Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Trinity II 2016

1 Kings 17.17-24                    
Galatians 1.11-24                   
Luke 7.11-17

Going through Liverpool Street station this morning I saw some ads for Father’s Day cards, one of which featured a woman in lots of jewellery and a designer frock saying, “thank you, Dad, for your financial support, which has enabled me to be an independent woman”. Well, there are independent women in our society, but there were very few in the time of Jesus, and the widow of Nain in today’s story was not one of them. Her financial insecurity and precarious position are at the heart of this story.
To understand this story better it helps to remind ourselves of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in the Synagogue at Nazareth, when he announced, quoting Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord 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 favour.”
The part of Luke’s Gospel that follows, that we’re now reading, shows Jesus putting that into practice. And he always does so in a way that includes those who were excluded by the society of his time. Through his message, through his miracles of healing, through the people he chooses to reach out to and touch, unjust structures of exclusion and oppression are challenged, and so the Kingdom of God is proclaimed, because God’s kingdom is justice, good news for the poor, freedom for captives, the release of the oppressed.
The miracles of Jesus need to be read then not just as demonstrations of divine power, but as signs of God’s Kingdom. They are meant to draw our attention to Jesus’ agenda. According to the Gospels Jesus cured crowds of people, thousands, but the Gospel writers choose only a few of those miracles to relate in detail, because they illustrate different aspects of God’s Kingdom breaking in to an unjust and oppressive society.
So in today’s story Jesus, we are told, has compassion for a widow whose only son had just died. Why is her story told, in particular? In 1st Century Palestine most people lived in extended families, several generations sharing a property that passed down the family in the male line. So most property was owned by men and most women lived in men’s houses. You lived in your father’s house until you were given away to be married to the son of another family, and then you went to live in their house.
Your right to be there came from your husband, who was in the male line of inheritance, or from your son, if your husband died. But if both died, you lost your home and any means of financial support.
So widows who had no sons were in a desperate situation. And this is where the widow is in today’s story. She is the victim of a society which treated women as second class citizens and excluded them altogether when they were no longer useful.
So the action of Jesus in raising her son from the dead is not just a display of power. It is Jesus directly challenging the injustice in his society which had left this poor widow in such a desperate situation.
And that sense of challenge comes across in the way Jesus acts. We are told “he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still”. That was a very shocking thing, because to touch a bier carrying a dead body made you ritually unclean. And for Jesus the holy Rabbi to do this was unthinkable. And yet he did. That touch was a challenge to the accepted social order, and you can feel the shock waves spreading out from that touch as everyone suddenly stands still in confusion.
And then Jesus tells the young man to get up, and gives him back to his mother. What a lovely touch that is, in a society where women were routinely given by men to other men, that this man should be given to his mother, and so restore her to her place in the community.
Of course that detail also makes a connection with the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, which we heard as our first reading, for there too the prophet raises the son and gives him to his mother. That’s a story that Jesus has already referred to, back in the Synagogue at Nazareth. There, he had infuriated his audience by pointing out that Elijah had been sent to no widow in Israel, but only to this one in Zarephath, that is, a foreigner. God’s Kingdom, he was saying, upsets the social order, by including all sorts of people you want to keep out – women, lepers, foreigners.
Well, what Jesus began, his Church is to continue. We are to proclaim the Kingdom of God. And we are to do that not just in words but in deeds. Like the miracles of Jesus, our actions are to be signs of God’s Kingdom breaking in, challenges to injustice and exclusion. Not simply a sticking plaster on a wound but something much more radical: an alternative social order that reflects the values and agenda of God.
When we read Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, we see this being put into practice. After the Ascension of Jesus the Church became the visible sign of God’s Kingdom in the world. And although there were still miracles, the Kingdom was also proclaimed in more ordinary ways. For instance, one of the first things that the early Church did in Acts was to organise a collection to help widows. Through that practical act it was establishing inclusion in place of exclusion, and proclaiming a different social order that reflected God’s Kingdom. And, moreover, these widows were not merely passive recipients of other people’s kindness: they were empowered by the Gospel and had a recognised place in the Church’s ministry.
In our own day the needs are different. Exclusion and oppression still exist, but in other ways. So many people in our society are trapped in poverty. Opportunities are not available to all. Overstretched mental health care and benefits systems can fail to help those who need them most. Asylum seekers and refugees are now more feared than welcomed in some parts of our society.
In the EU referendum campaign, it seems to me, both sides are trying to convince me of what’s in it for me, how I will benefit if I vote this way or that, how I can keep myself in the centre. But if we’re serious about the Gospel we should start by asking, not what is in it for me, but what is in it for my neighbour. How will my vote help those who are most vulnerable, most excluded, most precarious, in our society, in the other nations of Europe, and in the rest of the world? What is best for them? I think it is really sad that all sides of our political life now appeal to self-interest, and seem to assume that appealing to the good of others would be a vote loser. The tone of our common political life has been coarsened.

The Gospel tells us something different. How we live, the actions we undertake for others, and even the way we vote, are to be re-imagined as signs proclaiming God’s Kingdom, challenging injustice, and establishing a different social order in which all God’s children without exception are honoured, valued, and brought in to a place at the table. Perhaps if enough of us start asking those questions of our political leaders, they might realise that people care about more than mere self interest. And that in itself would be a sign of the values of God’s Kingdom.

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