I tried to post this last night, but I kept getting the "Blogger unavailable" error message. So here it is ... finally.
Without further ado, the sermon.
Pentecost 2 (Proper 5) Year C
Grace Episcopal Church, Jefferson City, MO
June 6, 2010
Readings from here:
I often linger with some of the prayers in the back of our Book of Common Prayer, in that section called “Prayers & Thanksgivings.” One of my favorites – one that brings particular comfort to me – is the prayer for protection (page 832 of the BCP). It reads:
Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of thy servants towards the attainment of everlasting salvation; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, they may ever be defended by thy gracious and ready help; though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.I draw comfort from the fact that our Prayer Book and our Anglican theology recognize right up front that our lives are beset by a gazillion “changes and chances” in this mortal life. Furthermore, our experience and our theology seem to say that these turnabouts are a normal part of life for us human creatures.
And that’s an important lesson for me. It seems that we are often tossed back and forth between despair and joy, strength and helplessness, health and illness, confidence and deep doubt, security and fear, hope and hopelessness.
I will confess that – when I am in either of those extreme conditions – I have a tendency to think it will go on forever. I suspect I’m not alone in this.
Today, we will celebrate the baptism of Stella [BlogNote: I’m deleting this infant’s last name from this online posting.] In her own way, I am sure that Stella has had her own experience of the “changes and chances of this mortal life” in her few weeks on this earth.
Today’s lessons certainly do seem to echo these extreme reversals.
Whenever we find Elijah and Jesus paired in Scripture or in our lectionary, we need to take heed. For people seemed to be confused about whether Elijah and Jesus were actually two different people. You will remember that, when Jesus was about his ministry, a great many people thought perhaps he was Elijah resurrected. The followers of John the Baptist ask if Jesus is the prophet Elijah. When Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?,” some say they think maybe he is Elijah. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus appears with Elijah (as well as Moses) at his side. Our ears should begin to tickle whenever the lectionary pairs these two men, for – clearly – there is something significant about the relationship between the ministry and identity of these two great men of God.
Today, we heard two stories of widows’ sons being raised from the dead. There is a direct link between them – and not just in our lectionary. For Jesus himself told the Elijah story, back in the 4th chapter of Luke’s gospel. There, in his very first sermon in Nazareth – when the Pharisees criticized Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath and consorting with Gentiles – Jesus explicitly cited Elijah’s ministry to the widow at Zarephath. [See Note 1]
Let’s look more closely at the parallels in these two stories.
First, both Elijah and Jesus have been on journeys when they come to the gate of the towns – Elijah to Zarephath, Jesus to Nain. What brought them to these towns?
In Elijah’s case, it was because God had explicitly told him: “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” God intentionally, and rather surprisingly, sent the Jewish prophet Elijah away from Israel, to a Phoenician region where the people worshiped Baal as their god.
Jesus arrived at the gate at Nain, having been in Capernaum, where he had healed the slave of a centurion. This centurion was a Roman citizen – a Gentile – one might even say a “pagan.” Jesus had not only healed the Roman soldier’s servant, but also said “not even in Israel have I found such faith” as that centurion had.
So our lessons today begin with Elijah and Jesus having made a journey that expressed God’s loving compassion toward Gentiles, who were considered outcasts and pagans by the Jews.
Second, in these parallel stories, a widow has experienced the death of her only son. This is a double tragedy, actually. For both widows had already lost the husband who protected them, and now the only son who might protect and care for them.
What did it mean to be a widow in those times? A priest – who is a friend of mine from the blogosphere – put it this way:
Women without a husband or son were the lowest of the low in society - forced to return to their families' homes - they would live a life beholden to anyone who would take them in. . . . Widows in the Bible symbolize all who have lost everything and are forced to rely on others for support and nurture. Our care of the "widow" shows our true discipleship.The letter of James makes a similar point, saying: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress ….”
Third, we see a parallel in that both Elijah and Jesus are moved with compassion. The widows don’t have to beg them to heal the dead son. Both act immediately to restore life and wholeness. They restore these sons to life. But they also restore the grieving widows to a place of wholeness and security within their communities. As one scholar observed, “If religion has nothing to say to a grieving widow, it has nothing to say.” [See Note 2.] Full stop.
Elijah took the dead child from his mother’s arms, carried him up into his room, stretched himself over the child three times, and called to God: “Let this child’s life come into him again.” And so it did.
When Jesus saw the funeral procession in Nain, he stepped forward and touched the bier – the wicker stretcher on which they were carrying the dead man. In doing this, he violated the Jewish purity laws. But the needs of the persons outweighed those laws.
God wants health and wholeness for all of us. At God’s command, Elijah ministers to the Phoenician widow who worshipped Baal. By bringing the Centurion into today’s Gospel reading, it is clear that Jesus was going to heal Gentiles. And Jesus shows similar compassion for this Jewish woman and her son.
To God, it seems, there is no litmus test. Pagan Roman soldier. Baal-worshipping Phoenician. Observant Jew. God wants wholeness for all of them. Jesus “came and proclaimed peace to [those] who were far off and peace to those who were near ….” [Eph. 2:17] Archbishop Desmond Tutu frequently and dramatically puts it another way, as he so often says: “God desires to draw all … all … all … to himself.”
We hear a 5th parallel in the two lessons today: The power and the healing actions of Elijah and Jesus make it obvious that these are men of God – people through whom God is acting mightily. And the people respond with astonished praise.
After her son is restored to life, the widow of Zarephath declares: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” Remember, this is a woman who had worshipped Baal as god!
After the man in Nain is resurrected, the assembly “glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’"
And how about us – you and me? How about our compassion and our deeds? What do they say? Do they point beyond ourselves so that people see through us to God, who loves them beyond their wildest imagining? [See Note 3]
Let’s turn now to the Psalm. It appears that the Psalmist has suffered some of the dramatic turnabouts that life brings, and that God has rescued him from some sort of severe “dis-ease.”
As we prayed the Psalm a few minutes ago, did you hear the many contrasts in it? First, the Psalmist remembers the great deeds that God has done for him.
- While he “was going down to the grave” … God restored his life.
- God’s “wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye” … but God’s “favor for a lifetime.”
That is, he had grown secure – maybe even arrogant -- about God’s favor. But then the next reversal came, and he realized that without God, he was nothing. So, we hear, “I cried to you, O LORD.” He asks God to have mercy and be his helper – not that God will shield him from every misfortune. Once he does that:
While I felt secure, I said,
"I shall never be disturbed. *
You, LORD, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains."
Then you hid your face, *
and I was filled with fear. [Ps. 30:7-8]
- God turned his wailing into dancing.
- God put off his sack-cloth and clothed him with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; *This is not the song of one who believes he is now immune to suffering. He knows there will be other nights of weeping, other days of sackcloth … days when he feels he is going down to the grave.
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.
He gives up the illusion that he is “as strong as the mountains” and the false confidence that he can never again be shaken.
But he has determined that he will clothe his life in songs of praise and thanksgiving – no matter what may come. Through all the changes and chances of this life, he has decided he will give thanks and praise to God forever. In fact, as some commentators have observed, he recognizes that “praise and thanksgiving are the vocation of the living.” [See Note 4] Hear that again: “praise and thanksgiving are the vocation of the living.”
Think on that. Perhaps praise and thanksgiving are our vocation – the primary work to which we are all called. That anchor can keep us from being yanked to-and-from in our daily and hourly dramas … an anchor that can keep us from being tossed around like tiny boats in a storm ... an antidote to the tendencies of our inner drama queens.
So what are we to take away from today’s lessons?
First, we learn from the stories set in Zarephath and Nain that praise is the proper response to seeing God’s nature and God’s works. And from the Psalmist, we learn that a vocation of thanksgiving can keep us balanced in the darkest pits and on the highest mountaintops. It can help us maintain wholeness and holiness as children of God.
Second, we must ask who is going to do the “mighty works of God” today – here within Grace Church, in Jefferson City, and throughout the world.
Neither Elijah nor Jesus is physically with us today to raise the dead, to heal the sick, to show compassion in a hurting world. So who is to do that work now??
My friends, you know the answer.
Over and over again, the New Testament says that we are now Christ’s body in the world. As we join Stella in affirming our Baptismal Covenant today, we will promise again to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” and we will promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Stella, and you, and I … We are the precious gift that God has placed in the world to carry on God’s ministry. If a person is to be comforted by Christ, we must do it. If a person is to be fed, we must do it. If a person is to be given clean water to drink, we must give it to them. If the hurting people in this world are to feel the compassionate touch of Jesus Christ, they will feel it through our hands and through our prayers.
Let us pray:
God of all compassion,
as you moved in the lives of Elijah and Jesus,
move in our lives,
inviting us to journey to unknown territory,
to listen for your voice,
and to speak your prophetic word
in a world that needs to hear.
Empowered by your Holy Spirit,
grant us the courage we need
to journey, trust, listen, speak,
and accept your commission
to be your faithful servant people. Amen. [See Note 5]
1: For some of the phrasing in this sentence, I am indebted to the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on Luke (pg. 157).
2: NIB/Luke, pg. 159
3: Deep thanks to Elizabeth Kaeton, who introduced me to that phrase when, in my own dark night of the soul, I most deeply needed to hear it.
4: NIB/Psalm, pg. 796.
5: Modified from here