The Way of Love – a sermon

My sermon for Proper 5c can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


Yesterday morning, at about eleven o’clock, while sitting in traffic thirty minutes south of Lake City, Florida, I learned something about myself.  I was stuck in traffic on a Saturday morning, five hours from home, knowing that a sermon still needed to be written and I was giant ball of annoyance.  I was so frustrated that the calorie tracker on my Apple Watch tells me I was actively burning calories while seated in my car.  I was stuck in traffic because my nephew graduated from college on Friday.  It was a trip that, if I’m honest, I wasn’t really excited about.  Eight hours down on Thursday, thirty nine hours in Orlando, and, thanks to traffic, nine hours home on Saturday, isn’t my idea of a good time.  To make matters worse, I made the trip knowing that I wouldn’t have a ticket to the graduation exercises.  The family gathered from around Philadelphia to Fort Meyers to watch the ceremony on the internet: something each of us could have done from the luxury of our own living rooms.  As I came to grips with the stress I was feeling while stuck in traffic, I came to realize that there is a single source for most of the sin in my life. When I fail to love my neighbor as myself; when I fall short of seeing Christ in another person; when I get frustrated, frazzled, and flummoxed; it all typically flows from the same source: my unfailing worship of the idol of efficiency.

The false god of efficiency is the reason I dislike car line so much.  It is the reason that I much prefer to have my sermons written by Thursday, all the notifications on my iPhone zeroed out, and begin every week by creating a to-do list, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.  God’s Kingdom isn’t built on efficiency.  If it was, God probably would have never created human beings to begin with.  Keeping Noah around during the flood wasn’t efficient. Neither was picking 90 year old Sarah to be the mother of the people of Israel.  Perhaps the least efficient thing God has ever done was to send his Son to take on flesh and blood and move into the neighborhood.  Wouldn’t it have been that much easier for God to just pull a few strings and make us all love one another?  He didn’t have to send his Son to live and die as one of us.  He could have just fixed it all from heaven, but God didn’t choose the way of efficiency, he chose the way of love.

I could have had a sermon written on Thursday, saved three tanks of gas, and watched Cameron graduate from my couch, but then I wouldn’t have had the chance to see him face to face at his graduation party.  I would have missed the opportunity to hug him and his brother, whom I hadn’t seen in more than fifteen years.  I wouldn’t have been able to hear about their hopes and dreams.  As I sat in that traffic jam yesterday morning, I realized that the way of Jesus isn’t efficient, but it is highly effective.

Our Gospel lesson this morning is a prime example of the inefficient effectiveness of Jesus.  After healing the slave of the Centurion in Capernaum, Jesus, his disciples, and many others set out on a twenty-five mile hike.  Through Magdala, past Cana, maybe skirting around Nazareth, they eventually found themselves approaching the gate of another small town called Nain.  As Jesus and his large crowd approached, they were met by a funeral procession coming the other direction.  Coming out of town was a considerable crowd surrounding a dead man and his mother, already a widow.  Jesus and his followers, like good southern drivers, stopped to pay their respects as the procession went by.  The crowd moved slowly toward the cemetery as the woman wept bitterly over the death of her only son, and Jesus took notice.  Jesus saw her.  He saw that she was now a widow without a family.  Her only son, the one who was obligated to take care of her in her old age, was now gone.  Despite many laws designed to protect widows, Jesus knew that her life was going to be exceedingly difficult from this point on, and he had compassion on her.  Jesus could have walked right on past.  He could have fumed with frustration over the slowdown at the entrance to Nain, but thankfully, Jesus isn’t a slave to the false god of efficiency.  Instead, Jesus stopped and took notice.

Jesus saw the woman, he heard her weeping, and he was moved with compassion to act.  “Weep not,” he said to her with promise in his voice.  She might not have known what was coming, but Jesus did.  As the funeral procession continued to March slowly on, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the bier, stopping the pall bearers dead in their tracks.  Can you imagine the chaos of the scene?  Jesus and his crowd, now mixed with the widow and hers.  The pall bearers must be taken aback that this stranger has reached out, touched the coffin, and forced them to stop.  Efficiency Expert Pankey would not have like this very much.  “Just let us bury this poor woman’s son!  Why would you hold us up, can’t you see she’s suffering?”  But Jesus doesn’t care.  His way is the way of love and love is messy, slow, and inefficient.  Jesus speaks again – not to the widow, not to the pall bearers, not to his disciples or the crowd – Jesus speaks directly to the dead man and says, “Young man, arise!”  In an instant, he sat up and began to speak.

The way of Jesus is a slow moving walk from Capernaum to Nain.  The way of Jesus means taking the time to really see the people around us.  It means hearing their stories, even if all they can muster are tears.  It means not being afraid to reach our hands out, to touch someone, and, most likely, to get messy.  The way of Jesus isn’t really anything new.  It is the same way that God has been dealing with his creation from the very beginning: through compassion and love.

You don’t have to be Jesus to follow the inefficient way of love.  In fact, if you were paying attention this morning, you might have noticed that we already prayed that God would help us join in that way.  “O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them…”  The Gospel lesson this morning could have easily ended with Jesus merely feeling compassion for the widow. He could have seen her, felt sorry for her, and walked right on by.  He could have simply thought the right things, even felt the right feelings, but have done nothing about it.  But Jesus did something.  His compassion motivated him to action.

The world around us is full of opportunities to think the right things and feel the right feeling, but when we fail to follow through and do the right thing, we fall short as disciples of Jesus.  This summer, Saint Paul’s has the opportunity to reach out in compassion and love to neighbors in need.  Providing breakfast, lunch, and snack to thirty children in ten families for the next ten weeks won’t be an efficient process, I can promise you that.  At times, coordinating the shopping, sorting, and delivering might feel like we’re throwing pudding cups against the wall and hoping they stick, but the false god of efficiency shouldn’t be our motivator.  Instead, let’s allow compassion and love to motivate us to action, so that we can be the answer to our own prayer.  Not simply thinking those things that are right, but following the example of Jesus’ compassion for the widow at Nain, and doing them by the merciful guiding of the God of love.  Amen.

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Thinking and Doing

O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Proper 4 gets down to the nitty gritty of the life of discipleship.  First, we recognize that it is from God alone that all good proceeds.  This is a statement of profound faith, which is easily over looked as simply another way of opening a prayer.  Instead of “Father God” or “Almighty God” or even “Loving God,” this Sunday, we make the bold claim that the God we worship is the God from whom all good proceeds.  This raises the question, however, proceeds where?  If goodness is flowing out of God, to what or whom is it flowing in?  Here’s where the petition comes, we pray that that goodness might impact us by way of our thoughts and our actions: “may we think those things that are right, and… do them…”

It isn’t often that the Collect for the Day easily meshes with the Scriptures appointed for that Sunday, but Proper 4, Year C is an exception.  This Sunday we have one of Jesus’ lesser known resurrection (1) miracles – raising the widow’s son at Nain.  After healing the Centurion’s slave at Capernaum, Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd made the 25 mile journey to another small town called Nain.  As they arrived at the city, they were met at the entrance by another crowd of considerable size headed in the opposite direction, to the cemetery to bury a widow’s only son, and it is here that we see the Collect of the Day lived out in the life and ministry of Jesus.

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Luke tells us that Jesus saw the woman and had compassion on her.  The story could have easily been over then and there.  Jesus could have seen her, felt sorry for her, and walked right on by.  He could have simply thought the right things, even felt the right feelings, but have done nothing about it.  But Jesus did something.  His compassion motivated him to action.  While still seeing this grieving woman, he all but commanded her to stop crying, risked ritual uncleanliness, reached his hand out, touched the funeral bier, and commanded the man to rise.

The world around us is full of opportunities to think the right things and feel the right feelz, but without the guiding of God to do the right thing, we fall short as disciples of Jesus by failing to be the answer to our own prayer.  Do you feel angry about the ongoing rash of gun violence in our country?  Have you done anything about it?  Do you feel compassion for the hungry in your town?  Have you done anything about it?  Do images of refugees hiding in the caves of the Nuba Mountains break your heart?  Have you done anything about it?

All good proceeds from God, and as disciples of Jesus, our job is to help unleash that good on the world through works of compassion, mercy, advocacy, and justice seeking.  To stop at thinking or feeling is to fall short of the fullness of the call to be Christ’s body in the world.  What is God calling you to do?


(1) There will be some who object to calling this a resurrection story, but the Greek word Jesus uses to command the man to “rise” is the same word the Angels use to tell Mary that Jesus is risen from the dead.

Humanity and Faith

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Elijah Resuscitating the Son of the Widow of Zarephath by Louis Hersent

The story of Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath is one of my favorite Old Testament tales.  It has all the drama of Noah’s flood and all the sarcasm of the Odd Couple of Moses and YHWH.  It is a story of faithfulness, of feeding miracles, and resuscitation if not straight up resurrection.  If you are inclined to preach on this great story, at least a portion of it is available to you in both Old Testament tracks this Sunday.  I’d encourage you to read the whole thing (1 Kings 17:8-24) with an eye toward the faith of the Widow.  It will no doubt prove instructive for those of us in parish leadership positions.

The story opens in a drought.  A long standing drought, with no end in sight.  This Widow has been unwittingly promised by God as the provider of food to the great prophet Elijah.  You’d think God might have sent her a text, DM, or Snap about this, but when Elijah asks her for a drink of water and a small cake to eat, she seems flabbergasted.  “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

Yet, she acts faithfully.  She bakes Elijah a small cake, and the oil and flour never ran out.  Day after day, so long as there was faith enough to prepare it, there was food enough for Elijah, the Widow, and her son.  It is worth noting, however, that no matter how faithful her actions seem, the author of 1 Kings makes no commentary on the faith of the woman at this point.  We simply know that she did as she was told, and the ingredients remained.

One day, her son became ill and died, and immediately it become clear that while her actions in baking bread seemed faithful, her heart was still stricken by doubt. Her reaction to the death of her son is not unlike the reaction that many of seemingly faithful people have in a moment of crisis: anger, frustration, and fear.  So often, congregational leaders are taken aback by these visceral and deeply human reactions, but they are precisely that: human reactions.

Holding on to faith in the midst of heartache can be difficult, even for those of us with deep faith.  It can be difficult to see God at work when the world is crumbling down around us.  The Widow at Zarephath is the archetype of this very human behavior.  She has seen God at work, day by day, in the jars of meal and oil, and yet, there is a hardness of heart that faith has yet to be overcome.  When Elijah revives her son, the author relays to us her response of faith, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth,” but one has to wonder even then, how deep that faithful response really goes.  It is easy to be faithful in midst of signs and wonders, but the it is equally true that it is historically rare that our faith will be solidified by a miraculous healing.  Instead, the life of faith is often that of seeing God at work in the routine and mundane events of life.  When our faith is strong enough to see God’s provision in everything, miracles abound.  The miracle of every breath.  The miracle of every meal.  The miracle of everyday life.