Sermon transcript for June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:8-16; Luke 7:11-17
Belmont UMC—June 9, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
To be a widow during the time of Elijah, during the time of Jesus and during our time means that one has endured significant loss and entered a period of grief. To be a widow during the time of Elijah and Jesus and experience the death of one’s only son added to the depth of grief, but it also signified a personal crisis, a crisis of loss of place in the community and the loss of financial security.
In the Elijah story the woman’s loss is compounded by a drought that has caused hunger and despair. Elijah asked the woman for something to eat. She replies, “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.” (verse 12) Listen to the incredible despair in this text. God provides enough food to share, multiplying what the widow has, but in the following verses, which we did not read, the boy dies, probably from malnutrition. Elijah is able to revive the boy, as Jesus does in the Gospel of Luke.
In the Gospel story Jesus comes upon a funeral procession for the only son of a widow. Jesus is moved by compassion and speaks to the dead man and the dead man rises up and speaks. Widows were in a precarious position in Jesus’ day. Widows, orphans and strangers are often linked as those who the most vulnerable, the poorest, and the powerless. Women lived under the protection of the father’s household and then their husband’s household. If a woman was widowed and had no sons, all personal property reverted to her husband’s family. Widows were often pushed to the margins of society, alienated from the community and forced to beg to survive.
These stories today, speak to us of life at its lowest, life in crisis, life at the point of despair. But God has a word for those who despair.
H. James Hopkins writes of his friend, Rufus Watson, who loved the story of Elijah and the widow. Rufus, the son of former slaves, lived to be 99 years of age. He had served in the military, pitched in the Negro professional baseball league. He had made a little money investing in real estate. He had witnessed lynchings and spent a lifetime wondering how people commit atrocities and still go to church and call themselves Christians. He found hope in the Elijah story and hope in God who meets us at the bottom of the barrel. He would say, “That’s where God meets us, Jim, at the bottom of the barrel. God meets us when we’ve gone so low that all we can do is look up.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3; p. 103)
Well, I hope God meets us at better times as well, but when we or others despair, God has a word of hope and healing. This, my dear friends in Christ, is why we keep hearing God speaking, through the Hebrew Scriptures and into the New Testament of the religious community’s need to care for the widows, the orphans, and the strangers. God always cares for those who are the most desperate, the most vulnerable, and the most marginalized. God always speaks a resounding “No!” to despair. God liberates those who are imprisoned in places of despair. God brings rich hope to those who are on the brink of giving up, and for those who are already at the bottom of the barrel and looking up.
We are called to intervene in the desperation of other person’s lives. We are the ones God uses to bring the word of hope, healing, and liberation. And that seems like a huge calling at times!
I have a number of images in my mind this week as I worked on this message. One is from Barbara Lundblad (Festival of Homiletics, 2013). She reminded us again of the situation in Liberia in the early part of the last decade, where violence and hatred ruled under the unjust leadership of President Charles Taylor. But there were women, under the guidance of a woman named Leymah Gbowee, president of a Lutheran women’s group in Monrovia. In 2003 she joined with other women, Christian and Muslim women, to create the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). “The women marched in the streets and held vigils in churches and mosques. They lay on their bellies on the runway at the Monrovia airfield where everyone on the highway could see them.” Leymah said, “Some say we are an embarrassment to our government, but the sun and rain are better than the bullets of war . . . We believe God’s hands are under us in this effort now. God has turned ears toward us.”
During the protests, President Taylor ordered armed men to whip the women. But as their movement grew he knew he could not stop them. Eventually, Taylor agreed to meet with the women. By 2005, after years of turmoil and violence, Taylor had left the country in exile and a woman was elected president of Liberia. (Marking Time, Barbara Lundblad, pp. 66-67) God had used these brave women to say a resounding “No!” to the despair of the country. God used them as liberators and bearers of hope.
Where are the places in our world, in our communities where this message of liberation and hope is needed so much?
I’ve been thinking about a lot this week about places of need, persons who live at the bottom of the barrel or on the edge of despair. I’ve been thinking about Edgehill children who are home now for the summer. For most of our children this is the time of fun, of swimming and of camping and sleeping later in the mornings. For Edgehill children it can be time of hunger for there are school lunches to fill their bellies. (Brighter Days summer program is creating places of hope for these children.)
I’ve been thinking about that young couple nearby who has a special needs child. They’ve journeyed through the long days of grief and disappointment. Maybe they would like to come to church on Sundays, but cannot decide if they can navigate their way to doing it. Will they be welcomed? Will someone help them?
I’ve been thinking a lot about military personnel. On my last visit with Bob Ziegler before he died, he tearfully said, “Please pray for our military men and women; they need our prayers so much.” These men and women serve in harms way in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and if they survive, many come home wounded physically and mentally. Since 2001, 2,700 service members have committed suicide, and that figure does not include National Guard and reserve troops who were not on active duty when they committed suicide. (New York Times, May 15, 2013) I’ve counseled some of those young men who have returned from war and the experience has completely changed them. They need our prayers and support.
I’ve been thinking about our Golden Triangle Families, from Burma and Thailand, who find life difficult and confusing in a different land with a different culture and language barriers.
As we hear God’s call to the ministry of being liberators and hope bearers, where are the places we can make a difference in the lives of others. Maybe those heroic, news- making stories, like the story of the women in Liberia cause us to think that this work is for others, persons more gifted and more courageous. But I believe that each of us, in some simple, down to earth way, can speak that resounding “No!” in the face of despair.
Several years ago I made an afternoon visit to the Mt. Juliet Nursing Home. One of the church members of Grace UMC had been sent there to recover from surgery. My assistant had given me the woman’s room number as I was leaving the office. When I reached the room and went in, I quickly realized that I was in the wrong room. There was an older woman sitting in a wheelchair. I apologized and said, “I have the wrong room number.”
She responded, “That’s okay. Won’t you sit down and visit anyway.”
I sat in the chair across from her and introduced myself. She introduced herself and as she did I looked up and saw a photograph of two women on the dresser behind her. The two women were members of Grace UMC and they were friends. I asked her, “How do you know these two women?”
She smiled and said, “They are my daughters.”
I responded, “Well, that’s interesting because I happen to know them and know that they are not sisters and that each of their mothers has died over the last few years.”
She smiled again and said, “Okay, they are my angels then.” She continued, “One day they walked in here and asked if they could be my friends. I am a widow and my only daughter died a few years ago. I’d been very much alone until that day. They come each week and visit me. They bring me flowers and treats. They come to celebrate my birthdays, Christmas and other holidays.”
Later I asked the two women about the woman I’d met in the nursing home. They had gone to lunch together as they did each week and had begun a conversation about people in the nursing homes who are forgotten, who never get visits, who have no family.
After lunch they drove to the nearest nursing home, walked into the office and said, “Who lives here who has no one to visit or care for them?” From that day they had come to the nursing home to give this new older friend a new life and hope, and to liberate her from the deep wells of loneliness.
There are those places where we are called, through courageous and prophetic actions, or through simple acts of kindness, to say a resounding “No!” to the despair we witness. We will be God’s hope bearers and liberators. It will be powerful and restorative—like Jesus interrupting a funeral procession and saying, “Rise up!”
Sermon transcript for June 2, 2013
A Surprising Faith
Belmont UMC—June 2, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Helen LaFrance was born in Kentucky in 1919. Though poor, her family did own a bit of land where they raised tobacco and cotton to sell, chickens and other farm animals, and vegetables for the table. They enjoyed a simple rural life of gathering with family, working hard and going to church. Helen’s family encouraged her to read and learn as much as she could. She only finished the eighth grade in school.
When Helen finished her chores and school work she was allowed to have free time and she spent that time doing the thing she loved most, drawing and painting. Her mother encouraged her and helped her make colors from dandelions, walnut bark, berries, and bluing. She would draw and paint on anything she could find, even left over wallpaper.
Helen was a memory artist, painting from memory the rural scenes from her childhood. Church scenes were among her favorite. She said, “Sometimes something gets on my mind and I try to paint it. I just try to tell the truth. I guess I’m just good at it because it’s what I like to do. I just thank the Lord that I have tried.”
In her 40’s Helen LaFrance finally made enough money to buy art supplies and began painting in between loading dried tobacco on conveyor belts in tobacco warehouses and cleaning offices. In 1986 she began painting full time.
For most of her life no one really paid much attention to Helen’s work, which is considered “outsider art.” Outsider art is art that is outside the mainstream; it is art done by those who are self taught. Along the way someone took an interest in Helen’s gifts and Helen LaFrance went from outsider artist to having a quite a following of collectors, that include Oprah Winfrey and Bryant Gumble. (Source: “Memory Painting: The Work of Helen LaFrance” Kathy Moses Shelton)
There is a large movement of those who collect “outsider art.” These persons are able to see the beauty and value where others cannot or have not.
The two main characters in our Gospel story today would be considered “outsiders” by their communities. It is a surprise to see them paired together in this way. One is a centurion, who would have been in the militia of Herod Antipas. He is likely a God-fearer, one of the non-Jews who were attracted to the Jewish faith because of its monotheism and ethics. Most God-fearers did not convert but attended Jewish services and kept the commandments. The centurion has contributed toward the building of the synagogue. He does not approach Jesus directly but sends Jewish leaders to plead for help. The Jewish leaders try to make the case for the value of this outsider. The Centurion is not a Jew; he is a Roman and a part of the oppressive Roman system. And yet here he is in our Gospel this morning, asking for Jesus’ help.
The slave would have been the ultimate outsider—someone who has been completely marginalized. And it’s hard to imagine how anyone in the first century in Israel would see value in this individual. The surprise of this story is that the slave owner becomes the voice of concern and compassion for his voiceless slave.
We know that Jesus sees the needs of the least and the last; that is clear throughout the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke. Jesus sees beauty and value where others cannot. We see him reaching out to the poor, to women, to children, to those who were wounded and ridiculed, to those who were ostracized and to those who suffer from mental and physical illnesses. Jesus sees beauty and value in each supposed outsider and he welcomes them into his circle of love and kinship.
But we are surprised by his response to the wealthy centurion. Maybe he is moved by the compassion of the centurion for his slave. Maybe he is moved by the centurion’s humility and vulnerability at making the request and yielding to another’s authority. In this outsider Jesus finds a surprising faith and the catalyst of another person’s healing. Jesus says of the centurion, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus is saying, “This man gets it. This man knows God. This man sees others as God sees them—with value and beauty.”
The Centurion has faith in God who sees value and beauty in every human life—in those at the highest levels of society and those who are pushed to the margins and those mundane ordinary people in this world. God sees value and beauty in you and me and loves us beyond all that we could imagine.
It is faith in God who brings together these unlikely players in a story of healing. The Centurion becomes a surprising hero and advocate and this reminds us of another story that comes up in our lectionary cycle in July. In that story Jesus tells us a parable about a Good Samaritan. Luke tells us a story about a good Centurion.
In our human drama, at the point of great need, the lines between who is inside and who is outside are blurred. At the Boston Marathon bombing, people rushed to help each other and they did not stop to check their credentials, or party affiliation, or race, or status, or religious background, or nationality, or sexual orientation. They were moved by deep compassion for those in need. At the point of human need there are no outsiders and insiders. Should it not always be so?
The Centurion has faith in God who brings us together around the table where there are no outsiders, only family. Sometimes the folks who pull their chairs up to this table side by side and share the bread and the cup together are surprising pairs. But here we are all God’s children, equal in every way, and we come to receive the blessed gift of grace.
During the height of apartheid in South Africa, Reverend Ike Maloabi was picked up by security police and detained without trial. Peter Storey and another minister were allowed to visit him and they took Holy Communion. They were placed in a corner with a prison officer to watch them.
Since Methodist have an open table, Peter invited the officer to join them. After some hesitation, he accepted. Peter writes, “And Methodists always served the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters first, don’t we? So I passed the cup to Ike, and he drank. And Methodists would never take communion before offering it to the stranger in their midst, so the cup was naturally passed next to the prison officer. Now this white Afrikaner had a dilemma. He realized that if he wanted to receive the means of God’s grace, he would have to place his lips for the first time in his life on a cup from which a black man had just drunk. You have to come from South Africa to know what that means. After a long pause, he took the cup and he drank—and for the first time, I saw a hint of a smile on Ike’s face.” (With God in the Crucible, pp. 70-71) I suspect there was a smile on the face of God as well.
Our communion table is not very big, but it symbolizes a great banquet table so long and large that one cannot see to the end of it. Picture it in your mind’s eye (close your eyes if that helps your imagination). See the long table and try to see to the end of it as it disappears over the horizon. See the people sitting in chairs around the table. Some are in wheelchairs. I see a woman signing the words of the liturgy to her friend who is deaf. I see a young man who cannot see me for he is blind. He leans forward to smell the bread and the juice and the sweet aromas make him smile. He reaches out to gently touch the crust of the bread, the stem of chalice. I see people of every nation and race gathered side by side. I see families of all kinds and single folks and a young woman assisting an older woman to her chair. Little children are running around everywhere. I see a Roman centurion with his arm around his young slave.
And I see Jesus standing there. He’s walking back and forth and helping people find their seats and he’s smiling. He’s saying something, a word he keeps repeating over and over. Can you hear him? Listen, he’s saying, “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful . . . .”