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Pentecost 3 Proper 5C RCL June 5, 2016

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

In all of our readings this morning, we hear a theme of hope and  promise: God gives life. Christ brings new life.

In our first reading, Elijah is called to go into Gentile territory, to the region of Sidon, the home country of Queen Jezebel, who worships Baal, the fertility god. Elijah is called to go to the home of a widow, and we remember that, in that time, widows and children were the most vulnerable people. A widow would normally go to her extended family after her husband had died. She would then have the protection of the men of her family.

But this widow is alone with her son, and, when Elijah arrives, they are about to have their last meal. Elijah gives her God’s promise that they will not run out of food until the rains come and end the famine. The woman is skeptical, but the promise is fulfilled.

Then the woman’s son is stricken with a deadly illness. The text says,
“There was no breath in him.” This is a worse calamity than the famine. The woman is going to lose her beloved son, her only living relative. The woman thinks Elijah has brought this tragedy on her. But Elijah asks her to give him her son, and she trusts him enough to do so. Elijah carries the boy upstairs and puts him on his own bed. He prays with all his heart and the boy is revived. The woman now has faith in Elijah and in God.

God brings life in two ways. The woman and her son are about to starve to death in a time of famine, and their last remnants of food just keep lasting and lasting. Then the son has no breath in him, and he is brought back to life. In this text, God reaches out beyond the usual boundaries, into the land of the Phoenicians, the land of Baal.  God reaches out to an obscure widow, someone who has no power in the culture, and her son, who has even less power. God feeds them and then God transforms death and hopelessness into life and hope.

This is good news for all those on the margins of society.

In our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Paul is telling his story, and what an inspiring and honest story it is. Paul did not receive the gospel from a teacher or a preacher. He received it directly from Jesus. He had just witnessed the martyrdom of St. Stephen, and he was going to Damascus to continue his work of persecuting followers of Jesus. On the way, our Lord spoke to him and changed his life.

Sometimes we humans can be so sure that we are doing the right thing. We can rise to the top of the power structure in doing something we think is good, and then we find out that we were going down a destructive and wrong path. That was Paul. He was killing people in the name of God.

Once he saw the light of Christ, there was no stopping Paul. He traveled around the Mediterranean Sea, planting churches. Paul had been living a life of persecution. God gave him a new life and called him to proclaim the gospel of love and forgiveness.

In our gospel, Jesus has just healed the centurion’s slave. As he enters the town of Nain, a tragedy is unfolding. People are carrying the body of a man who has died. Jesus finds out that this young man is his mother’s only son. She doesn’t even have to ask Jesus for help. He sees her overwhelming grief, and his compassion flows out to her.

Jesus comes forward and touches the bier, and then he calls on the young man to rise. Instantly, the young man sits up and begins to speak. It would be interesting to hear what he said, but that will always be a mystery.

The text says, “Jesus gave him to his mother.” Jesus does not rush off. He gives this young man to his mother as the greatest gift anyone could give. As parents, we all know that having a child die is the worst tragedy that can happen. Now, Jesus gives this young man back to his mother, and her son is alive. Once again, he is giving the son the gift of life itself, and he is giving the mother a new life with her beloved son.

The crowd thinks Jesus is a great prophet in the tradition of Elijah. They know the story of the widow of Zarephath and her son. As time goes on, they will find out who Jesus really is.

The theme for today is: God brings life. When we are at the end of our rope; when we have tied a knot at the end of that rope and we are hanging on for dear life; when the world looks dark and all hope has gone; when we have tried plan A, Plan B, and every other plan, God brings life and hope. God brings life. Christ brings newness of life.

The other theme of these readings is that God cares about the least of us. God cares about those who have very little. God cares for those who have no power, no influence, no wealth, no status. God cares about everyone, and God cares especially for those who are living at the margins.

Our readings today are telling us that God cares deeply about how we treat those who, like the widows and children in these readings, have very little buffer between them and total disaster.

Like the Ladies’ Auxiliary of Grace Church, who for decades ministered to folks here and abroad, may we continue to reach out to those who need hope and help. Amen.

Pentecost 2 Proper 4C RCL May 29, 2016

1 Kings 18:20-21. (22-29), 30-39
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

We are now in what the liturgical calendar calls “ordinary time.” Our vestments turn to green, the color of spring and summer growth, and we settle in for that long season until the coming of Advent.

Our first reading is a dramatic turning point in the history of God’s people.  King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel is married to the famous Queen Jezebel, who is a princess of Sidon, a coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea. James D. Newsome of Columbia Theological Seminary, tells us that a rich merchant class who had close ties with people in the cities of Tyre and Sidon formed a kind of oligarchy over the northern kingdom of Israel and “enriched itself off the produce of the land. often at the expense of the northern Israel peasantry.”  (Texts for Preaching, Year C, p. 362.)

Newsome points out that these people modeled themselves after their coastal friends in Phoenicia and worshipped Baal, a fertility god of Canaan and Phoenicia.The royal court and the upper classes were greedy and corrupt, and as usual, those at the bottom suffered most.

Scholars tell us that it is around 970 B.C. E. Morality and religious life have declined so much that there is only one prophet of God remaining, the great prophet Elijah, and there are four hundred fifty prophets of Baal.  Elijah is trying to call people back to the worship of God.

He proposes that he and the prophets of Baal will each be given a bull. He allows the prophets of Baal to choose which bull they will have, and they set up their sacrifice very carefully and call upon Baal, but nothing happens. Then Elijah sets up his sacrifice with great reverence and care. After he has prepared the sacrifice, he orders that  it be drenched in water to the point of overflowing. This insures that it will be difficult for God to set this sacrifice on fire. But, when Elijah calls on God, the fire consumes the entire sacrifice even to the point of tongues of fire licking at the water in the trench.

This makes a good story, but it is far more than that. As Newsome points out, the prophets Elijah and Elisha are concerned about two important issues—faithfulness and justice. Elijah is the only prophet of God left in the world. What courage it took for Elijah to engage in this showdown with the prophets of Baal. But Elijah has such deep faith in God that he takes this step. As Newsome writes, “Elijah risks everything, and God responds to that risk.”

Newsome writes that the essence of this text “is to be found in the prophets’ commitment to the God of Israel as the true Lord of life, in their dedication to justice, and in their compassion and intention to help people who did not have the means to help themselves.” (Texts for Preaching, Year C, p. 363.) Immediately after this event, Elijah has to flee for his life.

In today’s reading from his Letter to the Galatians, Paul is responding to a crisis in the life of the Galatian congregations. Some new Christians or perhaps new teachers have come into the communities of faith in Asia Minor, what we would call Turkey, and they are insisting that, as Christians, people must follow the Law of Moses, or at least, must adhere to the practice of circumcision.

Paul states that his authority comes from God, not from human authorities. He reminds them and us that our Lord gave his life to set us free. And then he tells the people how  surprised and shocked he is that they are deserting the gospel. They are allowing humans to draw them away from the good news in Christ to obedience to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.

He calls them to return to the true gospel. He reminds them that Christ did not call them to follow the letter of the law, but to follow the spirit of the law of love.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is coming into Capernaum. There is a centurion, a Roman military officer, who has a slave who is ill and close to death. Now this centurion is a powerful and wealthy officer in the Roman occupation army. But he is also someone who cares about his neighbors and supports the local synagogue. He asks some of the Jewish elders to appeal to Jesus to heal his beloved slave.

Jesus goes with them, but then the centurion sends a message to Jesus not to come. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But speak the word only, and my servant will be healed.” He has heard about Jesus, and he has sensed Jesus’ authority. Herbert O’Driscoll points out another aspect of the centurion’s reasoning, and that is that, for Jesus as a Jew to enter the centurion’s Gentile home would make Jesus ritually unclean. But the centurion does not mention this awkward issue. He simply and humbly states his own unworthiness to have Jesus as a visitor.

The centurion knows about worldly power. He is at the top of the corporate military structure. He knows about command and obedience. And he realizes that Jesus has a spiritual power beyond anything he has ever experienced. In essence, this centurion has become a follower of Jesus even as he is asking Jesus not to visit his home.

Jesus recognizes the faith of this man, and, when the messengers reach the centurion’s home, the servant has already been healed.

Our readings today remind us that ours is a God of justice and love who cares about all people. Because of the life and ministry of Jesus, we are called to go beyond the letter to the spirit of the law. Most of all, we have three powerful examples of people of faith: Elijah, who as the last living prophet calls on God with total faith and receives God’s powerful response; Paul, who roots himself deeply in faith in Christ and calls us to follow the law of love; and this centurion, with his combination of privilege, compassion, humility, spiritual intuition, and deep faith, who calls upon Jesus to heal his servant. May we follow their example of faith. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Pentecost 3 Proper 5C RCL June 9, 2013

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

Last week, we watched a dramatic battle in which God rained down fire on a burnt offering in response to the prayer of Elijah. This week, we are actually at an earlier point in the ministry of Elijah.

God calls Elijah to go to Zarephath, which is in the region of Sidon, now the coast of Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea, This is the home country of Queen Jezebel, who has married King Ahab of Samaria, the northern kingdom of Israel. Scholars tell us that Queen Jezebel was an ardent supporter of Baal and that her father may have been a priest of Baal. Elijah is going into the center of Baal worship. God tells Elijah that God has commanded a widow there to feed him. Let us keep in mind that widows were among the most vulnerable members of society. Without a husband or a son, they had no means of earning a livelihood and no social protection.

When Elijah arrives, the widow and her son are going to have their last meal. There has been no rain, and there is a famine. The woman says, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug.”  The phrase “As the Lord your God lives” indicates that she is a follower of Baal.

But Elijah asks her to feed him and he assures her that God will keep providing meal and oil until rain comes. By the way, scholars tell us that Baal was supposed to be in charge of sending rain. Even though she and Elijah are of different religions, she does as he asks, and God supplies meal and oil to sustain her and her son. She is completely vulnerable, yet she has no other hope of surviving. But in sheltering Elijah, a prophet of God, she is putting herself in danger.

Then the worst happens. The son dies. Elijah asks her to give him her son. Amazingly, she does. What other hope does she have? Elijah pours out his heart to God. Why have you allowed this to happen to this poor widow? He stretches himself our over the little boy’s body and begs God to give him life. We can imagine Elijah trying to breathe breath back into this boy’s body. The boy comes back to life, but scholars tell us that the restoration of her son gives the woman new life as well.  She also grows into a new faith, faith in God rather than Baal.

We have a similar story in the gospel. Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd are going into the town of Nain. Perhaps they are talking and discussing the good news that Jesus is sharing. But they meet a very sad procession. The only son of a widow is being carried to be buried. The widow does not even try to ask Jesus for help. Perhaps she is overcome by grief, Perhaps she has had many experiences of being unheard and expecting nothing and having no hope. Her life is now effectively over. Without her son’s presence and help, she has no future.

Jesus immediately sees her situation. He reaches out and touches the bier. By touching a dead person he has now become defiled. But he has come to fulfill the law and to go beyond the law to the spirit. “Young man, I say to you, arise!” The young man is made whole and alive. Once again, his mother also has a new life.

God cares about the least among us. God cares about us when we feel helpless, when we are helpless. God calls us to take care of our brothers and sisters who have no means of help and no one to speak on their behalf. God’s prophet, Elijah, and God’s Son, Jesus, reach out beyond all kinds of barriers in these readings. They reach out beyond barriers of class, religion, gender, and tradition to help and to bring healing and wholeness. No situation is hopeless. No person is beyond hope.

Paul tells his story today. He is trying to find some way to get through to these people who think he is a false teacher. He was a persecutor of the Church. He was advanced in knowledge of his native faith. He was at the top of the social ladder, being a Roman citizen. But he was devoting all his energies to killing the followers of Jesus.

And then just imagine the scene. He is on the road to Damascus. He is bent on persecuting those who love Jesus. And he meets that very Jesus on the road. There is a brilliant light that makes Saul go blind. And Jesus is asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It’s like the widow of Zarephath having to extend hospitality to a prophet of the God she does not worship, only much more immediate. Saul is blinded by the light yet he is blessed with new vision. He sees the horror of what he has been doing. His heart and life are totally transformed.

He doesn’t go to confer with the apostles, He goes to Arabia. And then, after three years, he goes to Jerusalem to confer with Peter and James, and then his ministry begins, a ministry to the Gentiles, to those who are beyond the pale, just as widows are beyond the pale, the lowest of the low.

God is turning the world upside down. Everybody matters. Everybody is loved. No one is beyond the pale.

Have you ever felt as though you didn’t matter? That’s how these widows felt. That’s what their culture told them. You don’t matter. And God and Jesus told them, Yes, you do matter. Have you ever felt as though there was absolutely no hope? Today, God and Jesus and the Spirit are telling us, there is always hope.  Have you ever felt broken beyond healing? Have you ever felt as though you might as well be dead?

God is saying, You are my beloved child, You matter to me. I need you to be with me and to my work. I will make you whole, I will give you new life, I am giving you new life. That’s what all these stories are about.

Dear God, thank you for your love, Thank you for new life in you. Thank you for hope, Thank you for making all of us beloved. Thank you for calling all of us to belong to you and to belong in your family.


Pentecost 2 Proper 4C RCL June 2, 2013

1 Kings 18:20-
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:7-10

Our first reading this morning is a crucial moment in the history of God’s people. We are in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about the year 970 B. C.  Many of the people of God have turned to the worship of the fertility god, Baal. Many of the practices of Baal worship we would consider to be immoral.. At this point, Baal has 450 prophets, and the Lord God has one prophet, the faithful and courageous Elijah.

In order to show which one is the true God, Elijah proposes that two burnt offerings be set up, but no fire kindled on either offering. He generously offers to the prophets of Baal that they go first, calling on their god to set fire to the offering. Nothing happens.

Then Elijah calls the people closer to him. First, he repairs the altar of God which had been torn down. Then Elijah builds a new altar. This is so important. Elijah puts God first.

Elijah makes a trench around the altar. Then he builds the burnt offering.

Now the offering is prepared. What does Elijah do? He has the people fill huge jars with water and drench the offering. The water is flowing into the moat around the altar. The odds against this offering ever bursting into flame are extremely high.  Then Elijah prays to God.  God is God and Elijah is God’s servant doing God’s will.  All of this is to call the people back to God. The fire falls and consumes not only the offering, but all the water. And the people see that God is indeed God.

In our epistle, we see that Paul is the midst of conflict. The first problem is that some people feel that, in order to join the community, people had to follow the law, which meant that they had to be circumcised.

The second issue is whether Paul is a true apostle. There are many voices,  many teachers. Then as now, there were teachers who tended to tell people what they wanted to hear.  Paul starts out by telling the people that he is “….sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” Paul reminds us that God raised Jesus from the dead, in other words, that Paul is preaching from the power of the resurrection, and he is surrounded by members of a community of faith.

Paul gives his usual greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” but then he adds a profound thought, “and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.” What does this mean? Is everything about our present age evil? No. There are many goods things happening. But there are some things that don’t fit with centering our lives in God and Christ and the Spirit.  There are many things in our culture which can distract us from following Jesus. By his life, death, and rising again, he has freed us to follow him and given us the grace to walk that journey in faith. One thing from which he has freed us is being bound by the Mosaic law in a literal way.

Paul tells us that he is not interested in pleasing people, but in pleasing God. People pleasing can be a big distraction.  Paul is not into building an empire for himself. He is not trying to keep everyone happy; he is trying to be a faithful servant of Christ. Sometimes we have to make decisions that may not bring us great wealth or great popularity,  or great power, but those are not the values by which we are called to live.

Today’s gospel is a wonderful story of healing that tells us so much about  Jesus and about this centurion.  Herbert O’Driscoll tells us that those who served in the Roman military could be sent to a far away outpost and spend their whole lives there, reporting to a headquarters at a great distance. When this happened, they often made friends where they were serving and became part of the community. This centurion has done exactly that. His slave becomes deathly ill. Probably this slave is a highly educated Greek person who teaches the centurion’s children. The slave is a beloved member of the family. The centurion and his slave are both Gentiles.

O’Driscoll points out that the centurion knows that Jesus has just come into Capernaum and that Jesus is a healer and a Jew. If the centurion asks Jesus to help his beloved slave, this could cause problems for Jesus. Helping the slave of an occupier of the country could alienate the Jewish community. So the centurion  calls upon some of his Jewish friends to ask for Jesus’ help. They “appeal to Jesus earnestly.” They tell Jesus what a good person the centurion is.

Jesus goes with them. But now, O’Driscoll tells us, the centurion, “shows his decency and his sensitivity.  He knows that it is technically a defilement for a Jew to come under his foreign Gentile roof. So the message comes to Jesus. It avoids the ugly truth about defilement. Instead it pays a compliment. It says, very graciously, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you.’ Then in a single sentence, it expresses what the Roman has sensed in Jesus of Nazareth—an immense natural authority:  ‘Only speak the word and let my servant be healed.’”

“In all this, Jesus had missed nothing. He had become aware of the special kind of human being he was dealing with. The trust shown in him by this man astonished our Lord, and so perhaps he was moved to say a potentially dangerous thing: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ The fact that those who surrounded him were friends of the centurion probably prevented an angry reaction. It is quite possible, however, that someone in the crowd duly noted what Jesus had said, and subsequently quietly reported it to those who were interested in gathering evidence about this man from Nazareth. This danger was never far away.”

O’Driscoll illuminates the deep connection between  Jesus and this centurion. Both were under authority, Jesus under the authority of God and the centurion under the authority of the emperor of Rome. Barriers are broken and the slave is healed.

Elijah is one prophet against 450 false prophets. Paul calls us to follow the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Jesus and the centurion break through barriers to heal this beloved slave. Following the way of God and Jesus and the Spirit is not always  easy. It can be lonely, as it was for Elijah. It can be unpopular, as it was for Paul, It can be extremely complicated and dangerous as it was for all our heroes today. But the clarity, the rootedness, the grace, the healing, and the joy are there for us to see and for us to experience in our own lives.  May we follow these holy examples in our own lives. Amen.