Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Pentecost June 5, 2016 – The Ven. Grant Rodgers
I pray in words from today’s appointed Psalm (146): “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!”
By all accounts, Jesus was amazing. He exuded life – people literally came to life or returned to life in his presence; he not only experienced the Resurrection, he shared it by bringing people to life in a whole variety of ways. No wonder John quotes him as saying “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
Having had such a charismatic and unique leader, one can understand the apostles wanting to run away after his death, or saying to themselves: Now that Jesus is gone, who will look after me?
In the movie Being There (which I am not alone in viewing as a comedy classic and if you haven’t seen it, you should), Peter Sellers plays Chance the Gardener (Chauncey Gardiner as he comes to be known). He is an extremely affable, mentally challenged adult who has lived an enclosed and sheltered life for a very long time. The movie begins with the owner of the house (his patron or guardian, perhaps even his father, it’s not clear) having died, and Chance obliged to depart from this familiar place and suddenly having to face the challenges of real life – with no ID, driver’s licence, health care or ability to read and write.
He knows how to do two things – watch TV and work in a garden (not exactly life skills that are going to carry him very far — or so you would think). Bewildered, disoriented, but immaculately and very formally dressed in the old man’s suit, he begins to wanders neighbourhood streets where buildings are now covered in graffiti, and dilapidated. The home he lived in is seen to have become an anomaly, the old neighbourhood having changed socially, economically, racially – in every way possible. The stately old home has obviously been out of touch with reality for years.
The stately old house in the drastically change neighbourhood may be something of a metaphor of the Church in our time, and like Chance we are getting a rude awakening to what the world around us is really all about.
Confronted by some street toughs, Chance pulls out his TV remote, points it at them and tries to change the channel, thinking in his simple way that he can make this unpleasant scene go away, but it’s beyond the magic that he knows to change things. Adult child that he is, he says to a woman who bears some resemblance to the housekeeper at his old home: “I’m very hungry now. Would you please bring me my lunch?” Rightly alarmed, she scuttles off into a nearby store.
This is how I imagine the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ apparent departure from their midst – adult simpletons suddenly cast out of their previous life and obliged to grow up in a hurry.
But instead of asking the world in general: Who will get me my lunch? the disciples quickly learned that the way forward, if there was to be one, was not about finding a new caregiver – it was not about trying to preserve the past — it was about becoming what he said they already were – it was about applying the teaching he had instilled in them over three years and believing in the promises and visions he articulated along the way. It was about taking steps in faith — acting in the name of Jesus.
As they had seen (demonstrated numerous times according to the Gospels), Jesus was a bearer of new life – he brought people to life – his mere presence was generally life-giving.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus enters an obscure town and encounters a funeral procession. We have extensively de-mythologized the life of Jesus, so our tendency is to look for rational and scientific explanations to tell us what “really” happened instead of what the text says. As anyone who has studied scripture knows, over time incidents become parables (or to use the Hollywood expression, this is “based on a true story”). But what if something even like it actually happened? Imagine the reaction – the transformation in all who were part of it!
In that case I’m sure the disciples would have been readily identifiable because they would have been the ones who could not wipe the smiles off their faces. After experiencing something even resembling the scene in today’s Gospel, how could anything ever frighten them again? Death no longer had dominion — fear of death no longer ruled their lives! The book of Acts shows they soon got down to business in discovering the degree to which the power of Christ was now residing in them.
Years ago I anointed a woman who was expected to be in hospital for months if not permanently. We spoke for a while and she asked me to pray for her. I did, anointing her with oil on her head, her heart, her hands and feet.
It was a powerful moment, in that I stepped out of my conventional ways of ministering, but I left not feeling like anything dramatic had happened. But that woman went home from the hospital either the next day or the day after, and apparently had no more symptoms. I moved on to another parish not that long after and got a letter from her a year after this happened and she was still fine and still thanking God (and me) for a miracle.
Of course I looked instead for psychological or scientific explanations, and certainly had no thought that I had become some great healer. I eventually decided to give God some credit, and came to realize that, as Annie Dillard says, we might be playing around with a power beyond anything we can imagine – as she says “the churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.” Now there’s a metaphor!
I think we in our time are just beginning to get a sense of human capacities and potentials, of mind over matter, etc. – and where all that connects with what we have called the divine or the spiritual. One day, we may indeed walk in water and bring healing by our very presence.
St Paul reflecting on his own transformation and life in Christ, says “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism . . .” It is sometimes hard for people to get past their past – to believe that God can clear the way – that we don’t need to continue being victimized or living in shame or under the shadow of our former selves. But the entire scriptural witness seems to assure us that we don’t need to believe we are stuck in any set of circumstances. From God’s point of view that would be a colossal waste of talent, God being much more concerned about the future. Guilt and blame after all are weapons mostly used by vindictive people, to keep others in their place, not by God, who seems to delight when we are fully alive.
Paul says, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul had been such a monumental failure, someone who had missed the mark so completely, that he assumed that his turnaround had to have been divinely engineered, that it was beyond his ability to make the transition he did — from murderous fanatic to architect of the Christian faith. Paul above all was a believer in the power of Christ.
The disciples would certainly have seen the general direction and tendency of Christ’s ministry with people – and realized that, one way or another, if they were going to carry on this movement, they were going to have to be about life, they were going to have to raise their expectations considerably and stop referring to themselves in dismissive terms – “I’m only a fisherman” or “I’m only a tax collector” or “I’m only a woman” or “I’m only a Galilean.”
The New Testament witnesses to the fact that they had an empowering event called Pentecost (apparently not to be confused with Jesus breathing his Spirit upon them, as John records), but in any case people who had become used to being followers fairly quickly became leaders.
Where is the parable here for us – for the Church in our day? What is the Spirit saying to the Church?
The funeral procession in today’s Gospel might be seen as the life of the Church. Like the grieving mother we too have in many ways given way to despair, believing that the next generation is lost, that there is nothing for us going forward, and life for many becomes merely a lament about what is past or what might have been if only … — or perhaps a lot of pointless anger and bitterness at the way things seem to have conspired against us. The temptation might be to wall ourselves in, denying what is happening around us, carrying on with outmoded attitudes and practices; we could circle the wagons and do our best to turn away anyone who tries to invade our sanctuary with dangerous threats of change or adaptation.
If we see the funeral procession in today’s Gospel as a metaphor of the Church, we realize the Jesus has compassion for us too, that Jesus stands before us with his summons to life. But in the moment, lacking perspective, all we can see is the problem, all we can feel is the pain and disappointment as one aspect after another of the life we have known seems to die off or become obsolete, and everything emerging around us seems strange and dangerous.
Everywhere, institutions we once thought were indispensable to our way of life seem to be dying, or becoming obsolete, things which had been considered indispensable – social organizations, educational institutions, newspapers, radio, even television, particular industries, community life, the Church, even the family – are no longer what they were. Even the environment, the world itself, has not been immune to vast changes in climate and water levels, and the effects of out-of-control pollution and resource exploitation.
We need to be asking, Where is new life going to come from? And what is the role of the Church in the face of this challenge? Or do we want the church to become just one more institution going down for the count? Pointing the channel changer at it isn’t going to work.
We need people who have become accustomed to following to become leaders – we need people who have been sheltered, and treated like children, to grow up in every way into the likeness of Christ. Our faith urges us to believe that this life is already in us by virtue of Baptism and our ongoing participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
In the face of death, the end of things as we have known them, what do we do? How do we respond? Like the woman in today’s Gospel some people wail and lament about it, but note that Jesus quickly asks for that to stop, because in the presence of the Lord of life, death becomes something else – it becomes an entry point into new life rather than merely a loss, an exit or a termination. In Christ, death is a departure point, a new beginning, a Resurrection.
The call of Jesus is literally a call from death to life. The Gospel reveals his capacity not only to restore but to bring back from the dead. The presence of Jesus gave people confidence and courage to overcome their limitations and fears, to embrace the life God opened up to them.
We are in the midst of a failing society in need of an infusion of new life – the relational, gracious, compassionate life that Christ brings. Our job as Christians is to be bearers of life, not pall bearers. If we choose, we can inspire and uplift, we can be a leavening presence, and we can bring that orientation to life to every environment we inhabit, whether social, spiritual , physical, etc. In our day we need to be particularly conscious of our natural environment, and to become people who show the way to a new lifestyle that recovers the sacredness of God’s creation, the virtues of simplicity, and the importance of gratitude and reverence.
The Gospel of John tells us “We are God’s children now” which gives us that wonderful sense that we matter, but now it’s time that we become God’s adults and engage, from a Christian perspective, the issues that face us in our own time.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24) Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah. After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed.
He cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”
146:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!
Galatians 1:11-24 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.
I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.”
And they glorified God because of me.
Luke 7:11-17 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.