Saturday, May 22, 2010

Proper 5 Year C

Proper 5 C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

I Kings 17:8-16, (17-24); Psalm 146; OR I Kings 17:17-24 (see comments for prior option); Psalm 30; Galatians 11:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

(The first option for readings from the Hebrew scriptures this Sunday and the next three Sundays includes several important episodes in the life of the great prophet Elijah.)

Having told the King, Ahab, what he did not want to hear about a coming drought, and infuriated the Queen for humiliating the priests of the god, Baal, Elijah is forced to flee for his life.  The Lord provides for ravens to miraculously feed him, (17:1-7).  But now that the drought has reached its most devastating impact, his survival seems even more at risk.  The Lord instructs Elijah to go to Zarepath, where he will be fed by a widow with little or nothing left for herself and her son.  He encounters the widow, asks for bread and she responds that she has just enough to scrape together for one last meal for herself and her son.  Elijah insists she prepare  a meal for him and them because, "thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail" until the drought ends with rain.  She complies and the prophets words were fulfilled.
After this miracle, the widow's son dies.  In her anger and remorse, she lashes out at Elijah: "what have you against me, O man of God?"  Elijah took her dead son, "stretched himself upon the child three times," cried out to God, and the child "revived."  He returned the child to his mother, who declares:  "Now I know that you are a man of God, and the word of the Lord is in your mouth."

The psalmist irrepressibly must sing the Lord's praises while "I have breath."  She contrasts trust in "princes," who always disappoint, with "Jacob's God," who is "maker of heaven and earth" and "does justice," especially for the itinerant, widow, orphan, oppressed, hungry and blind.


(For I Kings 17:17-24, see above) 

Having somehow come very close to dying, the psalmist now gives thanks that the Lord rescued him.  The Lord allows him to "go down weeping," but get up in the morning singing.  The Lord turns his "dirge" into dance.

(This Sunday and the next four Sundays, significant excerpts are read from Paul's letter to the churches in "Galatia," who are in turmoil due to some who insist that Gentile members of the church must adhere to Jewish customs.)

In this excerpt, Paul reminds his readers of his own personal history as a devout Jew.   He was a zealot.  He persecuted the church.  "But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might" have my unique outreach.  After this life-changing experience, Paul writes, he went to Jerusalem where he stayed with Peter/Cephas and "James, the Lord's brother."  From there he launched his missionary travels.  "And they glorified God because of me."

(This Sunday and continuing right up to the beginning of a new liturgical year on the First Sunday of Advent, we read the bulk of Luke's gospel, chapters 7-23.)

Having healed the son of a Roman centurion at the behest of the Jewish leaders in Capernaum (7:1-10), Jesus moved on to Nain followed by  his disciples and "a large crowd."  In an episode unique to Luke's narrative, as they approached the city gate, they encountered a funeral procession of the only son of a widow.  When Jesus saw her, Luke writes, he "had compassion."  He told her not to weep and addressed the corpse: "Young man, I say rise!"  The young man sat up and spoke.  Jesus returned him to his mother.  All who witnessed this even were filled with fear, which became praise to God: "A great prophet has risen among us!"  This is a sign of God's favor.  Word spread like wildfire "throughout all Judea" and surrounding countryside. 

Like the best story-tellers, (Dostoevsky, Dickens, E.M. Foster, Zadie Smith, for some examples), the creator of the story of the encounter between Elijah and the widow of Zarapeth keeps ratcheting-up the stakes right up to a breaking point.  Elijah is on the run to escape the agents of the King.  Even as the drought worsens, he encounters a widow, who, in a rigidly patriarchal culture is already vulnerable with  no male protector, is down to the last food she has for just one final meal before she and her son die of starvation.  

Luke is another among the best story tellers.  In his own unique variation on Elijah's encounter, he tells how Jesus encountered a woman in a funeral procession to bury her only son.  She, too, will be particularly vulnerable. 

Such stories engage our empathy, perhaps elicit painful memories of our own desperate times and, as good story-telling always does, enables us to reflect and learn about ourselves.

Having resigned to despair and loss, each woman in each story hears unexpected words from unlikely people.  God's prophet, on the lam himself and with no visible means of support, declares: "Do not be afraid...."  He then instructs her to return to the normal routine for preparing a meal.  Likewise, Jesus stops a funeral procession, speaks to the grieving widow and mother of the her dead son:  "Do not weep."  He calls on the young man to sit up and returns him to the embrace of his mother.

Paul Ricoeur reconsiders the biblical origins of the power of spoken words of hope in several essays in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative and Imagination.  ."  He continues:  "For seen from the standpoint of hope, life is not only the contrary but the denial of death; this denial relies on signs, not on proofs.  It interprets in a creative way the sign of the superabundance of life in spite of the evidence of death."  He then adds a personal note:  "For my part I should say that freedom is the capacity to live according to the paradoxical law of superabundance, of denying death and asserting the excess of sense over non-sense in desperate situations."  (pp 206-207)

What if God's spokesperson, Elijah, had not spoken and interrupted the downward spiral of the widow of Zarapeth; what if Jesus had not stopped the funeral procession coming out the  city of Nain and spoken those distinctive words, words of a certain "logic of hope as opposed to the logic of repetition"?  What if they had remained silent, not willing or able to speaks God's word in such presumably impossible situations?  

In another essay in that same collection, Ricoeur decides, "it it the function of preaching to reverse the relation from written to spoken [word]...."  "...[T]he text has to be reconverted to word...."  (p.71)

Preachers and those who hear them already have access to the texts of the stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarapeth and Jesus and the widow of Nain.  The task/opportunity of the preacher is to "reconvert" the text to spoken word; to declare the possible in situations that have probably already been assumed to be impossible.  So that with Paul, the prime example himself of  changing the impossible to the possible, the preacher might say:"And they glorified God because of me." Or, the preacher might hear, "Now I know that you are a person of God and the word of the Lord is in your mouth."