Profound Limitations and Depths of Faith

 A sermon for Proper 24: Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

JT’s diagnosis is crushing. Cerebral Palsy evokes images of crippled children; however, when symptoms appear early physical therapy can help retrain the brain, and three days old is about as early as you can get. Weeks go by; life settle into a routine, and something like normalcy begins to set in. And then the symptoms change. JT and his parents go back to the Children’s’ Hospital PICU. Adjusting medications don’t stop the seizures. Changing medications isn’t effective. JT has a different kind of seizure that leads to a high definition MRI which reveals a significant shrinkage of JT’s brain. The diagnosis is a mitochondrial DNA defect, which is not treatable.

These are times when our limitations are profound, and we learn the depths of faith. There is nothing one can do beyond being present as the countenance of God, and even this is limited by the realities of miles upon miles of distance (Almquist). Where is the justice?

This morning’s Gospel story is about justice. We are used to hearing about the tenacity of the widow, and that if we are tenacious in our prayer life, our prayers will be answered. Most, well many, okay some preachers make adjustments to account for unanswered prayers while still holding up the widow’s tenacity as a model trait. And ~ it is a valuable model; ~ however, this past week, tenacity did not draw my attention. This past week I’ve been drawn in by “locker room talk.” And yes, I am going to mix politics and religion in the pulpit, in what, I hope, has been prayerful discernment.

Mr. Trump said what he said, and I’ll leave it to you to decide what you are to decide. However, the excuse that it is just “locker room talk” requires attention, at least in part because October is domestic abuse awareness month, and the alleged abusive behavior parallels domestic abuse. “Locker room talk” is not an excuse for any language that justifies or encourages any kind of abusive behavior. To try and use it as such does great damage to the recent years of hard mentoring work by high school and college coaches across the country as they seek to teach young men how to respect young ladies. It diminishes the efforts professional sports have taken to hold professional athletes accountable for their abusive treatment of women. It is up to you to decide the truth of the allegations. Either way, I strongly believe the excuse of “locker room talk” is a grave injustice to everyone. It diminishes our ability to see ourselves and others as the image of God we all are. It diminishes our ability to live into our baptismal vows as consecrated people, set aside for God’s purposes. It thwarts our efforts to be stewards of justice for all. And by “for all” I mean “for all” I’m not just adding women.

Here is my other concern. In dismissing Mr. Trump, I fear we will also dismiss the depths of the injustice he and Bernie Sanders have touched on. There are many, millions, of people who for forty years or more have not benefited from the economic growth in the world; and many have been harmed by laws and policies that enable the growth. Coal miners in West Virginia, automobile manufacturers in Detroit, air conditioner builders in Indianapolis, Milwaukee Tools workers here in Blytheville, have all lost jobs because of changes in the world trade conditions.

I don’t believe the market changes by themselves are unjust; however, the failure to provide displaced workers and their families with alternative careers is an unjust action by officials, who neither feared God nor respected people (Luke 18:2). The bias has worked its way into the legal system. Last week a Federal court found against two computer techs who were forced to train their replacements who came into the US on H1-b work visas, that are not supposed to “adversely affect the working conditions” (PRESTON). We have also heard over the last few weeks that US Bankers, at least at Wells Fargo, neither feared God nor respected people, as they fired 5,000 people for basically following instructions. Yes, two executives have lost their jobs, but with little financial repercussions, and the stockholders have an $185 million fine to pay. These workers’ anger and fears are just, and they can be dangerous.

You may be aware the new President of the Philippines has started a literal war on drugs. To date, some 14,000 addicts and drug dealers have been killed. President Duterte has compared himself to Hitler, though he later recanted. The link to my concern is that his actions are seen positively as signs of a willingness to act. He remains very popular, 83% of the people trust him. A citizen said

I see something that I have not seen in a long time in the Philippines, which is that he cares. He cares for the small guy, which is very important to me (ALMENDRAL).

Here is the link to Jesus’ parable. With no way to support themselves, widows are the most at risk of all people in Israel (Hoezee, Proper 24 | Luke 18:1-8). By law widows, second, only to orphans, should receive special protection (Lose). The parable is a much about a corrupted judge as it is about the widow’s persistence. Today, we must be concerned not only with judges but with a justice system and perhaps a government that neither fears God nor respects people.

I am reasonably sure that part of the reason we see business and governing decisions that neither fear God nor respect people is that we have bought our own story that the capitalism will cure all ills, and then we have sat by as the commoditization of everything is leading to the diminishing of everyone. We can no longer hear the cry for an end to bigotry and misogyny, and the abuse of women, or workers. We can no longer hear the cry for justice even as we passively allow justice to be leveraged for our own advantage (Lewis). We no longer see our neighbors as the image of God. When will we lose the ability to see ourselves as the image of God? And without that vision how do we live into our baptism and calling as consecrated stewards of all God’s creation?

These are times when our limitations are profound, and we learn the depths of faith. A core theme of scripture is God’s radical love for everyone of any distinction we can imagine, and then some. I know the limits with JT’s illness. I know our calling as consecrated stewards of Jesus’ ministry to share the presence of the Kingdom of God, is to be as relentlessly dedicated to justice as the widow is. I know that with your prayers and support I will find outer limits and deeper faith as I walk with JT’s family in the time to come. I know that together with consecrated stewards of Jesus’ ministry to share the presence of the Kingdom of God, from faith communities of every distinction, we can continue works of mercy and bring justice to all.

References

Almendral, Aurora. Rodrigo Duterte, Scorned Abroad, Remains Popular in the. 13 10 2016. <nytimes.com/2016/10/14/world/asia/philippines-rodrigo-duterte-rating.html>.

Almquist, Br. Curtis. “countenance.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 9 10 2016.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 24 | Jeremiah 31:27-34 . 16 10 2016.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 16 10 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Frederick, John. Commentary on 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5. 16 10 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 24 | Luke 18:1-8. 16 10 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

—. Proper 24 C 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 . 16 10 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18c/>.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher Just Justice. 9 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.

Lose, David. Commentary on Luke 18:1-8. 16 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Preston, Julia. Judge Says Disney Didn’t Violate Visa Laws in Layoffs. 13 10 2016. <nytimes.com/2016/10/14/us/judge-says-disney-didnt-violate-visa-laws-in-layoffs.html>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

TAYLOR, JEMONDE. “Returning to Pray, Proper 24(C).” 16 10 2016. Sermons that Work.

Wines, Alphonetta. Commentary on Jeremiah 31:2734. 16 10 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

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So you think you are a god

A sermon for Proper 4: 1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24), Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

If you watch any TV at all, you know about reality TV. There seems to be a contest for almost everything. There is a “So you think you are a …” contest for singers dancers, cooks, stage and movie makeup artists, and home makeovers. This morning we seem to have a “So you think you are a god” contest.

Elijah is in the northern Kingdom Israel. Israel’s’ kings have gotten progressively more sinful and Ahab worst of the worst. He is married to Jezebel and actively worships Baal; he builds an altar to Baal. God tells Elijah to announce there will be a drought. This is a direct challenge to Baal, who is the Canaanite god of rain and fertility (Hoezee, Harrelson, Sakenfeld). By a roundabout way, Elijah ends up at the gates of Zarephath, a Phoenician city and center of Baal worship (Harrelson). And although Baal must periodically submit to Mot, the Canaanite god death, which causes drought, it is clear the God of Israel is the cause of this drought in the very heartland of Baal home territory (Gaventa and Petersen).

Remember last week we heard the story of Elijah versus the prophets of Baal in which Elijah’s sacrifice is accepted in the blazing all-consuming fire after Baal’s prophets were unable to get a response to their appeals. I don’t think we got to the verses that immediately follow where God brings the drought to an end. The “So you think you are a god” contest is leaning in God’s favor. However, there is more to the story than drought.

Elijah meets a widow at the gates of Zarephath and offers her a source of unending bread and oil, an amazing abundance in the face of dire scarcity (Chan). She shares with him the last of her and her son’s food, and sure enough, there is grain and oil to last. We don’t know how long it takes, but the widow’s son gets sick and dies. She blames Elijah because he brought her, and her sins, to God’s attention. Elijah takes the child to his room, enacts some ritual, and asks God to restore his life. In the heart of Baal’s territory; in the heart of Mot’s territory, once again God brings life from despair and death revealing that God is sovereign (Harrelson).

The widow’s son is brought to life. The widow professes belief in Elijah as a man of God, and in that belief, faith in God. At this point, the contest is over, neither Baal nor Mot prevails; the Lord, the God of Israel, is God of all (Gaventa and Petersen).

Widow Zarephath’s story is not new; she is in the same crisis Naomi is in in the Book of Ruth. Despite the many laws and statutes designed to give widows extra consideration, in reality, widows continued to be an exploited group, invisible to most (Hoezee).

As Jesus approaches the Gate of Nain, he sees a funeral procession of a widow’s only son. The mother’s grief is deep and bitter. It’s less than a day since his death, and she has no idea what the evening will bring, never mind what will become of her from here on. She is shrouded in despair (Hogan). Uninvited, Jesus goes to the bier and stops the procession and just tells the man to get up. No ritual, no touching the body, just simply “I say to you rise.” And he does. Jesus brings life from despair and death.

A couple of observations about these stories’ context. Elijah could not be in a more hostile place, yet it is here, in the heart of hostile territory, in the heart of another belief system, that God calls him to bear witness to the presence and power of God. I’ll acknowledge a bit of cultural projection; however, uninvited, Jesus intercedes in a profoundly personal time and acts. One commentator asks:

What would be your reaction if a stranger walked in during the funeral of one of your [family] and stopped the proceedings (Hogan)?

The opportunity to be Jesus’ witness “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8) is more often than not in unexpected, inhospitable, intrusive circumstances (Chan).

Widow Zarephath and the Widow Nain have been cut off from their communities by the deaths of their husbands and their sons. They have no prospects of providing for themselves. And yes, God and Jesus restore life to the dead sons; but they also restore life to the mothers (Hoezee). It is a common feature of healing miracles, that not only is life restored to the object of the miracle, but also to others, as community connections are also restored to life. A sign that our service in Jesus’ ministry is bearing fruit is that all sorts of things adjacent to the focus of our work begin showing signs of renewed hope, and budding life (Hoezee).

Bible stories like Widow Zarephath and Widow Nain are at one level comforting. At the same time, they can leave us uneasy, because we continue to live in a world that knows all sorts of death; from the death of loved ones, the loss of an opportunity, a job, a dream, or whatever. We are left not knowing how to respond, afraid of creeping doubt, fretful about the lack of our own faith. So how are we to respond? I have just read a book for my upcoming D.Min. class titled Leading Causes of Life. One observation is how much time and energy we tend to put into those things that cause death in an effort to stop death. These efforts are not wrong; however, the author observes how little resources we put into causes of life (Gunderson and Page). Perhaps ministry lies in nurturing life not simply fighting death. What Elijah’s and Jesus’ actions did that we can do is to nurture life. What we can do that is similar to their action is to sustain and nurture the potential that is right next to what is suffering, as the professional healers minister to the suffering. In both stories, it is the widowed grieving mothers who are at risk. In both stories, the act of ministry is not directed at them but at specifically their sons, or more generally some portion of life that is tangential to them which when nourished to flourishing will spill life all over them.

We all know Reality TV is not what it seems. Nonetheless, the reality is that the opportunity for service to Jesus ministry is not right in front of us, but perhaps in one of the surrounding communal relations. The reality is that with a touch of brazen uninvited interruption, or seemingly unrelated action, we can witness to the life-giving presence of God in Jesus by the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 5CCenter for Excellence in Preaching. 5 6 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Chan, Michael J. “Commentary on 1 Kings 17:816.” 6 9 2015. Working Preacher.

Ferguson, Shannon. “Green and Growing, Proper 5 (C) – 2016.” 5 6 2016. Sermons that Work.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Gunderson, Gary and Larry Page. Leading Causes of Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 7:11-17. 5 6 2016.

Hogan, Lucy Lind. Commentary on Luke 7:11-17. 5 6 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. When Jesus Shows Up. 5 6 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.