Sunday, June 6, 2010

2 Pentecost

June 6, 2010

Psalm 30; Luke 7. 11-17

+ You’ve heard me talk many times before about the so-called “Emergent Church” movement. This is the movement in the Church that deals with a new way of looking at Christianity—a different, more “modern” way that actually looks back at the beginning and tries to fuse modern ways with ancient ways. This is the movement that has been popularized by such leaders as Brian MacLaren (of Generous Orthodoxy fame) and Phyllis Tickle (of The Great Emergence fame).

Every month I am reading one or two new books from the Emergent Church and each book really does challenge and amaze me. What I have come to love about the Emergent Church movement is its ability to give voice to people like me—so-called Progressive or Liberal Christians who also want deep spirituality. As one of my clergy friends who identifies himself as an “emergent Christian” says of himself: “I am a liberal who loves Jesus. I believe in the Incarnation and the Resurrection wholeheartedly, but I also believe that women, gays and everyone else has a full and equal place in the Church.”

It is a refreshing movement for those us wearied by the in0fighting and wrangling going on the Church. It is providing us a way forward through all the religious-political muck.

One of the best summations of the Emergent Church movement has been the “Phoenix Affirmations.” Not a lot of people know about these wonderful statements, but if you don’t, I encourage you to learn more about them. The Phoenix Affirmations were published as a book in 2006 by a UCC pastor from Flagstaff, Arizona by the name Eric Elnes. They are a series of 12 Affirmations that essentially summarize how the Church is changing. For example, Affirmation 5 is stated this way:

“As Christians, we welcome persons of every race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical and mental ability, nationality and economic class into full life of our community.”

That doesn’t sound too radical for us here at St. Stephen’s. I think we all strive to do this here. But, the affirmation goes on:

“We affirm the Path of Jesus is found where Christ’s followers uplift and celebrate the worth and integrity of all people as created in God’s very image and likeness.”

Sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it? It sounds quite a bit like our Baptismal Covenant in which we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” But the affirmation goes even one step further:

“We further affirm that Christ’s path includes treating all people authentically rather than as mere categories or classes, challenging and inspiring all people to live according to their high identity.”

In other words, to be a Christian means that we more often than not, have to move outside our comfort zones in following Jesus.

In our Gospel reading for today, we experience one of those instances in which Jesus shows us that following him means stepping outside the comfort zones we in which we live. The story of the widow and her son makes very little sense unless we have some basic understanding of the culture in which it occurred. From our perspective, it is a sad story in and of itself. A widow has lost her son. She is weeping. Jesus tells her not to sorrow and raises him from the dead.

But there is more going on here than what we might fully appreciate at first . The fact that the woman is a widow is an important factor in the story. Women, in that time and that place—in that culture—were not seen as equal to men. A woman’s identity was not her own. The only importance a woman had was in relation to the males in her life—whether it be her father, her husband, her brother, or her son. A woman could not make money for her self. A woman could not work for money. Whatever money she had she received from the men in her life. A woman legally had no status in that culture. So, if a husband died, a widow was in trouble. Unless there was another man to take care of her—her son, her brother, her husband’s brother, her father, a new husband—she became destitute.

That is why this story is so important. That is why Jesus makes the issues he does here. With the death of this widow’s son, she would be lost in a sense. She would have nothing. She would probably be out on the street, begging for money.

Often we hear in the Church poetic language used about Jesus. We often hear him described as “the defender of widows.” It’s a phrase we don’t hear much anymore. It doesn’t have the same meaning for us as it did in other times and places. And because it doesn’t have much meaning for us, for the most part, we don’t give a statement like that much thought. But knowing what we know now, we realize how powerful a statement it really is.

“A defender of widows”

Jesus truly was—and continues to be—the widow’s refuge. Of course, in our day and age, widows for the most part are not by any means in the same predicaments as the woman in today’s Gospel is. Widows—women for the most part—are not seen as marginalized by our culture anymore.

Yes, there still is an unfairness in our culture—especially in business and elsewhere, but women, for the most part, have been able to be viewed on the same level as men. Women over the last fifty or a hundred years, have been doing a great job of standing up and demanding equal rights.

But the question needs to be asked: who are the widows in our midst today? I’m not talking here about those who have lost husband and wives, because that is not the real meaning behind the story of the widow in our Gospel this morning. The widows in our lives are those living on the fringes. The widows in our lives are the ones who wandering about, discarded by our culture, looked down on by most of us, the ones who are shunned and ostracized. So, who are the widows? Who are marginalized? Who are the ones on the fringes of our culture? Who are the ones on the fringes of our own community here at St. Stephen’s?

Because it is those people that Jesus is telling us, by his actions and by his words, to care for. It is those people our Baptismal Covenant demands we reach out and care for. It is those people that Jesus commands us—he commands it of us—to love, as we want to be loved. If we look around us, we might not readily see them.

In Jesus’ day it was easier to see them. There was the widow, the leper, the Samaritan, the tax collector. Today, they go by other names. You know what names they go by for you. Take a moment to think of who the marginalized person is in your midst.

The best way to find this person is to ask this question of yourself: who is the person I want least as my neighbor? Who is the person I don’t want living next to me or sitting next to me or sharing my table? That then becomes the marginalized person in our midst. And that is the person Jesus is telling us, throughout the Gospels again and again, to love as we would want to be loved. And this is the point we can take with us as well.

Today’s Gospel is really a beautiful one. Jesus has raised this widow’s son and, in doing so, he helps not only the son by giving him back life, he helps the widow as well by giving her life—or a biter life—as well. This is what happens when we follow Jesus. He pushes us outside our comfort zones and as he does, as frightening as it might seem to us, he gives us life as well. We might stand there, bewildered, in that uncomfortable place. But we stand there renewed as well.

Eric Elnes, in the Phoenix Affirmations book, writes:

“If Christian history teaches us anything, it demonstrates that it takes three things to move out of our comfort zone: a cross, an empty tomb and the will to follow Jesus through both.”

Following Jesus is constant series of being pushed outside our comfort zone. It is constant series of being comforted with the cross and the empty tomb—again and again. Like the young man in today’s Gospel, hopefully we emerged from our spiritual deaths able to make a positive difference in people’s lives around us. Hopefully we, in those moments in which Jesus healed us and sent us on our way, are able to be a “widow’s refuge” to the “widows” in our midst.

Elnes writes elsewhere in his book:

“To walk with Jesus on the other side of the cross is to enter a realm where transformative love works miracles…for slaves held in bondage, for women held in subordination, for divorcees prohibited from remarrying, for racial minorities excluded from a white world, and for gays and lesbians blocked from full participation in the straight world [and, I would add, from the Church]. In short, it is a realm where love works miracles for the dardnest people—including you and me.”

The message of today’s Gospel is not clear at first, but it becomes clear when we place it alongside our lives. The message of today’s Gospel is this: Listen to the voice of Jesus. It saying to you, “be the widow’s refuge in your life.” Look long and hard for the widows in your life this day and this coming week. Recognize those people who are lost, afraid, struggling because their support is gone. Look for those who are drifting, out there on the fringes. Search out that person you never in a million years would never want as a neighbor. Reach out with love and compassion for those who are snubbed and mistreated by the society in which we all live.

Avoid the snubbing and the mistreatment of others in your own life. Like Jesus, be the refuge and defender for that marginalized person. Jesus raised you up, like the young man in today’s Gospel, from the shrouds and the decay of death. Go forth from your grave, singing the words of the psalm we shared today:

“You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.”

And in living, in dancing, in that all-encompassing joy, be the refuge and defender for someone who needs you.