Sunday, June 5, 2016

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

The Lord loves the righteous, the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow.

In last week's Gospel, we heard the story of the centurion of great faith, and who sought to have his servant healed by Jesus. There was an interesting tension in that account: on the one hand, there were the centurion's friends and sympathizers who said that the centurion was worthy of having this healing performed even though he was not a Jew, and on the other hand, you had the centurion himself declaring that he was not worthy. As I pointed out in my sermon, we do good things not so that we can present them to God as a kind of resume, but rather, doing good that we can do, we recognize that before the Lord we are not worthy because our good is never unalloyed with a little bad and even the good we do pales in comparison with him who is goodness itself. What is particularly notable about last week's Gospel in contrast with today's is that our Lord was asked to come and perform that healing, while in today's, where he raises the only son of a widow from the dead, he acts without being implored. As much as we may have a sense that we are growing in holiness and in the life of the Spirit, the more profound truth is that at some point we were like this dead young man. To put it into the words of that familiar hymn, I once was lost but now am found. At some point our Lord found you; he came unsolicited and unwanted, by his own authority and moved by his heart of love, to awake you out of spiritual slumber. The Lord's greatest work is almost invariably unsolicited, and this is so because so often we don't even realize the good things we need or can have from the Lord. Gorging ourselves on a steady diet of stale biscuits and water, we too often miss the fact that our Lord has spread a table before us, and by his grace has called us to partake, all of his own initiative.

It is interesting to put the first and Gospel lessons in conversation with one another. Both contain stories of raising a widow's only son from the dead. Luke wants us to think of this scene from the life of the prophet Elijah because he understands Jesus is a prophet, but of course, he is even greater. This is evident if read them side by side. The broken-hearted widow reproaches the prophet Elijah for the death of her son. The prophet takes the child into an open room, and beings to pray, Lord, O Lord my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn? Then he lays upon the child three times, and finally the soul of the child comes into him again. It is clear that this raising from the dead is by the power of God and not by Elijah's power. He is merely the pleader and the intercessor, the instrument through whom the Lord works. In contrast when our Lord sees the young man being carried on the bier, thronged with mourners and processing towards the grave, he sees the sorrowful mother and has pity on this poor widow. Walking over and touching the bier, he says, young man, I say unto thee, arise. Here our Lord is seen not as the pleader and intercessor, but as the one in whom authority is given to raise from the dead. Like the prophets, our Lord proclaims the truth of God, but unlike the prophets, in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, to use the words of St. Paul. Our Lord is not only the mouthpiece of God as a prophet, but the incarnate God. He shows that he has authority over every sickness and demon, and even over death.

But someone might ask why didn't our Lord raise all deceased children? Was his compassion limited just to this widow? I like what George MacDonald, the great 19th century Scottish divine, had to say about this passage, O mother! mother! wast thou more favoured than other mothers? Or was it that, for the sake of all mothers as well as thyself, thou wast made the type of the universal mother with the dead son—the raising of him but a foretaste of the one universal bliss of mothers with dead sons? Now a modern interpreter might argue that widows were often destitute in the ancient world, so our Lord's raising of the young man had more to do with providing for her than sympathizing with her grief, but such a view misses the plain wording of the Scripture: when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said unto her, Weep not. It is a horrible, horrible thing for a parent to bury a child. Some of you may have been through that; others perhaps have seen loved ones and friends mourn the death of a child. A window in this church memorializes such a death. The thought of a child cut off in the flower of youth is horrible to contemplate—lost life and joy swallowed by the oblivion of death. And yet our Lord comes, he has compassion; he touches the bier. He did this not just for this widow, but for all mothers and fathers who mourn the death a child to show them that he is the Lord even over death and destruction. In his kingdom, the love between a mother and a son, a parent and a child will find its reunion and fulfillment because God is love, and that motherly love was a gift of his. Our Lord touches our sorrows and has compassion on the those who mourn, and we pray that, to quote the graveside prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, he would raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness.

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