Monday, June 21, 2010

Proper 7C. 20 June 2010.


          Today we are given two Psalms that were probably one Psalm when originally written.  Psalms 42 and 43.  The Psalms are the original prayer book of our faith.  Many of them are happy.  Many of them are mournful.  Or to use the biblical term, they are lamentations.  Psalms 42 and 43 are in the category of lamentation.


          Though we don't use the word lamentation to describe it, we lament a lot.  We lament the loss of loved ones.  We lament tragedies, especially the truly mind boggling ones.  The oil spill.  9/11.  The various natural disasters in our world.  As we approach hurricane season, I would imagine that many people in the Gulf are wondering what things will look like when a hurricane brings both water and oil.


          Lamentation is not just complaint.  It is not belly-aching, or hand-wringing.  It comes from the well of genuine human suffering.  We see life as it is standing at a great distance from life as we think it should be.  It is a sign of our imagination and drive that we wish to be better—to do more—to have more control.  And since we can often control the little things, we'd like to think—with more effort—we could control the big things, too.  And maybe sometimes we can.  Often we can't. 



          That's probably why we like to shop.  Three hundred million varieties of shampoo in Wal-Mart.  They all do essentially the same thing, but…you know…some have a conditioner in them.  Some claim to be "volumizing."  (That's what I need.  I need to be volumized.)  


          Sometime really notice all the choices we get in the store.  The presence of variety brings comfort.  The store says, "Peace be with you, if you can afford it, you can choose it, you have control over your hair.  You have control over your headache…Ibuprophen, Tylenol, Naproxen.  Rolaids, Tums, Mylanta, Pepcid, Pepto-Bismol.   Peace be with you.  You have choices.


          But life doesn't always hand you choices.  Quite often the most routine day breaks forth into some crazy kind of nonsense that puts us in the doctor's office, or on the phone talking about something we'd rather avoid.  And the promise of the that first sip of coffee is broken.


          Often, we can take out a sheet of paper and make a list of what has separated us from the day we want to live and life as it has unfolded, but not always.  There are days when everything goes exactly to plan.  The sun comes up over the mountain.  The coffee is sipped.  You envision the day you wish to live and it happens exactly as you planned it.  BUT.  In the midst of it all, something is wrong.  And you can't tell why. 


          What's wrong with you?  I don't know.  Is it this?  No.  Is it that?  Well, maybe, but no.    


          And Psalm 42 walks into the room and says, "As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.  My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?"


          Something is wrong.  What is it?  The bills are paid.  The laundry is done.  The trash was put out in time.  All the routines are running according to plan.  But there's this thinness to life. 


          "…the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, "I have no pleasure in them"; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few…the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails and…the dust returns to the earth as it was and the breath returns to God who gave it.  Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity."  (Ecclesiastes 12)


          It's a refrain that you hear three times in Psalms 42 and 43.  Look at the scripture insert.  Verses 6 and 7.  14 and 15.  And then Psalm 43: 5 and 6.  Do you see the refrain? 


          "Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?  And why are you so disquieted within me?  Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance and my God."


          Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?  And why are you so disquieted within me?  What is it?  Is it the oil spill?  Yes, but no.  Is it the politician on TV?  Yes, but no.  It's a heaviness.  It's carrying something around.  You can't see it.  You don't know what it is, but it's there.  It's on you chest, or on your back.  You would lay it down in an instant if you could.  No one carries things around unless they have to.


          The Psalmist says, "I pour out my soul when I think on these things; how I went with the multitude and led them into the house of God."  How can I feel so bad…I'm the one they look to.  I was the one who made Thanksgiving dinner.  I arranged the flowers for church and set the Altar.  God…this is not the way I should be feeling.  For all my prayers, I should feel better than this.  (Pause.)


          Some years ago, Karin and I were coming home from visiting her folks in Texas.  This was before the children, and we could afford to fly.  The flight schedules were all backed up.  We were supposed to land at National Airport around 4pm, or something like that, and we got in around midnight.  We hadn't had dinner.  The airport cafes were closed.  And then we find out that our luggage was either coming on the next plane, or the one after that.  And sure enough, it was coming on the later flight.


          We get a taxi to Karin's sister's house in Alexandria, so we can pick up our car and get some fast food, and rush back to the airport to get our luggage. 


          The conveyor belt starts up and out come the suitcases.  We are standing right at the front.  Begging, pleading for our bags to be next.  And I will never forget my exasperated wife, half praying, half crying, "Come on God.  Give us the luggage.  We work for you."


          No control, you see?  At least we knew what we needed.   Luggage, a night's sleep, some food.  It's actually quite nice to know what you need.  Diagnosis and treatment.


          But when the symptoms aren't obvious, you go around from point A to point B silently asking, "Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?  And why are you so disquieted within me." (Pause.)


          You need to get out of town for a little while.  Maybe run up to Winchester or Harrisonburg.  That's the problem, see.  You've gotten complacent.  Same prayers.  Same meals.  Same scenery.  Yes, the Valley is the Garden of Eden.  No, there is nowhere on earth prettier than right here, but you need to get out for a little while.  Everyone needs a break. 


          Listen to a little music in the car.  Drive around.  Sit down to lunch at a restaurant and order something you've never had.  That looks good.  Give me one of those.  The plate comes out.  You look over at the other table and there sits someone you don't know.  Nice looking.  He's having lunch with…who could that be?  Is that someone from the office.  He seems happy.  "Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?"  (Pause.)


          "Send out your light and your truth,"—he's getting desperate now.  "Send out your light and your truth," says the Psalmist, "that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling."  You know how to get to church.  You put the car in gear and it will drive itself there.  You know what it will smell like in church.  You know which pew you will sit in.  The stained-glass windows will look the same, the lighting is the same, the Prayer Book lies down with the Hymnal, and as your mind shifts over to the setting for "prayer" up comes the sick list:  Dabney, Vera, Rachel, Tony.   The names and faces pass through your mind.  Once the obligatory prayers have registered, we fold up the sick list, and there we sit. 


          It could be in church; it could be at home.  It could be anywhere at all; but now is the time to pray.  We start twisting the knobs, trying to get a signal.  Twist a little to the left and we get some childhood memories, twist to the right and we get a the shopping list.  God must be broadcasting somewhere on the dial. "Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?" 


          Prayer used to be easier.  God used to drop in on his way home from work in the evening.  When I was a kid, he smoked a pipe.  I remember the smell of his tobacco pouch and the way he would cradle the bowl of the pipe in his hand as he tamped the shredded tobacco down.  He would light it with a few quick drags, singeing the top of the pipe, and the rich smell of cherry flavored tobacco would fill the air.  The incense was burning.  It was time for telling God the news of the day.



          And up from the wisps of tobacco smoke, God received the glory of our laughter and we didn't care about the things we couldn't control.  Good things had happened.  Bad things had happened.  God would smile and talk.  We didn't know what he was saying, yet his voice was calm and sweet, and we watched the incense of his pipe rise as an evening sacrifice.   (Pause.)


          But now we know the dangers of smoking.  The incense no longer burns.  The list of woes grows larger than the list of joyful surprises.  The calm indifference of the back porch is no longer the place of stories. 


          The lawn is not the place of a "thousand twangling instruments," "sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not" —now it is grass to be mowed.  Back then you knew what a new pencil eraser smelled like.  What the floor tasted like.  The most important thing in the kitchen was the cookie jar, and it winked at you every time you entered the room.  When the floor had been mopped, you knew how to get from one side to the other without ever touching the floor.  It was magic.


          Magic was everywhere.  How did the stove work?  How did the refrigerator work?  Magic.  The clothes in the laundry hamper magically appeared on the line outside the window, and then, magically, after bath time, there they were in the drawer.


          God moved in mysterious ways.  Santa Claus.  The Easter bunny.  The tooth fairy.  It was so easy to pray.  It rhymed!  "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lay on."  "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."  "I see the moon, and the moon sees me, the moon sees the somebody I'd like to see.  So God bless the moon, and God bless me, and God bless the somebody I'd like to see."


          We are meant to grow up.  We are meant to learn.  There comes the day when  mommy and daddy becomes mom and dad, and the prayers stop rhyming.  Johnson's baby shampoo gives way to volumizing or non-volumizing.   And it should be, I suppose. 


          "Why are you so full of heaviness…"  And the Psalmist responds with his own pep talk, "Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance and my God."


          I have no idea why the spirit languishes…why the grasshopper drags itself along…why life pushes us forward whether we are ready to go or not.  But I think we all feel it from time to time, and I think God cares for us very tenderly in those times, even if we don't feel it as much as we would like.


          Perhaps those times can be softened a bit by remembering that we are never truly alone.  The training wheels come off—they may have come off years and years ago—but daddy's still there.  His hand isn't on the seat like it used to be, but he's still there, and I will yet give thanks to him.  I will still trust, and I will still praise him.




          Even when the lights go out at night, and the darkness is heavier than the covers, he is still there.  And he will never leave us to face our perils alone.  Some days it's easy and some days it's hard, but blessed be God.  Blessed be his holy Name.   Blessed be God.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.



Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Don't give up

Don't give up.  Don't stop. 
Have you seen a sprouted seed push its way through the soil?  Don't give up. 
Have you seen a baby quivering and crying in the first few moments of life?  Don't give up.
Have you made it past yesterday, past last year, past the last decade, past the last generation?  Don't give up.
Have you pushed through the thinness of the wilderness and found a banquet on the other side?  Don't give up.
Have you lived it as faithfully as you could?  Spoken the truth in love when anger or concession would have been easier?  Don't give up.
Have you trailed clouds of glory, leaping over obstacles, heart pounding, leaving the fleeting but profound mark of a human footprint?  Don't give up.
Christ reached his nail pierced hands into the grave and pulled us out.  Don't give up.
The Spirit came, empowered, and sent us.  Don't give up.
Don't give up.  Don't give in.  Don't give over. 
Keep going.  Keep praying.  Keep believing.  Keep hoping.  Keep loving.  Keep proclaiming. 
Don't stop.  Don't ever stop. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gracious and loving God

you have revealed your love in me: Help me to reveal your love in others.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Proper 6C. 13 June 2010.




          Almost exactly four months ago, we read the story of Mary of Bethany coming to Jesus with pound of pure nard—a rich, heady perfume—and she begins to anoint Jesus' feet and kiss them, wiping them with her hair.  I preached on that text.  It was from John's gospel.  You might remember that in talking about that event I spoke of it as an act of passion.  It was a costly sacrifice, offered in love.  A meaningful thing offered in the most meaningful way.  And what I was trying to show is that Mary of Bethany's act of love foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. 


          Well, that was one of the stories of a woman coming to anoint and kiss Jesus' feet—and wipe them with her hair.  And today we come to Luke's gospel, and we have another woman and another bottle of perfume, and another situation.  In fact, this kind of thing happens in each of the four Gospels.  In Matthew, Mark, and John, there is also dialogue between Jesus and someone else, telling us that the women are doing this in preparation for Jesus' burial. 


          But today we read from Luke, and Luke's version is different.  So even though it feels like we just read this, I'm asking you to make space in your minds for the same scenario with a different meaning. 




          The story Luke tells is that Jesus has come to the house of a Pharisee for dinner.  A woman comes to the house.  Luke does not give her a name.  She is described in two ways.  A woman of the city.  A sinner.  And we know what that means. 


          She learns that Jesus is at the house of Simon, a Pharisee, and she gets a jar of expensive alabaster ointment.  Now look how the story is told.  She comes to the house.  No invitation.  And she stands behind Jesus, weeping.  Can you imagine it?  She arrives.  And she starts to cry.  And as she cries, the ritual begins, the feet, the ointment, the hair, the kissing. 


          Simon, the host, sees this and begins to criticize.  "If this man were of God, he would know what kind of woman this is.  He would not allow her to touch him."  Jesus spoke up and said, "Let's say two men owed money to another man.  One owes 500, the other 50.  Both debts are cancelled by the lender.  Now, which one do you think is more grateful.  Simon responds, "The man who owed 500."  And Jesus says, "You got it."


          See in Luke, it's not about burial, it's about forgiveness.  And for Luke, the thrust of the story is to show that Jesus forgives this woman for her sins.  We don't have a problem with that now, but back then it was understood that only God could forgive sins.  Luke is showing us that Jesus is from God, which is the primary meaning of this text.





          But I'm going to have to ask for Luke's forgiveness this morning.  I have given you the meaning he has given to the story.  For some reason, I couldn't focus my mind on the interaction between Jesus and Simon.  It seemed irrelevant to me. 


          There are probably hundreds of sermons to be preached about that interaction, but I couldn't take my eyes off of the woman.  The conversation receded into background noise.  I couldn't stop looking at her and thinking about her, because she was crying.


          It's hard to listen to someone talk when someone else is crying.  How many times have the children bumped into something, dropped something, tears start to flow.  Karin and I want to talk about something, but we can't. 


          You have to look at the person who cries—it is not a sign of aggression, it is a sign of respect that we see them.  How bitterly awful it would be if the natural response to seeing someone in tears was to shun them.  No…to see someone in their weakness and allow ourselves to be silent and compassionate is probably the most godlike thing we could ever do.  We all know what it is to hurt. 


          So I sat down and just let this woman cry, and anoint Jesus' feet.  She never noticed me.  I wanted to go over and speak to her, but I was a little shy.  And honestly, what she was doing was so intimate that I really didn't feel I should go over there. 



          Why is she weeping?  Is it because she is sorry for her sins?  (Pause.)  Is it because she knows that Jesus will be forgiving her?  (Pause.)  Is it because she feels that she has already been forgiven?  Or maybe I was over thinking it.  It might be that all three of those reasons are in play.  Remorse, anticipation of a new life, and new life itself…all rolled into one. 


          I wanted to ask if she could explain this a little, but two thoughts got in my way.  I remembered that when you ask someone to think while they are crying, they stop crying.  You can't actually think analytically and cry at the same time.  Did you know that?  So that's the first reason I didn't ask. 


          The other reason is that this was too beautiful.  There is beauty in knowing that you are forgiven.  There is beauty in seeking forgiveness.  Beauty in a woman's hair and tears and ointment. 


          Most of the beautiful things we see draw us in.  How many times have I walked from the living room to the kitchen and caught sight of the sunset.  There is the pink and orange and red and blue splashed out on the sky.  It stays that way for an eternity if you watch, but in the twenty seconds it takes to refill a glass of water, it's all gone.  If you stand there and watch the colors, though they seem completely still, they are constantly changing.  Beautiful.  Drawing you in.  Changing the way you feel and think.  Beauty does that. 




          Roses on the mantle.  I gave them to Karin for our anniversary.  Pink and white.  They are so pretty when they arrive, just barely open.  You think they can't get prettier than that.  But watch them.  The next day they are just a little more open, and you think they can't get prettier than that.  But there they go…everyday, prettier and prettier.  Just like the women we love.  Just when you think a woman is as pretty she can get, watch her closely…she gets prettier.


          It starts when they're very young, and it never stops.  Maggie's hair is like corn silk.  I never thought it could get prettier, and then one day Karin put it up in pig tails.  And she giggled and flopped her head and ran down the hall.  A day older, a day wiser, a day prettier.  (Pause.)


          At the last church I served there is a red Persian area rug right beneath the Altar.  It was given by a parishioner many years ago when the wall to wall carpet was changed to a dusty sort of brown.  And being such a drab color, the carpet made the church seem a little depressing.  So someone gave this red Persian rug.  One parishioner said—"It lifted the whole place" and made it prettier. 


          Years went by and the drab wall to wall carpet needed to be replaced, and they replaced it with red, the color of the carpet here.  And the issue arose: now that we have a new red carpet, should we do away with the old red Persian rug?  Well, it was probably…I don't know, how old.  It was old.  There were many places it was thread-bare.  It needed some TLC. 



          One of the ladies who was there when the rug was first given paid for the rug to be cleaned, and after it came back, we put it right back beneath the Altar.  It looked strange to me.  The carpet around it was new, and here is this old thread-bare rug.  One of the ladies said, "Isn't it pretty?"  I said, "I don't know.  How do you say it's pretty when it's thread-bare and fraying?"  She said, "The rug is pretty because it's thread-bare and fraying."  And that's when I realized we were in church. 


          In the kingdom of God, there is beauty that changes you.  Beauty in a woman's hair and tears and ointment.  Beauty in an old woman gazing at a rug which she has visited at Communion every Sunday for forty years.  There is beauty in that woman's face.  Her hair has turned white from working and praying—sleepless nights after losing her husband—sleepless nights worrying about her children.  Her hair is short and white now, but it has always been long enough to wipe the feet of Jesus. 


          Gazing down at that carpet, and running her mind over each fiber and each memory—I didn't think it could happen—but she got prettier. 


          There is a woman who runs a vegetable stand.  She is tiny.  She probably weighs 100 pounds, maybe less.  She smokes her cigarettes and she sells tomatoes and cucumbers and melons.  A few people, not many, honk their horns as they drive by.  She waves with just the smallest tilt of her hand.  She sits beneath an umbrella on faded lawn chair and crosses her legs, puts an elbow on her knee and takes a long drag on her cigarette. 


          When business is slow she just sits there.  Cigarettes, Diet Cherry Coke.  And her head will tip down as thinks of everything and nothing.  And when the everything gets to be too much she shakes her head just a fraction of an inch, just to shoo away her thoughts.  She brushes the ash from her knee, and reaches up with her pinky finger to flick a tear away.  If she doesn't do that, more tears will come. 


          There are deep wrinkles in her face that have come from years of cigarettes, and sun, and she has no figure at all.  She looks familiar.  You know her.  She is the woman from the city, the sinner.  You can invite her to church, but she probably won't come.  She doesn't go where she is invited.  She finds out where Jesus is staying and then she goes.  And when she gets there, she doesn't ask if it's okay to cry, or smoke, or anything else.  Why?  Because she is authentic.  Because there is nothing about her that is false.  The dinner party is false.  The best china…not the stuff you use every day.  People are wearing nice clothes…not those old things you wear when you cut the grass.  The conversation is predictable and polite…and false.


          And here is humanity in all her broken beauty.  She stands there weeping behind a man she knows.  She saw him, he saw her—and they know each other, because they're both authentic.  She is authentically broken, and he is authentically compassionate.   She reaches out her hands, and hair, and kisses God.  There is the holy.   It can't get prettier, and then it does.



          "I sing because I'm happy.  I sing because I'm free.  His eye is on the sparrow.  And I know he cares for me."


          I watched her for the longest time from across the room.  I studied every strand of her hair, and counted every tear.  Finally, my eyes drifted away from her to Jesus.  There was a look in his eyes.  He knew I wanted to talk with the woman.  He knew that I was nervous.  Somehow he invited me over.  I got up slowly and walked over to her.  It took me awhile to get up the courage, but I asked her, "Had you met Jesus before he came here?"  She didn't look up.  But she nodded yes.


          And then the words came out of my mouth before I had a chance to stop them, "Why are you doing this?"  And she looked up at me and said, "He loves me."


          And just like the sunset, the roses, and Maggie's pig tails…she got prettier.





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Proper 5C. 6 June 2010.

          Today we read a story about Jesus bringing the only child of a widow back from the dead.  This happened in a town called Nain.  I do not know why, but this is not one of the well-known stories from the Gospels.   In fact—and I really do not know why this is true, but it is—Jesus raised three people from the dead—Jairus's daughter, the widow of Nain's son, and Lazarus—but I would bet you dollars to donuts that most Christians could not name a single one of those events.


          It is strange, because we remember other stories that are far less spectacular.  We remember Jesus healing the blind man, changing water into wine.  We remember the boats filled with fish.  We remember the parables.  The Fig tree.  Jesus curses the fig tree, the fig tree withers and dies that day.   But the widow of Nain's son..?  It's just not in the top ten.


          I don't know why this isn't a more popular story.  It has all the elements of something memorable.  Jesus is coming to Nain with his disciples and—Luke writes—"a large crowd went with him."  So you get the scene, right?  Jesus, twelve disciples and on top of that, a large crowd.   And as they approach the town, they encounter a funeral procession, right at the gate.  The only son of a widow is being carried on a funeral bier—like a platform that is carried by pallbearers.  And again Luke writes that there is a "large crowd."  So if we add the large crowd with Jesus to the large crowd with the widow we get one enormous crowd of people. 


          But even though there are all these people around, Luke focuses our eyes on the interaction between the widow and Jesus.   He writes, "When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, `Do not weep.'  Then he came forward and touched the funeral bier..."  Now, you and I know he should not have done that, right?  It made him ritually unclean.  You are not supposed to touch dead people or things dead people touch.  But...well…he does it anyway.


          And Jesus said to the boy, "Young man, I say to you, rise!"  And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 


          What happened next?  Luke writes that fear seized them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us."  You could almost imagine them saying, "The prophet Elijah has come back from the dead," because if you look at this story with our Old Testament lesson, you'll notice that it's almost line by line the story of Elijah and the widow and her son.  What I am saying is: It's not only an amazing story about Jesus, it also re-presents the story of Elijah.  It's repetition.  So why is it that this story is not in the top ten stories people remember? 


          Well, I have two theories.  One, the story only appears in Luke, so we only get it once.  And two, notice how quietly the story is told.  Despite the fact that we have two large crowds, creating this huge assembly of people, Luke zeros in on Jesus, the widow, and the son.  And there is no commotion, really.  No long prayers.  No begging God to do something. 


          If you read the Elijah story again, you will notice Elijah crying out to God, "O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?"  And Elijah…(this just boggles my mind, but it's right there in First Kings)…Elijah stretches himself out on top of the dead boy, and prays, "O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again." 


          But that's not what Jesus does.  Nothing like that.  Of course, as readers of Luke, we know that Jesus is not just a prophet.  He is the Son of God.  He doesn't need to make long prayers.  So the very fact that Jesus does not beg and plead sets this story quite apart from the story of Elijah, and it focuses us even further on what I think Luke is trying to help us see.  The most dramatic moment is not the boy being raised.  It's Jesus having compassion on the widow.  Our Lord's visit to her is the focal point of the story. 


          It is to the widow that Jesus comes.  Not the boy.  The problem does not rest with the boy.  This woman is out of the ballgame in first century Palestine.  She is a woman.  Strike one.  She is a widow.  No husband to support her financially or otherwise.  Strike two.  Her one and only son, who would have inherited the money—if there was any—to take care of her, had died.  Strike Three.  She's out.  Out in the cold.  No family, therefore, no money.  Women did not have any legal recourse for supporting themselves.  And we haven't even gotten to the emotional aspects of having lost both a husband and an only son.


          So what does she inherit from her son's death?  Everything, and nothing.  She inherits nothing at all from the world in which she lives.  But she inherits the compassion of Jesus—which turns out to be everything.  "Woman, do not weep."  "Young man, I say to you, rise!"  Do not rise for yourself, young man.  This is not for you.  This is for your mother. 


          Can you even imagine this event without thinking forward to the Cross?  And there hangs Jesus, saying to Mary, his mother, "Woman behold your son"?  And then to John, "Here is your mother." And John's Gospel says, "From that hour the disciple took her into his own home."  (John 19:26, 27)  Translated: Jesus provided for his mother at his own death.  Young man, this is not for you.  This is for your mother. (Pause.) 


          Luke wants to focus our attention on the mother, and I can understand that, but when I was thinking about this text in preparation for preaching on it, I wanted to take my eyes off the widow.  It's where Luke wants us to look, and I want to honor his intentions, but there are so many people there—two large crowds.  You can't just look at one or two people when you've got a large crowd around you. 


          So I started looking around at the crowd in the text.  During the funeral procession they were somber, of course.  A lot of ladies were coming up to the widow and hugging her and promising to bring dinner next week.  There were some men who didn't come up to her, but sent word by some of the other ladies that if she needed help with fixing anything around the house, or whatever, please let them know. 

          Just because she was penniless didn't mean that people didn't care about her.  If they didn't care about her they wouldn't be there.


          And then the crowd gets bigger.  Here comes Jesus, and his disciples, and the other crowd following them, but Jesus' crowd does not really have the same look on their faces.  They are respectful, of course.  They see the situation and you can see the look of generalized concern on their faces.  The disciples seem curious.  Jesus seems almost at the point of tears. 


          Well, the story unfolded and instead of watching the young man sit up, I watched the crowd.  You have never seen a look of surprise on anyone's face like the looks on their faces.  The somber looks gave way to curiosity.  And when Jesus said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" there was a moment when everyone stood completely still.  It was absolutely silent. 


          And when the son sat up on the bier at first they were stunned, but then they erupted.  It was unbelievable.   There was cheering.  The disciples were smiling.  Jesus was smiling, but he was still a little teary-eyed.  I would love to know what he was thinking at that moment. 


          I kept looking at the crowd, and after the dust settled a little bit, I saw some people who weren't smiling anymore.  And I asked them, "What's wrong?  You have just witnessed a miracle.  Do you know who that man was—that was the Messiah of God."  They said, "Yes, we know.  What happened today was wonderful, but we have also suffered loss."  I didn't have anything to say back to them. 

          Over by the first row of houses I saw a little party getting underway.  I asked the folks who weren't smiling if they would like to join me and come to the party.  There was wine and dancing, and all the food from the funeral was being brought out, but they were already walking home when I turned to them.


          I went over to the party for awhile.  I had a little cup of wine, and ate some bread.  I didn't see Jesus or the disciples there.  After a little while it seemed like it was getting on toward evening, and people sat down to rest.  I asked them, "What do you make of what happened today."


          They said, "It was unbelievable!"  And they talked about those feelings of surprise for a little while, but then they started talking about some other folks who had also had a rough life and you could tell that behind their words were some questions…What about them? What about the other widows in the town? And as the evening wore on, those questions came out, and as we talked it seemed to me that what they were really asking was "What about me?"


          Of course, we're happy for the widow and the new life of her son.  The widow needed compassion.  In her context, she needed the financial and social support of a man.  But who doesn't need compassion?


          I saw the widow over at one of the empty tables.  She was still smiling.  Her son was nearby.  Every once in awhile she would walk over to him and hold his face in her hands and kiss him on the forehead. 

          The son sort of pretended to be embarrassed by it, but he was too happy to be alive again to really fuss.  There is nothing like the embrace of a mother. 


          I had to ask her, "What is it like to have your son back?"  She said, "It is indescribable."  I said, "You know that it was the compassion of God that brought him back to life."  She said, "Yes, I know."  I said, "You know, not everyone is given this gift." 


          And she said, "That's where you are wrong.  Not everyone gets their son back from the dead, but everyone gets the compassion of God."  She said, "Do you really think I did anything to deserve this?  I didn't deserve to have my son die, and I didn't deserve to have him brought back to life.  But I do know this, the man who raised my son does not just care for me.  Look at these people.  You see that man over there?  He has worked all his life to overcome a painful childhood.  He hasn't smiled in ten years.  Look at him smiling.  You see those people over by the well.  They've been out of work for two years.  Can you tell from the sound of their laughter?"


          "God brought my son back to life, and with him brought life to the entire town."  I said, "Yes, but not the entire town."  She said, "I know who you are talking about.  But look.  There is compassion for them too, if they want it.  It's like Jesus said, `The dead bury the dead.' (Luke 9:60)  You can either get busy living or get busy dying.  It's your choice.  My son and I are going to get busy living."  And with that she left. 




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

There is a set of images

in Psalm 42, verse 9 that haunts me. 
"One deep calls to another in the noise of your cataracts; all your rapids and floods have gone over me."
When we use the word cataracts, we usually mean an eye problem, but the word means a waterfall.  Specifically a large volume of water cascading over a very steep precipice. 
The psalmist places himself, and therefore us, in a deep gorge where the noise of the cataracts--the gush of water--meets the river below.  "All your rapids and floods have gone over me."  Quite often the image of abundant water is good, but here it means disturbance, disorientation, confusion. 
"One deep calls to another in the noise."  I would love to know what the psalmist is speaking of.  We are already in the deep.  What deep is calling to that deep?  We will never know for sure.  Whenever I read this Psalm I hear a large, forlorn bird calling, and the sound of the bird's voice echoes in one deep, calling to another.  But there is no bird in the text. 
The rapids and floods go over our heads, deep calls to deep, confusion, polarity.  Is this verse deliberately inscrutable? --a poetic device intended more to be felt than thought?  I don't know. 
Is it one of our empty places calling to another?  "Hey, we're empty over"  "No, we don't have anything over here..."  "Is there a lot of water where you are?"  "What?"  "I said, `Is there a lot of water over there?'"  "Yes...there's a waterfall."  "Strange, isn't it?  Lots of water, and still empty."
Yes, it is strange to be thirsty after drinking, and hungry after eating.  It is strange to be surrounded by God and completely absent from him at the same time.  This is more felt than thought. 
What does it mean?  It doesn't mean; it just feels. 
And the psalmist bows his head and prays, "Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?  and why are you so disquieted within me?  Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of countenance and my God."  I suppose sometimes it doesn't mean.  It just feels.