Sunday, June 5, 2016

3 Pentecost

June 5, 2016

Psalm 30; Luke 7. 11-17

+ This coming week, I will be observing the twelfth anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. It’s always an exciting time for me, as you all know. I like to look back over my years as priest, and also to look forward. It’s certainly been an interesting experience for me.  And it is nowhere near what I initially thought it would be like twelve years ago.

But one of the areas I have deeply loved and appreciated in my ministry as a priest has been funerals. I know. That might sound morbid. But I truly do appreciate being the person there for people at this very important time in their lives.

Now, when I say I appreciate being a priest for funerals, I don’t simply mean being there to do the funeral. Rather, I also realize that much of what I do with funerals is in the days and weeks and months afterward. Because, let me tell, having been through my own dark season of mourning in my own life, I know that the really difficult time after the death of a loved one isn’t in the immediate aftermath of the death. It is in the days and weeks and months following the funeral. It is in those lonely days when the mourners have dispersed, and the condolence cards have been read, and the long-haul of mourning begins. That is when the priest and pastor needs to step up and reach out.

Often, the offer to help is politely declined. Mourning is a very private affair, after all.  But it is then that our ministry begins of prayer and support—even if it is from a distance.  There is a unique kind of ministry we have all been called to do when we minister to mourners—to widows and widowers, to the newly orphaned (and orphans, let me remind you are not just children—orphans come in all ages), to all those experiencing that dark season of mourning, which is, at times, a truly bleak season.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find someone who is going through that dark season of mourning.  We find a widow who also has had a few things happen to her that were definitely hard.  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. Very nice.

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, as we probably have figured out by this point, 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 real 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 herself, certainly not enough on which to live.   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, if there was no one else, she would be lost in a sense.   She would have nothing.   She would probably be out on the street, begging for money.

Elsewhere in scripture, in Psalm 68, we hear God 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.

God is “the defender of widows.”

But knowing what we know now, we realize how powerful a statement it really is.

God is “a defender of widows”

The God of Jesus truly was—and continues to be—the widow’s refuge, as our Gospel for today shows.  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.

So, since widows in our day are not seen as marginalized as they were in Jesus’ day, does that mean this story and God’s title as “defender of windows” have no meaning for us now?  Not necessarily.  I think a better question needs to be asked:

who are the widows in our midst today?

Now, I’m not talking here about those who have lost husbands 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 are wandering about, discarded by our culture, looked down on by most of us, the ones who are shunned and ostracized.   The one who, by themselves, have little or no meaning in our society.

So, who are the “widows”?  Who are marginalized?  Who are the forgotten ones, the ignored ones, the invisible ones? 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—and he does command 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.  If you take a moment to think of who the marginalized person is in your midst, you’ll be able to name them.  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? Who is the person we don’t see in our midst?  That person 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 better life—as well.  This is what happens when we follow Jesus and believe in the God of 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 place. But we stand there renewed.

Like the young man in today’s Gospel, hopefully we emerge from our spiritual deaths able to make a positive difference in people’s lives around us.   Hopefully we, in those moments in which Jesus heals us and sends us on our way, are able to be a “widow’s refuge” to the “widows” in our own midst.

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 God.

It saying to us, “be the widow’s refuge in your life.”   Let us look long and hard for the “widows” in our lives this day and this coming week.
Let us recognize those people who are lost, afraid, invisible,  struggling because their support is gone.  Let us look for those who are drifting, out there on the fringes.   Let us search out that person we never in a million years would want as a neighbor.  Let us reach out with love and compassion for those who are snubbed and mistreated by the society in which we all live.  Let us avoid the snubbing and the mistreatment of others in our own lives.

Like the God of Jesus, let us be the refuge and defender for that marginalized person.   Jesus raised us up, like the young man in today’s Gospel, from the shrouds and the decay of spiritual death.   Let us go forth from our own graves, 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, let us be the refuge and defender for someone who needs us.

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