Palliative Care and Miracles-July 17 2016 Sermon

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Luke 7:1-10

“After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Before I preach let us pray: Everlasting God, pour out a portion of your grace on us gathered here in this place that we might be healers in the midst of suffering. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

This is the second week of our preaching series on Healing and Wholeness looking at stories of Jesus tending to the pain and suffering of the individuals he meets. Last week we looked at the Good Samaritan whose tender and attentive care helps bring an injured victim of robbery back to the fullness of life. This week our focal point is the Centurion who seeks healing on behalf of one of the servants in his home.

I knew and worked with Willie for seven years. He was part of the building staff and I’d often pass him in the hall, exchange greetings, chat about everything under the sun, and always comment about the impending weather forecast. I never saw him get angry. He was always ready to offer a helping hand when it was needed preparing for an event. And when he greeted you, it felt like you were the only one in his world at the moment. One day Willie came down with a pretty bad cough and a few weeks later he had to have surgery to repair his vocal cords that were injured from coughing.

In the course of surgery preparation and the collection of blood samples, it was discovered that Willie had cancer and metastasized tumors in his body. And so chemo and radiation treatments began, which drained away every bit of energy he had. It didn’t seem like there was a very good prognosis ahead of Willie given the progressed stage of cancer. As Willie’s decline began, something right out of this morning’s gospel reading began to happen. Willie’s immediate supervisor who had hired him after seeing his excellent masonry work and worked him for 15 years became his loudest advocate and caregiver. His fellow building staff and church members were galvanized by his suffering and sought out treatment and facilities that could care for him in the last months of his life.

Willie lived alone and as his strength left him, his supervisor would take him to and from his treatments and then cradle him in his arms as he carried him up the steps leading to his front door. His supervisor taught the rest of the church the depth of love that led to his care for Willie and the need for an entire community to foster wholeness even in the face of impending death. In Willie’s journey to life everlasting the church surrounded him alongside his medical team to ease the suffering of body, mind, and soul-this is the essence of palliative care.

I believe one of the most healing and human acts of grace that we offer to our families, friends, and community is taking up the mantle of giving care in another person’s suffering. To watch or hear of someone setting aside their power, position, or self interest so that another person may experience the depth of love and God’s healing grace is a bright spot in an often dark world. Many of you already know what it is like to act like the Centurion in this morning’s text. You are someone’s primary care giver or you are accompanying a family member through grave illness pleading for God to intercede. You know what it is like to be compelled into the role of another’s advocate because they are so sick they can no longer speak for themselves.

This morning’s gospel lesson opens with Jesus making a return trip to Capernaum, a small trading town fairly close to the Sea of Galilee. This is not Jesus’ first experience in Capernaum-in the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel, there are several events that Jesus is involved in while at Capernaum. He heals a man who is not well in the synagogue, he then heals Simon’s mother in law, and then he heals individuals in the crowd who had come to him at sunset. I think it’s fair to think that after these episodes in Capernaum that the Centurion had already gotten wind of what Jesus was doing in his community.

So when Jesus makes his way back to town, the military captain who was in charge of roughly 100 soldiers sends a delegation of local religious elders to intercede for his dying servant. The Jewish elders of the community make a case to Jesus as to why the Centurion is deserving of this healing act. Although the Centurion makes up part of an occupation force that is responsible for the oppression of the Jewish people, he has acted benevolently toward the community, even building them a house of worship. So Jesus goes with the elders toward the Centurion’s home.

But before the delegation and Jesus reach the house a second delegation meets them instructing Jesus not to trouble himself by coming to the home. Jesus, just speak and heal the servant. In a noteworthy contrast, the Centurion presents himself much less worthy than those who have received the fruit of his benevolent acts. He may also know that Jesus entering the home of a Gentile or non-Jew would have made him ritually unclean for a period of time and wants to save Jesus the awkwardness of the impending situation.

The Centurion’s friends explain that the military captain has the authority to deploy those who report to him as he sees fit. This explanation underpins Jesus’ ability to heal the servant-he has authority granted by God Almighty to heal the sick, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce the presence of God’s kingdom. Astonished, Jesus praises the Centurion’s trust and the narrative concludes with the servant restored to health.

Certainly there is a miraculous element to this story that heals the servant but we shouldn’t be quick to overlook all those individuals who interceded on the servant’s behalf in his time of illness. Reverend Luke Powery praises the healing aspect of the servant’s community this way: “The slave is healed and the centurion’s faith perhaps initiates it, which is another miracle, dare I say the real miracle in this story. There is a lot of emphasis on the centurion but this Roman interacts with Jewish elders and others on behalf of the sick slave. The need of the slave galvanizes a community to work on his behalf for his healing. Jews and Gentiles, political, military, and religious powers collaborate to seek the health of the least of these, the slave, the one who has no voice and is dying, the one whom we may never see outside in public because he is secluded from society. Those in power take the initiative to aid the slave, the vulnerable one in their midst. The presence of Jesus calls the “better angels” out of those in positions of authority. His presence creates a miracle of community that represents different cultures and strata of society to work across our usual boundaries for the healing of the most disadvantaged among us so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

There is a miraculous healing effect of community and sometimes this is one of the most grace-filled ministries of the church: surrounding someone with unrelenting love when a physical body is becoming fragile and nearing its end. Even when the last leg of the journey is taking place in a hospital room or a hospice center, the church shows up as a living witness of Jesus the Christ to soothe the soul.

For a season of ministry I served as a chaplain at the children’s hospital at Vanderbilt University. It was a profound and formative time of ministry serving the families who enter that hospital facing unimaginable and critical situations. One morning I received a page and responded to it on the Critical Care Floor. The page had come from the Palliative Care Team who was working with a family whose baby could not survive a congenital heart defect. For days, I worked with and watched doctors, social workers, nurses, and technicians seek to ease if just for a time the wrenching pain this family was facing. This wasn’t just physical pain management for the child who was suffering but emotional and spiritual care for everyone in this child’s family.

In our best moments I want us to serve like a Palliative Care team-accompanying one another through the most difficult legs of life’s journey-through illness, trauma, grief, and death. I’ve already seen glimpses of you doing this last week. Someone will bring the food. Another will sit with a grieving widow. Some will write notes and make calls of encouragement. Many will bring prayers of intercession. And as I think about these caring ministries that you do so well, I wonder about our neighbors who don’t have a Kingston Springs UMC to soothe their pain when grave illness and suffering come their way. Who will surround them with love and care and intercede on their behalf for healing and wholeness? How might we be healers for our neighbors? There’s not a doubt in mind that as real as terminal illness, cancer, loss, and grief are to us gathered here in this place, those things are real to every one of our neighbors. How might we be the church that tends to the wounded, binds up the broken-hearted, and helps anyone who seeks it know that God’s grace can help bring about restoration?
Bless you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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