June 5, 2016
This week, Jesus’ miracle march continues along the Sea of Galilee. Last Sunday the Gospel of Luke placed us in the crowd that followed Jesus after he finished his Sermon on the Plain and headed out to the towns around Capernaum. Remember how the centurion’s slave was healed with the request for an authoritative Word from the Lord? Today, Jesus and his entourage halt the funeral march of a widowed mother taking her dead son to his burial.
“When the Lord saw her,” Luke tells us, “He had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ ”
These words take me directly to another procession – a march that Jarrett, and I, and some of you were in a few months ago on Good Friday – the March to end Gun Violence on March 25. We carried those PVC crosses fitted with t-shirts representing those who had had been shot to death this year. You’ve seen those shirts – we’ve had them on the lawn here at St. Martin’s. We followed a route through Germantown, stopping at places where some of the dead had fallen. We walked up East Washington Lane toward Magnolia Street. In a driveway between two row homes we met one of the mothers, Movita Johnson Herrel, whose son Charles had been shot to death in a parking lot along this route in 2011 in a case of mistaken identity. He was 18.
I couldn’t hear her story very well, as I was back in the crowd. But you couldn’t miss it when Movita cried out, “No mother should have to live with this! It is enough!” And in response we chanted, “Not one more! Not one more!”
But there have been more. More than 40 more deaths by gun violence in Philadelphia from that day to now. (Source: Gun Violence Archive – http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/)
This mother’s anguish fits right alongside the two mothers who have lost sons in today’s Scriptures. Movita is just as beloved of God as they, just as deserving of a miracle as they.
Today’s Scriptures focus on two of God’s best qualities: mercy and compassion, divine attributes that reveal themselves in God’s Bible-wide commitment to the poor and vulnerable. Widows, as we have discussed before, were among ancient society’s most vulnerable people, along with orphans and strangers, because they have no formal protection in a very violent and exploitive world. But they had God’s protection, the Scriptures tell us. Today we encounter two of them.
The first is the Widow of Zarapeth, from our reading from First Kings. We enter in the middle of a story in which this woman and her young son are caught up in the consequences of a devastating drought that has beset the region. The divine providence has left, and the earth has stopped producing because of the evil done by the Israel’s King Ahab, who has abandoned the covenant with God and led Israel to worship the Baal. In the throws of the famine, God sends the prophet Elijah to this widow to ask for food, just as she is gathering firewood to make a final meal for her son and herself before they starve to death. But God blesses the family, and Elijah, with a miracle of undiminishing flour and oil.
As we enter the story today, the family is again struck with tragedy when the widow’s young son falls ill and dies. The mother berates Elijah for saving them only to have them destroyed. Elijah pleads with God, and another miracle happens: the son is restored to life. But given God’s commitment to His most vulnerable people, I think it is less the result of Elijah’s prayer and pleading that saves the child, than it is the fruit of God’s very will for the poor to be delivered from despair into life.
We see something similar in the story of the Widow of Nain in today’s Gospel. Compassion – divine compassion – drives Jesus to stop a funeral procession that otherwise would have passed him by. No one asks for a miracle in this story. They do not recognize Jesus or send emissaries to intercept him on the road. The widow and her burial party are resigned to their lot. Jesus himself upsets their expectations with his own empathy.
“Young man, I say to you, rise!” Jesus says. And the young man sits up and he speaks. And Jesus gives him back to his mother.
In these stories the restoration of a son to a widowed mother is not simply a story of reversing personal grief and loss. In the ancient world, the restoration of a son to a widowed mother is the restoration of a future to one who has lost all social support and care. It sets right a life that has become unlivable.
And most importantly, it disrupts a larger social order that abandons vulnerable people to disaster, a social order where lack of community concern and resource leaves people to suffer and die.
This, right there, is the miracle, the infusion of God’s desire into our world.
I can’t help but think that there is a reason that these two stories of dead sons returned to their mothers fall on this day when we are calling attention to people lost to gun violence. And that is to participate in a miracle – an infusion of God’s desire into our world.
This miracle will require us to do two things:
First, it will require us to yield to the driving force of God’s compassion. And that means letting the Pentecost wind blow us right into the neighborhoods that suffer most from our worst social neglect, prejudice, racism and fear.
And, second, this miracle will require us to disrupt the social order that leaves people to perish in those places.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ miraculous disruption takes the form of a son raised from the dead and given back to his widowed mother. It happens in Kairos time – God’s time – and in storytelling time. It happens in one single paragraph.
But the people of the early church – the audience for this story in Luke – were called to bring about similar disruptions in their world. And that miraculous work occurred in human time, under the urgency of oppression, in the creativity of a new kind of community – one that struggled with its diversity, one that called forth deacons to serve at the common table to ensure that all widows got enough to eat.
So what exactly is the miracle that this Wear Orange Sunday invites us to join?
The tug of God’s compassion is not lost on us – it prompts us to wear orange in solidarity with the victims of gun violence, to read the names of the dead in sorrow, to march in sacred pilgrimage to the sites of the fallen.
But what is that compassion driving us to disrupt?
Jesus would not raise a dead son to return to a hail of bullets. That would change nothing.
So I think the miracle must involve this: Disrupting the social order that thrives on gun sales and gun violence. Restoring a future to those who have lost all social support and care. Renewing lives that have become unlivable.
As with Luke’s community, we participate in this in human time, moving at the speed of compassion, at the miracle’s cellular level. We use the tools of our time – votes and voice, check books and challenge, cell phones and social networks. And we loudly reject the conventional wisdom that the gun lobby is stronger than God’s mercy.
Because God knows – no mother should have to live with this. It is enough! Not one more! Not one more!
Thank you so much for your sermon today. Your thoughtful reflection on a difficult topic was much appreciated. My husband and I were at the 8am service…We are blessed by St. Martin’s and their willingness to dive deep.
8:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist
9:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist with music
10:00 a.m. Parish Forum & Kairos
10:15 a.m. worship.together
Holy Eucharist for families with young children
11:15 a.m. Choral Eucharist
Morning prayer is offered at 7:30 a.m. weekdays, in the Mary Chapel.
Silent morning meditation is offered at 8:15 a.m. weekdays, in the Mary Chapel.
Mid-week Eucharist is offered at 12:15 p.m. Wednesdays, in the Mary Chapel.
Compline is offered at 7:00 p.m. on 2nd & 4th Wednesdays, in the Church.
Choral Evensong is offered at 5:00 p.m. on 1st Sundays, in the Church.
We would love to have you join us.
This Episcopal church is located in the heart of the historic neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, five blocks west of Germantown Avenue at the corner of St. Martin’s Lane and West Willow Grove Avenue.