Sunday, August 21, 2016

Year C, Proper 16, Isaiah 58:9b-14, Luke 13:10-17, Compassion, Healing, and the Kingdom of God.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ first words were:
"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah:
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

What follows then is Jesus’ ministry in which the primary focus centers on the theme of the Kingdom of God, and doing Kingdom Work.
It was a different sort of campaign, compared to the political campaigns of today.  But make no mistake; it was a campaign, with powerful political ramifications.  In the end he would die, executed by the Roman governor, and the charge for which he was killed and which was written above him on the cross was simply this:
Jesus of Nazareth
King of the Jews
Back in 1976, an evangelical named Jim Wallis wrote a book titled “Agenda for a Biblical People” in which he explored the political and social ramifications of Christianity.  I am not prepared to go into the specifics of his work here, but the title alone makes a significant point, namely, that if we are to follow the Jesus of the Bible, there is an agenda that we must deal with, an agenda that has social and political implications.

As contemporary Christians, living in America, we are most comfortable with a reading of the Gospel that is not political, but rather focuses on the personal faith of the believer. 
We talk about wanting Jesus to be our “personal Lord and Savior” and ironically, fail to recognize that both “Lord” and “Savior” are political titles.  Likewise, the term “Messiah” speaks of God’s anointed, the King, and is a political statement about who Jesus is. . .

Alright, before I go any further, it’s time for a disclaimer.

I have used the “P” word, seven times so far.
The problem for many of us with using the “P” word from the pulpit is that we cannot separate the politics of the Kingdom of God, from the specific political ideologies of today. 
Now, just a reminder, I have not mentioned “THE HIM” of today’s politics, nor have I mentioned “THE HER”.
This is about Jesus’, his ministry and his mission.
It is not about THEM.
So bear with me.

When we look at the politics of today, there is a great divide.  On the one hand you have a group of people who believe that for us to succeed, we must return to the values and status of an earlier age, a time that is looked back upon with nostalgia and, yes, rose colored glasses.  For example, some remember fondly the America of their youth, the America of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  That was the golden age of American life, and the hope is that somehow we might recapture it.

The problem is that we tend to forget a number of things.  There were two wars:  Korea and Vietnam.  There was the Civil Rights movement.  Presidents were being assassinated, riots were tearing apart our cities, and in short, there were simply a lot of things going on that we would not want to return to. 

The other side of the political divide believes in an ideal future toward which we are moving, and we must continue to progress forward toward that end.  The solutions to today’s problems are not found somewhere in the past, but in a bold new vision of the future.

In contrast with both these views, when Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand he is talking about something that is both “now and not yet”.  The Kingdom of God is at one and the same time “at hand”, but also the future toward which God is leading us.
It is at hand, whenever we believe in the Good News and live lives worthy of the Gospel.
It is yet to come in the sense that it will not be fulfilled completely until that day when all the forces of evil are destroyed, including the final enemy, death.

This is the Kingdom of God.

And just as our political candidates of today have an agenda, a platform of proposals about which they are campaigning,
So also, there is an agenda for a Biblical people. Jesus actually had something to say about this world, and what it meant to live under the reign of God.
He had something to say.
And what he had to say is a comfort to the afflicted, and an affliction to the comfortable.
What is this agenda?
What shape does the Kingdom of God take?
What was Jesus about?

Obviously, we could spend a lot of time talking and debating about these questions, much more time than we have here.
But our lessons for today lift up two major themes that dominate Jesus ministry, his life and his teachings.

The first comes from our reading from the prophet Isaiah.
This passage from Isaiah is written at a time when the Israelites had just returned from their exile in Babylon.  The Kingdom was in a shambles.
The temple had been destroyed.
It was a time of rebuilding.
More than anything else, they longed for the glory days of Israel to return.  That time when David was King, when Solomon ruled with wisdom, and when Israel’s enemies had been defeated.

The message that Isaiah brought, however, was not about the glory of military conquest, or the grandeur of the palace and temple.  It was about the poor.
If Israel was to be great again, they would need to tend to the poor.
“If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.”

God has a special place in his heart for the poor and the outcast.
Jesus speaks about this in Matthew 25, where he talks about the final judgment of the nations.
'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. '

And when did we do that?

'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. '

There is a piece circulating around on Facebook these days in which the author declares that THE HIM and THE HER of today’s political campaigns are both making much ado about the plight of the middle class.
Jesus, on the other hand, makes much ado about the poor.
The Kingdom of God will be great, not because King David will be on the throne once again, but because the poor and the powerless will be lifted up, the outcast welcomed, the widow and the orphan cared for. 
The first will be last, and the last first.
This is the kingdom of God.

And secondly, from our Gospel lesson today, we hear the story of one of the many times that Jesus heals the sick.
Think about the life of Jesus and what he chose to do among us, during those years he was with us. 
He healed the sick.  Time and time again, he healed the sick. 
He taught about the kingdom of God, and he healed the sick.

"Woman, you are set free from your ailment."

And with those simple words, life triumphs over death, health over sickness, and the powers of evil, the demons that bind us, are defeated.  "The last enemy to be destroyed is death."  (1 Cor 15:24)

It is a cosmic war God is engaged in, this battle between life and death.  From that first moment that the Word was spoken, and life emerged from the dust of the earth, God has championed the cause of life over death.  It is not only a battle that God has chosen to fight, it is in the end, the only battle.  

And so you have this woman, bent over in pain, suffering for eighteen long years, "bound by Satan", a slave to this disease -- and Jesus takes notice.  That was the battle he chose to fight on that Sabbath.  One of many battles he would fight during his time on earth.  

We are not comfortable with the language of demons with respect to the illnesses that plague us.  Am I, a person who has numerous chronic conditions, possessed by demons?  Is someone, such as this woman, who likewise has a chronic health condition bound by Satan?  Would we classify cancer as an evil spirit?  Surely, we can approach such conditions with a much more scientifically sound explanation.  Our world view is changed.  

But something is lost when we dismiss the demonic in the disease.  We fail to recognize that the struggle we are engaged in is part of the larger cosmic battle between good and evil, life and death, which has been central to God's interaction with the world since the beginning.  

It is not a sideshow, that when Jesus walked this earth one of his primary activities was to cure the sick.  He wasn't just biding his time until that moment that his real work was to be done on the cross.  Such events as this one were not just minor skirmishes.  They were and remain central to the plan of salvation and the cosmic battle which will in the end see life triumph over death.  It's what God does.  It is Jesus mission.

In today’s political arena there is much debate about health care.  What role should government play?  What role should business play?  Is health care a right of every citizen of this country that should be provided by the government?  Is health care a commodity to be sold by businesses to those who can afford it?

In contrast to these questions, is another alternative.  Healing is a gift of the Spirit, and central to Jesus ministry and the ministry we all share in Christ Jesus.

Imagine a world in which neither government nor business was involved in health care because it is provided as a ministry by the Church of Christ. 

Actually, healing ministries have been a part of the Church’s ministry for a long time.
Sacred Heart and Deaconess Hospital are healing ministries of the Church.  Right? 
We sometimes lose sight of that.

It’s not that radical of a new idea that healing ministries be offered by the Church, and for all in need. 
But at the same time, it’s been a long time since the Church established hospitals to extend this ministry of healing, this ministry of Jesus, to all. 
Perhaps that is the Call that we have before us.
Perhaps that is the agenda that Jesus puts before the Church.
I don’t know if it’s realistic.
What I do know is that Jesus cares about the sick.
Enough so that he dedicated his ministry to this healing.

Jesus’ compassion for the poor and outcast,
Jesus’ commitment to heal all those in need,
These are two facets of the Kingdom of God.
And as such they are both our Holy Calling as the people of God, and they are a promise of God given to us.
As a Holy Calling, they are a challenge for us to go where Jesus went, to care for those whom Jesus cared for, and to be the hands of Jesus in our world, working the works that he worked.
As a promise, they are the assurance that no one, not us, not others, will be forgotten in the midst of the struggles of this life.  God cares and will continue to care, for you.


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