reading is happening here and now, that the dead are being given new life, that this is all fulfilled in our midst, you need look no further than Silas Patrick getting ready for his baptism. Or, more truly, he’s not getting ready and is pretty oblivious to what we’re saying or declaring that God is doing around him. But maybe even more so, that is the fulfillment of this reading.

See, there are some pretty nice parallels, aren’t there? There was a son in the Bible reading, and Silas is a son. Check. There was a mother in the Bible reading and Silas has two mothers. Check and check again! A bonus! In the Bible story was a large crowd, tagging along, and here you are! A crowd! Check! It says the crowd glorified God, which you’ve already been doing in song. Check!

Still, you may protest and notice that all the details aren’t exactly the same. I mean, probably foremost on your mind is that a dead son in the ancient culture of Palestine meant that the mothers’ sole source of support, her social security of the day, was gone, and her own life was placed at risk. Even if it wasn’t foremost on your mind, you likely don’t suspect that’s the case for Christa and Anna today.

Maybe that’s because, secondly, you’re noticing another discrepancy, that this was an only son of the mother in the Bible reading, but we very definitely and truly have Freya here also, so you’ve probably started to think that that detail is not the same.

Oh, and…anything else? Ah, yes, right. Silas is demonstrably not dead. And if he’s already alive, how can I proclaim that he’s being raised to new life? Yet I will persist in saying that even here and now today, Jesus is still calling out, just exactly as he did in our Bible reading, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” He is calling this young man, Silas Patrick, to newness of life.

This is inevitably paired with another word from Jesus: “Do not weep.” Now, even if there hadn’t been a sense of sorrow and loss leading up to baptism this morning, there could’ve been. See, some of the old possibilities are taken away. If Silas is called to new life, to a Jesus life, to the commitment to “care for others and the world God made and to work for justice and peace” as we’ll state in the baptism service, well then he shouldn’t ever expect he can persist in selfishness or greed or immorality or judgmentalism or disregard or ignoring mystery or any sin. His life is no longer his own. He is called to love and generosity and justice and righteousness, to live rightly, to bear all those fruits of the Spirit we’ll hear about in a couple weeks.

Even more than that, this is the work of Jesus, to make us well, to give us life, to call us into a new way of living. It may seem more remarkable in the Bible story that he’s doing it with someone who had literally died—who had no pulse and no breath in him or any of that—but maybe we should reverse our thinking. Maybe that death is a blank canvas with an ease of a fresh start. Maybe it’s harder with a kicking, screaming, rambunctious baby. If baptism is both a dying and a rising, someone who’s already dead is already halfway there and won’t protest much. But you’ve already started down that path of being offended, arguing that Silas is alive just fine, thank you very much, and doesn’t need to be created anew because he’s adorably cute just as he is, and that, further, you yourself check out with vital statistics and so would be pleased to go about your business and keep giving it a shot with your old life and must not fully need this surprising word from Jesus.

And yet, here it comes, interrupting your thinking and disturbing your self-content and raising you to new life anyway. Young man, young woman, sisters, brothers, all of you gathered here today, Jesus invites, calls, demands, saying to you, Rise! This is the word of your baptism, a word with which the Spirit has been tenaciously marking you and filling you and daily renewing you ever since that little splash that originally went with the word. Resurrection was fulfilled for you, and it still is, day by day, to your dying day, but then, of course, even beyond that. Jesus, who left the tomb at Easter, who won’t let sleeping dogs lie, certainly won’t abandon you to death, not now when its rotten grasp is trying to claim you, not in a grave, not ever.

That is part of why we baptize Silas Patrick today, so that this promise from God may abide with him throughout his life, so that each morning when he rises from sleep, he may be reminded with you that it is also a call to rise to newness of life, to Jesus life, to God-filled and Spirit-held life.

That also points to the other important proclamation of this Bible reading reiterated here today for Silas. After the word of Jesus called the young man, the son, to rise, then it says “he gave him to his mother.” Jesus doesn’t call you out from death into life just to send you on your merry way, to do as you please, to enjoy the freedom, to gloat in the face of death.

Today, as he calls Silas to new life, he proceeds to give him to his mothers. Silas has life in order to live rightly as a son, perhaps the primary vocation he’s fulfilling these days (though he’s also a little brother and a grandson and a cousin, and also a witness to all of us, an embodied proclamation of Jesus’ word today). So through this word, Jesus the Creator again makes Silas a son, restoring him to his rightful place, sending him not just back into life, but back into relationships and community and to be a blessing for creation. In the concluding words of our hymn, this baptism and all the work of Jesus in our lives is to “make us whole,” to make us fully what we should be, not just as individuals, but all together, wholly.

 

Hymn: Crashing Waters at Creation (ELW #455)

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