Sermon preached at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Sun Prairie, WI, June 9, 2013.
Good morning. My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the Chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal student ministry of our diocese at UW-Madison. Madison, that erstwhile suburb of Sun Prairie. So we are neighbors. And not only neighbors, but Good Shepherd and St. Francis House share a special bond: Fr. Mike offered supply at St. Francis House year before last, during our recent interim, and several of you are responsible for some of the finer meals (and a few extra pounds) our fellowship enjoyed this past year. Thank you for that. There may even be a St. Francis House alumni or two in the house this morning.
Some of you will remember - you were there with a wonderful meal and a giant cake - this past semester, the Sunday after Easter, when one of our students was baptized using - at his request and with the bishop’s permission - the baptismal rite for such as are of riper years from the Prayer Book 1662. A wonderful night, a true highlight of my first year with the student ministry, and you were there, joining our prayers, as friends known to our community. I thank God for that. And thank you for inviting me into your worshiping life this morning.
On April 26, 1986, a series of explosions in reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the southwest corner of the then Soviet Union, left a graphite moderator exposed to air. The exposure of this moderator caused a subsequent fire that released the equivalent radiation of four hundred Hiroshima bombs, making Chernobyl the largest and most devastating nuclear power plant accident in the history of the world. Over 400,000 citizens were evacuated and permanently relocated. Despite initial and ongoing efforts to address the presence of radioactive materials, the region surrounding the meltdown was quickly abandoned, formally restricted, determined to be no longer fit for life of any kind.
Twenty-seven years later, however, strangely, the area around Chernobyl is not a nuclear wasteland; is not devoid of life. Radioactive, yes. Abandoned by humans, absolutely. But, to the astonishment of scientists and others, teeming with life. Plants. Animals. Birds. In startling and rich abundance. In fact, wildlife that never thought to live in the region before the accident, is now present and thriving. One author describes the area as “the largest, if unintentional, wildlife sanctuary in Europe.” In a land literally left for dead: everywhere signs of new and unexpected life.
All throughout our scriptures this morning, also: signs of new and unexpected life. Each lesson containing a kind of post-meltdown Chernobyl: life where normal people don’t expect to find life. Life in a funeral parade at a city gate. Life on the death bed in a widow’s home. Gospel life in a man who had helped kill members of God’s Church, now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.
And each of these three lessons from Scripture has a similar ending: some version of the people who witness this unexpected life giving glory to God. So in the gospel we’re told “they glorified God.” Paul, telling his own story in Galatians, says, “they glorified God because of me.” In 1 Kings, the widow says simply, “Now I know...” Now I know.
Signs of new life. And new and unexpected life is the miracle at the heart of the Church. We gather, after all, around a cross and meet God. Crosses are not places where normal people find life. But the Church is not normal people. The Church is people called to worship the crucified and risen Jesus. So we learn to pray the Prayer Book’s prayer, that we may walk “in the way of the cross...[and]... find it none other than the way of life and peace...” Like the women at the tomb that first, dark Easter morning, we walk into a wasteland: cold, desolate, the shadow of death. And here, quite unexpectedly, we find new and unending life.
I was an economics major in undergraduate school at a small, Christian, liberal arts college. During my junior and senior years, I spent the bulk of my time working with a professor on a project called Business as Mission. The idea was simple: identify examples of people and businesses living out their Christian callings, uniquely, and in secular vocations. Dr. Ewert put it this way: most everyone is sure that clergy can do their jobs as faithful Christians. Most of us are sure that teachers and doctors can perform their duties well as faithful Christians. We get increasingly skeptical along the spectrum by the time we get to bankers. And lawyers? Well. Good luck with that.
But our project ran on the assumption that God works in the unexpected places.
Our three lessons take us into three places in which life was not expected, for different reasons in each case; all places of traumatic meltdown in which normal people do not expect to find new life.
In the Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings, new life finds the widow of Zarephath unexpectedly in the midst of sins remembered and her anger at God, occasioned by the death of the widow’s son. We are not told that God is in fact angry with the widow on account of her sins, or that her son has died because of these sins, only that, after losing her son, the widow is angry at God for remembering her sins. We sense in the widow an abiding guilt, perhaps an inner despair, turned to anger. When God restores the boy to life through the prayers of Elijah, the widow experiences the truth that sin and even anger at God are not enough to keep God from bringing new and unexpected life. I wonder how you hear the news that sin and even your anger at God do not prevent God from bringing new and unexpected life.
In our reading from Luke’s gospel, new life finds another unnamed widow unexpectedly in the midst of the funeral procession for her son, outside the city gate. This is the place of unspeakable loss. Loss of hope and provision for the future (because she was a widow). Loss of an only child. Loss of one’s heart. This is the place of bitter tears and grief. It is hard not to see Jesus’ compassion for this woman without imagining that Jesus sees in her a picture of his own mother’s coming grief. “Do not weep,” he says. “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And I wonder how you hear the news that bitter tears and aching loss do not prevent the new life of God.
Finally, in the lesson from Galatians, new life shows up unexpectedly and ominously in the face - the presence - of an enemy. Paul, the one time persecutor of the Church, claiming a role and identity within the Church he says Jesus gave him. “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” This is a kind of new life that makes us hesitant, perhaps, to live it. Why would God show us salvation through our enemies? It is much easier to move from hate to pity than it is from hate to loving and learning from those who once tried to destroy us. I wonder how you hear the news today that God uses enemies to make known the life of the Kingdom.
In a few moments, we will we one more time break bread, share the cup, what our prayers call the “holy food and drink of new and unending life.” Simple bread. A sip of wine. A moment quickly passed. Another unexpected place to find new life. But we have learned - we have been shaped by the Scripture - to expect new life in unexpected places.
In the aftermath of that radioactive meltdown we call Golgotha, a bloom on the tree of the cross. And we remember that the very things that made new life impossible to imagine in each of our three lessons today - sin, anger at God, loss of hope and material provision, even enemies and death - are all here in his story. We hear these things as he calls out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And again, “Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing.” The new life we see in glimpses elsewhere, he is and is for us. So it is his life, death, and resurrection that constitute our hope. And it is in his own body, broken, that we partake of his new life.
Life we did not expect.