Sunday 18 October, 2020
Feast of St Luke, Evangelist and Martyr
Jeremiah 8.22 – 9.3
2 Timothy 4.9-17a
Quoth the Raven ©Suzanne Grimmett
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored? Jeremiah 8.22
When across the globe we are in the grip of a pandemic, when the tumultuous pre-election days in the US are dominating the news, and we worry about the future of climate and our planet, this cry from Jeremiah, whether it be God or the prophet speaking, is one that could come from our own hearts. Where can healing be found?
Today we celebrate St Luke as the physician and the Gentile doctor who decided to set down ‘an orderly account’ of the witnesses to life and truth revealed in Jesus the Christ. Not purely concerned with physical healing, Luke’s Gospel shows his particular concern for the poor, for victims of injustice, and for a gospel that is liberating good news not just for some, but for everyone. It is to Luke, for instance, that the gift of the Magnificat comes to us; a clear declaration of the upside down nature of Jesus’ reign. The kingdom of God has arrived in one who puts down the mighty from their thrones, and exalts those of low degree, who has filled the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty (Lk 1:52-53). The healing and wholeness offered in Jesus is as much for the societies in which we live as it is for our individual bodies. The health of any people is always caught up in the health of all people.
In our text today we have the account of the sending out of the disciples to bring this good news and healing. The disciples are instructed to come in peace and leave in peace, not pushing or manipulating or coercing but offering the gift of themselves and the message they bring. They are to embody the kingdom. Where there is hostility or rejection of the peace being offered they are told by Jesus simply to allow it to return to them so they may continue on their way. No one is being forced to do or think or be anything; they are simply offered the gift.
This story of the mission of the seventy is a healthy corrective to an understanding of religion as something that belongs to the professionals. Even in our own tradition the church has suffered from the clericalism that would rob the community of Christ of the power of its vocation. The idea of laity as passive recipients of religion whose responsibility is best summed up in the words ‘believe, pray, obey, and pay’ represents a tragic loss to the kingdom envisioned when all the baptised are sent into the world, partners with Christ.
Jesus never promises this task will be easy, but rather that his disciples will be ‘like lambs in the midst of wolves.’ Apparently, peace and healing can be threatening. The confines of self created prisons can seem to be safe havens that need defending. In the section that follows today’s reading when the disciples return with joy, Jesus tells them;
“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”
The disciples go out in Jesus’ name to share the peace of God that is for all people, and they find as they bear this message they are able to overcome evil. Snakes and scorpions are
normally what we would walk around to avoid, but Jesus’ power leads them to step on them and destroy them. What is being symbolised here is that evil can be confronted because God has put on flesh and we are now together, cooperating with the ongoing creation and recreation of the world. In Luke’s narrative, the world is being made whole because God is now in the world with us, healing creation from within as one disciple after another is “sent out”.
But what are we being healed from? Certainly Jesus promises we shall not be harmed, but this is not to be translated as escaping suffering. This is something that Jesus himself did not escape, and neither did his disciples who also drank from that same painful cup. What is being promised here is that the kind of death which haunts us will not ever come to pass. Physical death will happen, but we need not fear the separation from others and from love itself. God is with us in our material reality, walking with us through life and beyond the barrier of death itself. The healing proclaimed in Luke’s Gospel is the promise that the powers of this world cannot stand in the way of the good news that God is eternally and unchangeably for all of us.
In the prophet Jeremiah’s time the town of Gilead was famous for producing balms of healing. Yet Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet because he questions whether such a balm to heal the brokenness of the people can be found or a physician to bring relief from their suffering. Lament is the first powerful word that something is very wrong. Many of us have been in that place when we have wondered if there will ever be a cure, whether the complexity of our problems or our past trauma can be overcome, whether our poverty or unemployment will ever change, or if the ache in our chest which reminds us daily of the loved one we have lost will ever go away. The idea of finding a healing salve to save us from the horror of separation that haunts us has been often used symbolically in mythologies. It appears in the surreal poem, The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe, where the narrator, visited by a talking raven, mourns the death of the woman he loved. He entreats the bird for hope and yet finds only despair;
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore— Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!” Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
In our moments of pain we might believe the raven, a messenger sent from the darkness, tempting us to abandon ourselves to the hopeless story of finality and separation. ‘Nevermore’ is the word of the father of lies.
Is there a balm in Gilead? I believe St Luke, the physician, St Luke the Gentile, St Luke the friend of the poor has shown us the way to that healing balm in the orderly account he has set forth in the Gospel that bears his name. The powers and principalities that rule by fear and violence…the barriers that divide us from one another… the lying voice that whispers that nothing will ever change and that we are always and eternally on our own….all this has been overcome by the God who would so invest in creation as to join it, and ask only that we join in too.
This is the story of the incarnation narrated in Luke’s Gospel, from the foretelling of birth to the quiet sneaking into the world of a God who is laid in a manger. This is the story of the Alpha and Omega, the one who has declared that our existence is not defined by death but by resurrection. Luke invites us into this story not as God followers, but God bearers, and it is in living and ministering together as the body of Christ that we find our healing. In the joy of this shared life, it is Christ who raises a new song in our hearts, “Evermore and evermore.” +Amen.