The Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 5, 2016
Last Sunday we re-entered into the narrative world of Luke
after spending Eastertide with John,
and as we did, I mentioned
that one of Luke’s primary goals
was helping the world to understand Jesus’ identity.
In our gospel reading for last week
we saw examples of that;
when Jesus interacted with the centurion
(at least from a distance)
Luke showed him to be one
who lived out what he preached
as he welcomed the stranger,
acted in love towards his enemy
and recognized faith in unexpected places.
This week’s gospel continues to show us WHO Jesus is
– and in doing so, reveals more
about the very nature of God
and what that means
for how we’re called to live as well.
Our gospel picks up where last week’s left off;
Jesus has left Capernaum with his disciples,
having most recently
healed the centurion’s servant,
and as they enter the town of Nain
they meet a funeral procession,
where Jesus encounters a mother torn with grief
at the loss of her only son.
This woman is a widow,
which means the loss of her son
not only leaves her heart-broken,
but also places her well-being at jeopardy;
with no male relative to provide for her,
she is completely on her own in the world
without any apparent way to support herself.
Seeing her distress
Jesus is filled with compassion,
and acting on that compassion
he brings the young man back to life.
The crowd around Jesus is filled
with both amazement and fear
when they witness this;
such great power can only come
from one who is indeed a prophet,
one who is sent from God.
Most often we hear this story, like last week’s,
not only as a demonstration of Jesus’ identity
– because we tend to take that for granted –
but as a healing story,
revealing Jesus’ power over disability,
disease, and even death.
I’m not going to argue that this is wrong;
I do, however, want to suggest
that physical healing is not
the most important aspect of this passage for us.
What is crucial here is Jesus’ identification
with the widow’s plight,
not just her distress at the death of her son,
but also her fate as a widow,
one who could end up destitute
without male support.
Jesus acts to return her son to her;
in doing so, he relieves her sorrow
and he helps insure that she will be provided for,
cared for until the natural end of her days.
We hear a similar story in our reading from Hebrew scripture
about the prophet Elijah.
During a time of famine, God sent Elijah
to Zarephath to be fed by a woman there,
also a widow,
and her only son.
The woman is incredulous
– she doesn’t have enough
even to keep the two of them alive,
and now she has to feed Elijah, too?
She listens to Elijah, however,
and makes him some bread,
and somehow her provisions stretch
to feed her household and Elijah for a time.
Then her son becomes ill and dies.
Elijah is greatly distressed when he hears this.
Enough is enough is his cry to God.
Elijah goes to the child, leans over him,
and he is revived.
As with the widow of Nain,
not only is this mother’s grief relieved,
her future is ensured because her son is returned to life.
So what do these stories tell about WHO Jesus is?
What do they reveal to us about the nature of God?
Quite a bit, I think.
In these two stories we see a God
who cares deeply about humanity,
who is moved by the human plight,
and who responds with love and compassion
to human distress.
God’s response is NOT
to prevent bad things from happening,
because in the world God put in to place,
famines happen, people sicken and die;
that is the way the world works.
Famine, disease, earthquakes, floods happen
as a consequence of our biological,
physical, geological makeup;
other bad things are the result of human action.
Humans, created by God with free will,
can make bad choices,
capitulate to forces of what
we might refer to as “evil,”
things that distort us and pull us away from God.
And God does not interfere with that.
Instead we see a God
who acts not just to restore life
for the sake of restoring life,
but to address a need
that arises from brokenness in the world,
in this case the poor treatment of widows.
When we put what Jesus teaches us
– love our enemy, care for the oppressed –
together with his own response
to those who are sick,
who grieve, who are in distress,
what we find in Jesus is a call
both to respond to the hurts
and brokenness in the world
AND to work to address their root causes.
Which brings me to why I am wearing this orange stole today.
Orange is NOT a liturgical color;
in fact, someone made this stole
especially for me to wear today.
I join with many Episcopal priests
and bishops in doing so.
Our wearing orange stoles this Sunday
grew out of the larger WEAR ORANGE movement,
something begun by friends of a young woman
who, days after marching
in President Obama’s second inaugural parade,
was killed in a street shooting.
Orange was her favorite color,
and her birthday was June 2
– and thus arose Thursday’s Wear Orange Day
to promote awareness of gun violence.
Because most of us don’t attend church on Thursday,
an off-the-cuff comment on Facebook
by a priest-friend of mine,
and encouragement from the group
Bishops United Against Gun Violence,
led many clergy to extend that observance
to include today.
I will confess that I am a pacifist at heart,
and I find violence of any sort distressing,
but as I mentioned in the weekly newsletter,
my life has, at least indirectly,
been touched by gun violence.
A friend of my daughter died from suicide
while still in middle-school,
an act that was made inevitably successful
because of the presence of a gun in the house.
And two and half years ago,
when the horrible mass shooting took place in Newtown,
members of my congregation were personally affected,
as were people here in Katonah.
At that time, I found these words from the prophet Jeremiah meaningful,
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.’ (31:15)
The sad truth is, today, almost three years later,
we are still weeping for our children,
weeping for toddlers, young men and women,
people of all ages who die daily,
from acts of gun violence.
And my friends, God is weeping with us.
God remains with us in our grief, our anger,
our sorrow over ALL these needless deaths,
all the trauma afflicted on individual, families,
in their aftermath.
And God is waiting for us to respond,
just as Jesus responded to the widows of Nain,
just as Elijah responded to the widow of Zarephath,
not just to comfort those who mourn
but to change the conditions that caused the mourning.
We cannot merely pray for the dead,
pray for those who mourn,
pray for a better world,
and then wait for God to do all the work.
We need not, we cannot,
sit by passively in our sorrow.
Instead we must let that sorrow motivate us,
and we must count on God to empower us
as we tackle the evil that lets violence persist.
As Martin Luther King wrote in 1963
after the killing of four innocent young girls
in a church bombing,
“We must be concerned not merely
about who murdered them,
but about the system, the way of life,
the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
We, too, must be concerned about the system,
way of life, and philosophy
that allows gun violence to continue.
We might start by admitting
that we live in a culture that glorifies violence
– and if you think I overstate this,
just look at the most popular movies, TV shows,
and video games on the market –
and by acknowledging the influence
that violence has on our psyches,
whether conscious or unconscious.
And then we must begin to confront those things
that support this culture of violence,
even, especially, the ones that may be painful
or contentious to talk about.
We must openly and honestly address
how we might work for sensible gun laws,
laws that are enforced fairly
and that serve to protect us
from the rampant gun violence
that permeates our society.
We must act bravely and firmly
to challenge the status quo,
we must not let ourselves be silenced
by those who say
we cannot or should not change.
As the first century rabbi Hillel said,
“If not us, who? If not now, when?”