The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 24
October 16th, 2016
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Raise your hand if you’ve come here today because you’re interested in following Jesus?
How many of you dragged yourself out of bed this morning and put in the effort to dress yourself and maybe the members of your family, because you thought that an encounter with Jesus Christ in this church this morning was worth it?
Perhaps you did so because you felt like you needed to hear a good sermon.
I pray to God that you won’t be disappointed!
Perhaps you made the pilgrimage here because you needed to meet God in the sacrament of bread and wine…or maybe you needed to gather again with friends who have been away for the summer.
I fully expect for you to leave satisfied if that is why you have come.
Church can serve many functions, and often it serves different functions for people that make up the same community of faith.
The vast majority of folks come to church because they have glimpsed something special, or experienced something transcendent, and they want to touch it again…and maybe figure out how to hold onto it if they can.
All those many people who had followed Jesus out of the villages and upon the road to Jerusalem had similar expectations.
Healer. Prophet. Miracle man.
Maybe even the Messiah that had been foretold and for which they had waited.
The man did things that no one had ever seen before.
And with style.
Brought a 12 year old girl back to life after her parents and friends wept over her lifeless body.
Taught in the synagogues with authority that the chief priests and scribes had never approached.
They say he could even walk on water and fill boats with fish where there were none before.
Imagine you were there…one of the many who had come out to hear him speak in the hopes of glimpsing the power of God incarnate.
And then Jesus drops the bomb.
Raise your hand if you hate your mom and dad!
Raise your hand if you came out today because you know that the path we walk together will lead to suffering before it will lead to glory?
Who wants to die with me?
I can almost see the stunned faces of the crowd.
Maybe a couple even looked around as if to ask, “Did I come out to the wrong party?”
Most of those following Jesus at this point…and the text says it was a LOT of people…must have been shocked to hear Jesus talking about taking up crosses and hating family and counting the costs before heading out on this journey alongside him.
In a patriarchal culture in which your relationship with your father determined your inheritance, your profession, and your social circle…a call to prioritize carrying a cross and following a cross-bound stranger instead of family was not only radical, but downright crazy.
The once cohesive crowd probably started to fray at the edges as person after person started to drift away and return to those familiar structures in which they found comfort and solace.
Until there were just 12…just a small band who had so little to lose that risking it all on the chance that this madness about crosses and counter-intuitive priorities might lead to more truth and more life was worth it.
It’s challenging to imagine how hard a decision that must have been, especially from this side of the resurrection and this side of Christendom.
We who got out of bed and came here today know that the sacrifices Jesus and those earliest disciples made were worth it and led to a movement that transformed our entire world.
And we also are painfully aware of how that movement got coopted and manipulated by those who could not abide the radical nature of Jesus’ call today and saw in the church a way to control and reinforce the social patterns and norms that Jesus’ deemed unimportant in the face of the cross.
Perversion of power to privilege the few at the expense of the many…to fashion a pseudo religious empire that adopts the superficial language of the movement but runs away from its heart and soul?
That is unfortunately what happened.
But thank God, that is not the only story we know.
Thank God that faithful follower after faithful follower DID heed Jesus’ call today to count the costs, to take up their cross, and to prioritize the truth over all else.
Because of them, the Gospel has come to us today.
God has a bias for the vulnerable.
I know that it is not fashionable to talk about God having favorites in our day and age.
Perhaps this is because we are afraid that if God has favorites, we may not be one of them…those of us with brothers and sisters perhaps know all too well the feeling that “mom and dad really did love Johnny or Linda more than me,” and the lingering pain of that family experience pushes us away from anything that smacks of divine favoritism.
But I’m here to tell you today that God absolutely has a bias, and that bias is for the vulnerable.
If you go back to the story of the great Exodus, God uses an exiled murderer, who once was released from his mother’s trembling hands in a fragile basket to brave the currents of the Nile in order to avoid becoming a casualty of Pharaoh’s program of infantcide…God used that guy to lead an entire persecuted people out of slavery into a wilderness and then into freedom.
Moses was vulnerable as an outsider in the royal court, and also when his bare feet hesitantly approached the burning bush while he was tending sheep in the middle of nowhere, and certainly so as he dared to defy Pharaoh and claim that God wanted slaves to be free.
Those same freed Hebrews, who crossed the desert in search of a land of promise… their stomachs growling for lack of food and their tongues parched and dry…they too were vulnerable.
They thought they would die in that wilderness.
Free but fainting.
Fearful of being abandoned by the very God who showed them a new way through the sea.
And yet, God answered their hunger with manna, and their thirst with water from the rock.
Oh yes….God most certainly has a bias for the exposed of this earth…those who are oppressed, bowed down, and living on the very edge of existence.
So it should not surprise us when we hear two connected stories in our readings today about God attending to the vulnerable…in ways both miraculous and wonderful.
Because virtually no one was living more precariously in biblical times than widows and orphans.
Women who lost their husbands lost their livelihood, as well as their partner, because they were not able to work as freely as a single woman might today.
They were forced to rely on the kindness of family and friends, or hope to remarry in order to merely survive.
And that’s the situation that has befallen the widow of Zarephath.
When Elijah the prophet… himself facing vulnerability because King Ahab and Jezebel are seeking his life and he has had to flee into the wilderness and has fasted forty days and nights…when Elijah comes to this widow, she is gathering sticks to make a fire for her last meal.
There is but one last bit of meal and oil in her home to feed herself and her son, and afterwards, she expects to die because there is nothing left.
I can only imagine the look on her face when Elijah asked her to bring him some water and a morsel of bread.
Insult to injury!
And yet, she has the strength and courage to reach out to another vulnerable person who has asked this of her…and God provides meal and oil in abundance following the act of her trust-filled giving.
Her fear is changed into fullness.
All seems right with the world.
And then her son falls ill…and she faces the prospect that instead of dying together, her last spousal connection and future hope in life is going to die and leave her utterly alone.
His breathless body lying there in her arms…the vulnerabilities of her widowhood converging along with disbelief and profound grief.
Where now was the God who delivered Hebrew slaves out of Egypt?
Who would save her from this fate worse than death?
Just as God used the widow to attend to Elijah’s neediness, God uses Elijah to attend to hers.
Miraculously, the son recovers and the widow’s faith overcomes her fear for good.
Both Elijah and the widow needed each other, and as they faithfully gave of what they had, God used their willingness to bring about new life.
And the story of Jesus healing the widow of Nain’s dead son is just a further extension of God’s bias for those who suffer and desire for them to experience new life.
Besides the fact that Jesus “outdoes” Elijah by raising an already dead man back to life, the story is meant to continue making the case that in Jesus, all of God’s bias for the weakest, and ability to act on behalf of them, is fully present.
Widows, the poor, lepers, the possessed, the hungry, the thirsty…Jesus makes God’s bias known and reveals the “true” promised land to those who have eyes to see it.
I began this sermon saying that God’s bias is for the vulnerable, and then we spent some time exploring how this bias played out in the exodus and in these scenes involving widows.
Our world, even today, is filled with such vulnerabilities and vulnerable people.
Refugees who board unseaworthy boats, sinking under the weight of so much despair and hardship, holding on to the hope of a better life on a distant shore.
The urban poor who struggle with addiction, mental health issues, and homelessness while the commercial world hums by.
The grieving widow, the immigrant who works three jobs just to pay rent and support a family back home, the teenage girl who is forced into debt slavery by the criminal syndicate who trafficked her.
All these vulnerable people need help, and they need the kind of help that most of us can give…to reach out to them and give what we can to alleviate their suffering and to offer hope instead of more of the hardship they have known.
God will use that offering to do the miraculous things we think impossible…maybe not always in the ways we expect, but will do them nonetheless.
And more amazingly, God will use those moments of human and divine connections to reveal the basic truth that underlies the entire story of faith.
We are all vulnerable.
Widows and orphans are in a profound kind of jeopardy …but every single one of us is vulnerable to worry, to self-doubt, to the pains of the past, and to the fear of being alone.
Deep inside we know that no matter how much money, prestige, or accolades we might receive, we are never truly rich unless our lives are shared in community, and until we recognize and attend to the vulnerabilities we share with our fellow brothers and sisters.
Like Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
Like Paul receiving new sight at the hands of one he persecuted before in his blindness.
Like the generations of now forgotten everyday saints who served the poor, tended the sick, and in turn, were healed of their infirmities in the process.
All of these, at one time or another, believed that what they had to give was too little, and that it might even kill them give it.
But the truth is that, because they were connected to God…connected to the source of all being…pure love itself…what they had to give was multiplied by God and led to greater life, not death.
And the same will happen to us if we stay fearlessly connected to both God and each other.
Now is the time to accept our shared vulnerabilities and to act by relieving the profound suffering of our neighbors with good faith and trusting that God will work miracles as we do so.
Perhaps we will once more regain our collective breath and be brought back to life from the brink of death to rejoice in the greatness of our God.
No one is alone dear brothers and sisters.
We are all vulnerable.
And we are all gifted with some way, however small it may seem, to relieve the suffering of others and move step by step into the land of promise.
Find yours this week and don’t ever let fear deter you from putting that precious gift into action.