Thursday, June 28, 2007

Pigs in Spaaaaaace! (Luke 8:26-39)

In the old Muppet Show, a sketch featured a group of pigs as crew of a space-ship, in a kind of a takeoff of Star Trek. The announcer would get a real deep voice and the sound man upped the reverberation so we could hear the extremely dignified name of the “show:” Pigs in Spaaaaaace.

This has nothing to do with the meaning of the passage, especially since Luke puts it on a steep hill instead of a cliff like Mark does. But I always follow this important rule: When you have the chance to name a sermon after a Muppet Show sketch, do so.

Anyway, we have Jesus landing on the opposite side of the see of Galilee from his homeland, in the country of the Gerasenes. As his boat lands, a man confronts him. The man is possessed by demons, we are told, so he probably does this to everyone who shows up.

But this time, he meets someone other than the usual traveler who might run away in fear. The demon in him instantly recognizes Jesus and cowers in fear, and Jesus for his part orders the unclean spirit to leave the man.

Here Luke, ever the doctor, gives us the man’s symptoms so that we can know he really was demon-possessed. He lived in the tombs, among dead people. He had frenzied convulsions and in them, he demonstrated super-human strength. Today, we might hear a doctor diagnose someone with mental illness in the same way, by listing the harmful things they did to themselves as symptoms of their disorder.

After the spirit begs Jesus to leave him alone, Jesus asks it for its name. “Legion,” it says, meaning that not just one spirit but many have taken control of this man. With this command, Jesus asserts his power over the spirit. There will be no hiding behind one’s fellow demons, hoping Jesus picks one of them to be cast out while the others can stay. The eviction notice covers everyone. He has absolute authority over them and he will exert it.

The demons beg not to be sent back to “the abyss,” or whatever it is that they came from. Instead, they ask to be sent into a herd of nearby pigs. Jesus agrees, and the spirits leave the man, enter the herd, and sprint to their deaths in the sea. And Legion forever loses his ability to really harm people, as they will never take him seriously again. “Ooh, it’s Legion! Watch out! He’ll make your Sausage McMuffin jump into your coffee!”

The pig handlers are amazed at what they see. They run to town to tell everyone, and a group marches out to see what’s going on. They see Jesus having a pleasant conversation with the formerly-possessed man. They know he’s formerly-possessed because he has clothes on and he speaks words instead of howls or grunts.

According to Luke, they respond by getting scared. When some folks who witnessed the whole scene describe it for them, they get more scared and ask him to leave.

I could understand why all this might freak them out a little. It’s a pretty freaky story. But afraid? And so afraid they ask the man who worked this miracle to go away? Why? Surely they could see this man was a powerful prophet and brought a message of similar power. But why fear him? His power was great, but it was used to heal. And it could obviously heal anyone, if it healed their friendly neighborhood demoniac. It could even heal them…

Oh, I think I see now. If Jesus could heal the possessed man, then he could heal them. Now they might have to confront their own sin. Now they might need to admit they too had things that needed to be made right with God. They couldn’t pretend they were OK anymore, by pointing out that, “Hey, at least I don’t live in tombs like that guy.” Because Jesus had healed “that guy."

The Gerasenes had a pretty safe and settled situation going. As long as their village whacko was around, they could pretend they were OK. “I’m not as bad as him,” they could say. Or we might say, when we point to someone as obviously despicable as a man howling in the tombs would be. “We’re not as bad as they are,” we offer.

But Jesus has another point of view. “Maybe not,” he responds. “But to me, he’s just as good as you. He knew he needed me. Will you admit that also? Will you admit you need me as much as he needed me?”

Jesus left the villagers. But he didn’t leave them alone. He told the possessed man to go everywhere and tell what God had done for him. As a reminder of what God could do, when we open ourselves to him.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Who even forgives sins! (Luke 7:36-50)

If for some reason you’d ever like to start a fight amongst seminary-educated folks, just ask them which version of this story is the right one. Does Luke tell us the actual event? Or is it John, who notes the woman in question is Mary of Bethany?

They have different details, after all. Luke calls the woman a “sinner,” while Mary of Bethany probably does what she does out of gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead. Jesus teaches different things each time.

I personally don’t have a problem seeing two similar yet separate events, but there’s plenty of people who disagree. I usually let them.

What I do know is that Luke tells the story the way he does so he can teach his friend Theophilus about Jesus. Let’s see if we can learn a lesson ourselves.

Jesus dines at the home of Simon, a Pharisee. In formal dinner settings, people reclined on the floor, at a low table. Usually they leaned on their left arm and used their right hand to eat. Their feet were out away from the table.

While dining, a woman of the town comes close to Jesus and while there, weeps. Her tears fall on his feet and she immediately uses her hair to dry them off.

Simon, a devout follower of the law, questions claims he has heard about the great prophet Jesus. A great prophet could have discerned the sin of the woman and drawn back from her so she wouldn’t touch him and make him unclean. To make matters worse, the woman’s actions were, in her society, the kind of things decent people didn’t do at the table. A woman touched a man’s feet as a sexual gesture, and she uncovered her hair for the same reason. Some prophet.

Jesus, of course, can see Simon’s questions as clearly as if he asked them aloud. So he poses a riddle. In this culture, people often did this as a sort of dinner conversation and entertainment, because they didn’t have Paris Hilton to talk about yet.

Who is more grateful, Jesus asks. One forgiven a small debt or one forgiven a large one? The riddle’s answer seems pretty plain, and Simon answers warily to avoid getting stuck by some clever twist.

No twist, though, according to Jesus. At least, not in the answer. The lesson, on the other hand, is a different animal. Jesus reminds Simon that he didn’t offer him the chance to wash his feet or any other hospitable gestures to freshen up before the meal. The woman, on the other hand, has not stopped tending to Jesus since she walked up to him.

We don’t need any hours of biblical studies courses to understand Jesus wants us to see one thing very clearly. A woman touched him. He knew very well what kind of woman she was and what kind of life she had led, and he didn’t care.

Oh, he cared that she had sinned. He cared that she fell away from what God wanted for her and from her. But those things were past, and he cared infinitely more that she came back than he did about any of those other things. After all, falling away from God takes no special talent. Remember what Paul says in Romans? “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Falling off a log would take an advanced degree in comparison.

But not all come back. This woman, obviously in some incident that Luke doesn’t record, has had her “come to Jesus” moment. Literally, I imagine.

Why is she here at this dinner now? I’d have to guess it’s to make some show of praise and thanksgiving for what Jesus has done for her. She has the “alabaster jar of perfume/ointment,” after all, and she didn’t bring it for looks.

Simon the Pharisee thinks he sees something Jesus doesn’t see. He knows her reputation and her history and believes them hidden from Jesus, which means Jesus isn’t much as a prophet. But he’s fooled, because Jesus does know what he knows. In fact, it’s Jesus who knows something hidden from Simon.

Jesus knows very well who this woman was, but he also knows who she is. She was a sinner, but now she is a repentant sinner. Remember, his riddle is about someone already forgiven a debt, not someone who asks to be forgiven one.

The people are astounded – they already knew Jesus was a mighty prophet. He spoke powerful words and performed miracles like no one since Elijah. But now? He forgives sins, which is something only God can do. They – along with Luke’s readers and later, us – now know that Jesus represents God in a way no one else has ever done. The next verses tell us who started to follow Jesus now – it’s a long list.

But there’s always room for more.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Authority and Faith (Luke 7:1-10)

Every time I read the gospels, I’m glad we have the four instead of just one melded version that picked up the pieces of all of them. I like how Mark is straightforward and direct, and how Matthew always takes pains to connect the story of Jesus with the ancient story of God at work in the people of Israel. John gives us some sense of the “big picture’ significance of Jesus.

And Luke throws in great human details like one in this passage. Let me show you what I mean.

When Jesus arrives in Capernaum, he’s met by a delegation of Jewish elders who bring him a message from a Roman centurion. The soldier has a slave who’s ill and near death, and is asking for Jesus to heal him. Here’s the part I like – the elders give the centurion’s resumé to Jesus. He built us a synagogue, they say. He’s one of the good Romans and he treats us well.

They figure Jesus might not want to help a Roman, and that’s probably a safe assumption, as most Jewish people we’d meet on the street in that day wouldn’t have wept much if Rome disappeared overnight.

Whether convinced by the elders or for reasons of his own, Jesus has decided to heal the sick man and sets out for the centurion’s home. But the centurion anticipated this and warns Jesus away from his house, knowing that a Jewish religious leader who visited a Roman’s home would have problems with his own people.

He says he knows what authority is, as he has people in authority over him and he has authority over others. So if Jesus does in fact have the authority to heal his servant, then it will be done whether the two meet face to face or not.

Jesus comments that this man has great faith, “unlike any in Israel.” And the slave is made well.

We don’t always use the word “faith” in the way it plays out here. We often make it a synonym with “believe,” and we lump it in with other kinds of mental or intellectual actions.

But the centurion recognizes a different dimension of faith. For him, it is a matter of not simply agreeing that Jesus might heal his slave. It is a conviction that the healing will be done if Jesus wants it done, and a willingness to live by that conviction no matter what.

That’s where his comments on authority come in. If the centurion were here to explain his actions, he might tell us something like this: Either Jesus wants to heal my slave or he doesn’t. If he wants to, then he either can heal him or he can’t. And if he wants to heal him and he can heal him, then it’s a done deal.

I sometimes don’t do so well as the centurion, and I imagine many of us would say the same. We’ll profess a belief that God will do something and then we’ll go and try to do it as though he can’t.

I don’t mean things like praying and then not taking people to the doctor – God will work through human hands and skills to heal just as much as through his own ways.

Think of it more like this: When each of us learns to drive, there comes a point where we have to be driving the car ourselves. If the person with us tells us we know how to drive but then insists on taking the wheel anyway, we wonder if they mean what they say. And they might also be my dad, but that has more to do with him getting carsick easily unless he’s at the wheel.

When we’re driving ourselves, then we guide the car, we choose the route, we follow whichever traffic regulations we choose (or remember. Who goes first at a 4-way stop?). Other people might offer advice or warnings. Constantly. Mom. But when another person drives, they do those things.

The centurion lets Jesus know that he doesn’t have to risk his reputation among the people in order to heal. He has sent word to Jesus because he believes Jesus can heal his slave, so Jesus need make no special journey, or say special words or make some kind of show. He just has to say it’s done, and it’s done.

The centurion’s faith didn’t heal the slave – don’t misunderstand the story. Jesus did it. He noted the centurion’s faith as an example for us to follow, but he did the healing. We can’t automatically make Jesus do something just by believing in it hard enough. That’s the way we save Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, not how we trust in and follow our Lord.