Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We’ve been making our way through Luke’s gospel over the last couple months, watching for the good news of the kingdom Jesus proclaims, and noticing those for whom it’s especially welcome news.
Beginning with Mary’s song back in chapter 1, even before Jesus was born, we heard good news for the lowly who’d be lifted up as the proud were brought down, and for the hungry who’d be filled with good things. In Jesus’ inaugural address in the Nazareth synagogue, we heard him proclaim good news for the poor, for the captives, for the blind, and for the oppressed. Certainly, he brought good news for those battling illness and injury, too, as he moved from place to place offering the gift of physical healing. Jesus was also generous with his gift of forgiveness and thank God for that, since both from John the Baptist and in last week’s story of Jesus and the tax collectors, we’ve seen that getting to the good news can require us first to acknowledge the bad news about our sin and our need for repentance.
Today’s gospel texts offer good news for those who are lost.
Let’s return first to Luke 15. There are actually three “lost and found” stories in this same chapter. We heard two of them today – the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. (The third is the far longer story of someone we’ve come to know as the prodigal son, though it’s actually the story of a man with two sons, the prodigal and his brother.)
In last week’s text Jesus reminded his listeners that those who believe themselves well might not think to look for a physician, while those who are sick know they need one. And we noted that Jesus came to heal both sick bodies and sin-sick souls. In a similar way these stories in Luke 15 remind us all isn’t lost even for the lost. For the lost can be found.
After all, the shepherd could have decided 99 sheep in the sheepfold was plenty and called it a day. Instead, he goes out into the wilderness after that one, and finds it and lays it on his shoulders and rejoices, sharing his successful find with all his friends and neighbors. The woman could have decided 9 out of 10 silver coins was good enough and not worried about that one lost coin. Instead, she scours her entire house and when she finds it, she too calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her that it is found. In both cases the value of the one (the single sheep or the single coin) was too great to simply let it go. And the moral of each story is the same. Jesus says there is joy in heaven over even one sinner who repents. Without them, something is missing; they’re needed for God’s kingdom to be complete.
It's interesting sometimes to consider our perspective when we hear Jesus’ parables. For instance, did you hear the first parable as if you were the one lost sheep, or one of the 99? With the parable of the lost coin, were you one of the nine coins safely tucked away in a change purse somewhere? Or the one coin buried in the dust under a corner of the rug, worried the homeowner wouldn’t see you and then relieved to be found? The beauty of parables is they allow us all sorts of interpretive possibilities. But whether you consider yourself the one out looking or the one needing to be found, whether you identify more with those never lost in the first place or those called to rejoice, again the point is this - without the lost ones, something is missing; they’re needed for God’s kingdom to be complete. And once they’re found, it’s party time in heaven. “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God,” Jesus says, “over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10) To the one who’s been lost, I imagine the party could sound a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
Speaking of lost and found, it’s hard to imagine anyone more lost, or in greater need of being found, being seen, than this unfortunate man possessed by demons in the country of the Gerasenes, back in Luke 8. And again, I find it helpful – not only with parables, but with biblical narratives too – to try imagining myself in the story. Granted, I’ve known far too much privilege to identify closely with the demon-possessed man himself. Privilege in my health, privilege in where I’ve been able to live and in the welcoming communities with whom I’ve been able to spend my time. But if I’m honest I can identify a bit with the onlookers. I’m not proud of it, but I can imagine being a little relieved that this poor man had been kept largely out of sight, out of mind. I can even imagine being a little frightened to see him suddenly freed from his chains.
Yet here again we find that the lost has been found. Or perhaps more accurately, one who’d lost everything has had his life restored to him. Remember how we were introduced to this unfortunate man? Shackled, naked, banished to live among the tombs, convulsed with demons or unclean spirits or whatever disorder it was that afflicted him. It’s difficult to imagine a worse existence. But he ends up “clothed and in his right mind,” “sitting at the feet of Jesus.” (Luke 8: 35) He’s restored to health, restored to human dignity, restored to community. Because Jesus is determined to teach us: those who are lost are valuable; they matter; and they can be found. Without this beloved child of God, something was missing; he was needed for God’s kingdom to be complete.
The healed man – quite understandably – begs that he be allowed to stay with Jesus after his dramatic transformation. But Jesus says, “return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” Keep in mind, that’s a tall order. It can’t have been easy to have endured so much already and now to return to a place where his people had cast him out, and to a whole neighborhood that now feared him, but this is what he bravely does, “proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” As powerfully as any of the parable characters in Luke 15, he once was lost but now was found. And he’s courageous enough to tell that story to anyone who’ll listen. I imagine his story sounded a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
Naturally, we won’t all have experiences as dramatic as this man who’d been forced to live among the tombs. Though our hearts go out to him, maybe there are too many barriers between his story and your own to identify with him. But I bet you know someone lost who’s needed to be found.
If not afflicted by demon possession, maybe they’ve been controlled by alcohol, or painkillers, or another form of addiction? Or maybe they’re afflicted with a serious mental illness? If not banished literally to live outside the city, perhaps you know someone who’s otherwise been denied love, or respect, or community? Or someone from whom compassion has been withheld, or someone treated with outright cruelty, whether physically or emotionally? What about someone who just makes people a little uneasy; someone most people would rather keep out of sight and out of mind? There are so many ways God’s beloved children can become lost. But without them, something is missing; they’re needed for God’s kingdom to be complete.
And God’s rescue stories aren’t limited to the pages of Scripture, as we know. Jesus remains busily at work finding the lost, healing the broken, restoring those who’ve been shunned and excluded. If you look carefully, you’ll see them. If you listen closely, you’ll hear some of them declaring what God has done for them. It might even sound a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
To be fair, God’s kingdom has room for the 99 sheep too, and for the coins that never thought they were lost in the first place. (At least - the way I read the Scriptures – there’s room for them as long as they are humble little sheep and coins who know they’re not worth more than the ones who’ve gotten lost!) But on nearly every page of the gospels we find Jesus absolutely determined to bring in those who are not already in the sheepfold or the change purse (pick your favorite parable). And God’s angels are standing by to celebrate each and every one as they are gathered into the wide embrace of God’s love.
If we suspect we’re safely tucked away in the sheepfold already, why do we think that? What makes us so sure? And if we are safely tucked in, who do you suppose Jesus is most intent on bringing back to the fold to join us? If, like that Gerasene community, we are a little thrown by those he’s most determined to embrace, it’s time to expand our understanding of God’s kingdom. Uncomfortable as it may make us, it’s time to take a seat with the-once-lost-now-found at the feet of Jesus. It’s time to listen to stories of what God has done for those we’d never have thought to invite home for dinner. We who have not known their degree of lostness or exclusion, their depth of pain… we have so much to learn. And I imagine some of their stories sound a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
Meanwhile, if ever you feel frightened or lost, remember that the Lord your shepherd will be out there looking for you too. God’s also got her broom and dust cloth out, and if you lose your way God will turn her entire house upside down to find you. Even when you feel most alone, when it seems no one else understands your particular pain, remember that Jesus is well practiced at soothing tortured spirits and unfastening heavy chains. Without you, something is missing; you’re needed for God’s kingdom to be complete.
So if ever you do feel lost, I pray you’ll discover yourself found. If it happens, when it happens, declare what God has done for you. It may sound a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
Let’s sing those words together now.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
The gospels bring us good news about Jesus and the kingdom of God he proclaims. In this series on Luke’s gospel, we’ve been asking the question: whose good news? To say that another way: for whom do we find the good news of Jesus was especially welcome as we make our way through Luke?
Those with serious physical challenges certainly fall into this category. Life had not been kind to them, and they longed for Jesus’ healing touch. Last week, for instance, we read about a man with leprosy and a man who had been paralyzed. Each one had a significant need and Jesus addressed that need with the gift of healing.
Today we find Jesus using imagery of sickness and wellness in a metaphorical way. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32) As you just heard, the immediate prompt for Jesus’ comment was a question about why he was dining with Levi and his fellow tax collectors. Tax collectors in biblical times were known for collaborating with the Roman government and if they played the game right, they could become fairly wealthy. In other words, these guys were not the oppressed; they were aiding and abetting the oppressors, often lining their own pockets in the process. This is why the Pharisees considered them sinners; they weren’t wrong about that. But as a result of their choice to ally themselves with Roman occupiers, tax collectors were not exactly popular in their own Jewish community. So Jesus demonstrates here his willingness to spend time even with those who’d been shunned for their poor choices and their abuse of power. He does this not because their sin doesn’t concern him, but precisely because it does. He knows their sickness, knows where they need to be healed.
I’ve paired that reading about Levi and friends with a text we often hear as we begin the season of Lent: the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness in Luke 4. Notice: he’s tempted to instant gratification (“command this stone to become a loaf of bread”), tempted to idolatry (“worship me,” says the devil, and the whole earth will be yours), tempted to abuse his advantage (“throw yourself down” from the “pinnacle of the temple,” and the angels will catch you). But Jesus rejects all three offers, making clear he’s not interested in selfish gain or misplaced allegiance or showy displays of power. As Chitra Hanstad noted in her sermon a few weeks ago, Jesus was all about laying aside his power and privilege to humble himself. That’s the model we’re asked to follow (Philippians 2:5-8).
So while those tax collectors at Levi’s dinner party may not have been physically sick, Jesus knew that giving in to temptations like the ones he’d faced had left them with “sin-sick souls” (to borrow a phrase from a hymn we sang just last week, "There is a Balm in Gilead"). They’d selfishly taken from others, they’d backed an oppressive occupying force, they’d abused their power. Medically speaking they may have been well enough, but their unrighteousness concerned him as much as any physical illness. They too needed help.
The season of Lent is traditionally a penitential season in the Church; we focus a bit more than the rest of the year on repenting of our sin. Lent also brings with it reminders of our mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” has just this week been said by priests and pastors as they imposed Ash Wednesday ashes on foreheads.
Both of these Lenten themes – human mortality and our need for repentance - seem especially apt as we enter Lent this year. And both require of us a posture of humility.
Never in my lifetime, at least, has there been a more vivid reminder of human mortality than this pandemic that has now claimed nearly two and a half million lives around the globe. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” takes on a whole new meaning when hospital morgues and funeral homes have at times been unable to keep up. We’re all too aware of the frailty of human bodies right now. And in Black communities and other communities of color, we know the cost has been exorbitantly, disproportionately high. It’s not difficult to remember our mortality when we’re grieving. And we are all grieving the tremendous losses of this past year.
Meanwhile, reminders of our need for repentance have been equally vivid. Certain images come easily to mind – of the US Capitol building on January 6th, of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, of children in cages in detention centers at our southern border – but we know these are far from the only examples. Human sin is pervasive and persistent.
For our own racism and for our blindness to racist systems and structures around us, forgive us, Lord. Where we have abused power, or condoned or excused those who have done so, forgive us, Lord. For our selfishness, our lack of compassion, for every unkind act, every unkind word, forgive us.
Jesus, we need you. We need you badly. To cure bodies, yes, and also to heal sin-sick souls, our own included. Sure, it’s easy enough to blame “them” – whichever “them” you prefer – for the problems we’re facing but to quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “the line separating good and evil passes not” between nations or between classes or between political parties “but right through every human heart.” Again, a posture of humility seems the only appropriate stance.
It’s fitting, somehow, that Lenten purple has hung in our church sanctuary all year long. I’m not sure if you remember, but our last Sunday of in-person worship (formerly known simply as “worship”) was the first Sunday of Lent last year. The purple banner and pulpit cloth were put into place that day and there they’ve been ever since. Frozen in time.
In normal times it can be a little jarring to enter the season of Lent. A full six weeks of pondering our mortality and reflecting on our sin isn’t necessarily welcome when it feels otherwise like all is well and life is good. But as we enter Lent this year, it’s almost as if the church year caught up with us where we’d already been living. In a season with far too many reminders of human frailty and human weakness. In a season with far too many occasions calling for repentance. In a season that’s humbled us in oh, so many ways.
But here’s the good news about acknowledging how bad it’s been: those who are sick know they need a physician. (Luke 5:31) Heaven knows we do. And not only during COVID. For remember, life before the pandemic was only good for some of us in Seattle, in these United States, around the globe. It was far from a good life for all. Getting “back to normal” will mean different things for different people and that, too, may call for our repentance.
Whose good news does Jesus proclaim in Luke’s gospel? Good news not only for the physically sick but for all of us sin-sick souls. Good news not only for the oppressed but even for those who’ve been complicit in their oppression should they repent and start anew. That’s what the tax collector dinner party was about back in Luke 5. Jesus was there to offer them a path back to wellness. A cure that had everything to do with overcoming the kinds of temptations he himself had faced in the prior chapter. Can we, too, resist selfishness, misplaced allegiance, abusing our advantage? Can we too cede power, humble ourselves, hit the reset button and start over where we need to?
Again, there’s good news even in acknowledging how bad the last year has been, for those who are sick know they need a physician.
And the good news about Lent itself? It reminds us Easter’s coming. Because of Easter, we can face our mortality, our grief, and our need for repentance confident in the knowledge that good conquers evil and life conquers death. We do “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) We are resurrection people who know that God can breathe new life into the bleakest of situations.
We may find ourselves chastened and humbled as we enter Lent 2021. Or we may feel we’ve had enough Lent for a lifetime. Instead of pulling out our metaphorical sackcloth and ashes this time of year, we might well prefer to pack up that purple sanctuary banner for good.
But we who have been around the Church a while know the story gets better if we see it through to the end. Even the story of sickness and sin-sickness and grief we see around us right now.
For the good news of Lent, like the good news of Luke, builds toward a game-changing truth: Easter’s on its way. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
They’re the first healing miracles we’ve studied on this particular pass through the gospel together, but they’re not the first ones Jesus has accomplished in Luke. A couple others have already happened (the healing of a man with an unclean spirit and the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, both in chapter 4) and in that same chapter we also find this note: “All those who had any … sick with … diseases brought them to [Jesus]; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.” (Luke 4: 40) So the man battling leprosy and the man who had been paralyzed, in today’s readings, are two among many. You may also recall that when Jesus spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth earlier in chapter 4, his hometown crowd was angry with him that he wasn’t focusing his healing energy right there but was sharing it far and wide. Suffice it to say healing is a big thing for Jesus in the gospels. He does it early and he does it often. As we just heard in Luke 5:17, “the power of the Lord was with him to heal.”
Even in the midst of so many healing miracles, a couple lines stood out to me this week as I read the particular stories you’ve just heard. First, in Jesus’ encounter with the man covered in leprosy, it’s the dialogue that gets me. The way the sick man addresses Jesus: “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” In other words, he knew both that Jesus could do this thing he desperately wanted, and that he might not. There’s something poignant in that combination of optimism and realism, that mix of hope and holding back. Though of course there’s a happy outcome here in this case with Jesus’ response: “I do choose. Be made clean.” (Luke 5:12-13)
And then we have this episode with the small group carrying their friend to Jesus to be healed of his paralysis, remarkably persistent as they push through a crowd of people and move those roof tiles to put him front and center and make sure Jesus sees him. I’ve always loved this story with its testament to how much they cared about their friend. Who among us hasn’t felt desperate at times to bring someone we love to Jesus’ attention for healing? But it’s the crowd’s reaction at the very end that struck me most this time. In verse 26 we read: “amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying ‘We have seen strange things today.’” (Luke 5:26) For some reason that piling on of words like “amazement,” “awe,” and particularly the phrase “strange things” spoke to me. Perhaps because I’ve spent my whole life around healing miracle stories like these in the gospels. I’ve come to expect them here. Of course, Jesus heals. So perhaps I needed this wake-up call from the crowd: “we have seen strange things today.”
When it comes to these kinds of gospel stories there are so many things we could talk about. Like whether Jesus was allowed, under Jewish law, to heal on the Sabbath (the law encouraged acts of compassion actually; we can talk about that another time). Or which specific skin conditions leprosy might be referring to (perhaps quite a few). Or whether demons and unclean spirits are ancient ways of referring to mental illness of various kinds (it could well be). Or why Jesus connects forgiveness to acts of physical healing. These are all interesting questions.
But they’re not the most urgent question, are they? Not now. Not during a global pandemic. The question more likely to keep us up at night is why heal them and not others? Why these people, Jesus, and not our people, or even all people?
Naturally we’re thrilled when we do hear of dramatic healing from injury or illness. We’ve celebrated a couple of those good news stories even very recently as a church family. But why not every child at Children’s Hospital? Why not every person battling COVID in every ICU? Why not every cancer patient, every dementia patient, every addict, every case of chronic pain? Why not your loved one? Why not mine?
Again, healing is a big thing for Jesus in the gospels. We can’t help but wonder why that doesn’t always translate into healing for someone we love, or for someone for whom we’ve been praying fervently, or even for ourselves. So you’re in good company if you have a whole lot of questions when you run across texts like these we’ve read today.
I’m afraid I don’t have easy answers for you. There it is. Full disclosure. I’m wondering right along with you today. Because as many sermons as I’ve heard over my lifetime about Jesus’ healing miracles, and as many explanations as they’ve tried to offer about why the Great Physician who canheal doesn’t always heal, I’ve yet to come away with an entirely satisfactory answer. I just don’t know. But in the midst of a pandemic it would have felt irresponsible to skip over gospel texts like these and not address the topic of healing at all. It seemed important to try.
And while there’s a whole lot we don’t know about God’s healing miracles, the testimony of Scripture does offer us important truths that can speak to us in this conversation. Let’s see if leaning on a few of those truths can help us today.
We know, first of all, that Jesus cares deeply about our interior lives and not only about our bodies. So sometimes healing can mean something other than a physical cure. Throughout the gospels we see him forgiving sins, casting out evil or unclean spirits, and addressing woundedness from marginalization and abuse and injustice. In other words, he sees beyond our most visible scars into hidden areas of pain. He knows about battles you may have been fighting for years that other people can’t imagine when they look at you. Jesus sees them, sees you. You don’t have to explain; he knows what you’ve been up against. And sometimes he’ll reach right in there and get to work on the kinds of battle scars others can’t see. People may look at you and see something like a skin condition or a physical disability and think that’s your biggest problem … when all the while you know the places you’re really falling apart are on the inside. Jesus understands. And he’s capable of working wonders there.
We also know that community can make an enormous difference in our healing. Sometimes you’ll be the one bringing your dear ones to Jesus, and doing so persistently, pushing through any obstacles in the way to get them seen by our Great Physician. And sometimes you’ll be the one who’s carried. You may find yourself unable to take another step, but then you’ll marvel at the lengths to which your posse will go, the steep inclines up which your people will carry you, the sheer number of roof tiles they’ll haul over to the side to get you to Jesus for healing. Thank God for the gift of community, for those who bear us up in body and spirit when we can’t get there on our own.
But here’s another true thing: prayer isn’t a magic formula. It’s not always enough to get right up in Jesus’ face. God’s healing power doesn’t work like a vending machine where you insert your coin, and push the right number, and out comes the exact item you requested. There’s an unpredictability to the whole enterprise. We can’t count on healing, even as we ask for it, which puts us in a really strange head space or heart space sometimes, doesn’t it? Like the man with leprosy, we want to demonstrate our faith in Jesus’ power by saying “Jesus, you can do this!” But at the same time we’re humbled by the first part of his ask: “if you choose…”
Physical healing of the dramatic sort we read about in Scripture isn’t an everyday thing. After all, miracles are called miracles precisely because they’re not the way life normally unfolds. More of them seem possible these days with advances in technology and medical science. But even the most advanced treatments and procedures rarely have a 100% success rate. If healing from disease was inevitable, don’t we think we’d have a handle on COVID-19 by now? But illness and death are, somehow, a regular part of life. They’re built into the system of how human bodies work. I think that’s why that final verse in Luke 5 stood out to me this week. Awe and amazement seized that crowd when the man who had been paralyzed suddenly began to walk. Awe and amazement because such feats of physical healing are never sure things. They’re “strange things,” (Luke 5:26) the exception rather than the rule. Well worth celebrating when they come – Gracious God, we thank you! – but not something we can count on.
Which brings us to another thing we know, not only from Scriptures but from personal experience too: life isn’t fair. I can’t explain to you why tragedies happen, why excruciating pain persists, why some people suffer from debilitating skin conditions and some people cannot walk. I can’t explain why some people are healed miraculously and others never are. But we’re assured in Scripture that it is not because they’re less worthy. It is not because Jesus doesn’t see them, or because God doesn’t love them. It is not because they don’t have enough faith. It just is. It’s the way the world is.
With any number of you over the years I’ve lamented that I was never given a magic wand at my seminary graduation. How I long to be able to heal wounds and diseases, eliminate pain and change outcomes in miraculous ways for those whose hard stories I hear. I imagine you do too. If we care about other people, we can’t help but feel this way. That’s our God-given compassion making itself known. But the only thing I can think to do about it is to persist in carrying to Jesus those who are suffering, continually laying them at his feet… and meanwhile offer them as much support as it’s within my power to give.
Sometimes our prayers for healing will be followed by a stunning physical or mental or emotional restoration. If we’re fortunate enough to experience such a thing, it should fill us with awe and amazement and prompt us to give glory to God. And sometimes no such thing will happen. Healing miracles are “strange things,” after all, out of the ordinary, not the usual thing. (Luke 5:26)
But there’s no reason not to keep on asking – faithfully, persistently – remembering that God hears the cries of those who are suffering. And the God who hears all and sees all never abandons his children. Not once. Not ever.
So as we sing together now, know that I’ll be praying you feel seen and loved and held by the God who knows where you are in greatest need of God’s healing power. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Today we turn to one of those gospel stories I thought I knew pretty well: the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. But God has a way of surprising us even when we’re in familiar territory.
Right away in verse 1, we learn that this whole episode starts “while… the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” Wait. Why do we call these fishermen Jesus’ first disciples then? If he had huge crowds following him around by this point, specifically to hear him teach, weren’t they also his students, his disciples? But we get the sense there will be something a little different about this small group we’re introduced to here in Luke 5.
In verse 2, Jesus spies a couple fishing boats, steps into one of them, and asks its owner to join him and push off from the shore. For want of an adequate pulpit, the crowd probably couldn’t hear Jesus very well. Simon, busily washing his nets at the time, might not have thought to offer the solution he had at hand (a boat smelling of fish guts as a podium for a famous speaker?) but when Jesus asks, Simon agrees. And because of Simon’s willingness to do what Jesus asks, the word of God is proclaimed by the Son of God to a whole crowd of God’s children from his boat.
Once he’s done teaching, Jesus tries to offer Simon a thank you gift. “Push out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” he says in verse 4. Simon can be forgiven, I suppose, for explaining that if there were any fish out there, they would have caught them already on the night shift. But notice, even though he thinks he knows better, he still does what Jesus asks. “If you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5) And boy, does he get his reward. So many fish, in fact, that two boats-full could barely stay afloat.
The miraculous catch prompts Simon to confess his unworthiness (“go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” he says in verse 8). This sounds a lot like the prophet Isaiah’s response to finding himself in the presence of God in the Jerusalem temple: “woe is me… for I am a man of unclean lips… yet my eyes have seen … the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) And Simon’s business partners, James and John, are equally impressed by Jesus. So much so that once their boats are back on shore, they too leave everything to follow him.
For those of us not prone to impulsive decisions, I think this can be the hardest part of the story to understand. If we’ve read ahead in Luke’s gospel we know what they’re in for once they sign onto Team Jesus, but they don’t know. Still, they decide to follow him. I believe it was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” As today’s text concludes, we find Simon and the others taking that brave first step. Setting themselves apart from the crowd. Not content simply to listen to what Jesus has to say, they choose to respond.
I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired by the example of the first disciples, and at the same time I find their choice suddenly to drop everything and follow Jesus hard to understand. Me, I’m big on knowing. I like a degree of certainty about what’s coming next. Stepping out onto a staircase I can’t see? Definitely not my strong suit.
So I was pleasantly surprised to notice this time around that Simon’s initial responses to Jesus, at least, weren’t quite so enormous in scale. To be fair, in Mark’s much briefer account, Jesus says “follow me,” and “immediately” the fishermen drop their nets to follow him (Mark 1:17). But here in Luke, as we’ve just seen, there’s more of a progression. Simon doesn’t have to do the giant scary thing right away. He simply has to do the next thing - the next right thing – at each stage along the way.
First, Jesus steps into Simon’s boat (notice it’s Jesus who takes the initiative) and asks him for a ride. “Take the boat back out? I wasn’t quite done with my nets, but ok. I guess I can do that.” This also gives Simon a chance to hear Jesus as he addresses the crowd on shore. Only after he’s done speaking does Jesus then say: “push out into deeper water and you’ll find more fish.” Simon hesitates: “we already tried that.” But whether out of politeness to his guest, or because he wanted to show the teacher how things worked out here on the water, or – who knows? – maybe even because of something he’d heard Jesus say when he’d had that front row seat for his lesson, Simon does what Jesus asks. And suddenly there are more fish than they can handle.
Interestingly, even at the end of this scene, we don’t hear Jesus say “follow me” in Luke’s version. I looked for it, because again I thought I knew this story and of course it would be right there in the text… except it’s not there, not in Luke 5 anyway. Instead, Jesus offers words of comfort (“don’t be afraid”), followed by a declarative statement rather than a command: “from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10) I’ve got a plan to do something pretty amazing, in other words, and you get to come along.
I find Luke’s telling refreshing. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus says, “follow me” and people instantly follow, as we read in Mark? That’s amazing! I’m in awe of that kind of courage. But in that scenario, I’m likely to be the one still scrubbing my fishing nets over to one side, quietly watching the bolder types take off with Jesus. Here in Luke’s telling, it’s easier to imagine there’s a place for me.
Remember: Jesus first shows up, steps in Simon’s boat, and asks for something that’s right in Simon’s wheelhouse. He needs to be willing to let Jesus’ interrupt him for a bit in order to lend a hand. But he’s got all the tools he needs to do it. Boat? Check. Boating skills? Check. “Push off from shore? That I can do.” What resources or skills might Jesus be asking you to share?
Next, Jesus provides Simon with an opportunity to learn. Again, he’s the lucky guy with a front row seat for this lesson Jesus is teaching from the boat, before he’s asked to do anything further. Where might Jesus be inviting you to learn or to grow to get ready for his next invitation?
Once Simon’s learned a bit more, Jesus challenges him a bit more. Invites him to be part of a new thing God’s about to do. “I know you’ve always done it this way. I know you think the lake is fished out. Seriously, though, give it another go.” And Simon gets to see God at work in a big way. Is there something new Jesus could be inviting you to try? Something that might allow you an exciting glimpse of God at work?
Finally, that lesson behind him, Jesus gives Simon a preview of what’s coming next. “Don’t be afraid; from now on you’ll be catching people.” And it’s at that stage, a number of teaching moments in, that Simon decides to come along. Still brave of him, of course, but at least we know a little of the back story now.
When I see the calling of Jesus’ first disciples broken down into steps like this, I see some steps even I can take. In any given moment with Jesus, I don’t necessarily have to do the whole thing. I just need to do the next thing. The next right thing. And that? Well, maybe that I can do.
Certainly, I can watch for Jesus to show up. And I can listen for him asking me to share something in my wheelhouse: a resource or a skill set I have to offer. I can allow myself to be interrupted long enough to share it. And I can take a step back, now and then, from the things I’ve always done and the way I’ve always done them, to try something new at Jesus’ invitation. I can stand amazed at God’s greatness when things happen as a result that are way beyond what I’d imagined was possible. I might even hear Jesus saying, “fear not,” and extending a gentle invitation. “I’ve got some amazing plans, and you’re welcome to come along.”
To make this a bit less abstract for a minute, let me offer a few examples. As I told some of you at coffee hour last week, I believe one of the next right things for me personally as a disciple of Jesus is to volunteer some time with World Relief Seattle to help a recently arrived refugee practice English. So I’ve taken steps over the past 2 weeks to make that happen: filling out the volunteer paperwork, attending a volunteer orientation session on Zoom. Concrete tasks that will set me up to do the next right thing. I’m also hearing a call to write letters through Bread for the World asking for legislative action to address food insecurity here in the US. So I’ve begun carving out a small amount of time each week to do that, and it turns out it’s extremely simple to use the templates the organization provides.
Jesus’ tug on your heart could be similar or it could be entirely different. Some of us from the Just Mercy book group back in the fall are, for instance, looking into partnering in some way with the Center for Children & Youth Justice here in Seattle, and we’ll be bringing in a speaker at some point to tell us more. Heaven knows there are plenty of next right things to go around.
I’m also excited about a brand-new program our Session has been discussing this week for our church as a whole. We’re hoping to gather a small group from MPC to participate in a two-year cohort with representatives of other churches around Seattle Presbytery. We’ll learn from each other, collaborate together, and aim to build transformative, intercultural relationships in the particular communities in which we’re located. What will be the final outcomes of this process? We don’t know. That much of the staircase isn’t clear yet. But starting this journey feels to us like faithfulness. It feels like one important thing we can do to be responsive to God’s call and open to new models of ministry. We hope, among other things, it will find us as a whole congregation building bridges with neighbors who don’t look like us and learning from their wisdom about our community, its strengths and its needs. So we as a Session are simply taking a first step and applying to be part of this program, believing it could be the next right thing for MPC.
The way Luke tells the story, courageous disciples of Jesus aren’t so much born as made. They’re nudged and nurtured and called and coached. They’re asked to do the next right thing, in any given moment, and to let Jesus be in charge of the outcome. Some days the next right thing might be something grand and bold and remarkably brave. And some days it might be the smallest of steps on that staircase of faith.
Sometimes, too, we’ll attempt the right thing and fail. We may even fail repeatedly. Like Simon, like Isaiah, we know we’re weak and make mistakes. But as long as we have breath we can keep trying. Disciples are students, after all. We’ll never be completely discipled for that would mean we were finished products who’d learned it all. There’s always room to grow. And I expect Jesus is far more interested in our willingness to push off in the boat with him and try than he is in how perfectly we fish.
So back to our original question: what distinguishes a disciple from the rest of the crowd? Disciples don’t simply listen; they respond. They engage.
Like Simon, we each have something Jesus can use. Let’s share it when he asks for it. Let’s allow him to interrupt us, teach us, challenge us to try something new even when we’re unsure of the outcome. (“Let down our nets here? If you say so…”) Let’s notice and celebrate the mighty work of God in unexpected places. And then let’s follow, setting aside our fear, eager for new adventures, wherever Jesus leads us next. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We can like or dislike what Jesus is about as we make our way through Luke’s gospel, but we can’t say he didn’t warn us. The way Luke tells the story, Jesus doesn’t waste any time. Word’s just started to spread about him when he makes his way home to Nazareth and is invited to do a Scripture reading at his local synagogue service. “From the Isaiah scroll? It would be an honor. Let me find the section… ah yes, here it is… ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… to bring good news to the poor… release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free.’” (Luke 4:18)
Good news for the poor, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed. And with it a mention of “the year of the Lord’s favor” which seems to be a reference to the jubilee year, every 50thyear when according to biblical law all debts were to be forgiven. (Leviticus 25:8-12) Fantastic news for anyone dealing with financial hardship. Crushing debt wiped out just like that? Bring on the year of jubilee! There apparently aren’t any records of that jubilee year actually being observed in ancient Israel. That’s understandable, I suppose, since then as now those who’ve loaned money tend not to want those loans instantly forgiven. But Jesus is saying here that his ministry will primarily focus on those without that kind of power and wealth. Then he adds “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) In other words, I’m the anointed one of God. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:18) to bring good news to those who need it most.
This is Jesus’ inaugural address, if you will, and he seizes the moment to center those who are rarely the center of society’s attention. Sure, he’ll make room in the kingdom of God for more privileged folks too, but we’ll see as we move through Luke that Jesus never wavers from reaching out to those not allowed to run the show, those without financial security, those who’ve regularly been devalued and ignored. This isn’t just an intriguing extra bit here and there in Jesus’ story. It’s at the core of who he is and what he’s about, which has important implications for us as his disciples.
It concerns me to realize that church leaders I’ve trusted have sometimes spiritualized the gospels to a point where this has been easy to miss, and I wonder how often I’ve done the same. Certainly, throughout my church experience there have always been nods to Jesus’ care for the poor, and to our calling to care for them too, but especially when I was young what I mostly heard was that what I believed mattered most. That the most important message of Scripture was about my personal salvation, and yours. That getting my heart right with God was a mostly internal spiritual exercise.
Please understand - I’m not saying those things aren’t important. Of course, we want to deepen our relationship with God and to grow spiritually. But the more I read the gospels, the harder it is for me to think I can do so in a sheltered bubble, cut off from those who were so very close to Jesus’ heart. Is a sense of my own personal salvation the only thing or the primary thing Jesus would want someone like me, in a position of privilege, to take away from his story?
Jesus must have taken that moment in the Nazareth synagogue very seriously. He seized the opportunity to explain that his coming was about bringing good news to those who’d had far too little good news in their lives, those for whom the proverbial deck seemed to be stacked against them, and everything he did thereafter made clear he meant what he said. Social justice isn’t an elective then, for Christians. It’s core curriculum for those of us who follow Jesus.
To continue with our reading, up to this point the rest of Jesus’ fellow worshipers in the Nazareth synagogue were with him. Being faithful Jews, well trained in the school of the biblical prophets, they knew all about God’s demand for justice and righteousness. They knew about God’s love for the poor. They knew from their own people’s history as slaves in Egypt that God hears the cries of the oppressed. So let’s first of all be clear that’s not what Jesus’ Jewish community objected to. They heard Jesus quote from Isaiah, heard him say “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” (Luke 4:21) and they were on board. Verse 22 says “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
But by verse 28 “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” So much so that they drive him out of town and try to throw him over a cliff! What went wrong?
We can’t say for certain, but we do know those in-between verses are where Jesus tells them he’s not going to focus his healing ministry in his hometown. He brings up two more biblical traditions his audience would have known well about healing miracles being offered not to Israelites but to foreigners: the prophet Elijah ministering to a widow in Sidon, the prophet Elijah healing Naaman the Syrian. And that’s the point at which they’re enraged. I heard a sermon a couple weeks ago suggesting they’d confused their worth in God’s eyes with their ethnicity, that they’d essentially racialized their faith. That could be, I suppose; we’ve certainly seen that danger manifest itself in our own nation. Or perhaps it wasn’t about the widow in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian being Gentiles rather than Jews. The hometown crowd was simply furious that Jesus was taking his healing work elsewhere, any kind of elsewhere. Didn’t he have a duty, first and foremost, to look after his own?
Again, we can like or dislike his answer, but Jesus is pretty consistent on this point. “His own” would be those who’d been devalued and dismissed by too many others, from the man possessed by an evil spirit in the passage immediately following today’s reading to a woman suffering from a 12-year-long hemorrhage to a thief hanging on a next-door cross.
In other words, it’s not all about you, he says to his hometown congregation (in our tradition we’d call them his church family). It’s not all about you; it’s about others. In fact, it’s about those youhave sometimes “other-ed” by considering them outside the fold. If they’re not from here, if you don’t know their names because you’ve never really given them any thought, if you try to avoid eye contact when you meet them on the street, that’s exactly where I need to get to work. I’m sorry I can’t stick around and offer a friends and family discount. It’s just that there’s some urgency to this project and it’s critical I start not here on the inside where you already know God loves you and values you, and other people do too, but out there on the outside with those who’ve been scorned and shunned and kicked when they’re down. With the kinds of people the prophets Elijah and Elisha helped: foreign widows and leprous enemy soldiers. With the kinds of people the prophet Isaiah spoke about: the poor, the oppressed, the captives.
As an aside here, the presence of the word “captive” in today’s text has taken on a whole new meaning for me now that I’ve read the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I used to automatically equate prisoners with criminals, assuming they were behind bars because of something terrible they’d done. I mean we could feel challenged by Jesus’ command to show them kindness (Matthew 25), we could even forgive them, but in our heart of hearts we’d always know they were in the wrong… right?
It’s not that simple. Stevenson has woken me up to the alarming frequency with which our broken criminal justice system sends people to prison without just cause and with absolutely tragic results. And not just a few of them. Thousands upon thousands. The vast majority of them Black and brown, and a staggering number of them sentenced to life in prison (or as Stevenson puts it, sentenced to die in prison). A gut-wrenching number of them children under 18 years old. Some of them even on death row for crimes they never committed. How must they hear Jesus promise: “the Spirit of the Lord has anointed me… to proclaim release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free?” (Luke 4:18) How should we hear those words, now that we know what we know?
Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Freedom for the oppressed. We can like or dislike who it is that draws Jesus’ attention as we make our way through Luke’s gospel, but we can’t say he didn’t warn us. It’s right here in his inaugural address. This is why the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him. This is what he’s about. We do him a tremendous disservice when we overly spiritualize his message or try to water it down.
Social justice means, among other things, both addressing and correcting serious inequities in wealth, privilege, power and treating every child of God with dignity. This isn’t a feel-good extra in the sustenance we’re offered in the pages of Luke’s gospel, a sort of side dish we can add to our spiritual nourishment or not as we prefer. It’s the main course. It’s Jesus’ primary point. I didn’t always see it that way. But I can no longer un-see it.
Which begs the question: what to do about it? In the very next chapter of Luke, we’ll see Jesus inviting his first disciples into his mission, and each generation since has been called to pick up the baton. That includes you and me. Can we at MPC challenge ourselves to do better than Jesus’ hometown congregation does here in today’s text? Can we remember the extent to which his ministry is about those who aren’t here, and can we celebrate that fact rather than feeling hurt or angry about it? Certainly, Jesus can make room in the kingdom of God for more privileged folks like us too, but he’ll never waver from centering those we too often forget to center. Those who’ve been shunned and scorned, devalued and dismissed.
Again, working for justice isn’t an elective for us as followers of Jesus. It’s core curriculum. And it’s not going to be an easy class. Because kindness and generosity, while important, aren’t the same as justice. It’s a good thing to feed neighbors who are hungry and this congregation has long done that well, but we also need to address the root causes of their food insecurity. Why are they hungry in the first place? What can we do to change those dynamics? Likewise, it’s not enough simply to ensure we don’t personally behave in racist ways, or call out others for their individual acts of racism – though, again, these are good things to do. We also need to do our part to change systems and structures that perpetuate racism, to ensure all God’s children are treated fairly.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus, “to bring good news to the poor… release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free.’” Let’s find our place in that good news story.
Because, remember, God’s perfectly capable of accomplishing God’s purposes with or without us. In fact, Jesus is already out there working through whoever has lent their hands and feet to do the work of God … whoever has offered heart, soul, and strength to the cause of justice … whoever has lifted their voice to demand good news for the poor and release for the captives and freedom for the oppressed… whether or not they’d ever consider themselves his disciples.
But surely we don’t want to miss being part of it all.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s clear, as we mentioned last week, that the season we’re living through right now is anything but ordinary. Each week, each day even, is so high stakes. We’re stuck in this awful pandemic. We who are white have woken up in new ways over the past year to white privilege and white supremacy in our country and to the extent of violence against Black Americans and other people of color (things that are no surprise at all, of course, to those who aren’t white). And now we’re headed into a presidential inauguration week praying that the entire nation won’t erupt into violence. (25,000 National Guard troops assembling in DC??) It’s not for nothing we feel like we’re living through some kind of disaster movie script. Don’t you feel some mornings, as you scan the headlines, like you accidentally woke up in an alternate universe?
All of this begs the question: what can we do about it? I certainly don’t envy the job our incoming president and his new administration have ahead of them. But I’m talking about us. Regular citizens. Ordinary people of faith. What can we do? What should we do?
Enter John the Baptizer today to help us move in the direction of some answers. Yes, John – that strange, bug-eating, camel-hair-wearing prophet. For as you may have noticed in verse 10 of our Scripture reading, whole crowds flocked to John asking that very question: “What should we do?” (Luke 3:10) Why do you suppose he gained such a following? He was an unusual dude, certainly, but I don’t think the oddness of John alone would have been enough for him to gather disciples. A few curious spectators if he were holding forth on a city street corner maybe, but not great crowds following him out into the wilderness. John was so popular he actually had to convince people he wasn’t the Messiah. There was something about him that compelled people to listen.
They certainly didn’t tune into his message because he was a sweet-talking flatterer. Did you hear what he called those who came out to hear him? A bunch of snakes! (Luke 3:7) Biblical prophets weren’t known for their subtlety and John’s no exception. But the text tells us when he called them out like this, when he told them they were headed for ruin and they needed to turn their lives around completely, they said: show us how. “What then should we do,” John?
No matter how bad the news was, I believe his listeners knew John was speaking the truth. And some chose to hear that truth and act on it rather than escaping his hard words to find someone who told them what they wanted to hear.
Listen again to the kinds of truthful words John spoke. First, don’t rely on your birthright to save you; that won’t cut it. (That’s that line in verse 8 where he says: don’t just say we have Abraham as our ancestor) In other words your family tree, your inheritance, the skin you were born in – none of that is enough to save you. God could take a bunch of rocks and raise up an equally impressive crowd. Then: trees not bearing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire, good fruit here meaning good deeds or faithful actions.
The crowd starts cluing in, and this is where they ask their question. If what we do is the thing that matters, John, what should we do? And he offers some specific examples. First to the whole crowd: if you have more clothes or more food than you really need, for heaven’s sake, share it. Be satisfied with enough. And then to the tax collectors and the soldiers he offers similar instructions – don’t take too much in taxes, be satisfied with your wages. Don’t take advantage of others or abuse your power. Be honest, be peaceful, be content with enough, be generous.
Finally, in reference to his not being the Messiah himself, but only one preparing the way, John says of Jesus: fair warning, folks, he’s coming to sort the wheat from the chaff, gathering the wheat and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. And immediately after that uncomfortably memorable line about unquenchable fire in v. 17 we read in v. 18: “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news…” Wait, good news was it? Not for the chaff! But again, no one ever accused John of pulling his punches rhetorically speaking.
Remember, all of this talk was prefaced back in verse 3 by Luke introducing John to us as one preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he urged the crowds in verse 8. The purpose of prophetic judgment texts, you see, is to wake us up! To give us a chance to turn ourselves around. Worried about that ax at the root of the fruitless tree? Don’t be a fruitless tree. Bear some fruit. Worried about that chaff that’ll be thrown into the fire? Don’t be chaff; be more substantial than that. Be a stalk of wheat loaded with healthy grain. We’re hearing this word – as was John’s original audience – while we still have time to act on it. If you’re headed in the wrong direction, repent, turn around, make a midcourse correction. Live a healthy, fruitful, godly life.
As Luke explains earlier in the chapter, and as we heard in that short video during children’s time, Christians believe John was the one of whom the prophet Isaiah wrote centuries earlier. A voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, to make the crooked straight. It’s not easy to straighten out what’s crooked. Crooked things, crooked situations, crooked people? They tend to resist.
Take Herod, for instance. The one mentioned here in Luke 3 is actually the son of the Herod who ordered the slaughter of the innocents and forced Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt with little Jesus back in Matthew 2. Both father Herod and son Herod lashed out violently when they felt frightened or threatened, something they have in common with tyrants everywhere. Which is why every day that brings us closer to his removal from the White House seems to bring another last-ditch effort by Donald Trump to cling to power, no matter who he has to hurt along the way. He’s been lifting a page from a playbook that’s been used far too many times through history by bullies who feel threatened, frightened to realize they’re not getting what they want.
It's important to notice in connection with John the Baptist that he was unafraid to “rebuke” Herod “for all the evil things that [he] had done.” (Luke 3:19) John models for us what it looks like courageously to speak truth to power, and he paid a steep price for the courage of his convictions, both here in the conclusion of today’s reading when Herod throws John in prison and later on when he executes John for opposing him. Naturally prophetic truth isn’t welcomed by those abusing their power, and prophetic voices are often silenced for their troubles. As we remember for instance this weekend, the reason why the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at the age of 39.
But even when it takes far too long, even when they do far too much damage along the way, tyrants eventually fall. Young Mary - Jesus’ mother, John’s auntie - she just sang about this a couple chapters ago, remember? Back in Luke 1, after hearing she would give birth to Jesus, she voiced another prophetic word that holds both good news and bad, depending on where we stand when we hear it. Mary sang of good news for the lowly, the hungry, and the poor that would simultaneously be bad news for the rich, the proud, and the powerful. All at God’s hands. All tied to the birth of her son.
Meanwhile, as we wait for God’s intervention to pull all the tyrants from their thrones, what should we do? According to John the Baptist, above all we should get our own act together. We should repent.
There’s so much that should be prompting our repentance, not just individually, but collectively. As a nation founded on genocide and slavery, as an American Church that far too often has chosen to side with white privilege and white supremacy over God’s justice for all God’s children, as a global Church whose history is littered with abuses of power.
And when we need something smaller scale and more concrete to focus on in the midst of these enormous projects of repentance? As we’ve seen, John offers us other challenges to tackle along the way too. In a world full of lies, let’s be truthful. In a culture of excess, let’s be content with enough. Let’s wield our power and privilege responsibly, not taking advantage of others. Let’s be peaceful. And generous.
In this high-stakes time, we already know we’ve got work to do. I believe that’s why some of us are drawn to prophets like John who tell us the truth about the condition of our lives and our world.
Now certainly, it’s easy to feel helpless, as we live through the disaster movie script we seem to find ourselves in right now. But we also believe in a God with whom nothing is impossible. A God who promises that one day “the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:5-6)
Which means, with God’s help, we might just be able to turn this Titanic around. But we’ll need to hear and accept the truth from God’s prophets, however uncomfortable it makes us, rather than being fed a pack of lies. We’ll need to speak out against tyranny, no matter how fearful or angry it makes the tyrants. Both individually and as communities, we’ll need to repent. And then don’t forget the smaller scale stuff - if we have more clothes, more food than we really need, let’s share it. Let’s be peaceful, be satisfied with enough, be generous. Let’s use our power and privilege for the benefit of others. Let’s tell the truth. Let’s show ourselves, as God’s people, to be substantial: fruitful trees and grain-heavy wheat.
“What should we do?” John assures us there’s plenty we can do. Let all of us who have ears to hear, hear. Amen.