A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, … yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.”
That is from an earlier portion of the Gospel of Luke which was our Gospel in the Winter, shortly after the blizzard. Today, the Old Testament Lesson is what Jesus described. The prophet Elijah was sent out of Israel during a great drought and he lived with a widow in Zarephath, a Phoenician city along the southern coast of Lebanon. While he stayed with her, her meager store of flour and oil was miraculously maintained and continued to feed her and her son and the prophet throughout the drought. But then her son mysteriously took ill and died. That was a greater tragedy for this mother than if she had starved to death herself.
Elijah takes the dead boy, and prays—how could God’s gift of life and abundance be taken away like this? God had given nourishment as a sign of God’s love to the gentiles—the child’s death disrupted this, it made the widow’s nourishment for naught. So the prophet prayed. And God restored life to the child.
In this world, children die who are not brought back to life. And indeed, both that woman and her child eventually did die. It is not God’s design that there is no tragedy or pain or death in this world. We know that there is. This event, this story is a prophetic sign: Elijah was God’s prophet, and he was sent to show that it is God who gives life, restores life—not the kings of Israel, nor the prophets of Baal, nor any powers that claim to rule this world.
In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus mentioned this story in a sermon, the congregation decided to throw him off a cliff. He slips away, preaches the good news to the poor, heals the sick, he enlightens the people with his teaching, and in today’s Gospel, he does just the same sign as Elijah did in Zarephath: he restores to life the only son of a poor widow—a widow in a gentile town.
No wonder then, that the Gospel lesson concludes with this about the crowds who witnessed it: “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!’” Here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has fulfilled the prophecy which he read at the beginning of his ministry, in his home town of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And you remember he said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” as he began that sermon that inspired the congregation to throw him off a cliff.
As word got around about Jesus being a prophet, it did not make things any easier. Everyone, especially devout religious people, always want the prophet to say and mean things just the way they want them. We want God to reinforce our prejudices, to make us comfortable and send us home, confirmed in our smugness, knowing that we are right and have always been right. Jesus, somehow, didn’t fit that bill. God’s prophets aren’t there to fulfill the desires of those who want to be comfortable and at ease. They are sent by God to move us forward. Forward in compassion, in truthfulness, in humility. Jesus pointed out that Elijah was not sent to any of the suffering widows in the land of Israel, but to one who was outside, in a foreign land, out on the coast.
Last week, Jesus healed the slave of the gentile officer in charge of the Jewish town of Capernaum. This week he ministered to a widow that nobody cared about. Jesus is a prophetic sign of God’s openness, God’s compassion, God’s invitation to be more than just comfortable. Jesus knew, at all times, that his way of courageous compassion was the pathway to the cross. Good news to the poor sounds harmless enough, except when it happens in the real world—and Jesus was definitely in the real world.
In Christ, we have been given God’s mercy. That mercy is life to share—both at home, but also far abroad as the prophet Elijah did with that widow in a foreign land. Jesus heals and gives life, but often, it’s a surprise how he does that—outside of our expectations, maybe outside of how we conceive that things “have always been done.”
The neighborhood in which this congregation bears witness and gathers to worship has changed many times in the past 100 years or so. The shape of the ministry of this congregation has changed along with it. This congregation here gathered is the Body of Christ in this place—as Christ’s body we are called to allow Jesus to surprise us and change us. The after-school ministry, teaching ceramics to local middle school students changes us—other possibilities, such as interns living on our property and serving the community, will also change this congregation. Each step of welcoming the stranger, and of serving God’s people transforms Trinity further into the image of Christ. We welcome Christ as he brings new life to us in every change. As they said: “God has looked favorably on his people!”
Let us pray in the words of today’s psalm:
You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.