Sermon

The Great Physician: Could Bless and Curse

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 17 February 2019
A Sermon on Luke 6:17-26 by Samuel Zumwalt, STS

Luke 6:17-26 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]

17 And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, 18 who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

The Great Physician: Could Bless and Curse

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This man had been feeling increasingly depressed, his energy sapped, and shrinking further and further into himself as his capacity for pleasant conversation, even with those he loved, had also diminished. At first, his wife thought he was just getting crankier with age, because he knew that he was losing his youthful vigor, and it would not return. Wisely, she did not try to provoke a fight that would have only made things worse. Sadly, she wondered if this would be the new normal. Finally, with much love, she said: “You need to get a checkup.”

His response was: “I’m fine. Thank you very much.” And she drew close to him, gently placed her hands on either side of his face, kissed him, and said: “You are not fine, and I have lived with you far too long and known you far too well to let you get away with what we both know not to be true. You need a checkup.”

Because she loved him enough to reach out to her husband in the only way she knew would get his attention, the man agreed to her request, with a sufficient amount of resistance in his voice. He had the complete work up with blood draws, physical examination, electrocardiogram, and a colonoscopy. After the last one, he said: “Are you happy now?” She said: “I’m waiting on the results.”

She imagined after all the various tests their family physician would say: “It’s time for you both to adjust your eating habits, increase exercise, and I’m going to write a script for a mild antidepressant I would like you to take until you’re in a better frame of mind.” She imagined herself ready for some big changes in habits in order to have a better quality of life. So, as they drove to the appointment, she said: “Now, don’t blow up when he tells us we need to eat better, exercise more, and he puts you on a new medication.” Her husband shook his head and sighed.

Amazingly, there was no wait. The receptionist ushered them right into the doctor’s office and not an examination room. Their doctor came in with a grim face, looked them straight in the eyes, and said: “It’s bad.” All the air went out of the room. This wasn’t happening. It was, she thought afterwards, utterly surreal. They sat their stunned. She grabbed her husband’s hand.

The doctor walked over to a credenza where a large container filled with lemon water was placed. He drew two cups and handed them to the woman and man: “Take a drink, please.” She noticed for the first time that Mozart was playing softly in the background. Time stood still. Other than the calendar on the wall, it could have been any day, any year. He said: “Listen.”

He looked first at the man and then the woman: “You have known all your life that death must come. As teens, you found it impossible when a classmate died, because death only happened to old people. Then, you slipped the mask of denial back over your face, but it didn’t fit as tightly. When you had children, you dreamed great dreams for them and saw yourself old with grandchildren on your knee. Then, friends lost a son your child’s age. You were terrified that it might happen to you. Then, you slipped the mask of denial back over your face, but it was much looser. Then, a neighbor dropped dead while jogging. Another was killed by a drunk driver. Then, your daughter’s best friend lost a leg in Afghanistan. Your son’s college roommate was killed in Iraq. You grieved with them. You tried to make sense of it all. Your alcohol intake increased. That mask of denial didn’t fit anymore. It was replaced by a slow-moving dread. And now, we are here in this room. And I must say clearly: You are dying.” He looked at the man.

Her eyes welled with tears. She squeezed her husband’s hand tightly. He sat with a strange look on his face. She knew that look. But it seemed incongruous with the moment. It was relief. How could he feel relief when her world and his, everything they had built together, was crumbling?

The physician saw the expressions on the woman’s face changing like a slideshow. He said, “Tell your husband what you are feeling.” She shook her head slightly as if she could not. He said, “No. This is not the time for hiding. Tell him.”

She turned to her husband and said: “Do you want to leave me? Is that it? Has life with me become so abhorrent that, like Hamlet, you want to shuffle off this mortal coil?”

He touched her face so very gently and said: “I love you now more than ever. You are the very best friend I have ever had. We have shared together what no one else could. You know me and I know you in ways that not even our children or parents could ever understand. No, I don’t want to leave you.”

She said: “Then, how can you have that look of relief on your face?”

He said: “I have dreaded this moment for as long as I can remember. It was hanging over my head like a gigantic rock. I was terrified so many nights that one of us would leave too soon, or that we would lose one of our kids. Now, we are here, later in life, and it’s not so bad.”

She said: “Not so bad? For you, maybe, but what about me? Don’t you care about me?”

Tears began to fall now as he said: “That’s not what I meant. Of course, I don’t want you to be alone. Of course, I know that whoever is left behind has to pick up all the broken pieces. I wish it were not so. I wish we could wake up from this bad dream. I wish now we could live forever.”

The physician spoke then: “Do you remember a poem entitled ‘Margaret?’ It was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest. He described the melancholy of Margaret as she watched the leaves falling, the trees becoming bare. The last line reads: ‘Tis the blight man was born for. It is Margaret you mourn for.’”

The woman said: “What are you trying to tell us?”

He replied: “Death is a curse. It does hang over us all our lives. I have devoted my life to delaying death for my patients for as long as possible. But I have a 100% failure rate, because every one of my patients will die, and so will I. A long time ago, I chose to practice by myself, so that I could be the physician God called me to be. I only take on as many patients as I can give quality care to, and I will not simply write prescriptions and call that the healing arts. So, now that we know your husband, my patient and friend is dying, I want to talk about death as the final healing. I would not be a very good doctor if I didn’t talk about what comes next.”

Her husband said: “Are you pushing religion on a dying man, doc? Is this palliative care for us?”

The doctor spoke softly: “I know you are both baptized. You told me that years ago when you were rushing the kids to confirmation instruction. I have sensed from you that perhaps your parents or grandparents were devout, but that you, mostly out of frantic schedules, never got around to practicing the faith on a day to day basis. I imagine you were there for all the big days, got the kids confirmed, and made the big events. But setting aside time to pray daily, worship every week, or join a Bible study, you were always too busy for such things. Am I right?”

She said: “Now, you’re trying to make us feel guilty. Isn’t this rather the wrong time for that?”

He said: “To the contrary, there is not a better time than this for a doctor to talk about healing.”

Her husband said: “Healing, doc? You tell me I’m going to die and now you’re talking healing?”

Their physician said: “Both of you have tried vainly to wear that mask of denial for years. You ran and ran your whole lives long trying to be the best spouses, parents, workers, citizens, and neighbors, and you have done good work. You are well thought of. Your kids are great. You have accumulated a nice nest egg for retirement. But you avoided the truth about yourselves and everyone. You are under the curse of death, and now all the blessings you have enjoyed your whole life cannot save either of you from death. You could go to another doctor, get a script for an antidepressant, another script for narcotics, and dash off to the best cancer centers in America. Now, that’s palliative care if you ask me. Yes, they might delay death for a bit longer, or maybe they could fit you with a tighter mask to keep you calm until the very last moment. But you are going to die, and nothing you have built your life on is going to give you hope or eternal life or forgiveness or final healing. If I don’t say anything more now, then I won’t be a very good doctor or friend.”

She said: “So, is this our come-to-Jesus meeting in your office?”

Her husband said: “Are you going to say, ‘The buses will wait,’ as we make our way to the 50-yard line? Are you going to switch the music to ‘Just as I Am?””

Their doctor laughed: “We’re probably the only people in this office who remember watching a Billy Graham Crusade. I’ve been practicing so long, I have staff younger than my kids. If you said what you just said to them, they would stare blankly. Face it. We’re old now.”

She said: “Yes, and my husband is dying, and we are cursed. There’s nothing we can do to stop my husband from dying. And I’m going to be all alone. I’m terrified.”

Her husband said: “Isn’t it too late, doc? Aren’t you saying we’ve built our lives on quicksand?”

The physician said: “Stop. Both of you. You are baptized. That means God chose you to be His own on the day you were washed with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He marked you with the cross of His Son. He gave you the Holy Spirit.”

The man said: “But we haven’t looked like we were baptized. We were just like everyone else.”

She said: “I can’t remember the last time I really did more than rush through a prayer.”

The doctor said: “When you were baptized, that was the end of death for you. Yes, your body has to die just as Jesus’ body died on the cross. But you were crucified with Jesus in Baptism, and you were raised from the dead with Him. God made a promise that you are His forever.”

The man said: “So, you’re saying my body dies but that’s not the end of me?”

The physician said: “Yes. The child of God keeps living even when our bodies die. I can’t say exactly how that feels or what that’s like. Christ has died and has risen. We’ll live with Him.”

She said: “But my husband will still be gone, and I will be all alone.”

The doctor said: “Do you hear that beautiful music? It’s Mozart’s ‘Ave, Verum Corpus.’ That’s Latin for: Hail, true Body. It’s about receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. When we gather at the altar, He is there in the Host and Cup for us. At the same time, the whole Church in heaven and on earth are joined. That means that our loved ones who died in the faith are in God’s presence even there at the altar when we are there. The Church really is the communion of saints. We are never alone, and that is why it is so vital to our faith to spend more time at the altar than we do at the cemetery. One is looking forward to what will be and the other looks back to what was lost.”

The man said: “Doc, you make it sound so beautiful but too good to be true.”

The physician said: “Were your wife’s promises on the day of your marriage beautiful but too good to be true?” And to the wife he said: “Were his promises beautiful but too good to be true?”

She said: “But we were clueless, doc. We were smitten with love and desire and hope, but we didn’t know what we were saying. So many of the people our age said the same things and didn’t make it. So much for promises, doc.”

The physician said: “But you have made it, haven’t you? You kept your promises, and he kept his. You went through some terrible times with kids and jobs and deaths of parents and so on.”

The man said: “So, you’re saying that if we could keep our promises, that God keeps His?”

The doctor said: “Do you see what’s on the wall over my credenza? It’s a crucifix. It’s the crucified Jesus, God’s Son, the Great Physician. On my worst days like today, I look at Him. I know that He has suffered everything we suffer and more. He made Himself poor, hungry, sorrowful, and hated for our sake. He died a more terrible death than any of us can imagine as He bore the weight of the world’s sins, griefs, and sorrows on His shoulders. He already died your deaths and mine. And I trust with all my heart that Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

She said: “But what about the resurrection of the body? Is that just a metaphor for life going on?”

The doctor said: “Now, He wouldn’t be much of a physician if He didn’t care about bodies. We are so much more than spirits like the angels. No, God came down to earth and was born like us, struggled like us, and died like us. He even descended into hell. And He rose from the dead with the marks of the nails in His hands, feet, and side. When we see Him, those marks will be there always as the sign of His victory over sin, death, and the old evil one. We will be made new!”

The man said: “So, what now? We start going back to church? Taking communion? Praying?”

The doctor said: “You may outlive me, my friend. I could drop dead this afternoon or be taken out by a crazy person tonight. So, yes. My pastor asks frequently, ‘Why do we practice the faith?’ And we have learned to answer: ‘So that it will be there when we need it.” Yes, practice!”

She said: “But what about the cancer? Is it inoperable? Is there nothing we can do?”

He said: “I will refer you to an oncologist. Get a second opinion about the cancer. But remember what I told you. Return to your Baptism. If you have Jesus as your Physician, you’re blessed!”

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©The Rev. Dr. Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
szumwalt@bellsouth.net
www.societyholytrinity.org
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin Insert
The Great Physician: Could Bless and Curse

Praying

“O God, you have promised to dwell in true and upright hearts: Abide with us in your grace and mercy, and make us a dwelling worthy of you; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 612).

Listening

Luke 6:17 “And he came down with them and stood on a level place….”

St. Ambrose [4th century Bishop of Milan, Italy]: “So when he descends, he finds the weak, for the weak cannot be high up…On the plain he heals each, that is, he calls them back from recklessness. He turns away the harm of blindness. He descends to heal our wounds, so that in an effective and abundant manner he makes us partakers in his heavenly nature” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke, 102-103).

Luke 6:20 “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said…”

Origen [late 2nd – early 3rd century Bible scholar and theologian of Alexandria, Egypt]: “The phrase ‘lift up your eyes’ occurs in many places in Scripture. By this expression the divine Word admonishes us to exalt and lift up our thoughts. It invites us to elevate the insight that lies below in a rather sickly condition and is stooped and completely incapable of looking up…The Savior, too, when he is about to deliver the Beatitudes, lifts up his eyes to the disciples and says ‘blessed’ are such and such” (104).

Luke 6:20-22 “Blessed are you who…”

St. Ambrose of Milan: “Let us see how St. Luke encompassed the eight blessings in the four. We know that there are four cardinal virtues: temperance, justice, prudence and fortitude. One who is poor in spirit is not greedy. One who weeps is not proud but is submissive and tranquil. One who mourns is humble. One who is just does not deny what he knows is given jointly to all for us. One who is merciful gives away his own goods. One who bestows his own goods does not seek another’s nor does he contrive a trap for his neighbor. These virtues are interwoven and interlinked, so that one who has one may be seen to have several and a single virtue befits the saints. Where virtue abounds, the reward too abounds … Thus, temperance has purity of heart and spirit, justice has compassion, patience has peace, and endurance has gentleness” (104).

Luke 6:26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”

St. John Chrysostom [late 4th -early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople]: “Notice how by the word woe he revealed to us the extent of the punishment awaiting such people. This word woe, after all, is an exclamation of lament, so that it is as if he is lamenting their fate…You see, it is not possible for a virtuous person who travels by the straight and narrow path and follows Christ’s commands to enjoy the praise and admiration of all people – so strong is the impulse of evil and the resistance to virtue” (106).

Reflecting

1. Do you know how blessed you are to be able to take into yourself the true Body and most precious Blood of God’s Son Jesus, the Great Physician? Do you yearn to receive Jesus?

Learning

The Lord’s Prayer (from Luther’s Small Catechism)

As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.

The Conclusion

For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

What does this mean?

This means that I should be certain that these petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven, and are heard by Him; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us. Amen, amen means ‘yes, yes, it shall be so.’

Doing

1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.

2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.

3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend what it means to pray confidently that your heavenly Father knows your needs even before you ask and answers them according to His good and gracious will. Read Matthew chapter 6 where Jesus teaches this model prayer.

4. Practice slowing down when you pray the Lord’s Prayer especially in congregational worship. Keep a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism with your Bible and regularly read through the Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer. Try praying the petitions separately and using Luther’s “What does this mean” to help guide your praying.

5. Take home your worship bulletin and read today’s Gospel lesson each day before you pray.

6. We are just over two weeks away from the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, March 6. Pray for and invite to worship someone close to you who is unbaptized or functionally unchurched. Now, show up for Bible study on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday, so that you may be a better “fisherman” for the Lord.

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”

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