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.