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Sermon ~ Trust not power, but compassion

Luke 7, 11-17
Geranium Uniting Church SA
5 June 2016

Out of the blue I received a call from the worship service coordinator for the tiny Mallee town Uniting Church.  Would I be able to preach rather sooner than later, as I she found my name on a list of UCA relief preachers willing to preach in remote communities.  For me, this was a most fascinating occasion:  For the first time I had the opportunity to meet Australian Christians outside of a major city like Adelaide.  And I was invited to spend the night with a local farming family, thus learning more about their way of life.

A typical characteristics of the place was the railway crossing:  It warns you of oncoming trains, and if don’t stop you may be fined by the police.  Only:  As in so many other places around Australia, no train will ever come again — the rail link was closed down sometime last year.  People are talking about a bike track!  It sounds funny — but seems to be a rather sad occurrence of the loss of social and economic infrastructure in remote Australia and by that the looming  breakdown of the communities.

This was the context for the sermon — and I was very grateful for the opportunity.

1.

After I first arrived in Australia in October 2006, I thought I should improve my English and enrolled in an advanced course at Tafe SA in 2007. I don’t know if it has helped, but I’ll let you be the judge of that today.

However, we had this very interesting teacher, who wanted to introduce us to “critical thinking”. My fellow students and I were quite puzzled: Many of us had a professional background; some were academics; there was a journalist, and social workers. Some had arrived in Australia as refugees; others, like me, for reasons of love or work. Certainly, all of us had cross-cultural experience, some having lived as aliens in various countries before arriving in Australia. So, to look at the world around us critically was nothing new.

It eventually turned out that our teacher introduced us to critical thinkers in Australia, and to social concepts critical for our understanding of this society, for which I am eternally grateful.

One of these concepts I will never forget: The “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. Initially I had no idea what our teacher was talking about. I suppose most of you would have known immediately to what this phrase refers.

Apparently, there is a Chinese and a Japanese equivalent: “The nail that stands out gets hammered down”.[1] You as members of a farming community may know better than I why the poppy flower is being chopped off.

Looking through a number of websites for this phenomenon, there is the notion by international business people that the Tall Poppy Syndrome harms the Australian economy — Australians tend to see people critically who “stand out”: Billionaires, people with great ideas, arty-farty people full of themselves and their own wisdom, “career people” bypassing everybody else, and other such “jealousies of success”[2] or people with an “inflated sense of self-worth”…

It took me a while to gather that I actually like this concept. No, not chopping off the flower head from the plant, as first described for its political connotation by ancient Greek political thinkers like Aristoteles or Herodotus 500 years before Christ:

[Periander, a tyrant of Corinth] had sent a herald to Thrasybulus [an Athenian general and democratic leader, around 410 BC] and inquired as to what way he could best and most safely govern his city.
Thrasybulus led the messenger … outside the town, and entered into a sown field. As he walked through the wheat … he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until he had destroyed the best and richest part of the crop. Then, after passing through the place and speaking no word of counsel, he sent the herald away.
When the herald returned home, Periander desired to hear what counsel he brought, but the messenger said that Thrasybulus had given him none. The herald added that he had been sent to a strange man, a madman and a destroyer of his own possessions.
[After] telling what he had seen Thrasybulus do, Periander, however, understood … and perceived that Thrasybulus had counselled him to slay those of his townsmen who were outstanding in influence or ability.[3]

Eventually, I came to like the Australian version of the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” because of its underlying egalitarianism — Australians, at least in the past, appeared as not thinking too kindly of people who stand out, but rather to be like “you and me”. I think this may be one of the reasons why your country has become such a popular travel destination for many younger people from Europe!

2.

Well, our Bible text today concludes with a rather odd line:

(15) The man who had been dead sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. (16) Fear gripped everyone, and they began to praise God, saying, “A great prophet has appeared among us,” and “God has helped his people.” (Luke 7 ISV).)

This translation from the Aramaic and Greek language comes from the International Standard Version of the Bible, from which we have heard the readings this morning. It is an almost weird response by the onlookers of this healing event by Jesus: Fear, praise of God, proclamation of a great prophet, God helps his people.

Let’s have a closer look at the text. Early in his active life in Galilee and amongst other teaching and healing events, Jesus passes through the town of Nain. No, it is not a city, as insinuated by the translation, rather a “charming” old village, as its Hebrew name translates.

Situated in the northern parts of Israel, in Galilee, the now Arab village lies near Nazareth and was perhaps surrounded by a town wall.[4]  During the time of Jesus, it is said to have been a prosperous place. It produced “simsum”, a sesamum variety and possibly the oldest oil producing plant in the world. However, because of greed and the good money they made for some time, a drop in the price already way back then brought ruin to the town.[5]

This is the place where Jesus and his followers arrive after some rather spectacular healing and speaking stints in the previous days. The large crowd of spectators indicates that his name had already preceded him. These people knew of Jesus. And these were not just by-passers by chance. The ochloi, as they were called in the New Testament Greek, were the peasants, the low class people of their time in Galilee.

The rest of the story seems to be simple: Jesus, compassionate towards the plight of his people, sees the funeral procession, touches the bier and commands the dead body of a young man to get up. End of story.

Of course, this event, like the previous and following healings of a number of people by Jesus, would have been a major news item at the time. Don’t forget that from the perspective of the mighty city of Jerusalem and the heart land of Israel, Galilee was then and is today seen as the poor house with peasant people from many surrounding countries, and often as a political hot spot of resistance against the Roman occupation.[6]

3.

You may have noticed that our Old Testament reading today told us an almost identical story. Indeed, most on-lookers of the event unfolding at Nain, and the followers of Jesus, would have immediately associated this healing by Jesus with the story of the prophet of Old, Elijah. Many centuries earlier, he challenged the people of Israel to choose between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the false god Baal, and prophesied for them a long period of drought if they did not choose the true God. To avoid persecution, God sends Elijah into the wilderness and later to the Phoenician town on the Mediterranean, Zarephath (or Sarepta), to stay with a widow and her son. There, during a famine of 3.5 years brought by God[7], the boy falls ill and is about to die when Elijah cries out to his God (1 Kings 17,20-22):

“LORD my God,
have you also brought evil to this dear widow
with whom I am living as her guest?
Have you caused the death of her son?”

Then he stretched himself three times
and cried out to the LORD,
“LORD my God, please cause the soul of this little boy to return to him.”

The LORD listened to Elijah, and the soul of the little boy returned to him, and he revived.

What really strikes me in this story is the mother’s response when she sees her son alive again:

(24) “Now at last I’ve really learned that you are a man of God
and that what you have to say about the LORD is the truth.”

This response is so different to that of the crowd watching Jesus. This widow, most likely also a woman of low social standing, acknowledges that the Lord Jehovah in whose name Elijah speaks is the true God.

But the story tells us another message as well, one that may have been ingrained in the DNA of the crowd around Jesus at the gates of Nain: These men of God, Elijah, Jesus, and later the Apostle Paul (Acts 20,10), and many others can cry out to God for help and they do know that miracles happen.

4.

From my rational, Protestant, German male perspective, miracles are hard to perceive and accept. In today’s society of sciences and medicine they do not seem to happen very often. Rationally, you could well ask if all these people resurrected from their death had really been dead.

But surely this is not the issue here.

Events of this kind in the life of Jesus are signs, you might say revelations, of the nature of God and of his presence in Jesus. They are prophetic. They declare God’s justice and mercy and they point to the future. They were not part of a general program of healing or saving work in which Jesus organised himself to help as many people as possible.
Rather than trying to change the whole world with diligent activity in the few years of his human life …, Jesus responded to particular people and situations … And when he did, the sometimes dramatic events were symbolic. They pointed to and initiated a trajectory of change which would ultimately indeed change the whole world.[8]

Despite all “fear” and perhaps awe, as indicated by our translation, the crowd, the ochloi, grasped intuitively what was at stake here: “Trust not power, but compassion”!

They were aware that Jesus stood in the tradition of the Prophets of Old, as we today in our own way continue writing the New Testament. It is not the powerful you trust, but the compassionate; not the one boasting, but those doing what saves life and keeps peace. We, as followers of Jesus Christ 21 centuries after his mission to his own people in Galilee and Israel, are the people now to hear his calling to do likewise.

In some of our church traditions, we reiterate this story at Communion:

During the last supper, Jesus told his disciples, as the Gospel of Luke recalls (Luke 22,17 KJV-BRG):

Jesus took the cup, and gave thanks, and said,
Take this, and share it among yourselves:

(18) … I will not drink of the fruit of the vine,
until the kingdom of God shall come.

(19) And he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it,
and gave unto them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you:
this do in remembrance of me.

What do we remember? Why should we remember?

The ancient Psalm 146, which we heard earlier in the service in a modernised form, says it clearly:

(2) I will praise the LORD as long as I live,
singing praises to my God while I exist.

(3) Do not look to nobles, nor to mere human beings who cannot save.

(4) When they stop breathing, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans evaporate!

(5) Happy is the one whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
(6) maker of heaven and earth, the seas and everything in them,
forever the guardian of truth,
(7) who brings justice for the oppressed,
and who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD frees the prisoners;
(8) the LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are weighed down.
The LORD loves the righteous.
(9) The LORD stands guard over the stranger;
he supports both widows and orphans,
but makes the path of the wicked slippery.

(10) The LORD will reign forever, your God …

Amen.

 

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome

[2] http://www.convictcreations.com/culture/poppy.htm

[3] Herodotus, The Histories, Book 5, 92-f < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome >

[4] http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/Naim.html

[5] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Nain / e-Sword; https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sesam; http://www.palestinechronicle.com/2013/06/page/2?print=pdf-page, p29

[6] Josephus, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Galilee / e-Sword;

[7] http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/zarephath/

[8] Adapted from David Beswick <http://www.beswick.info/rclresources/10C07Ser.htm> under the heading of this sermon

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