A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest
Abilene, Texas
Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Third Sunday after Pentecost + Year C
First Lesson: I Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Second Lesson: Galatians 1:11-24
Gospel: Luke 7:11-17

✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

0515-Orange-landingNext Sunday will mark the one-year anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, and as I reflect on the year that has passed, I’m reminded of something that one of my former rectors once told me as I was discerning a call to ordained ministry, a memory that has stuck with me to this day. One day, as we were having a discussion in her office about what it means to be a priest in Christ’s Church, she pointed to a wooden crucifix hanging on the wall and shared with me something that a former priest of hers once told her. She said, “to be a priest, you have to be willing to ‘look good on wood.’”

Now, I will admit that, at first, I was a bit confused. “Look good on wood?” I thought. “What in the world is she talking about?” It was only after a few moments that I began to understand. She was saying that, to be a priest, you have to be willing to go to the cross with Jesus, to lay down your life so that others may come to know the love of God.

I completely agree. Speaking firsthand, being a priest does require a certain amount of sacrifice, but I think that we limit ourselves if we believe that only priests are meant to serve in this way. If we believe that it is only priests who are called to “look good on wood,” the Church is in serious trouble. The self-giving, sacrificial love of Jesus is something that all of us are called to make known to the world. If we are faithful to who we are, as baptized Christians, we will be pushed, as Rowan Williams writes, “into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us.” In other words, we can be certain that the Christian way of life is one that will not leave us untouched or unchanged in some way.

Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke assures us of this, and it provides us with an even richer understanding of what it means to “look good on wood.” Jesus, along with his disciples and a large crowd who has gathered with them, enters the town of Nain and encounters a widow who has just lost her only son. Jesus immediately has compassion for the woman and tells her, “Do not weep.” Then he comes forward, touches the bier on which the body has been placed, and says, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” Naturally, everyone is seized with fear by what happens next – the man sits up and begins to speak. The crowd praises God and proclaims, “A great prophet has risen among us!” It’s only a matter of time before others hear about what Jesus has done.

It’s interesting that Jesus, in this particular story, is declared a prophet. Why not “healer” or “magician” or some other title more appropriate for someone who just raised a man from death? When we hear the term, “prophet,” we typically think about those monumental figures from the Hebrew Scriptures – people like Elijah, who we heard about today in our lesson from I Kings, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah, those who were called by God to serve as messengers, often foretelling the future and beckoning the people of Israel to repent and return to the Lord.

So, what is it about Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson that inspires the people to declare him a prophet?

In his book, The Prophetic Imagination, author Walter Brueggemann writes, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Or, as another author writes, “The prophet…is somebody whose role is always to be challenging the community to be what it is meant to be – to live out the gift that God has given to it.”

The prophetic role of Jesus calls us to ask questions. It calls us to be critical of the status quo, and it calls us to remember who we were created to be in the image and likeness of God. In his encounter with the widow, Jesus demonstrates this type of ministry by being present with the widow and suffering with her as she grieves the loss of her son, thus challenging the first century notion that widows were little to be desired or worthy of compassion. Further, by raising the widow’s son to new life, Jesus is dramatically proclaiming that, in the fullness of time, not even death will be able to separate us from the love of God. The miracle of the story from Luke’s Gospel is not only new life for the widow’s son but also new life for all who follow God’s call to show mercy and compassion toward those whom the world considers least important.

Once again, through the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ, we are called to ask the tough questions, to be critical of the ways things are, and to remember who we were created to be.

Now, if Episcopalians are good at anything, we are especially good at asking questions.

The problem, though, is that we often limit our questions to matters regarding personal faith. We have no problem asking ourselves deep, theological questions like, “Does it really matter whether or not I pray?” or “How should we interpret the Holy Scriptures?” Of course, asking these types of questions and being open to new ideas is one of the most beautiful aspects of our Anglican tradition, but all too often, we stop there and never get to the most important question, which is, “How is God calling me to use my gifts in the building up of God’s Kingdom?” Or, “How is God calling us as a community to respond to the needs of the world around us?” It is only when we ask those types of questions that the real work of ministry can truly begin.

For the past several days, my Facebook news feed has been covered with pictures of friends from all across the Episcopal Church wearing the color orange. I’ve seen countless friends wearing orange shirts, orange stoles, and various other articles of clothing, all for the same purpose – to honor the lives of those killed by gun violence and to be advocates for change. The “Wear Orange” movement began three years ago after a fifteen-year old girl from Chicago named Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed a week after attending President Obama’s second inaugural parade. Soon after her death, friends and family began wearing orange, a color often associated with gun safety, to remember her life, and ever since, the movement has grown and is now used to promote National Gun Violence Awareness Day, observed every year on June 2. Now, wearing orange clothes may not seem like a big deal to some people, but for those who mourn and for those who have been touched by gun violence in some way, it makes a difference.

It makes a difference in the same way that Jesus’s ministry to the grieving widow makes a difference. When we are present with those who suffer, when we show compassion by standing in solidarity with those who mourn, and when we are willing to challenge the ways things are, despite the resistance and the harm that may come our way, it makes a difference. Dear friends, this is what it really means to “look good on wood,” not only willing to go to the cross with Jesus but also willing to dwell, like Jesus, in the deepest depths of the human experience. The “Wear Orange” movement is only one example of the prophetic work of Jesus already being done in the world. There are countless others. How will we be called upon to embody this ministry? Amen.

Click here to hear an audio recording of the sermon.

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