The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: The Third Sunday after Pentecost—PR 5—Year C
I Kings 17:8-16 (17-24); Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
There were many experiences that cracked open my heart in India, many experiences, and one of them came flooding back to me this week. It was the Friday before we were to come home. We had learned the day before that we, the delegation from the Diocese of Western North Carolina, were to be the program for the Inauguration of The Old Age Feeding Program the next day. Yes, we were responsible for music, and as it turned out, exercise. There was something more than amusing about teaching our Indian elders the hokey-pokey, something oddly surreal about hearing teenage Indian girls sing Camp Henry songs that they had learned from previous WNC delegations, and something deeply profound as I watched a 90 year old man mirror my movements as I taught them Qi Gong. But the part of that morning that came flooding back this week had nothing to do with those of us from Western North Carolina. It had to do with the elders themselves who stood to tell their stories, particularly the women, particularly the widows. You see in India, the mother becomes the responsibility of the child, often the male child. One woman showed us her bruises where her son-in-law had beaten her, but she was trapped; she had nowhere else to go. Another woman told us how her son had abandoned her. Without her son, she had no one, no one to care for her. There is no social safety net there. For that woman, no son meant a life of destitution, a life of crushing poverty. Oh, those Indian elders had dignity, but to hear their stories…it made your heart hurt.
As it is for widows in India today, so it was for widows in Elijah’s time, so it was for widows in Jesus’ time. Women were completely dependent on their male children for their livelihood. No son meant a life of crushing poverty. As early as the wilderness days of Exodus [22:24], there is fierce concern for the widow and the orphan. In Deuteronomy, God makes clear that it is central to God’s identity and mission to execute justice for the orphan and the widow [10:18] and the resident alien [24:17]. The practice of leaving a part of the harvest, the gleanings, was built into the law as a way to provide food for the alien, the orphan, and the widow [24:19-21].
As the story moves on through the scriptures, there is a progression. Power begins to coalesce at the top. Those with position and status get richer; those who are vulnerable get poorer. Oh, all the institutions of the day rolled along just fine—great and solemn festivals and fasts and liturgies, but the poor were getting trampled. The society was getting sicker and sicker. It was making God sick, too. Pretty soon, God got ahold of the some willing, and somewhat crazy-looking, people to give voice to God’s care and concern for those whom society was trampling—(3rd-7th graders—think back to your last Wednesday class—who were these people?)—enter the prophets. The prophet’s job was twofold—first to bring comfort to the afflicted and to call out the people of God and to paint new possibilities for how it could be.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi—all of these address the plight of the widows specifically. While not mentioning the widows outright, Amos minces no words when it comes to the treatment of the needy and the poor. And Jesus picks up this mantle from the very beginning of his ministry.
Remember Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4? There he takes Isaiah as his text, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (which was the year of Jubilee when debts were forgiven and everyone was set free). After Jesus read that, he sat down and said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the people were amazed. We remember that part, but do you remember what came next? When Jesus dared to talk about how Elijah ministered to that widow in Zarephath—so not just a widow, but a foreign widow at that!—they wanted to throw him off the cliff.
When a prophet talks about a widow, sit up and take notice. When Jesus talks about a widow, sit up and take notice. When you see a widow in the scripture, you know that you have entered the heart of God’s heart; you have entered the heart of God’s care and concern and fiercest passion. And it quickly gets complicated, because every time the people of God get a good dressing down from God, via the prophets, about this, what is exposed is a torn social fabric, a society, a community, that has ceased to care for the most vulnerable among them, what is exposed is a people who have broken covenant with one another. When you see “widow” read “most vulnerable,” and you will begin to see what’s at stake.
So, a couple of things about these stories. First, even though the widow of Zarephath didn’t have anything, she was willing to risk that there was an abundance where she didn’t perceive any. All evidence pointed to a scarcity of resources, but Elijah saw a different reality, and that widow trusted him, and when she believed in the abundance, the abundance poured out everywhere. In the end, both of the widows in today’s story get their sons restored to them—Elijah raises the son from death in Zarephath and Jesus raises the son from death in Nain—which means those two women will not be sentenced to a life of crushing poverty.
So, what does this mean for us? I don’t know about you, but my powers to bring the dead back to life are pretty limited. What does this mean for us?
Hold that thought. And this is where this sermon might get me thrown off a cliff. Things are heating up in our society. Big time. Lately, there is not a week that goes by that I am not hearing about something being done at the local level or the state level that is hurting the most vulnerable in our community.
Mental health is being dismantled bit by bit. Ask Lynne Mason and those who work at Hospitality House or the Community Care Clinic or any mental health professional in our community what they are seeing these days in the increase of people who need help and can’t get it.
A shifting of resources away from our not-for-profits who care for the most vulnerable in our community.
A sweeping tax reform bill being discussed in our state legislature that will shift the tax burden from those with the most to those in the middle and those at the bottom, both in the tax rate structure and in the way the sales tax base is being broadened [HB 998], at a cost of $1 billion over the next 5 years—the math has to work so that means cuts will have to come somewhere, most likely governmental services, social services, and education.
A shift in resources in our educational system from public schools to private schools—$100 million over the next three school years [HB 944]—a shift which many fear will be the beginning of the unraveling of public education.
A refusal to accept Medicaid monies that would cover 500,000 people in our state who desperately need health care [HB 16/SB 4] and a dramatic cut in unemployment benefits [HB 4/SB 6] at a time when the unemployment rate in North Carolina stands at 8.9%, the fifth highest in the country. These measures taken at the same time that the estate tax has been repealed [HB 101SB 114]—a tax that only came into play on estates larger than $5.25 million for 2013 .
New Voter ID laws [HB 253/SB 235] when the problem of fraud hasn’t been proven. A bill that says a parent can no longer claim a dependent exemption for their child if that child registers to vote at an address other than the parent [SB 667]. Both of these bills make it more difficult for the poor, the elderly, and the young to exercise their voice through their vote.
Legislation that would make life harder for immigrants [HB 786], the resident aliens to use the Old Testament phrase, who live among us and are our neighbors.
And so, every Monday, since April 29th, people have been gathering outside the Legislative Building in Raleigh. The crowds are growing. Some are choosing to be arrested in acts of civil disobedience. The testimonies of those who are choosing to be arrested are beautiful testimonies of their faith that drives their care and concern for the most vulnerable in our society. These are not your normal political activists; they are ordinary folk from all walks of life and from all faith perspectives, including those who profess no faith at all—most have never been arrested in their lives. The NAACP in North Carolina, led by The Rev. Will Barber is spearheading this effort. The North Carolina Council of Churches is fully supportive, and they are calling for clergy from across the state to participate this coming Monday. The Bishops of North Carolina were there last week, along with several clergy from that Diocese. Clergy from our Diocese, with Bishop Taylor’s knowledge and blessing, will go tomorrow. For weeks now, some of you have been asking me what I will do.
And so, I have been praying, hard, and not sleeping very well. I have been reading legislation until late in the night trying to understand what is actually going on. Reminds me of the days when I used to sit and read the Internal Revenue Code (and some of you thought I was normal). Sometimes, the reporting on this legislation hasn’t been quite accurate, and so I have tried to dig to find out what is happening.
I also have a deep, deep concern that stems from the inherently dualistic nature of protests, which can also diminish the complexity of issues and people. Now, hear me clearly—I refuse to demonize those who are putting this legislation forward. As a baptized person, I have taken a vow to strive for justice and peace, yes, but there is a second part of that vow—I have also vowed to respect the dignity of every human being, and that includes those putting forward policies that I believe are hurting the most vulnerable among us. I refuse to see the policymakers and those supporting them as anything other than my brothers and my sisters. They have an inherent dignity that I am bound to respect. But being a part of the beloved community also means that I must be willing to call to account my brothers and sisters who have power when those without power are being hurt. God’s concern for the least of these among us [Mt 25] simply cannot be denied.
I do not have the power to raise the dead like Elijah or Jesus, but maybe that’s only because my vision is too narrow.
Maybe raising the dead, in this instance, is calling the broken and brittle structures of our society to live again as vessels of grace creating the environment where all God’s people can thrive—maybe these are the dry bones that the prophet Ezekiel calls to live again.
Maybe raising the dead is calling us, all of us, once again, to live as a covenant people—as a community across our society that is bound one to another. We choose life together, or we choose death—Moses knew that long ago [Deut 30:19].
Maybe raising the dead is believing that we can talk respectfully with those with whom we disagree knowing that both of us will be transformed along the way. Most of our world believes that such charity in our public discourse is dead—I refuse to believe that. Jesus calls us to go deeper, always deeper—Jesus calls us to love across the great divide.
Maybe raising the dead is trusting in jars of meal that won’t run out and jars of oil that won’t run dry and a willingness to share our last crumb and to know that that will feed us in ways that our fear of scarcity never can.
Maybe, brothers and sisters, we are called now, today, to raise the dead, and in the process, our widows and children, our poor and dispossessed, our resident aliens, our rich and powerful and politicians, you and me—maybe in the process, all of us will find life, and not just life, but abundant life. Maybe this is the kingdom of God that Jesus told us about.
So, I am still praying. If I go to Raleigh tomorrow, I go as a follower of Jesus, I go as one who lives under the vows of my baptism, I go as a priest of the Church, I go as a citizen of this great state—I do not go as the Rector of St. Luke’s. If I go, I go as one who believes deeply in the dignity of those with whom I disagree. If I go, it will be because I just can’t get these widows out of my head. If I go, it will be because I have come to believe that raising the dead isn’t just the work of Elijah or the work of Jesus, but is also the work that God has given me to do.
I don’t know how God will speak to you about such matters, but I would be negligent as a priest of Christ’s church if I did not call you to wrestle with the world in which we live, the whole world, even the political parts of it because God created this world, and God loves this world deeply—for God so loved the world...[John 3:16].
So, who are the widows in your line of sight? What are you called to raise so that they may live? Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 9, 2013