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Pentecost 23 Proper 26B October 31, 2021

Ruth 1:1-18
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

Our first reading today is from the book of Ruth. In the time of the judges, a famine comes to the land. Elimelech, who is from Bethlehem in Judah, his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion leave Judah and go to the land of Moab to find food. 

They remain in Moab for a time and then Elimelech dies. Naomi’s sons marry two Moab women. One  is named Ruth and the other is named Orpah. After about ten years, Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chilion, die. Naomi has lost her husband and both of her sons. Orpah and Ruth have lost their husbands.

This leaves Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah in a terrible situation, Without a male relative, they have no identity in that society. They are not someone’s wife or mother or daughter. And they have no one to protect them and no way to earn a living. 

Ruth has heard that there is now food in Judah. The famine is over. She decides to head home. Ruth and Orpah go with her.

Naomi sees how vulnerable Ruth and Orpah are, and she encourages them to go home to their families so that they can have a roof over their heads and a male relative to protect them. Although she has lost her husband and both her sons, she has a love and a depth of spirit that enable her to go beyond her own grief and try to do what is best for her daughters-in-law. The three women, all in the most vulnerable of circumstances, argue and weep together as they try to discern the best course of action for each of them.

Finally, Orpah decides to go back to her family.

Naomi has no future in Moab. She has no family there. She feels she must return to Judah. She tries to say goodbye to Ruth and send her home to her family. But Ruth is adamant. “Where you go I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.”

The power of Ruth’s love and loyalty has inspired countless people over the ages. Scholars tell us that Moab and Judah weren’t exactly enemies, but relations could be a bit testy at times. Because she loves her mother-in-law, Ruth is going into a land that is foreign to her, a land where she will know no one except Naomi.

In these times when famine and violence and oppression and weather events are causing so many people to become refugees, this story speaks so deeply of the power of God’s love for us and our love for each other.

In our gospel for today, the Sadducees are arguing and asking Jesus questions. A scribe, a religious official, comes along and asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” And Jesus answers word for word that the first commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And he adds, “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Our Lord is giving the standard answer. He is not arguing any points or elaborating in any way.

And the scribe does a very strange thing. He says, “You are right, Teacher.” He does not attack. He does not quibble or taunt or try to trap Jesus. Scholars tell us that the scribe was a a minor official but he was still part of the  official religious structure. He could still have given Jesus a hard time. Here we have a religious official who has an open heart and an open mind. He and Jesus are on the same page. This is a rare moment in the gospels. 

The scribe says something further. He says that to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves…”This is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  

And Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

The book of Hebrews says that the sacrifice of our Lord has transcended all of the temple sacrifices. This scribe is saying the same thing. The life and ministry of Jesus have changed everything. God’s love changes everything.

Herbert O’Driscoll writes, “The common thread in these readings is the insight that the greatest gift we can give is the gift of ourselves. In the first reading, Ruth gives herself to her mother-in-law, In the psalm, God gives fully. In the second reading, our Lord gives himself fully and freely. In the gospel passage, Jesus is overjoyed to meet someone who realizes that self-giving is greater than any exterior sacrifice.” (O’Driscoll, The Word among us, p. 136.

Our loving God calls us to give of ourselves, and all of you do that every day. You care about people; you listen to people; you help others; you work at the food shelf, or at the Historical Society. You deliver Meals on Wheels. You rescue animals. You are always doing something to spread God’s love and to make the world a better place. Thank you for giving the gift of yourselves. This is what walking the Way of Love is all about. May our loving God continue to give us the grace to offer ourselves in service to others. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

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 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.

Amen.