The Gospel of St Luke
There was a Victorian Bishop here in England who left a rather unusual request in his will. He had penned a short verse and he asked for it to be read to his clergy on his death. It ran:
“Tell my priests when I am gone
O´er me to shed no tears.
For I shall be no deader then
Than they have been for years”.
Well, it is true that we ministers of the Church are not always the fireflies in the dark night of the world we are invited to be. There was a priest in the London Diocese whose motto in life was to start each day with a smile and get it over with.
Now, with this in mind I’m going to ask that we focus not so much on my sermon today as that of St Luke, that sermon we know as his Gospel and if you place his Gospel next to the other Gospels and do a bit of detection work, this after all is what biblical study is, then you can quickly tell what Luke was passionate about, what aspects of his faith he really wanted to pass on. He was quite a writer, writing in very beautiful stylized Greek. He wrote over 25 per cent of the NT (including the Acts of the Apostles). We don’t know much about him: He was not Jewish, he was writing between 75-130AD, but we are not sure where. But that’s OK because Luke wasn’t writing so that we know about him but about Christ, and only in his Gospel do we find some of the most loved stories of our faith: Only in Luke do we find The Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, the Rich Fool, the Prodigal Son, Dives and Lazarus, the Pharisee and the Publican, the Good Thief, and the Disciples on the road to Emmaus. Imagine a Christian faith without these. There is a tradition of him being an artist and a doctor.
Now whereas human bodies seem to have the capacity to heal themselves quite well, the human soul isn’t so skilled. The soul needs to be loved back into life, touched into life. Each day we hear messages fired at us, some come from our pasts, our hurts and losses – messages that we are not loveable, not worth much, not someone to be touched. And some of the messages come from our culture, loud but often subtle voices shouting at us what is acceptable and desirable and cool. And if you don’t fit, well, sad old you. In the Gospel we find ways of talking about illness that might make us uncomfortable today. One of these is the way in which the ill, particularly those with mental illness, are said to be possessed by demons. And Jesus tells them to be silent and get lost. Tells them to be silent. He asks the person in need of healing to listen to his voice and not to all the other voices that are bringing hurt and confusion. In fact, in full immersion baptism this is what happens, we are pushed under the water so everything is drowned out except for the words from heaven when we come up and take a gulp of fresh air – “you are my child, my loved one”. And from that moment on, we are asked not to live down to the voices that belittle us, but to live up to the words that tell us we are beautiful, created, unique. From that moment our life with God is a confusing but poignant journey of changes as we learn to live as loved, as touched. God loves us just as we are and loves us so much he doesn’t want us to stay like that.
So what are these cultural voices shouting at us at the moment? It might be easier if we did imagine them as demons or maybe as gods, like the Greek gods. I’ve identified just one or two that I think I listen to too much and from whom I need healing.
The first is called Gloss, the goddess of beauty and surfaces – a fickle being, incarnated in paper and adverts, a god so big she makes us all feel small and ugly. We are drawn by her siren voice but her perfection is impossible even for those who anoint themselves with her many sensuous creams and labels. She is cunning too – she makes humans confuse their wants for their needs and this leads to many tears. She teaches that life is survival of the fittest. Fit for what, she never reveals. She makes objects into people and people into objects so in her adverts you can never work out if the man is having an affair with the woman or with the car. And when she uses paper with red at the top on Sundays, she desecrates the human to make a headline so big it belittles us all. Luke would weep at all this. In his Gospel the poor are God’s special ones, he warns us endlessly about money and how we begin to reflect in ourselves whatever we worship. Faith isn’t found where it should be found in his Gospel, not in the clergy, the establishment, but is found where you would never expect it. The Pharisee, tells Luke, prays pompously and the publican can’t even face himself and only the publican goes home in relationship with God.
Obese is the god of gathering, of acquiring, who is never satisfied: happiness for him is having what you want not wanting what you have. And he always wants more even when bloated. Although people say he is seen on earth at the moment in the form of bankers, in fact he is found in the hearts of parents and grandparents just as much over much of the world. He is related to that great god who makes us buy things we don´t need called Ikea (mainly worshipped on a Saturday). Together they magic us into spending money we don´t have on things we don´t want in order to impress people we don´t like. Again, Luke would be angry. Only he tells Jesus’ story about the man in fine clothes who passes by the homeless man at his gate. Only Luke tells the story from Mary’s perspective and has her sing the truth that the mighty are put down and the humble exalted for they have room in themselves for God. The possessive are found wanting. AS Churchill said, “we make a living by what we earn, we make a life by what we give”.
Instantaneous is the goddess of now. She cannot wait. She must have fast cars, fast food, fast money, fast death. She is blind, never having the time to stop and see anything. She often gets into a mess too because she never has the patience to listen to anyone either. She beckons people to live full lives but strangely leaves them feeling empty. She is afraid of people meeting face to face in case they discover the joys of wasting time together, and so she invents screens and devices that trick us into thinking we are communicating but which actually add to our loneliness. She seduces with quick clarity and easy answers, and hates ambiguity, poetry, music, faith. Luke preaches, on the other hand, a Jesus who takes the time to be with people, to hear them, to touch the untouchable, and who constantly teaches that compassion overrules codes. This Jesus shows that generosity is not the same thing as justice and that to try and live justly we must first get beyond our first impressions (full of our pride and prejudice) and see afresh.
And finally there is Punch, the god of violence and division. If hate can be escalated he´ll have a go – if they don´t agree with you, lash out. If they´re different, slap them down. If they´re not in the majority, don´t invite them. When in doubt, just punch them. Now obviously Punch is the creator of some computer games, street gangs, film directors and state leaders. Religious leaders are often drawn to his clarifying power too. But also, Punch can be a subtle god and can hide in the consensus of the middle classes, and his punch can be made, not of a fist but of plausible, respectable, articulate words. Punch can be very charming as he drives around in his bandwagon. He can make you feel better. And he loves to play a little trick – he likes to make people yawn whenever the conversation turns to human rights and responsibilities, refugees, the poor, the environment, equality – in fact, anything that Christians believe are close to God´s heart. We need to resist Punch with every bit of energy we have. Luke, takes Punch on, stressing all through his writing the mercy and compassion of God, the Holy Spirit of God. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a Luke story only, the son makes a mess of life, looks at what he has become, and decides to return and seek his dad’s mercy so he can be given permission to start again. Never mind the arguments – his dad is already down the road, arms wide open. The problem is, hints Luke, that Christians instead of rejoicing in this story tend to start living like the brother who stayed at home: grumpy, resentful, tut tutting, lacking grace, working out who’s deserving of God’s reckless generosity. In another story unique to Luke, it was a nasty foreigner who looked after the man beaten up on the road and who reflected God. As you hear these stories, says Luke, so they should hatch something fresh and urgent in you – go and do likewise. Dante called Luke the scribe of the kindness of Christ. The Church has tried too hard to be relevant in the recent past, when what it should be doing is seeking to be resonant, addressing those deeper parts of us that know the poverty of giving your life over to these flimsy but glittering demons whose emptiness is too often only recognised when we are lying on a hospital bed. And the Church’s task must be to call us back to the freshness of the eternal and to the enlarging of the soul that is born when you learn the divine lesson that a human self is most itself when not being selfish. The Church should always have a distrust of first impressions, prejudiced and proud, and instead prompt a pursuit of that intuition that God is somehow in this world as poetry is in the poem. As part of that return to God, seeing who we are, what we have become and where we need to hear the voice of reassurance and love, the ministry of healing is offered. If you are lost, now, God runs to embrace you and shows you what he can see, his child and for always.