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Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Witness of Luke

God’s grace compels us to ask ourselves, “Who is it who struggles with feelings of unworthiness? Who is society denying, demeaning, pushing to the margins?  Who is it in our day who needs to believe in the presence of God, for them?” 

The Rev. Art Halbardier
   St. Luke, Evangelist
   texts: Luke’s Gospel; Isaiah 43:8-13

Learning about Luke the evangelist is a bit like tracing your family tree. For some points, you have documentation. Facts. For other points, you have fairly reliable evidence, perhaps some stories told you by your parents and grandparents. But most family trees will still have large “gray areas.” These “gray areas” must be filled in through inference, deduction, even guessing…educated or otherwise.

“Large gray areas” comprise much of what we know about Luke. Learning about Luke the evangelist is largely a matter of piecing together scraps of evidence.

In the fact category, we know that Luke was not one of the 12, probably not even one of the larger group of Jesus’ disciples. He does not claim to have known Jesus. Luke is clear in the verses we read, he is, rather, a careful reporter of what true eyewitness told him. Very likely, Luke was a gentile convert to Christianity, possibly evangelized by St. Paul. Paul mentions Luke traveling with him in several passages.

Obviously, Luke was well-educated; his use of the Greek language is rich and precise. Luke may have been a medical doctor; In one passage, Paul calls Luke “the beloved physician.” Luke is best known as the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. But he is also the patron of a lot of other folks: bookbinders, brewers, and butchers; of glass makers, glassworkers, gold smiths, lacemakers, and notaries (not sure how notaries fits this list, but there you are); Luke is also the patron of painters, sculptors, and stained glass workers… and, while we’re at it, the patron of the towns of Capena, Italy, and Hermersdorf, Germany. All of which makes Luke one very busy saint, looking after the welfare of so many.

Legend has it that Luke was also the first iconographer. He founded the tradition of painting icons on wooden boards, a tradition iconographers still follow. But Luke’s were very special boards. His first icons were painted on the boards of the very table used at  the Last Supper. Maybe…

Because of the connection of St. Luke with the medical profession, worship on St. Luke’s Feast often includes special prayers for healing of the body, mind and soul, as well as the rite of anointing.

But, Luke himself never speaks of himself as a physician. Luke’s gospel does not emphasize Jesus’ healing of the sick any more than do the other three.

But, Luke’s Gospel is about healing. Luke tells of God’s determination to heal a malady in us more life-threatening than physical disease. Diseases can only sicken or kill us. What vexes us is much, much worse.

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We didn’t learn much from that odd Gospel reading today. We read only the first four verses and the final nine verses of Luke’s gospel. We didn’t take the time to read the 23 chapters between…for which, perhaps you are glad. But those 23 chapters are critical.

They reveal a God who will not rest until each one of us who is lost has been found. They tell of God who will let nothing stand in the way of healing the broken relationship between God and you and me.

No matter whether it’s our own rebellious choices, or whether we have simply lost our way in life. God refuses to accept the notion that any one of us is worthless or unredeemable, even if society has judges us so or others demean us to the point that we believe it.

God simply will not put up with pain or hopelessness in any one of us. God will heal the cause of whatever separates us from God, and will have it no other way, no matter the cost.

There is no single passage that declares this to be Luke’s purpose, per se. But that agenda becomes plain and clear in the course of those twenty-three chapters. The evidence is there. But it is a matter of piecing together scraps of evidence, much as one may have to do to fill in the gaps in our family tree.

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Scholars tell us Mark was the first gospel. That Matthew and Luke came later, and used much of Mark’s Gospel in their writing. But Matthew and Luke added additional material of their own. That special material is a strong clue to their particular message.

Luke recounts 23 parables of Jesus. 16 of these are parables that appear only in Luke. These special parables, and various encounters and incidents that only are included by Luke help us understand Luke’s particular understanding of God. Luke paints a portrait of God tirelessly and indiscriminately at work to heal relationships with the lost. [1] 

For example, Luke tells the story of a time Jesus attended a posh dinner party. A woman comes in where the men are dining. Not just any woman. A notoriously sinful woman, a woman shunned by her community because of the life she has led - this woman invades the dinner party and commences to wash the feet of Jesus with her tears and dry his feet with her hair, and then anoints Jesus’ feet with a expensive ointment.

Jesus’ stuffy dinner companions are aghast! But Jesus holds the woman up to these pompous types as an example of genuine faith. He forgives her past sins and gives her a tender blessing to boot. The stuffy types were not pleased. But that’s the way God’s love works - accepting the lost and castaway, and not holding their past sins over them.

Luke also gives us Jesus’ parable of a man who falls among thieves and is left for dead on the road to Jericho. He’s alive, but regarded as beyond hope and way too much trouble to bother with by passers-by, even a priest and a Levite. But a kind Samaritan sees his hopeless state, and makes sure the man is cared for until he is healed.

Luke recounts the parable of a shepherd with a flock of 100 sheep who still searches long and hard for a single lost one, who then carries that sheep who caused him such trouble home on his shoulders rejoicing the whole way.

And he tells the parable of a woman who lights every lamp in the house and scours every inch of the floor to find a single lost coin.

And Luke is our source for the wonderful story of a father who waits year after year for his prodigal younger son to return.

Was the kid worth it?  No. The boy has wasted his life and his father’s fortune. With no options left, he heads for home, dirty, gaunt and dressed in rags, wasted away from hunger and lousy living. When his father glimpses him trudging up the road, he runs to embrace his son and throws a huge party to celebrate that he is back.

Then the parable turns attention to the father’s other son,  “Mr. Proper…Ne’er Does Wrong” - the older brother. Older brother’s nose is totally out of joint over his father throwing a party for that young loser. But his father loves this irritating son as much as the delinquent younger one, and begs him to come in, so the family can be whole again.

Luke shares one story after another in this vein: The “beautiful people” of society find poor Lazarus smelly and offensive and disgusting, covered with sores, lying there in the gutter outside the house where they are having a party. Yuk! But Lazarus is not ignored or disdained by God; when Lazarus dies, he is given a place of honor next to Abraham in heaven.

Luke recounts the parable of two men who come to the temple to pray. A Pharisee, who knows he is definitely a favorite of God, and spends his prayer time reminding God of how fortunate God is to have such a fine fellow on his side. Elsewhere in the temple is a tax collector. He has no friends, is hated by his own people due to his chosen profession, and knows he must be despicable and worthless to God as well. This one, Jesus says, went home justified in God’s sight.

Passing through Jericho, Jesus gets a glimpse of another hated tax collector, Zaccheus, and this fellow deserves to be hated. Zaccheus has gotten very rich by cheating his neighbors. Jesus invites himself to dinner at Zaccheus’ house, and this sad little fellow’s life is changed.
And so it goes, on and on. Luke recounts what he has learned: that God’s door is not shut to any one of us.

Society may have slammed doors in our face, we may feel adrift and directionless, it may even be that we have closed the door of our life to God. But God will not have it. God is relentless in loving, relentless in pursuing the lost, not because they deserve it, but simply because they are lost. No one is outside the reach of the healing love of God - and because that is true, that means even me. And you.

But, there is one more layer to all this good news. A difficult word pops up several times in our readings today, a word not to be ignored. The word is “witness.”

At one point a switch was thrown in the mind and heart of Luke, causing him to sideline his medical practice to become an “evangelist” – literally a “voice of the good news” – a “witness” to the truths he had come to know. In Isaiah, God reminds the people, “I have saved you!” “You are now my witnesses!” You are evidence of how I want to care for all people. Jesus, in the Gospel reading, tells the disciples whose minds have been opened by His resurrection, “Now you are witnesses of these things!”

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We, who know of the amazing grace of God, how can we not also be witnesses to what we have come to know? The truth needs to get out: that God is searching out every person, and there is not one who does not matter.

We can witness to that truth through words, yes; but also through actions, attitudes, decisions we make, relationships we form or hang onto, even how we vote and use our money.

God’s grace compels us to ask ourselves, “Who is it who struggles with feelings of unworthiness? Who is society denying, demeaning, pushing to the margins?  Who is it in our day who needs to believe in the presence of God, for them?”

Luke leaves us with two questions, for our personal reflection today:

+ How, or when, have we personally felt this determined, indiscriminate, passionate, persistent love of God?
+ Where/ how is it that God would have us be the voice, the witness to that which we know?

[1] See Simon J. Kistemaker, The Structure of Luke’s Gospel; Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25/1 (March 1982), pp. 33-39.

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