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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

The Wi(n)dow of Grace

The Wi(n)dow of Grace
Acts 7:11-17
June 5, 2016
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

Imagine that you are the director for the movie version of the Gospel of Luke. And here in the 7th chapter, at verse 11, you must decide how to show with a camera what Luke has described with words. Perhaps you would start outside the widow’s house, from up high, looking down. A crowd of people emerges, slowly, out the door. The people are dressed in dark clothes, bent with sorrow. The women wail in mourning. Men carry a funeral bier, a stretcher basically, out the door.  A covered body lies on it.

Friends support the dead man’s mother as she follows the stretcher.  She is overcome with grief, not only at the death of her child – a tragedy no parent should ever have to bear – but at the loss of her own future. She is a widow and her only son has died. Her son was the key to her survival in her older years, and having lost him she has lost her own life as well. Her life is about to become one of vulnerability, loneliness and isolation.

The entourage moves mournfully through town, to the city gates, on their way to the cemetery outside of town. The cries of the mourners break through the daytime din of village life.

As they pass through the gates, the funeral procession meets another, smaller, entourage coming towards them from the opposite direction, entering the city. A man steps out from that crowd and approaches the mother. He looks at her and says “Do not cry.”

Do not cry?

Really?

The woman has lost her husband, and now her only son. Do not cry?

When you think of it, that's really the most unhelpful thing you can say to someone who is grieving: "Don't cry."

What does the mother think of all this? Luke is a very good gospel writer but he is not very good at writing screenplays because he gives the director no clues here. How does the widow react to this statement on Jesus’ part?

“You must be kidding” would probably be a polite translation. She has buried her husband. Now she is in the midst of burying her only son. And this man tells her not to cry.  

·       Did she know who Jesus was?

·       Did she care who he was?

·       Had she heard about him?

·       Was she aware of his reputation?

·       Could she sense that there was something unusual and powerful about him?

None of these details are given to us.

 Jesus heals a lot of people in the Gospel of Luke.

·       A woman approaches him at a dinner party and pours perfume on his feet.

·       Another woman battles through a crowd to touch the hem of his garment.

·       In the verses just prior to this morning’s, a Roman soldier sends word through his friends that his servant is ill. "Just give the word," the soldier says, "and I know he'll be healed."

Jesus praises all three people and attributes the healing that occurs to their faith.

But the woman in today's story?

·       She doesn’t seek Jesus out in the first place.

·       She doesn't ask Jesus to raise her son.

·       She doesn't fall on her knees and beg for her son's life.

·       She doesn’t confess faith in God or in Jesus.

All she does is cry. And he tells her not to!

How insensitive, how intrusive, how utterly unhelpful. This is just too much to bear.

The crowd around the woman quiets down, and then falls completely silent when the man touches the funeral bier…and the dead man returns to life.

Now is the widow filled with faith and gratitude? Or does her son? Now do they fall at Jesus’ feet with words of thanksgiving tumbling out of their mouths?

Again, Luke fails to tell us. We do not know.

Apparently this is not a story about faith or gratitude. The woman who poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet; the woman who touched the hem of his robe; the Roman centurion whose servant was healed from afar – those are stories about faith and gratitude.

This story is about grace and resurrection, both of which happen whether or not we do something or even believe in something. The man gets his life back, and his mother gets her life back: two resurrections. This is pure grace – unadulterated, undiluted, unbidden, unearned, un-asked-for grace.

These resurrections don’t happen because of a mother’s faith or her son’s worthiness. They happen because Jesus has compassion for them. Period. The mother didn’t have to act faithfully. The son didn’t have to live gratefully. It could be that both of them were faithful and grateful – but it could be that they weren’t. The point of this story is not the mother and her son. The point of this story is grace – the grace that Jesus embodies. And when grace comes into our lives, it requires nothing of us but a choice: to receive it or not.

Theologian and biblical scholar Justo Gonzalez says that we live a world with little room for miracles.  The modern world, he says, views itself as a closed system of causes and effects. When we are asked to explain something, we look at its antecedents – the things that came before it – searching for a cause. If we find the cause, we decide that we have found the explanation.  If we do not find such a cause, we decide that we simply have not been looking at the right place, or with the right instruments.  Eventually, we assume, we will become more enlightened and the cause will be found, and thus we will have explained the phenomenon in question.

Within this kind of world, miracles are seen as an interruption of the system of causes and effects. A force from outside the system has intervened. But because there can be no outside forces in a closed system, miracles understood in this way must be dismissed as impossible.  Somewhere – the reasoning goes -- there is a real cause that exists inside the system.

But the world is not as closed or as rational as we think.

When Luke speaks of a miracle he is not implying that the closed order of the universe has been broken. That’s how we moderns tend to think. But Luke didn’t think of the universe as closed!

A miracle is not an interruption of an order, but rather the irruption of the true order – the order of the creator God – into the disorder of our world. It is a sign of God’s victory over the power of evil. It is an announcement that the new order is at hand, that ultimately power belongs to God – the God of creation, freedom and justice. The miracles of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke are not just a way of validating his mission and teaching. They embody the gospel; they are the good news, in flesh and blood.

Miracles are not interruptions of the world’s order, but the irruption of God’s true order, forcing from us an acknowledgement that we do not know everything about the way God works: an acknowledgment that we cannot know everything about the way God works.

God works through grace, and we cannot earn or control or even understand grace.  All we can do is receive it.  “You do not need to understand healing to be healed,” writes Frederick Buechner, “or know anything about blessing to be blessed.”

When we are living in times of great stress or anxiety, when we are burdened with the weight of grief or fear, when we are one with the widow as she walks behind her son’s funeral bier, the temptation is to close our minds to the grace that steps out to meet us unexpectedly at the city gates.

The temptation is to turn away from the intrusion. It’s asking too much, we say. I don’t have time. This isn’t helping. I’m dealing with too much already.

Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Manila, and a leader of the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, was not experiencing a tragedy or time of mourning, but he was a very busy man. A woman who attended his weekly audience approached him with what she said was a message from God. He was an archbishop; he had a national movement to run; he didn’t have time for this.  It was intrusive. She wasn’t helping. He brushed her off. Again, the following week, she waited for him; again, he brushed her off. “Really,” he thought, “how insensitive. Can’t she see what else is going on?” Finally, after her repeated attempts, he said to the woman, “We have strict rules governing visions and messages from God. I need to test your authenticity. I want you to go back and ask God about a particular sin I recently confessed in private. If you ask God and he tells you the answer, I’ll know your vision is genuine.”

The next week she returned. “Well,” he quizzed her, “did you ask God about my sin?”

“I did.”

“And did God answer?”

“Yes.”

“And what did he say?”

“God said that he couldn’t remember your sin.”

 

We are too busy; we don’t have time; we are consumed with the usual and sometimes unusual circumstances of our lives. But if, despite those circumstances, we are able to stay present and open to the work of God’s Spirit, we encounter grace upon grace. Resurrection steps out of the crowd and approaches us, not because of something we did, but because that is what God does and will always continue to do.

Grace is what God does. Faith is what we do, although it’s less “doing,” as in an act of understanding, and more “recognition,” an act of seeing. It is openness to the possibility of living and dying in a different way. Faith is recognizing Jesus when he steps out of the crowd and brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, new life to what is dead. And he does that whether or not we deserve it or even expect it.

We who are University Church are dealing with quite a lot these days. Sometimes I feel that it’s just too much.

·       The Vital Church Initiative is in its second phase, collecting information and data as part of a visioning process. Who knows what changes might be in store?

·       We are preparing for a pastoral change in a month as I move to Georgetown United Methodist Church near Grand Rapids and Pastor Bill Bills moves here.

·       Our Bishop is headed toward a well-deserved retirement.

·       Our District Superintendent is a candidate for the office of Bishop and, if elected, will almost certainly be appointed to a different conference.

·       Annual Conference 2016 is, for the first time, being held in partnership with the Detroit Annual Conference, our sister conference to the east and north.  For the first and only time it’s being held here in East Lansing, and we are serving the Conference in so many new ways it’s hard to keep track.

You might have noticed those large partially painted wooden towers being stored under our entrance canopy. (It would have been hard to miss them!) They will be the frames, basically, for the movable artwork on stage at the Breslin Center during the entire Conference, from this Wednesday to next Monday. They were designed and built by the ROMEOs (the Retired Old Men Eating Out). And let me tell you – that’s much easier to say than it is to do! Those guys were busy enough already; I’m sure there were times when they felt it was just too much.

Sara Cardinal, our Children’s and Youth Ministry Director, has been working two jobs as she prepares to lead the Child Care program for Annual Conference. She’s been dealing with more policies, procedures and details than any of us knew existed! As a result, our building will be pretty much off-limits during the daytime hours from this Wednesday to next Monday.

It feels intrusive; we’re all really busy; we don’t have time for this; it’s not helping the already-stressful situation.

Next Sunday, June 12, even our worship will be different! Your “usual” pastors will be at Annual Conference (or, in my case, my daughter’s college graduation). Rev. Rick Erickson will lead us in a brief worship service under a tent out in the parking lot. Then we’ll split up into groups to move into the community to be the church! Picking up public parks, making quilts for the homeless, cards for military personnel, helping out at Potter Park Zoo. 

The Outreach Committee has been working overtime to prepare these opportunities for us. We know that changing things up, doing things differently every once in a while, is good for us. But maybe you’ve been feeling as I sometimes have:

·       We’re all really busy;

·       we don’t have time for this;

·       it feels new and different and intrusive;

·       it’s not helping the already-stressful situation.

Which means that if we can stay open and present, if we can keep our eyes (and minds and hearts) open, we might see grace – stepping out of the chaos and busyness – offering us resurrection. Grace upon grace, showered upon us. Not because of something we did, not even because we deserve it – but just because that’s how God works and always will.

 

 

 

References

Mihee Kim-Kort. “Living by the Word: June 5, 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 7:11–17.” Posted May 17, 2016. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-05/june-5-10th-sunday-ordinary-time

Emily Heath.  “Resurrection Phobia: Luke 7:11-17, 3rd Sunday after Pentecost - Year C.

June 05, 2016. http://day1.org/7245-resurrection_phobia

Kimberleigh Buchanan. “From Procession to Party - Luke 7:11-17 Proper 5 - Year C, June 10, 2007.”  http://day1.org/1046-from_procession_to_party

David Lose. “Extra/Ordinary Time.” May 31, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1538

Justo Gonzalez, Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Philip Yancey. Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? Zondervan, 2006.