Proper 23C Sermon (1995)

21st Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Luke 17:11-19;
2 Tim 2:8-13; Ruth 1:1-19

HEALING THROUGH DEATH

Have you died yet? No, I haven’t completely lost it! I truly want to know: have you died yet? Did you notice in our second lesson? It says: “If we have died with Christ, we shall also live with Christ.” Past tense…”have died.” And so I want to know: have you died yet?

The New Testament is virtually filled with references to our dying. Jesus was constantly talking in terms such as bearing one’s own cross, or losing one’s life to save it. So it sure sounds like he’d want to know if we’d died yet, too. St. Paul was the other main person in the N.T., and he was the same. We quote his letter to the Romans at the beginning of our funeral service:

When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.

These can be comforting words at the loss of a loved one. Yet I think that the scope of these words goes beyond just the deaths of our physical bodies. Again, it’s in the past tense: When we were baptized, we were baptized in Christ’s death. So I take it that St. Paul would also like to know: Have you died yet? He might even answer it for us: “Yes! Yes, you have died. If your were baptized into Christ, then you were baptized into his death. What do we make of it?! It’s an outrageous claim, isn’t it? How can we possibly come to understand this claim that we are saved by dying?

And if this theme of dying wasn’t bad enough, we’ve also chosen to lift up the subject of Breast Cancer this morning. “Cancer.” That dreaded word signals the threat of death to us. We’d rather not talk about it. We’d rather not even think about it. What a downer! What are we doing?

Well, we have a number of women among us who have faced the threat of death that breast cancer makes real. And their lives have been forever changed. One doesn’t survive breast cancer, I don’t think, and then just go back to life as normal. No, that would be like nine out of the ten lepers that were cleansed in today’s gospel. They had just beaten their society’s most dread disease, and apparently they simply went back to their lives as if nothing had happened. But there was one leper, a Samaritan, who came back to give thanks to God — and in the process found himself truly saved. He faced the deadliness of leprosy, and he simply could not go back to his life as normal. I think that’s what our sisters who face and survive breast cancer are doing among us this week. They are giving thanks for the healing that is possible, and they are calling us to face its deadliness, too, so that we and they might all together find even deeper healing.

So let’s return to our original question: have we died yet? In answering this question, we need to go beyond even the seriousness of cancer to recognize something even more deadly and pervasive in this world: the power of “Sin.” Isn’t it like a cancer that spreads through our world infecting everything? I think that Jesus and St. Paul were calling us to recognize that we are constantly living under that deadly reality, too. That’s why the Samaritan could come back to Jesus, already healed of his leprosy, and find himself pronounced healed again. There is a deeper disease called Sin which infects us all, whether we know it not.

And just as with cancer, early detection is the key. Early detection is the key. The sooner we know it the better. And that’s part of what the cross of Jesus is about, too. When we look to the cross, we can detect the nature of our sinfulness, a sinfulness that runs so deep into everything that is human that we actually murdered the Son of God. When we understand what the cross is about, we learn to detect the deadliness of our disease called sin.

But let’s take this notion of Sin as a deadly disease even further. We’re going to need to use our imaginations a bit. It begins by picturing that brand new disease which we call a computer virus. Those of you who don’t know much about computers, please don’t worry. I don’t think this is hard to picture, precisely because it is so much like the viruses or diseases that infect the human body. A computer virus is like a germ that gets into the computer program and begins to take over. It starts out small, but then like a cancer begins to spread and push out the original program.

I’d like you to picture this image because I want to tell a story that makes use of it. Again, I think it is helpful for us to really use our imaginations with this subject matter, so I’m going to rely on a science fiction story — Star Trek, of course. (I know, some of you are cheering and some of you are groaning with the mention of science fiction, but I don’t resort to this often. Trust me. I really think it helps to stretch our imaginations a bit, with this subject.) For those of you who aren’t trekkies like me, the show centers around a starship from earth called the Enterprise. The particular episode I have in mind involves the most terrible enemy that these humans had ever faced, the Borg, who themselves are virtually like a living cancer spreading throughout the galaxy. The Borg are terrifying creatures who are part humanoid and part machine. They are implanted with many bionic devices that enhance their strength and perception. Most terribly, the implants even extend into their brains so that they are all interconnected like one huge machine. In other words, the Borg are one huge collective, who like a cancerous tumor, have no other purpose than to take over everything else. They don’t explore; they don’t even simply conquer; they “assimilate.” Each Borg has no individual identity. A single Borg on its own would be compelled to talk, not in the first person, but still in the third person: “We are Borg. We have come to assimilate you. Resistance is futile.”

In this episode, that’s exactly what they come upon: a single, individual Borg, half alive, and cut-off from his collective. He had been travelling in a scout ship with four others and crashed, killing the other four. The crew of the Enterprise fear the Borg so greatly that they are tempted to leave him to die and beat a hasty retreat before any other Borg come. But the doctor says “No,” that wouldn’t be right. They need to help this creature, Borg or not. The captain reluctantly agrees. And when the doctor nurses him back to health, they are quickly reminded of their fear. Sure enough, the first thing this individual Borg says says to them is, “We are Borg. We have come to assimilate you. Resistance is futile.”

But Captain Picard gets a plan. What if they could use this Borg to inflect the entire Borg collective with a computer virus? The Borg are all interconnected, if this Borg individual would go back with a computer virus it would disable all the Borg! What a plan! It just might work to destroy this terrible enemy that threatens to spread through the galaxy like cancer.

But something happens on the way to carrying out this plan. This Borg individual begins to respond to the mercy that is shown him. He begins to have the experience of being an individual; he begins to understand why these humans will try to resist them. With the help of the doctor and engineer who befriend him, this Borg even chooses a name, Hugh. What do they do now – now that Hugh is a person to them and not just a terrible enemy? They decide that it wouldn’t be right to carry out their plan. With another Borg ship closing in on the site of the shipwreck, they even give Hugh the choice of whether he wants to stay with them or be picked up by his fellow Borg.

But this isn’t much of a choice, with danger on either side. If Hugh is returned to the Borg, there’s a good chance that his individuality would soon be wiped out again by the Borg programming. But if he stays, the Borg will know he’s missing and come looking for him, putting his new friends in terrible danger. So Hugh decides to let himself be picked up. Having found himself as an individual, he thus gives himself up for his friends. As Hugh is whisked away by his Borg comrades, Captain Picard remarks, “Who knows, perhaps being an individual will be the most pernicious program of all.” In other words, he hopes it will work like a computer virus-in-reverse, an anti-virus, to cure the Borg rather than destroy them.

Now, a couple of quick comments. First, I think the writers of this story didn’t have it quite right. Through Captain Picard’s comment at the end, they seem to think that the anti-virus which could possibly cure the Borg is individuality. But I would suggest that even more basic to this story was the unconditional love and mercy shown to Hugh which shaped him into an individual. Despite his being a mortal enemy to those who nursed him to health, they showed him mercy in that act, and it was this mercy which shown to an enemy that helped Hugh to truly find himself.

And the second comment I have is that I think that kind of mercy shown to this enemy comes from living in a society that has been shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because that’s precisely what the gospel is: it begins with the good news of God acting with love and mercy toward us, even though in our sinfulness we were enemies to God. What is our sinfulness, the sinfulness we see in the cross of Christ? Precisely a righteous violence that feels justified in striking out against those we perceive as our enemies. They wrongly accuse Jesus of being an enemy and so feel themselves righteous in executing him. Perhaps they even knew that Jesus was their enemy precisely in his teaching to the contrary that we are to show mercy even to our enemies.

What I’d like to propose with this Star Trek story about Hugh, then, is that God in Jesus Christ has placed into our midst something like Hugh might have become to the Borg, an anti-virus, that is, a virus-in-reverse with the power to cure us of our disease called Sin, our disease of righteous violence. In this world of ours that is over-ridden with the cancer called Sin, God began the seeds of a cure in Jesus Christ through whom God has acted toward us with unconditional love and mercy and forgiveness. It has the power to infect each of us with a healing virus, that begins to reverse the effects of Sin in our lives. Whether we care to admit it or not, this anti-virus, the Holy Spirit is working to transform this world into a new creation, to cure it of that cancer we call Sin.

Oh, like Hugh, we have a choice. God does not force us to lose ourselves. But, whether we choose it or not, the Christian gospel proclaims that God has set this virus-in-reverse loose in our world through the cross and resurrection of Christ. Through the Holy Spirit it continues to work the healing of death to the powers of death. But God in love gives us the choice to participate with the power of the Holy Spirit. We can just go on with our lives as if nothing has really changed, like the nine lepers.

It works somewhat similar to the choice that Hugh faced. If Hugh tried to save himself by staying with the humans, then the most likely result was that they all would be lost, as the Borg would overrun them all. Similarly, if we try to save ourselves by trying stay — sheltered here in this sanctuary, for instance — then we will actually lose ourselves as the disease of Sin will ultimately overtake us. But, like Hugh, we have another choice. It first involves taking the risk of losing ourselves first to the mercy and kindness shown to us. And make no mistake about it: this is a kind of death. The old self, overridden by Sin, must give way to a new self that acts with unconditional love and mercy. This is the first kind of death that especially St. Paul is talking about.

But there is that second risk of death, too. We can understand, with the Samaritan leper, that the opportunity for a healing and salvation beyond our imagining lies at the feet of Jesus. So we come to worship and thank him. We come to learn from him and to follow him, and that means following him to the cross. It means that we die to our old selves so that we might be infected by his Holy Spirit. And as a new person we then infect this world with the love and mercy which will save it.

Hugh first allowed himself to respond to the love and kindness shown him, and the result was to truly find himself. But then Hugh also needed to take the risk of turning himself over to the enemy — to the Borg that had formally controlled him — and, in doing so, he may have actually become the seeds of their salvation. Likewise, we are asked to take the same kind of risk, that we may actually be the seeds for a new cure. We do that by acting with love and mercy even to our enemies, even as God acted with love and mercy to us through Jesus Christ.

So let us fall at our Lord’s feet to worship him and to be fed by his mercy and love, and to hear those words said to us, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you!” Amen!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, October 14-15, 1995

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