Sermon: July 16, 2017 – The Story Behind the Story

The Story Behind the Story

Text: Luke 14: 1-6

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

I find this to be a fascinating text because as you begin to ask a few questions, or do a bit of research around some of the details in the story, it becomes even richer than it is on the surface. There are a number of things in this text that I don’t think are there by accident, but in order to reap the full benefit it requires a bit of knowledge around some of the details.

For starters, I think it is significant that this story only appears in the Gospel according to Luke; it is not present in Matthew or Mark. This means the source for this story is either unknown to us, or is simply a story or example that comes to us from the imagination of our author. I think the latter option is likely, that Luke created this story, and I think that for a number of reasons.

The author of Luke, as you may already know is also the author of the book of Acts. Through a careful reading and interpretation of these two works, it becomes known to us that Luke was called on a number of different occasions the beloved physician. One of these references is found in Colossians, 4: 14 where there is just a simple greeting; but it is believed that the reference here to Luke as the beloved physician is the same Luke as the author of the Gospel.

The only reason I bring this to our attention is that in our story that I read a few minutes ago, the man who was healed had a disease known as dropsy. Now, I don’t know about you, but dropsy isn’t necessarily part of my vocabulary on a regular basis. So I think it is interesting that Luke chose a rather obscure disease to have healed when there are many other stories of healing from things that are much more common. In our New Testament we find many stories of lepers being healed, evil spirits being cast out, blind people being healed, deformities of hands and other limbs; but this is the only story of dropsy. The fact that the story comes from a physician I think is significant. It makes me think there may be a reason that Luke chose dropsy for this healing scene.

At first glance, this story appears to be about healing on the Sabbath, which of course it is, but I believe there may be some hidden significance here as well. But in order for us to uncover this hidden significance, it is necessary for us to take another look at this rather obscure disease called dropsy.

If you try to do a bit of research on dropsy, you will discover that this term is really no longer used; it is considered to be an ancient description of a couple of different ailments. The first type of situation that dropsy was used to describe back in the day, is now referred to as edema, or a swelling of a particular area. In today’s medical vernacular the type of edema is usually considered a part of the diagnosis, so you could have lymphedema, for example, which is swelling as it pertains to our lymph system. There are other terms that relate to specific types of swelling, but edema can be used to describe the swelling from a bee sting, and sprained ankle, an allergic reaction and a host of other situations.

I believe it is unlikely that the man in our story was suffering from anything as simple as a bee sting or sprained ankle. Edema can be caused by certain deficiencies in our blood, or certain organ malfunctions like our liver or kidneys, so there are any number of ailments our subject in the story may have experienced that were described as dropsy.

In a similar fashion, congestive heart failure, which is a specific type of edema, was also considered to be part of dropsy. But dropsy in ancient times wasn’t necessarily only congestive heart failure, it was heart trouble of almost any kind. So we actually have two possible ailments from which our man in the story was healed; abnormal swelling or heart disease of almost any kind. I think both are significant to our story.

Luke, being a physician would not miss the irony contained in this story and I believe this is intentional on the part of the author.

The position of the Pharisees and the lawyers in this story were watching Jesus carefully and were looking for a way to discredit him. They were steeped in tradition and strict adherents to the law. They considered themselves to be righteous individuals and probably felt that God looked more favorably on them than the rest of society. They were spiritually elevated, in their own minds, over anyone else.

So in addition to being about healing on the Sabbath, I think this is a story of contrasts. Jesus could heal the physical impact of dropsy on the man in our story. But the man who was healed was not the only person in the story suffering from a form of dropsy. I believe this particular disease was chosen as a metaphor by our physician author, because dropsy also represented what was wrong with the Pharisees that had gathered there that day.

You see, the Pharisees also had unnatural swelling. Their pride was swollen. Their ego was swollen and there self-righteousness were all swollen out of control. But Jesus could not heal this disease. In order to be healed, you must want to be healed.

The other form of dropsy that the man in our story could have been suffering from was some form of heart disease. The Pharisees also had this in common with our man who was healed. They, too, had heart disease. They had heart disease in the form of lack of compassion. They had heart disease in the inability to allow the individual to be more important than the law. They had heart disease in the sense that scheming and conspiring with one another to make Jesus look bad was OK with them. They had heart disease in the sense that power and prestige began to mean more than love and kindness and common sense.

Jesus had no problem healing the physical aspects of dropsy for someone who wanted to be healed. There wasn’t much Jesus could do about the emotional and psychological dropsy that the Pharisees suffered from, particularly when they didn’t view themselves as sick. Yes, this story is about healing on the Sabbath, but I think there is story behind the story.

We may no longer use the term dropsy to describe certain medical conditions. But the dropsy conditions from which the Pharisees suffered are still around today. Swollen egos and heart disease are still present everywhere we turn. Jesus called the Pharisees out on their hypocrisy and the text said they had no answer. I believe we are charged with the same task. We should not be quiet in the face of swollen egos, swollen self-righteousness, swollen self-importance and the kind of heart disease that continues to oppress, continues to marginalize and continues to threaten the very existence of those less fortunate than the rest of us.

Make no mistake. Jesus gave us clear instructions in Matthew 25 that when we do not give food to the hungry, or drink to the thirsty, when we do not care for the poor or the sick, when we do not do these things to the least of these, we do not do it to Jesus himself.

Even in the Hebrew Bible we have the commandments that lean toward social justice. Micah 6:8 is a prime example; we are to do justice, not just talk about it, but do it. Or as Nike would say: “Just do it”. The text in Micah also says we are to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. This is what the Lord requires of us. It is listed as a requirement, not a suggestion.

It is a form of heart disease that cuts benefits for the poor. It is a form of heart disease that pushes people off of health insurance. It is a form of heart disease that continues to create tax benefits for the wealthy and eliminate safety nets for those who are hungry or thirsty or in need of clothing.  It is also a violation of scriptural mandates that are repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments.

Jesus called the Pharisees out on their hypocrisy and they had no answer. I believe we are called to do likewise.

And that is food for thought.


Sermon: July 9, 2017 – Jesus as Light & Water

Jesus as Light & Water

Text: John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

A number of years ago I can remember going camping with our kids when they were small and if you were in a campground in a National Forest or State Park or somewhere similar and you wanted to build a campfire, you gathered some wood and built your fire. Well, this is no longer the case. Now you have to go to the gift shop or the visitor’s center and purchase your firewood. Good grief!

I guess I understand the problem with too many visitors to our parks and what might happen if everyone collected firewood naturally, and I guess I even support the idea of no wood gathering and purchasing firewood in the campground office. But it seems a little lacking in terms of the experience. If you are going to have a campfire, getting wood is just part of that process. But I’m old fashioned that way, I guess.

I mention this because when we were camping with our kids when they were young, I used to tease them a little bit by saying that firewood was just stored sunlight. This messed with their heads a little bit; I would explain that the sun is just a big ball of fire. They understood this and had been told this in school as well. Then I would explain that the fire of the sun reaches the earth in the form of light and energy and they understood this as well. Then I would explain that plants and animals and trees and pretty much any living thing must have sunlight in order to grow. The trees that are all around us absorb the light energy from the sun and they store some of that energy in the branches of the trees. When the branch dies and becomes firewood for us, some of that stored energy is still in there and when we burn the wood, we release the stored sunlight.

So the energy that we are talking about begins as fire on the sun, and it gets released as fire from the wood that we burn. So we begin with fire and end with fire; so our firewood is in fact stored sunlight.

Now, I have a question for you which I think is very important to our conversation today as we continue to discuss certain aspects of a creation based theology. The question is this; when I speak of firewood as stored sunlight, am I speaking metaphorically or am I speaking literally?

Is the idea of a piece of firewood being stored sunlight a metaphor in the sense that when we burn the piece of wood it is like the sun? The fire gives us heat and light and is similar to the sun in all those aspects, so it is like the sun. That is what a metaphor is, when something is like something else and you can compare the two things and find the similarities.

Or is a piece of firewood literally stored sunlight? In a literal sense that would mean that the sunlight which struck this piece of wood perhaps 100 years ago is still present in that wood. I think all of us recognize that without sunlight a tree would not grow. As it grows the branches become thicker and grow taller, that sort of thing, so some of that energy that the tree absorbs from the sun must naturally be stored in the branch of that tree, don’t you think?

So my conclusion or to answer to my own question is yes to both ideas. The idea of firewood as stored sunlight I think is a “both and” kind of question. It is a metaphor to be sure, but it is also literal in the sense of understanding the process and the flow and release of energy. This is an important concept for us to grasp that a statement can be both metaphor and literal all at the same time; I don’t believe that metaphor and literal interpretations of a particular statement or text are necessarily mutually exclusive. I believe something can be both metaphor and literal simultaneously.

This leads me back to the text I read a few minutes ago. If you have been around here for a while, you may already know this is one of my favorite texts in all of the Bible. I use it almost every chance I get and you often hear it at Christmas or during the Advent season.

But this time it is a little different. We are talking about creation theology and how God is present in all of creation. This texts speaks to that creation process with the idea that everything that is now was originally a part of God. We can look at verse 3 for example, where the text says that all things came into being through him, and without him nothing could come into existence. The text goes on to say that what was created, in a literal sense, was life.

I happen to believe that this references all life. I understand the text is primarily focused on Jesus, but I want us to think beyond just the life of Jesus and consider this text as it applies to all of creation. All of the life of creation, all of the plants and animals, all of the birds and insects and flowers and trees, all of creation represents life. Then the text goes on to say that the life that was created was the light of all people.

So in a literal sense, and a metaphorical sense, light is life and life is light. Can you see that relationship? The text then finishes with the promise, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

To paraphrase this text you might say that when we observe any living thing, when we observe life at any level, we observe the presence of light. When we observe the presence of light, we also observe the presence of God.

So is the prologue of John written as metaphor or is the prologue of John written as a literal interpretation of the creation process? Yes.

A couple of weeks ago I shared with you a portion of a text that comes from the Gospel of Thomas. The actual text is saying number 77 from the Gospel of Thomas and there we find the words that I think are actually very similar to the words from the Gospel of John. Take another look at this saying from the Gospel of Thomas:

“I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split of piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

So is this a metaphorical statement or is it a literal statement? Hmmm.

Everything that we have been saying thus far about light, we could also say about water. Life itself also is dependent upon water just as it is dependent upon light.

There are two ideas that Jesus used to describe himself more than any other concept we find in the New Testament. These two ideas are also used by the authors of the Hebrew Bible texts over and over again. These two ideas used by both Jesus and all the authors of the entire Bible are that God can be described as light and as water. Consider this for just a minute. There are at least 25 or 30 references in our Bible that describe God as water. There are probably a lot more than that, but it varies depending on how you search and I didn’t have time to read the entire book and make my own list.

If you search based on the idea of God as light, the results are even more amazing. My best guess is that there are more than 50 references in our Bible that describe God or Jesus as light.

So I want to ask my question again about all these references to God and Jesus as light and water. Are all of these references metaphor and simply describe how God is like water and light? Yes, I think they do describe how the presence of God is like light and water. So, yes, these references are definitely metaphor.

But are the references also literal? When we see water or when we see light are we actually seeing and experiencing God? Yes. I believe God is present in light and in water and in all that is.

This is the best explanation of a creation based theology that I can offer. To subscribe to such a theology you must be able to hold in tension the two ideas of metaphor and literal interpretation and be comfortable with the idea that both can exist simultaneously. This thought process also leads you away from the idea that God is a being with human like characteristics, and is more like the energy that is represented in light and water. As a matter of fact, on the literal side of things, God actually is the energy in light and water, and just as light and water sustain all life on earth, so does God sustain all life on earth.

So the next time you have a campfire or burn a stick of wood in your fireplace consider the idea that the fire you see is actually ancient stored sunlight. Then consider the idea that God may literally be present in that ancient sunlight or Jesus may be present in that split stick of wood.

And that is of course, food for thought. Go in peace. Amen.