Guest Post by Pastor Don Carlson
Pentecost 3C – June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:17-24 – Elijah revives the widow of Zarephath’s son.
Psalm 30 – O Lord you pulled me up from Sheol, you rescued me from those going down to the grave.
Galatians 1:11-24 – Paul’s gospel is not of human origin. Paul was set apart before he was born, then called by God’s grace, to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles.
Luke 7:11-17 – Jesus raises the widow’s son at Nain.
As I said last week, if doing a sermon series, I would be reading the entire second chapter at this point. In 2:1-10, Paul continued his argument (begun at 1:11) that “his” gospel was neither shaped by others nor shaped in order to satisfy others. Even when he finally did meet with the “grand poobahs” in Jerusalem (2:2), they added nothing to “his” gospel; even despite the efforts of “false believers.” (2:4) All they asked Paul to do was to “remember the poor.” Paul was glad to do this (2:10) and so he was always taking up an offering for the relief of the church in Jerusalem. (See: 1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 9:1ff; Romans 15:25ff.)
Paul then informed them of his run in with Cephas (Peter) at Antioch. When people from James (the church in Jerusalem) showed up, Cephas had waffled and stopped eating with – being one with – the Gentiles. Paul had given Peter a “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” comeuppance: “Peter, you’re a Jew and have given up on all of that ritual law! How on earth can you then expect Gentiles to live like Jews that still keep the law? What’s that about?”
Verse 2:15 is interesting. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners…” What I find interesting is how “sinners” is used and how it then informs 1:4. In 1:4 when Paul wrote “…who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age…”, I don’t think he was talking about “sins” in the sense of personal moral peccadilloes. Rather, ala 2:15, he’s talking about the old Jewish “law system” – and the Imperial honor/shame system – of determining who’s in and who’s out, who’s acceptable and who’s not, who are the “just” and who are the “unjust.” Those systems of “law” belong to the evil age of power, prestige, and social hubris. “If justification – before God and before one another – comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (2:21)
Once again, yes, this is about one’s relationship to God through Christ, but in the context of Paul’s letter it is even more about one’s relationships with others through Christ! It is important that we hear Paul’s words as addressing a 1st century relational conflict in Galatia and not just a theological conflict of the 16th century!
BTW, here’s an interesting article by David Fredrickson on “Amoratory Motifs in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.” I look forward to reading his latest book, Eros and the Christ.
This week I want to say something about the gospel reading. I do so by sharing a sermon that hit a home run once upon a time. During the weeks following I was really surprised at the number of people that told me they finally had long overdue family conversations. FWIW!
How many of you have seen the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral”? The four weddings and their respective receptions are delightful, but the most poignant moment of the film comes when the lover of the deceased stands over the coffin and reads this poem by W. H. Auden:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the necks of public doves,
Let traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For now nothing can ever come to any good.
The poignancy arises from the emotional honesty of the words and scene. There is no effort to hide or sugarcoat the grief and anguish of death. Too often around coffins I hear words like: “I guess God needed her more.”, “There’s another star in the heavens tonight.”, or, “It must have been his time.” The words are spoken with the intent of bringing some comfort; spoken to justify the way things are in order to quell the feeling that things are not as they should be. But such words are “cheap grace”; grace which is nothing but talk.
This past week I saw on TV the mother of the young man who was robbed and killed while changing a tire on his pickup truck. She said, “I keep telling myself he’s in a better place.”, but you could tell that the sentiment was little comfort. Her son had been brutally murdered; things were not as they should be. “Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.” Which brings us to the stories of Elijah and Jesus.
In Biblical times, women in their teens were often married to men who were much older. A man had to establish himself before a woman could be transferred to his care from that of her father. This age disparity with husbands meant that women were often widowed fairly early in life. It also meant that the most vital relationship in a woman’s life was, not with her husband, but with her oldest son. When the husband died it was the oldest son’s responsibility to provide sustenance for his mother. Women had no status except in relationship to a male head of a household. That’s what Jesus’ words from the cross to his mother, Mary, and his disciple John are all about.
That’s what’s going on in these stories of Elijah and Jesus. These widows have not only lost a child, they have also lost all hope for the future! The “wheels” have literally come off their existence! If there is no other male family member willing to take them in there is perhaps nothing left for them but gleaning, begging, or prostitution.
In the Elijah story, there are no sanctimonious words like, “Well, at least the boy won’t be hungry any more.” The anguished mother’s anger rises to the surface immediately, “What have you against me? You have cone to me to bring my sin to remembrance and cause the death of my son!” Elijah’s words are also an angry accusatory question, “God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I’m staying by killing her son?” The words are honestly reflect the reality of the situation.
Likewise with the story about Jesus. The widow is heading out to bury her only son. The town is with her; “Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.” Jesus sees and fully understands the gravity of this woman’s situation. There are no cheap words from Jesus about the son “being in a better place”, for, as with Elijah, the dead son isn’t Jesus’ concern. It’s the woman, not the son, for whom Jesus has compassion. Wherever else the son may be doesn’t matter. Wherever else he may be, he’s not there to care for his mother; it’s the mother’s situation that matters.
Don’t take a situation and sugarcoat it into something it’s not. If the plane has crashed, don’t say it has “landed short of the runway”. If the ship is on the rocks, don’t say that it’s found a “unexpected port”. But we like to do that sort of thing. We like words that are spoken with the intent of bringing some comfort; spoken to justify the way things are in order to silence the truth that things are not as they should be. But such words are “cheap grace”; nothing but talk which offers no real hope.
My sermon title comes by way of a friend of mine, Dr. Robert McLaughlin, who specializes in adolescent and family psychology. Bob says that most families have “elephants in the living room”. Now, everyone knows there is an elephant in the living room. They watch T.V. around it, talk to each other under it, and pass the newspaper over it; but no one is willing – or allowed – to talk about the elephant.
The elephant may be drug or alcohol related. The elephant may be an abusive relationship in which someone is involved. It may be an infidelity. It may be illness, grief, or some other unspoken loss. It may be an activity that is unacceptable. It may be a misunderstanding which has never been resolved; disappointment; unrealistic expectations; failed hopes or dreams. Whatever it is, it looms there; dominating, obstructing, and damaging healthy relationships.
There may be a lot of quite intense and animated of talk around the elephant and generated by the elephant, but none of it offers any hope of deliverance from the elephant because the elephant – the problem itself – is never talked about. And the paradox is that while the problem seems too big and threatening to talk about, the reality is that it’s too big and threatening not to talk about. Elephants like living rooms. They will never leave by themselves. Ignored, they will only grow larger; doing even more damage to furniture and people.
Almost every Sunday we confess that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”. What does that mean in everyday terms? One thing it means is that we are “bound to keep score”. Sin means that we are bound to come up with some sort of a system which will make us appear, at least to ourselves, more righteous than others. We are bound to come up with a score keeping system that stacks the game in our favor. (One such system says that people with no elephants are better than others.)
But the twist is the fact that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves” also means that we are all “bound” to have “elephants”. They will show up in all our lives. Some denominations may believe that to be Christian is to be “elephant free”; Lutherans don’t believe that. Christians are not privy to some sort of immunity to the effects of sin. Elephants are “bound” to come; that’s our very nature.
What Christ frees us up to do is to openly acknowledge – confess – how things are. Since our “uprightness” is found in Christ alone we don’t have to pretend we are “upright” because we are problem free. It’s an abnormality that some people’s understanding of the Christian faith calls for the need to deny that they’ve got “elephants in the living room” (or skeletons in the closet). In truth, no one should be more free than the Christian to say, “Elephants in my living room? Sure! Of course! Bound to happen!”, and then get on with the business of running them out.
Getting rid of them can take time, but it can be done.
First, be honest with yourself and others about what’s going on inside you and between you. Get in touch with reality.
Second, sometimes it’s tough to “see the forest for the trees”; sometimes we need help sorting out what exactly is going on inside of us and around us. If need be, seek some help. I know of many professional counselors and therapists who can help with that. As a people, we are neither reluctant nor ashamed to spend billions of dollars to care for our physical selves; yet we are often reluctant and ashamed to spend anything – time or money – to care for our relational selves. That’s a rather peculiar phenomenon.
Thirdly, remember that you can help each other with your respective problems. Everyone sitting around you has “elephants in their living room”. The only question is whether you will be “elephant herders” or “elephant keepers”. If you share, you can help each other herd.
Whatever, don’t pretend that your situation is other than it really is. If Elijah and Jesus had trivialized the gravity of the situation with pious words about death – if they had used religion to sugarcoat or avoid the real life issues – those women would have had no hope. For, in the end, “If we say we have no sin we only deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Faith should open up the future!
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Don Carlson
June 3, 2013 at 10:35 am
The debate didn’t end with Paul and Cephas. Many congregations place limits on membership via invisible barriers that decide “who is in and who is out”. My congregation received a test of our limits when a recently released sexual offender showed up at services and wished to join. He was welcomed in with love and grace, carefully avoids any contact with the children, and always greets adults with the love of Christ shining through his smile. Would your congregation react the same? I am offended that so many Lutheran churches look like refuge camps for upper middle class northern Europeans. If we ask the question “who is in and who is out?” we’ve already failed the test of Paul’s “gospel” by my understanding.