(“Jesus raising the youth of Nain” from the Evangeliar Ottos III, circa 1000 A.D.)
A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Well the great season of decision is over!
Obviously I’m not talking about the election, which promises to continue to grind away at our faith in American democracy for months to come.
No, the season of decisions and choices that I’m talking about had mostly to do with our graduating high school seniors. After years of work, months of writing applications and compiling resumes, and weeks of waiting for acceptance letters, the time to decide finally came just a few months ago.
Would it be Wofford, Clemson, or Carolina? Sewanee or Stanford? Davidson or “Dubyuhnell”? Harvard or Yale? Of course, in those last two comparisons the correct choices are BEYOND OBVIOUS. But even sure and certain knowledge didn’t lessen the difficulty of deciding!
Now those of us who are of riper years know that the decisions of whether and where to go to college are neither the last nor the most important choices that a person will make. We know well what our young people are just learning: that life is an endless succession of choices. And all of us, young and old together, know from experience the undeniable truth that in our culture, choosing is cherished.
Look at the enormous variety of shops and restaurants in Five Points, or the Vista, or at Sandhills. Consider the bright, gleaming aisles of Whole Foods, or Publix, or Bi-Lo. All the cheerful variety and frenzied advertising of American life serves to prop-up and reinforce the same basic notion: to choose is to have power. To choose is to be in control. To choose is to be free.
This common devotion to choosing and choices was on my mind this week as I reflected on today’s Scripture lessons. I want to focus our attention on two stories. The first is from St Paul’s miniature autobiography found in the first chapter of his Letter to the Galatians. The second is an episode from Jesus’ earthly ministry recorded in the seventh chapter of St Luke’s Gospel.
Both of these stories describe the transformative power of an encounter with Jesus. Both speak of the unexpected, un-hoped for ways that God can change a life, or indeed restore a life. And both of these stories are utterly devoid of any suggestion of choice.
Did you catch that?
Look again at our Gospel passage. Look at who speaks in our lesson. So often, the healing stories of Jesus seem to happen because someone makes a choice. Someone chooses to reach out to touch him. Someone’s friends pull up the roof over Jesus’ head, and lower a sick man down in front of him. Someone in the crowd cries out: “Lord, heal my son!” “Master, save my daughter!” “Teacher, let me see again!”
But in our Gospel this morning, there are no questions. There are no requests. There is no pleading in this brief passage. There are no options here–no choices given.
Jesus, coming up to a city called Nain, looks and sees the suffering of a mother who has lost her only son. Jesus looks and sees the desperation of a widow who has lost her only hope for survival. Jesus looks and see the hopelessness of a woman for whom all choices, all options, all earthly possibilities now point only to degradation, and darkness, and death.
And looking upon her, Jesus has compassion for her. “Do not weep,” he says. He doesn’t ask, “What would have you me do for you?” He doesn’t ask, “Do you wish for me to help you?” He doesn’t even ask, as he does with Mary and Martha when he raises their brother Lazarus, “Do you believe in me?” He says simply, “Do not weep,” and he reaches out to stop the funeral procession. Life Incarnate steps suddenly into the path that leads to the grave, and the son of God commands the widow’s son: “Young man, I say to you, rise!”
No questions waiting for an answer. No options to decide between. No choices at all.
Just the power of God to bring hope to the hopeless; to bring wholeness to the broken; to bring life to the dead; to make a way where all human wisdom and every human wish could find no way at all. Just the voice of Jesus saying to the dead man, “I choose you to be a sign of my power over death.” And Luke tells us that the people there present gave glory to God for what Jesus had done.
Now on the surface, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians seems to be all about choices. The Christians of Galatia were believers living in central Turkey. They were Gentiles–folks to whom Paul preached on one of his extensive missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world. From what he writes, it seems that the Galatians received his initial announcement of the Good News with joy and great excitement.
But in Paul’s absence, the Galatian Christians ran into some difficulties. Another group of teachers and preachers cam along, and the began to tweak the terms of Paul’s original message. These new teachers placed before the Galatians a stark choice: either the Gentile believers had to undergo circumcision and accept all the dictates of the Jewish law, or they could no longer claim to be followers of Jesus, the anointed savior of the Jewish people.
The Galatian Christians were distraught and confused. Must they really choose to become Jews before they could become Christians? Must they really first decide to be disciples of Moses before they can decide to be disciples of Jesus?
Paul addresses the Galatians’ difficult choice in an unexpected way. He doesn’t attack the Law of Moses. He doesn’t tear down the Jewish traditions. Instead, he tells them his own story. He writes, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Now consider for a moment what the Apostle is saying here. Saul of Tarsus had been a zealot. Saul had been a fanatic. Saul had been a violent persecutor of the Church, and a devout follower of all the traditions of his ancestors. He knows every jot and tittle of the same Law that the Galatians are now being told to obey.
What could so thoroughly transform someone like Paul? What could make him decide to leave all that long legacy behind him? What could make him choose to begin to build up the very thing that he once tried to tear down?
Paul’s answer to that question is simple: he didn’t choose it. God chose him. God, in his providence, set Paul apart “before [he] was born, and called [him] through grace.”
The Risen Jesus, appearing before Saul on the road to Damascus, looked and saw a man made blind by his hatred. The Risen Jesus looked and saw a man puffed up by his own zeal. The Risen Jesus looked and saw a man consumed by his passions and certain in his own choice–his own decision to destroy the Church of God.
And the Risen Jesus looked and saw beneath and behind and in spite of all that, a vessel God had chosen–a tool God had set apart–for the building up of his Church. And so the Risen Jesus, looking upon Saul, claimed him, called him, chose him.
No questions waiting for Saul’s answer. No options for Saul to decide between. No choices at all.
Just the power of God to bring light into darkness; to bring holiness out of hatred; to give power where once there was only pride; to make a way when all human wisdom and every human wish sought to take another way–to choose a different, darker path. Just the voice of Jesus saying to Saul, “I choose you, to become my servant Paul–a sign of my power to change lives, and a servant of my Gospel.” And Paul tells us that when the churches of Judea heard of his transformation they gave all glory to God for what Jesus had done.
Beloved, today in Scripture we have heard a great and troubling challenge to our culture’s cherished notions of choice. Today, in spite of all the external voices calling us to consume and all the internal anxieties driving us to decide–in spite of all the false gods of commerce and culture commanding us to choose–the Word of God confronts us with a startling paradox: true freedom comes not in choosing, but in being chosen.
That’s the meaning of grace. That’s the great challenge and the great promise of our Scripture today. That’s the great challenge and the great promise of the Gospel at all times. For the Good News is that our God has not abandoned us to an endless array of choices. But he has chosen us.
In the birth of Jesus Christ, God looked upon a lost and broken creation and declared, “I choose you!” In the life and ministry of Jesus our Lord, God walked amidst hopeless, helpless, desperate humanity and announced, “I choose you!” In the death of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary, God himself was lifted high in self-giving love over a dead and dying word and proclaimed, “I choose you!” And in the shattered darkness of the empty tomb, standing over the broken gates of Hell, free forever from the bonds of Death, God himself calls a new creation into being and declares again, “I choose you!”
“I choose you!” says the Holy Spirit of God in every baptism and confirmation. “I choose you to be my own forever: washed, renewed, restored, and sealed.”
“I choose you!” says Jesus our great High Priest in every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. “I choose you to draw near with you emptiness, to draw near with your hunger, to draw near with your hands and hearts uplifted, and to receive from my fullness, to eat from my table, to be knit to me forever.”
“I choose you!” says God our Father, as we are sent back out into the world. “I choose you to be my adopted daughters and sons; my children of grace and favor; my new creation born of my own perfect will–bought with the blood of my Son, and alive by the breath of my Holy Spirit. I choose you to go into my world as restorers: to rule and serve all my creatures; to raise up the things that have been cast down; to renew the things that have grown old; to proclaim and announce that I am bringing all things to perfection by him through whom all things were made. I choose you!”
No questions. No options. No choices. Just the power of God to make men and women like you and like me into his sons and daughters. Just the voice of Jesus calling to each of us. “I choose you to be mine, forever.” And as it was long ago, so may it be today: that all who hear this word give all glory to God for what Jesus has done.