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Sermon: Ordinary Times?

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on June 9, 2013.

Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (RCL): 1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-1

          Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.

O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by that same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise, and ever enjoy its consolations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Here we are, venturing further into this time of the Church Year that we call “Ordinary Time.”   It’s called Ordinary Time for those times of our liturgical year which are not part of major seasons, such as Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. More specifically, Ordinary Time encompasses the Sundays after the Epiphany and Sundays after Pentecost.   Some consider it a time when we move from the sacred story of God to the continuing story which includes all of us; others refer to this as “Green time” due to our change in liturgical appointments and vestments. I believe this can and should be a time of teaching and growing in the life of our church.

Yet, I must admit that for me, at the end of Week One of life in ministry after Mary Sulerud, it has been anything but ordinary. And for those of you who might be counting (I think I’m not alone in this), it’s another ten weeks until Randy Alexander, the 10th rector of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, begins his new ministry here among us.

I hope this will be a time of teaching, of growing, in the life of our parish and certainly for me in my own ministry. This past week included: the anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon; assisting with two memorial services at Goodwin House Alexandria; two committals of ashes to the memorial garden; planning liturgies at VTS for the groundbreaking of the new Immanuel Chapel in September, and the dedication of the chapel ruin as a Memorial Garden in October, plus organizing a year of dedicatory events to celebrate the new chapel; several pastoral calls to hospital and home for ailing or dying members including prayers with anointing; coordinating clergy coverage in order to be away for some R&R, and the diocesan ordination yesterday of the next batch of transitional deacons in Virginia. I should include today also for this is my first Mass on the Grass.

So for me, NO; this time has not been ordinary whatsoever.

And the wonderful images we have in today’s readings don’t feel ordinary, either. We have prophets and widows, sons being raised from the dead, an account of the never-ending supply of food and oil, and onlookers who witness those miraculous events who are both amazed and terrified. These are stories of God’s abundance and grace. In fact, it is the Easter story again and again, something which was amazing and terrifying to the people of those times, and seems extraordinary even today.

In First Kings, we hear about the seemingly hopeless situation Elijah encounters at Zarephath. He was commanded by the Lord to go to a widow who would feed him. Elijah finds this poverty-stricken widow suffering through scarcity due of a drought with a son that she struggles to feed. And Elijah is supposed to ask her for sustenance. The hopelessness almost serves to intensify the miracle which is about to occur. When the prophet asked the widow to bake him a cake from her depleting supply of flour and oil, it feels like a test of her faith. Yet believing in God, she surrendered to the uncertainty of the moment and obediently trusted His word. The miracle of the unending supply of oil and flour was her reward, and what is revealed to us is A God Who Provides.

Yet the next moment is even more incredible. Later when the son dies, Elijah stretches himself over the body of the child in the upper chamber and pleads to God to restore the boy back to life. The resurrection of her dead son brings the widow’s own faith to its highest point; seeing her boy alive again, she exclaims, “Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth.” (v. 24) Here we see A God Who Hear Us When We Cry Out.

Psalm 146 reiterates that theme. We hear “My God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health.” The psalmist pronounces a blessing upon those “who have the God of Jacob for their help!” They are “Happy” or “Blessed.” Why is this so? First, because God is the Creator that made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them.’ Our hope is in a God who is eternal, who stands outside God’s creation, a God that is not bound by it, but is sovereign over all of it. This is our God who sets prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, cares for the stranger, and sustains orphans and widows. In this, we hear about Hope in A God Who Provides for God’s People.

In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, the apostle and church-planter tells the story of his ministry given to him by Jesus Christ. In the midst of grave tension in the church of Galatia, Paul assures his congregation that his work is centered in the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, as a direct revelation from Christ Jesus and that the Good News he shares is of God, from God.

The key to understanding Paul’s epistles, or letters, is his conviction that it is not he who legitimizes the Gospel that he preaches, but that it is the Gospel that legitimizes Paul.

Paul’s assertion that his gospel rested on no human foundation has meaning to all of us. His experience was an act of God’s grace, not the result of an extended religious quest; in fact, Paul as Saul had been quite convinced of and settled in his religious observances, for he was ‘far more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors.’ Paul could only see his coming to faith as an act of God. This is a story of A God Who Transforms Lives.

Finally, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus – who came to transform all our lives - bears witness to God’s coming reign, where the lowly are shown mercy and the dead are raised to new life. Jesus raises the only son of the widow of Nain from the dead.

Only Luke tells this story. The Gospels give us two other accounts of Jesus raising the dead. One is the story of Lazarus (John 11:38-44). The other is Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43).

Later in Luke (v.22), we read that “the dead being raised” is one of the authentic marks of the Messiah. This particular miracle is an example of the unusual compassion that Jesus demonstrated throughout His ministry to the disenfranchised, the outcast, the marginalized and the poor.

A widow in those days was in a totally vulnerable position if there were no male relatives to offer her protection. In both First Kings and now in Luke, these women first lost their husbands and now were losing their only sons, who would have been their mothers’ social security. The future of each was, indeed, bleak.

In Jesus’ compassion for the widow of Nain, he restores her dead son to life. In public. Without any pleading for or invitation by the mourners for his particular attention. He witnesses the grief and, being moved with compassion, decides to respond with mercy. Jesus speaks to the widow, saying “Do not weep,” which – I might point out - are words pastoral care givers are actively encouraged to avoid in such matters. However, Jesus says this because he knew what he could do next. Jesus touches the funeral bier, stopping the procession, and says to the shrouded body, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” We hear that fear seized all those who witnessed this event and the people glorified the Lord exclaiming, “God has looked favorably on his people!”

Both Elijah and Jesus are prophets who journeyed into the landscape of loss. Two women of sorrow and acquainted with grief already through the loss of husbands prepared to bury their sons. Yet death does not have the last word, for them then, or for us now. Elijah and Jesus restored sons to life and clothed their mothers with joy. Neither prophet worked a miracle for their own glory. These are stories about A God Who Brings Healing and New Life, having been moved with compassion to show mercy. And while we may not always see resurrection with our loved ones and friends who surrender their mortal coil, I do believe there is healing – new life - in the midst of death.

In baptism, we die to an old life once lived, rise through the waters, and are clothed in new life in Christ. We move from the darkness of this world into the promise of new life and light in Jesus Christ. And even though we may know the geography of sorrow and grief, the Lord of Life who is Jesus Christ our Savior meets us this day, and always, here at this altar, in this Holy Communion, in the bread of life and cup of salvation.

In his book Deaths of Man (New York: Quadrangle, 1973), Edwin S. Shneidman wrote that people experience many “little deaths” before they actually physically expire, whether it be through divorce, the loss of a job, fractured relationships, the suicide of a loved one, and so on. Shneidman seems to suggest that there also are “little resurrections” throughout our lives. We know some of these as forgiveness, reconciliation, maybe through the birth of a new family member.

Throughout our readings today, I hope you hear, see and feel the message about our wonderful God, and his Son Jesus Christ, who is compassionate and shows mercy. For that is our God! Compassionate and merciful! Ours is a God of provision. Ours is a God who hears us when we cry out! Our is a God that transforms lives! Our God is the One who brings forth healing and new life.

You may not always see it, as in a dramatic sign of a prophet stretched out upon you, or hear it in the words of Christ beseeching you to rise and live, but God’s compassion and mercy surround us all the days of our life. Seek it, know it, and believe in it! Ordinary time is a time when we should be looking for God’s abundance every day.

I encourage you, as we venture farther through ordinary time which (for each of us and all of us) might not seem so ordinary: Consider the life of this place and the works of our hands and imagine how we might share God’s compassion and mercy here in this world. God will work wonders through each of us here at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill if we remain open to God’s abundance and mercy, and compassion and love. God’s word of truth can issue forth from our mouths as God’s agents.