Monday, June 07, 2010

My Pentecost 2 Sermon

As I wrote earlier, I spent most of my time last week preparing to preach in my parish. It was quite the week! I hope to post a little piece about the process of preparation and about how I experienced the day. For now, I’ll just say it was a very good day, that I enjoyed preaching, and that I received very positive and humbling feedback.

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.

Photo credit

Pentecost 2 (Proper 5) Year C
Grace Episcopal Church, Jefferson City, MO
June 6, 2010

Readings from here:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

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 … allall … 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.”
In the midst of the song, the Psalmist tells of a dramatic reversal. He writes:

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]

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:

  • God turned his wailing into dancing.
  • God put off his sack-cloth and clothed him with joy.
He ends his song with these words:

Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; *
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.
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.

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


Blogger James said...

Not bad! In fact, not bad at all.

6/07/2010 10:44 PM  
Blogger Thomas B. Woodward said...

Lisa - great work. You really got to one of the most important and most difficult thing in Christian spirituality - praising God in both good and bad times.

Getting at that through preaching or teaching is very hard.

Your drawing the parallels between Elijah and Jesus is terrific - I don't remember hearing this explored. If I did, it was not done with this kind of clarity.

When are you on next?
Tom Woodward

6/07/2010 11:09 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Beautiful, Lisa. I was quite moved, and I read with much anticipation as to what your next words would be. I'd like to have heard you preach.

I love the prayer you chose from the prayer book, with the "changes and chances". The BCP is such a treasure. The alliterative phrases are wonderfully effective. I think of "devices and desires".

Lisa, my friend, you did good. I am proud of you. Of course, you received positive feedback!

6/08/2010 12:03 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you, James. Having read and deeply enjoyed your sermons, I'm going to take that as great praise.

6/08/2010 12:44 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Deep thanks, Tom. Knowing what a preacher you are, I am truly and deeply grateful.

Of course, I'm not the only one to draw that parallel.

I'll confess: I so much enjoyed the preaching that I want to do it again. On the other hand, getting to the sermon was PURE AGONY which I don't want to endure again.

We shall see whether/when my rector next wants to put me on the schedule. Remember ... I am merely a layperson.

6/08/2010 12:48 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you, Grandmère. Yes, I can't hear the "changes and chances" without also hearing of the "devices and desires" of our hearts. I'm not sure whether that's thanks to the BCP or to P.D. James.

I'm sure this is vanity, but I'll say it anyway: I'm pretty sure the sermon preached better than it was read. I have a certain delivery ...

Deep thanks for your comments here.

6/08/2010 12:53 AM  
Blogger Nigel said...

Lisa, I usually groan when I feel obligated to read someone's sermon online. There is also (I'm sure you've noticed!) a streak of the hyper-critic in me.

Knowing a little of the agony you endured in creating that sermon, I began to read more as a duty to a friend than as an eager "hearer". I am very glad that I did.

The sermon I listened to in church on Sunday went nowhere. Yours, by contrast, held me, especially in the way you pointed out the parallels, on which Tom Woodward has commented.

Excellent work!


So this hard-to-please

6/08/2010 3:58 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Oh. My. Gawd! My beloved NitPicker found my sermon worthy! I am deeply honored, Nigel.

And, yes, Nigel, I do know how difficult it is for you to read text online, and I am grateful that you endured that difficulty.

The parallel between the Elijah & Jesus stories seemed self-evident to me as soon as I "drew this Sunday" and read the lessons.

One thing that happened Sunday after the two services, as the altar party was "shaking folks out" was that maybe three people said the exact same phrase to me. They said, "You have a gift." I was humbled by that comment. But maybe I should listen to them.

Deep thanks for your kind words, Brother NitPicker.

6/08/2010 7:25 PM  
Blogger James said...

Lisa - you need to write a smaller sermon each week. It will help you get into the wheel-tracks and each one you write will be a bit easier. You have the makings of a really good preacher. Any chance we can get ipod versions? I'd love to hear your delivery.

6/09/2010 6:17 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

No, James, -- Alas, neither I nor anyone I know has a notion of how to do this iPod thing. I do wish I could provide audio.

And I suspect your counsel would be wise. You can tell me to shorten the sermon by a minute per week. Yes, the sermon went slightly beyond the 15 minute mark.

Fortunately, the most impatient folks in our parish said they had no sense of time passing. Apparently, the delivery was such that they didn't set their stop-watches ... thank goodness.

I'm reminded of a line I heard recently: If you deliver sermonettes, what you get is Christianettes.

Please tell me if I've misunderstood you.

I may be responding with too much defensiveness.

6/10/2010 12:06 AM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Great job! I am reminded of a sermon quote I heard many years ago. "You want to see the face of Jesus? Then my suggestion is START ACTING LIKE HIM. It is only until we allow the face of Christ to be put upon ourselves that we will begin to see him in the faces and deeds of others on a regular basis."

We are the ones left to do his work in the world, and you have done a fine job with this sermon.

I will make a suggestion in the length debates. If you fed them eight minutes of prime rib, it is still prime rib. If you feed them 15 minutes of a three course five star meal, no one notices it took 15 minutes.

All parishes have their usual time frame, it is good to respect that. But as you spend more time in the pulpit, you will learn how to serve up the meat and trim the fat, no matter how long or short it is.

6/10/2010 7:23 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

That's a good analogy, KirkE.

In our parish, they expect the sermon to last 12-15 minutes.

Mine was at the outer end of that range.

But I say this in my defense: I am a story-teller. Even the crankiest people in the parish said that I held their attention because of the pacing of the sermon and the way it was delivered.

Or so they say.

6/14/2010 9:00 PM  

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