Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 9, 2013
I Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17
There are times that the lectionary seems to be repeating itself. In case you missed the first reading today, you have the opportunity to hear a similar story in the Gospel lesson. They are very much alike. One of the Bible commentaries I read placed the two stories side by side to illustrate all the similarities in them. Both include widows who are grieving the death of their son. Elijah and Jesus raise these sons from the dead and give them back to their mother. Each of the resurrected sons elicits a strong proclamation of faith from those standing by.
To be a widow with no heir in that day was something like a death sentence. Widows had no means to support themselves. Without children they would certainly be destitute. The women in these stories had lost everything. It is into that tender place of vulnerability that Elijah and Jesus step bringing new life to both mothers and sons. Upon first glance it may seem that it is the sons who have been raised from the dead…and they have. But their mothers have as well. The restoration of life to their sons means life and hope for the mothers. These stories aren’t just glimpses into history, they are also invitations for us today. What in you needs to be raised from the dead? Is there something that needs to die so that resurrection can happen?
We talk about death and resurrection on Good Friday and Easter. Then we check them off the list and move onto other things. But death and new life are happening all the time. Many of us carry deep grief because we have lost those that we love. The Service of Loss on Tuesday is for all who are experiencing any kind of loss. Brian’s leaving is a great loss for St. Michael’s. But loss is not the last word. We are also witnessing powerful leadership throughout the parish. The Vestry and many, many others are standing in the gap and offering their gifts. There is new life growing among us. Today, we welcome 33 new members. This concept of death and resurrection really hits home for us right now, but it is with us all the time, sometimes in much more subtle ways.
Philip Newell wrote a blog called “The Wildness of God”. In it, he talks about the Archangel Michael. Michael’s name means “one who resembles God.” It was particularly at times of great transition, that the aid of Michael was invoked. Perhaps rather than waiting until our feast day on September 29th, we can look to our patron saint now for wisdom and guidance in our own time of transition. Newell says, “One of the most striking features of the [Celtic] tradition was its love of wandering or peregrination. In its more extreme form, the peregrini, as they were called, would set sail in a boat without a rudder to be blown wherever the elements might take them. The ideal of the peregrini in the old Celtic Church was defined as 'seeking the place of one's resurrection'.' It consisted of a willingness to let go of or die to one's home, or the place that was comfortably familiar, in order to find new life. The impression given is that the gospel of Christ leads us not into what we already know but into what we do not yet know.” (http://www.salvaterravision.org/jpn-blog/item/202-the-wildness-of-god)
Maybe that explains our tendency to avoid themes of death and resurrection. They take us into the unknown, into places far beyond our comfort zone. Our scriptures describe a God who comes to us in our darkest moments. God meets us when we are lost and alone and stays with us whether we are aware or not. In the gospel lesson, the woman doesn’t ask Jesus for help. He sees her pain and responds. One commentary said, “If religion has nothing to say to a grieving widow, it has nothing to say.” (New Interpreters Bible, p. 159) God meets us in our vulnerability and takes our hand as we make our way through it. I wonder if those who gathered on the street saw the woman following her son through the crowd or did they avert their eyes afraid to acknowledge the depth of her suffering? Jesus sees her and speaks to her. Then he brings her son back to life and gives him to his mother.
I keep finding myself drawn to the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nadia is a Lutheran pastor in Denver. She has the entire Christian year tattooed on her arm. She speaks honestly about faith and she doesn’t water it down or make it easy. One of her sermons confesses that the church will disappoint people. She guarantees that it will happen. Rather than seeking a church that won’t disappoint us, Nadia encourages people to hope in a God who will “reach down into the graves we dig ourselves and each other and love us back to life.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/05/sermon-on-why-hope-and-vapid-optimism-are-not-the-same-thing/)
The scriptures don’t call us to trust in our own ability to do everything right, but instead to trust in God who is there when we don’t. How many times a day do we encounter our own inadequacy? Every time, we have the opportunity to turn to the God whose grace is greater than our human messiness. Nadia encourages people to stay with the community even when they have been disappointed because if they leave, they will “miss the way God’s grace fills in the cracks left behind from our brokenness.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/05/sermon-on-why-hope-and-vapid-optimism-are-not-the-same-thing/)
It is human nature to flee when we are disappointed or in pain. But that is the place where God’s care is stunning. It touches us so tenderly that we feel like our hearts will break in the face of such goodness. This same God weaves our lives together and creates a container where we are held until we are strong enough to stand on our own again. Then we take one another’s hands and become the face of love and hope. We offer ourselves and allow God to flow through us so that we are surprised when we speak words of compassion that we didn’t know we had. Maybe that is what resurrection looks like.
Listen carefully to the words you will say this morning. We do this as a community. We pray for the new members who join us today. For some that means leaving behind a tradition that has been important to them for many years. They do not make this commitment alone. We all remember our baptismal vows, not in a nostalgic way, but as an active promise to be God’s beloved for one another and for our world. Notice what you are promising to do – supporting our new members, proclaiming the Good News, serving Christ in each person you meet, striving for justice and peace for all and respecting the dignity of each person. These words are important. We say them several times a year. Listen to what you are promising. These words will require you to open your heart to allow God’s grace to fill you so that you can be faithful to the vows you are taking. We aren’t simply mumbling along as a nod in the direction of our new members, we are powerfully remembering who we are as God’s own children. We are claiming our place in the community and that will mean trusting in God’s goodness to make it possible for us to be faithful to these vows. Remember as we renew each part of the baptismal covenant we say, “With God’s help”. It is never up to us alone to live this life we call faith.
We can’t be faithful to the vows we take if we don’t remind ourselves of our commitment. It is reported that when Martin Luther felt afraid, doubtful, or was unsure that he had what he needed, he would remind himself with the words, “I am baptized.” We renew our vows periodically so we can ground ourselves in them and live them wholeheartedly. A life of wholeheartedness grows in response to a God who breathes new life into places of death and despair. That is where hope begins.
Hope is found in the yes of new members. They cast their lot with this beautiful, imperfect community. Here we will listen to the stories of a God who will heal places we didn’t even know were broken. Here we will pray for those who are suffering. Here we will acknowledge our faults and ask for forgiveness. Here we will come to the table to be fed and sustained to be faithful to the vows that we take. Here we will listen for God’s call to serve those who are the most vulnerable. Here we will become faithful, falling down and getting back up. Here we will speak words of faith and we will put flesh and bones on those words. Here we discover God’s grace bringing us back to life and empowering us to do things we never thought possible.
Both stories end with proclamations of faith. Luke often ends stories of healing with the crowd responding with awe and praise. I have been thinking of us as the crowd. We have witnessed God’s healing love in our midst over and over again. Now the camera shifts its gaze in our direction. How do we dare respond to a God whose love is raising us from the dead, a God who is healing us, a God who is forgiving us over and over again, and a God who is walking with us every step of the way? We live the vows we take here again today. We say yes with all that we have and we seek to be true to our yes.
Saying yes doesn’t mean we know where we are going. It simply means we are willing to trust the one who calls us beyond our comfort zone, the one who leads us to our place of resurrection, and who shows us that there is more to a life of faith than we ever imagined.