Green and Growing, Proper 5 (C) – 2016

[RCL] 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

Today, we continue our journey in “ordinary time.” Sounds rather boring when you say it like that, but the term “ordinary” does not mean common or plain or boring, but rather it comes from the term ordinal which means “numbered.” These are the numbered weeks of the church year outside of the major feasts and the seasons that surround them – like Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter. Ordinary time, or the Sundays after Pentecost, are the Sundays in which we focus on various aspects of faith and life in the world as a people of God.

Sometimes when we refer to this time in the liturgical calendar, it is spoken of as the long, boring season in which nothing happens. In a way that is true because we don’t have a major feast like Christmas or Easter, but if you look at what happens during this ordinary time, you will see that the Scripture and scheme of the lessons want it to be something much more than ordinary and boring.

The color for Ordinary time is green – a color associated with new life and growth. This is sometimes referred to as the “green growing season”. It is the green, growing season not only because of the liturgical color or because it begins in the summer months when things are growing and thriving. It is the green, growing season because this is the season that gives us the room to breathe, to explore, to learn more about Jesus and his teachings and to find where they intersects with our own lives. This season after Pentecost focuses on the mission of the church in the world and its responsibility in carrying on the work that Jesus gave us to do.

Sojourner’s Magazine tells us:

“There’s nothing ordinary about what’s known in the lectionary as ‘ordinary time.’ Not Christmas, not Easter, not Pentecost, but the everyday miracles of God with us, of life on earth. Ordinary time is the time when we try to understand and live the teachings of Jesus. Nothing ordinary about that – a lifetime worth of challenges instead.”[i]

We have a great set of lessons to start off this time of growth, new life, new perspectives and change. The readings for today only come around every so often because of how the liturgical calendar works and I believe that they have a lot to offer us as we begin this journey into ordinary time; into the green, growing time.

In our Gospel lesson today from Luke and in our Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings, we hear of people being healed. These are miraculous stories that are wonderful to hear, and they leave us in amazement. We too often hear stories like these and think that they are great stories, but that they have nothing to do with us. I mean, we can’t raise people from the dead, can we? We cannot simply say that these are inspirational stories and leave it at that. Jesus did not come to earth and become one of us so that we could be inspired, but came to earth as one of us so that we could learn from him and change the world around us into the Kingdom of God. Jesus is constantly reminding the people around him that they are called to live as he lived. It is not only Jesus who is reminding them to live as he lived, but also the Torah called them to follow and live in this way. Thus, we too are called to live as Jesus did.

Our Baptismal Covenant reminds us time and again that we are to live as Jesus did, that we are to be a people of God to everyone around us. It doesn’t matter if we can’t raise people from the dead like he and Elijah did, because we can do other things in this world that are just as important. We are called to be vehicles of God’s grace, love, and peace in the world around us. As we are reminded in our Baptismal Covenant we are to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers, we are to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord, we are to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, we are to seek and serve all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself, we are to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

Our life mission is described in the words of the Baptismal Covenant and we see them being enacted today in the Gospel lesson. Jesus comes upon a woman who is in deep grief over her son’s death, her husband’s death, and the fact that she is alone in the world. He does not pass her by thinking that there is nothing that he can do for her, but rather he stops – he stops the funeral procession – and acts out of compassion. He tells her not to weep, not in the way that someone would tell us to stop weeping if they were uncomfortable with it, but in a way that tells her that he will take care of her and show her great care and compassion. In raising her dead son to life, he completely changes the outlook for this woman. She once again has social standing in the community, she once again has a family, she has what she had lost.

Jesus’ great love for this woman is just a glimpse of the love Jesus has for each of us. After Jesus gives this mother her son, the people say, “God has looked favorably on his people.” Those words are also heard in Mary’s song, the Magnificat and Simeon’s song, the Nunc dimittis. God looks with favor on God’s people. It is all throughout scriptures and it is all throughout our lives. No, our lives are not one happy, hunky-dory moment; but our lives are enriched with those around us and they are brought to fullness and grace through God. Yes, there will be difficulties in our lives, yes we will suffer hardships, there will be war and violence and oppression around us AND it is our duty as people of God to serve in a way, to live in a way as to help stop these horrible things from happening and continuing to happen. God looks with favor on us, God looks with love on us, God looks with grace and unconditional caring upon all of us. It is then our job as people of God to turn and do the same.

There are times in all of our lives when we wonder where God is. How could God be letting this happen? Why didn’t God come and save the day and perform a miracle like it happens in the Bible? Where is God in those moments? God is with us. In our moments of pain and suffering and aloneness, God is there in the people who are around us, God is there in that compassionate card or phone call. God is there in the offerings of help, the hugs, and the people who will sit with us as we journey into the depths of our lives. God does not promise that life will be easy. God does promise to be there and to look with favor on us. God is a God of compassion and caring, of peace and justice, of love and grace. We, by our Baptismal Covenant and through scriptures are called to be conduits of God in the world through are actions, through our words, and through our very being.

The Practice of Prensence, is a book about Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk who lived in the 17th century. People are fascinated, mystified and intrigued by this man because he simply lived every moment with God and lived every moment acting out of God’s presence in his life. He was assigned to work in the kitchen of the monastery, not anything that he was particularly good at, but did it with faithfulness and with a mind toward God. There was not anything that was beneath him because there was no task that was too mundane or routine as each thing was a medium for God’s love. For him, it was not about how sacred or important the task, but more about the motivation behind the task.

As people of God, we are all called to see our tasks as part of our life with God. Mowing the lawn, taking care of our children, driving people to and fro, cleaning, helping, being with others… I could go on and on. Our everyday lives are full of moments with God, it is up to us to remind ourselves and those around us that God is in those moments, just as much as God is in other moments. Who we are, how we act, how we treat others… this is how we are God in the world.

So, in this ordinary time, as we continue to explore where God is calling us to grow, where God is calling us to serve in the world, know that it may be in the everyday, it may simply be in our actions and in our words that we will best serve God. Keep the words of the Baptismal Covenant in mind as a directive and know that God is with you in all that you do.

Download the sermon for Proper 5C.

Written by The Rev. Shannon Ferguson Kelly
The Rev. Shannon Kelly serves as the Missioner for Young Adult and Campus Ministries for The Episcopal Church. She wrote and edited God of My Heart a book of prayers written by youth, for youth. She lives in on Cape Cod with her husband, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Ferguson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, their son, and dog. 


[i] Jim and Shelley Douglass, Sojourners, July 1996.

 

A people without boundaries, 3 Pentecost, Proper 5 (C) – 2013

June 9, 2013

1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24); Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

A widow is walking a dusty road. The sun is in the sky, making shadows on the mud-brick walls and simple dusty streets of Nain. The town sits on the edge of a wide and beautiful valley, but the widow doesn’t notice, because today her life has ended. She has lost her last connection to society, she is about to become a non-person.

She walks behind her dead son. He is wrapped in cloth bands and carried on a simple litter. He died that very day and had to be buried before sundown. The shock is almost too much to bear. She remembers walking this path before, following another man wrapped in cloth bands and on a litter. She remembers following her dead husband to his burial. The pain was great then, but then she could lean on her son, then she only grieved the loss of her husband. Now she can reasonably fear losing her very self as well.

The crowd who follows her knows her well; Nain is not a large town. No doubt they are compassionate. No doubt they are sad. Perhaps some were friends with her son. Perhaps some are other widows or friends. They may be very concerned for her, but a large part of the concern is for her loss of social identity, her loss of connection and power in her small part of the world.

To be a widow at the time of Christ was to have no power, no social standing. It was a world of, and for, and run by men. Women could only be represented legally by men. Women could only be defended socially by men. If her property were attacked – by thieves or greedy landowners – a woman would have little defense on her own, only her male kin could help her. The law did give her some protections. The scriptures they read were clear that widows were to receive special care and attention and were not to be exploited. But religious laws were no guarantee of a woman’s safety in a man’s world. The widow at Nain is in real social danger – she no longer has a husband, she no longer has a son. If she had moved from her kin, she is now socially alone. Each step she takes is heavy – heavy with grief, heavy with fear; each is a step into an unknown future.

Our gospel passage today can seem like a passage about a dead man coming to life. That is certainly the most dramatic part of the story. In the middle of a funeral procession a dead man sits up – no doubt shocking the dickens out of the entire procession – and begins to speak. The crowd is filled with fear, which seems pretty reasonable, anyone would experience more than a small amount of shock and awe at the sight of a dead man sitting up on his funeral bier and talking. It is hard to ignore the resurrection at the center of this tale. It is a vision of the glory of God. It is a vision of God’s triumph over death.

But the glory of God is bigger than just this resurrection. As hard as it might seem to imagine, the glory of God that was revealed that day at Nain was more than bringing a dead man to life. The widow is also brought back from death to life. The story begins with the widow. Jesus has compassion on the widow, tells her not to weep. After the man comes back to life, he gives him back to his mother. By doing so, he brings her back to life. Jesus heals more than a dead man, he heals a woman broken by a society that could not see her as fully human without a man.

The crowd may have been more afraid of this than anything else. The social order had been altered. A woman who didn’t count suddenly counted again. This may have been as awesome, as fearsome, as the resurrection itself.

The crowd would immediately have known what happened. They knew they were in the presence of a prophet because they had read their scripture. They knew God cared for widows, God insisted on the care of widows. They knew that God sent prophets like Elijah to heal widows, they remembered the widow at Zarepath who was near death and who was brought back to life by God’s gift of a jar of meal and a jug of oil that never ran out. Caring for the ones that society wants to leave behind is what God does. Having no edges, no boundaries to the scope of care, is God. God’s very being has no limits to love.

We still live in a world of social divisions. Our society, our now-global society, is full of divisions. Indeed, it feels like we have found many more ways to divide ourselves than could have been imagined by the people of Nain. We can be divided by religion, by ethnicity, by nation, by age, by the kind of music we like, by wealth and poverty. Sadly, we can still be divided by gender.

But amid all this division, God gives us life. God is the source of all being. And God doesn’t just give us biological life, God gives us a full life, a life where our divisions are healed. That is the action that Jesus undertook at Nain – he restored biological life so that a full life could be had by all. That is what Jesus showed the people of Nain, that life means more than simply existing, it means living fully within the web of life. It means being loved by all and loving all.

This is the reign of God. It is a reign of well being, a reign of justice, a reign of abundance, a reign of joyous harmony. It is a reign we recognize when we are fully in God’s presence, and when God’s presence encompasses all of creation. God’s presence has no social boundaries. The crowd at Nain rejoiced because God had looked favorably upon them with a sign of God’s reign.

This is the action of our God. Restoring to the social community, bringing people we push out of society back into love because we need each other.

This is also our action. We too are called to be healers. The mission of the church, our Book of Common Prayer says, “ is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

We do this by refusing to draw boundaries, by refusing to exclude people from the fullness of life that God promises. We do it when we welcome all people into our churches. We do it when we work to ensure that all are fed, and clothed, and housed, and cared for when sick. We do it when we work to transform unjust social structures. We do it when we fix any system or practice that treats anyone as undeserving of a full life.

We still make people of all races and genders powerless. We still try to make human souls into non-people. Our mission is to be people who draw no distinctions. Our mission is to be a people who recognize the dignity of every human being.

After Jesus left Nain, the people went back to their homes and chores, but things didn’t go back to normal. And thanks be to God for that! Normal doesn’t always mean right. Normal can be unjust. The people of Nain weren’t normal anymore. The people were transformed. They had moved beyond what they thought were limitations. They had seen a new world.

Let us open our eyes to this new world and glorify God. Let us be a people without boundaries.

 

— The Rev. Matt Seddon is vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in West Valley City, Utah – the most diverse city in Utah. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and a M.Div. from Church Divinity School of the Pacific, with special training and experience in multicultural ministry, particularly Latino Ministry. He is married with one teenaged daughter, reads too much, and is fond of punk rock from the 1980s.

Transformative lives, Pentecost 2, Proper 5 (C) – 2010

[RCL] 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24) and Psalm 146 (Track 2: 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Psalm 30); Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

One of the most remarkable features of the First Book of Kings is the collection of stories featuring the prophet Elijah. The first of these comes after the rather generalized anecdotes about the royal house of kings following the death of Solomon. Without exception these monarchs “did what was displeasing to the Lord,” and then suddenly the narration changes subject. In Chapter 16, which precedes our reading for today, King Ahab is introduced and then suddenly Chapter 17 begins with Elijah the Tishbite, “inhabitant of Gilead” confronting Ahab with the observation that the God of Israel has said there is about to be a drought that no amount of royal power can prevent or stop. Rain will come only when the God of Israel says so.

The picture of Elijah being both confrontational and cryptic with King Ahab is actually emblematic of the whole collection of prophetic literature. Prophets are the ones God calls to speak God’s truth to power – to speak and to live as example and warning of God’s alternate reality while the powers that be in monarchical or temple leadership pursue other goals, and achieve their ends by ungodly means.

Prophets function in Biblical texts as the vehicles of God’s word: when they speak God’s judgment on those who perpetrate injustice, they are announcing God’s own critique of social, political, and economic injustices that bring about death, despair, and hopelessness. When they offer alternate pictures of life as God intends it, prophets bring hope to the hopeless, life to those shadowed by death and disaster. In short, prophets bring God’s good news into bad times.

Elijah in today’s reading offers us just such a picture of hope in contrast to the world Ahab and his predecessors have made. In the midst of the drought affecting King Ahab’s world and people, God interrupts Elijah’s life and sends him outside Ahab’s jurisdiction.

First Elijah is sent to the Transjordan, where he is protected and sustained by ravens, but as the drought spreads, he is sent northward up the coast to Zarephath in Sidon. Here, as God said, he finds a certain widow who will feed him. The word of God calls the prophet to go way beyond all the normal support systems of his life. As death, in the form of the drought, spreads, Elijah stays on the move until he comes to the widow. She is, by definition, lacking all the life-giving resources of ordinary patriarchal societies in the ancient world. It is noteworthy also that God sends Elijah without any resources himself: he brings neither bread nor oil to the widow, nor does he bring well water. He has nothing to give away, it seems.

Yet the whole point of the Elijah stories is, precisely, that having nothing at all in the worldview of King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and all the priests of the pagan gods who are turning the lives of God’s people into a desert, the prophet brings unimagined and unimaginable hope into the parched lands because he brings the life-giving word of God.

Through Elijah’s faithful obedience, God’s life-giving word assures the daily bread for the widow. And more than that; when the widow’s son dies, and her hope for any sort of normal, ordinary future dies with him, the life-giving word of God renews the boy’s life, and therefore hers too. There is holy power at work in Elijah, as in all the prophets, the power of God’s life-giving word to break through the death-dealing ways of nature and culture alike.

Before moving to Jesus, we must pause to meditate. You and I have been assured of holy power at work in our own lives: the power of the Holy Spirit allows us to live transformed and transformative lives. Hold that thought.

Now we can move into the gospel and watch Jesus, the living word of God, who is bringing life into another socioeconomic situation like that in the First Book of Kings. Here is Jesus with a widow whose only son is dead.

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke says: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”

While Luke has undoubtedly structured the scene based on the story of Elijah, there is a significant difference: Jesus’ compassion. To have compassion, and to be moved by compassion, is to take the suffering of other persons into oneself. Elijah the prophet was so identified with the God of the life-bearing word that his own actions brought life in the midst of death. Luke’s Jesus embraces the suffering of people at the edge of the social fabric, on the margins of the power structures, and thus he identifies with the hopelessness of the widow. With Elijah and Jesus alike, however, the hope that blazes forth from the Biblical texts is God’s life-bringing and life-bearing presence, which transforms death-dealing situations into visions and experiences of life as God intends.

Life on the margins is brutal, nasty, and often much shorter than “three score years and ten.” The best-contrived social safety nets develop holes, and it does not take the eruptions of nature or the recessions of the human economy before people fall through them. These pictures of Elijah and Jesus can illuminate our own death-dealing times, and prod us to live as Pentecost people called to embrace and bear life as God intends it. We have been empowered by the Spirit to live transformative lives, bearing compassion in deed as well as word, carrying the life of Christ, moved by the power of the Spirit amid the ways of our world – at work, at play, as daughters or widows, soldiers or secretaries, as citizens who care enough to vote.

Christmas and Easter are behind us now, but as the angels said at the nativity and at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid.”

Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.

Written by the Rev. Angela V. Askew
The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York.

Called to live, Pentecost 2, Proper 5 (C) – 2007

[RCL] 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24) or 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 146 or 30; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:11-17

What wonderful images we have in today’s passages. We have prophets, raisings from the dead, a never-ending supply of food, onlookers being both amazed and terrified. It’s the Easter story over and over – amazing and terrifying for the people of that day. We, of course, can still be amazed, but we’re not terrified any more. We know the Gospel passage probably by heart and we most likely know this wonderful passage about Elijah and the widow in Zarephath by heart, too. Stories of long ago, stories about an ancient people, stories from a time when miracles seem to have been taken more in stride than they are today – we might be tempted to think these stories don’t have much to do with us. We certainly aren’t able to raise the dead or provide through God’s intervention a never-ending supply of grain and oil. So, we can be amazed and praise God, but we don’t necessarily have to be motivated. Or do we?

We’re kidding ourselves if we say that these are just inspirational stories. Jesus constantly reminded his followers that they were called to live as he lived. Actually, their Torah called them to live that way.

Jesus was only reminding them to be faithful to God’s rule of life. It’s the same for us. Our Baptismal covenant is a promise to live as Jesus did, to be a people of God.

So, we look seriously at these stories to see what they have to say to us. There are several similarities between 1 Kings and the Luke passage. Both Elijah and Jesus are prophets. Both accounts center on bringing a child back from death. The widow is provided with a never-ending supply of grain and oil, and we know that Jesus will supply God’s people with a never-ending source of life in his own body and blood. Both stories show us that the ability to give life in various forms is proof that the person is a Godly person – sent by God. In both accounts there is an important connection between what Elijah and Jesus say and what happens. In Luke especially there is always a connection between saying and doing. It’s often the connections that give us the “a-ha” moments that excite us.

Consider what the people say when Jesus gives the young man back to his mother: “God has looked favorably on his people.” We hear those same words in the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. Elijah tells the widow that the Lord God of Israel will not let her jar of meal go empty or jug of oil fail. God looks with favor. It’s all through the Scriptures. God looks with favor, God looks with love, God looks with unfailing care on God’s people, especially in the readings today, on the widows.

Now, isn’t it interesting that we keep saying God looks with favor and God cares and God loves? Certainly there’s no doubt that God does all these things, but look at how often God doesn’t do it alone. Look at how often God uses God’s people to bring the message of this love and care to others. Here’s that connection again – a connection between heaven and earth.

Both Jesus and Elijah are a connection between God and God’s people. Neither of them works what we consider a miracle for their own glory. Their actions glorify God. All who witness these miracles give glory to God and acknowledge that God works through these two men. “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth,” the widow of Zarephath says. What a wonderful compliment.

The people who witnessed Jesus bring the young man to life said, “A great prophet has risen among us!” Another great compliment! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say that about us? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people would see us being a connection between God and them?

The thing is – they should. One of the many lessons we might learn from both these Scripture passages is that what Jesus and Elijah did, we must do also. We’ll probably not literally raise people from the dead, but we are called to be conduits of God’s grace, and we are called to be prophetic. Being prophetic doesn’t mean that we have to be dramatic. We are prophetic when we are aware of the needs in the world around us and we speak the truth about it. The power of prophesy is in the truth of the words and the challenge those words offer people to change for the better.

But we also know that prophets often get in trouble. The Old Testament is full of stories about prophets being reviled, ignored, harassed – and sometimes killed. John the Baptist lost his head. Jesus was crucified. Certainly we’re not supposed to be prophets like that are we?

The thing is – we are. Each one of us is called to speak God’s word of truth in a difficult world. Each one of us – not just the Dorothy Days or the Oscar Romeros, the prophets of our time – each one of us has our times to be prophetic. Different situations will affect us in different ways. Often, when we’re most prophetic, we so love what we’re doing that we don’t see ourselves as prophets.

There’s a man in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who left a very lucrative theater job in New York City to join the Brotherhood of St. Gregory. He gave everything away – absolutely everything he owned – to follow a call to serve the homeless poor as a monk in that southern city. Brother Ron lives in the shelter with the homeless. He helps them find medical assistance and food. He counsels them. He lets them know that God loves and cares for them even when they feel most alone and hopeless. Brother Ron also shares the stories of homeless people with congregations, seminarians, and city officials. The interesting thing about Ron is that even when people could be amazed and impressed by the work he does, that’s not what people see first. Ron is a prophet. He speaks the word of God to a hurting world, and he does it with power and truth. People see the graciousness of God through Ron, and they could use the same words the widow of Zarephath said about Elijah: “We know you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

That sounds pretty extraordinary, but Ron isn’t all that different from you and me. Our vocations are unique. The ways we’re called to be prophetic are unique. Like any prophet, we only need to take our connection to God seriously. That connection might be through the Torah, through Baptismal promises, or through whatever our tradition holds as a means of being faithful to God. God will work wonders through each of us if we’re open. God’s word of truth can be in each of our mouths. What greater compliment could people say about us than that we are people of God?

Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz
The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.