Sunday, June 10
Most of us are familiar with the popular series of novels called "Left Behind" -- all about the end times. In these books (and I haven't read all of them, I'm sorry to say), those "left behind" are the ones who are not taken up to heaven with Jesus before the great tribulation. (You'll notice I did not say "rapured", because the word rapture is not in the Bible.) So those "left behind" have to be among the saddest, most pitiable people in the world -- right? Except that I'm not sure that they are -- at least in the book. Some of those "left behind" have repented and they are putting on a brave fight against evil -- and the others are the enemies of God -- so we're not supposed to waste our time feeling sorry for them.
But "left behind" can have a different meaning -- and everyone who has grieved the loss of a loved one knows what it means. In the gospel story from Luke, and as well in our lesson from 1 Kings, there is a story of a woman who is "left behind." She is a widow, left with an only son, and now her son has died as well. She is alone in the world. She has no one to support her, and she has no companion in life. she is one of those people that the Scriptures tell us most to look out for: over and over, in the Old Testament and the New, God instructs God's people to care for widowsand orphans, and for the alien who resides in theircountry. "Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed," says the prophet Isaiah. "Defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (1:17) The Psalmist writes: "The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and widow." (146:9 And in the letter of James, we are reminded that "religion that is pure and undefiled before God ... is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress." (1:27)
So what's up with orphans and widows? Why are they lifted up for special concern, for special care? why does God instruct god's people to watch out for them, and why does God become angry when widows and orphans are ignored or neglected or taken advantage of? .... it is simply because they were (especially in those times) the ones who are most often left our and left behind by life; they are the ones who mght feel most deserted by God; they are the ones who live on the edges of the community, where justice can be neglected. Widows, orphans, the stranger among us: God is, above all, concerned about those who are left our and left behind, people who need to know God's healing in time of illness, God's presence in time of grief, and God's provision in time of scarcity.
Gordon was an orphan. He lived in my town, in a tiny house all by himself. He was a grown man, but he had the mind of a child. And I say he was an orphan, although his mother lived in a nursing home in a neighboring town. He went to visit her almost every day, but she didn't know him. She had advanced alzheimers. she didn't know anything. She couldn't even feed herself any more. She had cared for him as a child, and even as an adult, until she became ill. She shielded him from some of the hardness of the world. But even when she couldn't care for him, even when shedidn't know him, she was still there, in the world. He wasn't quite alone.
The nursing home called me one night at 11:30, to say that Gordon's mother had died. Would I go over and tell him, they asked? There was no one else, and they thought he shouldn't get the news by phone. (Looking back, I'm not even sure that Gordon had a phone.)
When I gave him the news, he took out a big white handkerchief and sat, crying like a baby. Now he really was alone. He had no one to care for him -- and no one to care about him. And both of those things are so important. He was "left behind."
So it is with ourwidow in the gospel story today. Her husband had died. And now her son, her only means of comfort and support, has died as well. Any parent who has buried a child will tell you that this is one of the cruelest experiences of life, and so unnatural. Parents should never have to bury their children. As wlel, her son was not her only means of support, of legitmacy, in the world. She had no one to care about her, and no one to care for her.
So Jesus steps in, with words of compassion, and with words of power. We have seen his healing power before this, his compassion for those who are broken and cast our. but today he comes in the name of life; he comes to raise the dead. I heard Jesus referred to lately as one who "sucks the death right out of us." And that's great -- so powerful. Jesus comes into the world to heal, to forgive sins -- and to raise the dead. He sucks death our of us, and replaces it with HIS life. Believe this. Cling to this. But then let us notice this one thing in the story. The focus in the story is not in any way on the one who is raised, and his need to be alive. The focus is on the widow, his mother. Does that strike you as odd in any way? It does me. It makes me consider: what is the purpose of the man's resurrection, anyway? Why was he raised? Was it for his personal and individual benefit? Luke's words tell us: "Jesus.... gave him to his mother."
The purpose of this young man's resurrection is to restore his relationship with his mother... so that she will not be "left behind" in this world, so she will not be a widow or an orphan or a stranger in this world. she will have someone to care about her, and someone to care for her, someone to advocate for her, someone to share her name. The purpose of the young man's resurrection is not to simply ensure a longer life for him ... but it is for the sake of their relatinship, and for the sake of sustaining community and justice.
This tells me two things: one, about eternal life, and one about life right here and now. the purpose of eternal life is not simpoloy to ensure our personal individual immortality. Eternal life is about the great reunion around the banquet table of God. It's about feasting with Jesus -- and with grandma Emma and Aunt Doris, and the bikers for Jesus and the Japanese martyrs. It's about seeing again the babies I've baptized, and the old people I've buried, and all of the people I have never met and can't even imagine belong to the body of Christ. It's about welcoming one another home -- to the place where no one is left behind, where broken relationships are restored, where there is enough to share.
But it also tells me something about life right here and now: our mission as people who live in the promise of God's Kingdom NOW. And our mission is to go out and find those who are left our and left behind -- to tell them and to show them God's care -- to speak up for them -- to be God's presence with them .. to let them know that in God's good grace and in God's provision no one is left out and no one is left behind. We are to stand with people and to stay with people, to open up community, to offer relationships of hope and healing. In our baptism we have been raised to life with Christ. We have receive the assurance of eternal life with him. Our relationship with God has been restored. But this is not just for our own benefit. This life -- this power -- is in us so that we can share healing and hop with others, to restore them to community. Just as Jesus raised the young man and gave him to his mother... so also Jesus raises us ... and gives us to each other... especially to those who are "left behind."
This weekend the new Stephen Ministers went on a retreat together so that they would be prepared to become caregivers. Their ministry is probably much more complex than I can say, but above all one of their responsibilities is to create and sustain a relationship with someone who feels left behind by life: whether by illness or grief, doubt or loneliness. they have received Jesus' resurrected life so that they can be a caring presence for someone else. They will listen and pray and hold someone's hand. They wil open their hearts. And they will do all this in the power and compassion of the one who has raised us to new life.
And what about Gordon? He who became an orphan, alone in the world. What happened to him after his mother died? What became of him? He continued to live all alone in the tiny house, but he was not left behind. Because the small community of people who lived in that town and worshipped at the town church watched out for him and loved him, and stretched their arms around him. They gave him work he could do, and made sure he ate, watched out to see that no one cheated him or took advantage of him. He was their son, and their brother. He was not left out -- because the community of faith knew they had been raised from the dead to do this this. God gave them to each other, and especially to Gordon. And I glorifed God because of them.
Just as the son was raised and given to his mother, so too Jesus was raised and given to us -- so that, in life and in death, in sickenss and in sorrow, we might not be left out or left behind. And just as Jesus was raised and given to us -- so too are we raised to care for widows and rophans, give a voice to those who are powerless, to feed the hungry, to do justice and love kindness.
May others glorify God because of us. AMEN