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Raising Life
A Sermon Preached at Larchmont Avenue Church
by Rev. Julie Emery
June 27, 2010

Luke 7:11-17
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

There is a gut-wrenching moment that changes you. There is a moment when distant caring becomes a tangible, visceral, bodily response. For some it comes when experience unites your heart with another’s. For some it comes when feeling overflows into the body so that inaction is no longer an option.

If you talk with any activist you will hear the story of that gut-driven moment, and how it suddenly all changed. I myself have little moments – moments when the issue of violence against women became very real and terribly essential. The moment when the beauty of my surroundings made me reconsider my laziness towards recycling, the moment when I sat at the bedside of a dying man and understood what it might be to die with dignity and the expansive depth of grief. We have all felt them – those gut impulses of compassion for another, the desire to help, the desire to change something for the better, the desire to reach out beyond ourselves.

The word is pronounced “splagch – niz- omai” and it means literally “to be moved in the inward parts.” Rev. Crawford mentioned it last week when he named the word used to describe God’s fatherly compassion for the prodigal son returned home, the same word used to describe God’s love for those God knit together in our mother’s womb. Luke uses this word in only three places in his gospel: the story we heard last week of the prodigal son welcomed home by his ever-loving father, and the story of the good Samaritan, when the Samaritan is moved with compassion for the man left beaten on the side of the road. And then again in our story for today, when Jesus is so moved by the weeping of a mother at her son’s funeral that he breaks all boundaries to help her.

To be moved on the inside. To be moved in your guts.

In our story for this morning, Jesus is walking with a large crowd of followers and approaches the gate of a town in Galilee called Nain when he comes upon a funeral procession. The funeral is for a grown man, and we are told he is his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.

What seem to be small details are big ones for the widow. As I may have mentioned before a woman’s status and stability in the ancient world was tied to the men in her life. She belonged to her husband and then to her sons. Not only that, if a woman was left without both of these – she was in dire circumstances. This woman, upon the death of her son, likely would have all of her belongings returned to her deceased husband’s family, and she would be left with nothing. If the grief that one feels at the death of a child were not enough to collapse the walls around her, certainly the loss of all property and community would be her total demise.

Jesus sees her weeping. She says nothing. He sees her weeping and is moved in his guts with compassion for her. His words seem at first cold and hurtful, “Do not weep,” he says, as if that were even possible at the grief of the death of a son. But when he crosses over to her and puts his hand on the funeral bier; his gut feeling becomes bodily action.

I’m not sure there is much that can compare in our culture to the taboos that Jesus broke by touching the beir. The Jewish rules about cleanliness had strict guidelines about touching the dead, and this action of Jesus makes clearly violates those rules. Not only that but the mere fact that Jesus is moved by the plight of someone who is small and unimportant is problematic for the culture he lives in. By allowing himself to moved with feeling for a powerless woman makes him seem weak and unbecoming.

The widow is cast aside by her culture, now with no man to claim and provide for her. Jesus sees the unsightly, he notices the undervalued, he sees and he responds with action.

Today it is hard to imagine that by crossing cultural boundaries or physical boundaries we might truly jeopardize our own place in society or our own personal wellbeing. Maybe it is as simple as hugging a stranger at the passing of the peace without that squirt of sanitizer. Maybe we still know how eating with the wrong kind of kid at lunch makes us a pariah by association. Maybe we’ve experienced that inviting a certain person to the tennis club for dinner or reaching out to that immigrant on the street corner might put us in an awkward position with our friends.

But none of that really compares to the move that Jesus makes in our story today. It’s more like – kissing a dirty homeless man on the mouth in front of all of our friends, or treating an aids victim without gloves. Perhaps it’s more like giving so much of our own money away that it jeopardizes our own family’s security, or taking an addict into our home till they get back onto their feet. The act of Jesus toward the widow is reckless – without care for consequences. Can you imagine?

It isn’t simply that Jesus notices the woman, isn’t only that he welcomes her, feels for her, cares for her. It’s also that he takes tangible action to change her situation. It’s not just that he weeps with her, but he crosses the prescribed boundaries to act on that feeling-in-the-gut compassion. “Jesus doesn’t just take the widow’s needs seriously, he takes them into the core of his being and makes her pain his own.” And when her pain becomes his, it is impossible not to act.

I’ve recently started reading a wonderful little memoir called “Take this Bread,” by Sara Miles. She was raised an atheist, assured over and over again that anyone who would believe such silliness is deluded at best. And so she begins her book with her experience, raised as a liberal, and then giving over her early adult life to reporting on various communist revolutions in Central America and throughout the world. You know from the beginning of her story that she eventually finds a home in the church, but her writing is compelling enough to keep drawing you in, wondering what is the next step on her road to Damascus.

She writes a lot about food – and how throughout her travels and experiences in countries in the midst of civil and bloody wars she seemed to again and again be fed by people hungrier and poorer than she was. She understood even before she came to faith, that what we have in common with each other is our bodies, which means that we all have common needs. She understood, then, finally, when she accidentally received her first communion, that being moved in her inward parts was fundamentally about both feeling faith and doing faith.

After Sara Miles’s conversion she starts a food pantry in her church, which springs into dozens throughout the poorest parts of her city. For Miles, compassion is naturally linked to action, and so she lives out the gut-driven-faith she adopts. She is particularly drawn to the act of sharing communion, but I think she might also experience the act of baptism with that same deep movement. The waters that clean dirty, tired feet, the waters that refresh after hours of work in the hot sun; the same waters that cover a child’s head and claim her as God’s very own. Tangible, bodily, physical.

Professor Rolf Jacobson talks about how when we are baptized as Christians our relationship to the world changes. We still feel pain, we still make mistakes, but there is a new relationship formed with the world. One that means our solidarity with the rest of humanity matters; how we live in this world matters: what we buy, what we eat, what we give away, what we say… it all matters.

The way that Jesus marks change for the widow at Nain is more miraculous than we can fathom. Jesus says to a dead son, “I say to you, rise!” The text says that Jesus “gave him to his mother,” and in doing so he not only reunited and reconciled them but also saved her from the pit of despair and destitution. The act is one of those moments of the gospels meant to show us the power of Jesus as beyond even the most powerful prophets of Israel, meant to show us the divinity of this one called “Lord.” And in this way, the action of Jesus is beyond us too. Because that kind of raising of life is still beyond our power.

But for us, raising life may instead be about the act of crossing boundaries and changing the way things are seen. In seeing the unseen and acting in ways that bring about new life here and now. It may be an act of going just a little bit further: of letting the pictures of oil covered birds in the gulf move you to actually doing something about your own dependence on oil and dirty energy. Of letting the knowledge that you have a job when so many others don’t move you toward offering your resume skills to the jobless or finance expertise to the single mom looking for help with her budget.

Raising life may be letting the pile of food on your plate every night move you to pile food on someone else’s plate once a week at HOPE, or letting those bags of groceries you lug toward your house weekly move you to fill a few bags at the Hunger Task Force. Perhaps for us here and now Raising Life is not about raising one but about raising everyone’s life a little higher.
Perhaps raising life is about letting yourself be moved, in the gut, into action that Raises Life and Love for all. Amen.

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Catching Faith in a Sea of Doubt
Text: Luke 5:1-11
Rev. Julie Emery
Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
February 7, 2010

Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

The year after I graduated from college I spent volunteering as a youth minister in Juneau, Alaska. Juneau is the capital, and was built on the site of a summer settlement for the native Tlingit tribes who fished the thin waterway that flows between the mainland and Douglas Island. Folks who live there joke that the natives knew better than to camp there in the winter, when the winds howl between the mountains and what little sun appears hides behind the peaks for most of the day. Juneau is land-locked by Mendenhall glacier flowing from the Juneau Icefield, which is the fifth largest icefield in North America. This means that there is no way to build a road to Juneau – if you want to see it you must fly or take a boat.

The layout of the city of Juneau is something like the capital letter “H” There is a long road that extends up and down the mainland, and a long road that extends up and down the coastline of Douglas Island and a short bridge that connects the Mainland to Douglas Island. In addition to the glacier, the town of Juneau is shrouded by mountains on all sides both on the mainland and on Douglas Island. If you see a picture of downtown, you will see how the homes and buildings are nestled in between these three towering mountaintops.

I take such time to describe this place where I lived for a year because it is hard to imagine if you have not been there. Pictures don’t seem to do it justice. In my time in Juneau I lived in a handful of different places; One of which was a home on Douglas Island. Since I did not have a car I learned quickly that if I had the time, walking got me where I wanted to go – so every morning I bundled up and walked across the bridge to the church where I was working.

At the center of the bridge, if you turn and look south…the view is breathtaking. In some ways I am reminded of this view when I cross the various bridges in our neck of the woods – most often the Tappan Zee. But the bridge view in Juneau is beyond imagining. Looking south, with mountains on both sides, your eyes follow the thin passage of water south towards British Colombia. The water continues as it weaves through islands scattering throughout Southeast Alaska – some inhabited and some not. Some of them dusted with snow-peaks; all of them falling dramatically into the ocean.

Every morning when crossing towards downtown I would stop at the top of that bridge. It was a view not many could enjoy – the cruise ships could not come that far into the channel because it was too shallow, and cars passing over the bridge sped too fast to enjoy it. It is the kind of view that forces you to acknowledge your own smallness in the face of such vast and powerful greatness.

“Woe is me!” Isaiah says, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips!” Peter says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Each of these men has just had an experience with God that is so powerful that they cower in reponse.

Isaiah has seen a vision of a God so enormous that the hem of his robe fills the entire temple. He is awestruck by the sight of flying seraphs with six wings and the building that shakes and the voices resounding with singing and then the whole place filling with smoke. The fear that Isaiah feels is overwhelming but even more overwhelming is Isaiah’s sense of his own small self. “Woe is me!” he says, ‘I am unworthy of this.’

Simon Peter too is faced with something so amazing and powerful that he is overwhelmed with his sense of smallness. He has been up all night fishing with James and John – exhausted and frustrated with a night catching nothing but seaweed. Jesus is there too, preaching what Luke calls for the first time the word of God. The crowd that gathers is so big that Jesus decides to push out onto the water in one of the boats, to help amplify his voice so that all can hear.

Whatever was preached that morning, Simon Peter is moved. So when Jesus tells Simon Peter to cast his nets, he balks only slightly before he obeys. Simon warns Jesus of his unsuccessful night of fishing, but then says; “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When the fishermen cast their nets one last time they witness only what one can call a miracle. They use nets meant for night fishing, after a night of empty casting – with this set up they should not catch a minnow. But in following the will of Jesus they come up with such abundance that the nets creak under the weight of fish and the two boats used to haul the fish in begin to fill with water from the pressure of the filled nets. It is after this most amazing event that Simon falls to his knees – his view of the catch only emphasizes the contrast between his sense of smallness in the face of the greatness of Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” “This is too much for me!” he seems to say, “I am to little for you!”

Our own sense of unworthiness does not always show itself so plainly as Isaiah’s cry in the face of God. It most often shows itself in our lives as doubt. Doubt in ourselves and in others, doubt in our ability to accomplish what we hope to, doubt in our own certainty about life, parenting, truth, God. We believe ourselves to be unworthy because we are uncertain of so much; Uncertain enough to doubt our ability to care for those who need us, uncertain enough to doubt our ability to make the best decisions instead of the easy ones. Uncertain enough to doubt whether the decision we have already made will carry us through to safety.

But doubt is not negation of faith. Like the young Mary who responds to the angel’s announcement of her pregnancy, “How can this be?” and then later, “Here I am, servant of the Lord,” there is a certain leap of faith taken when one answers “Yes,” when one thinks and feels “Are you kidding?” Like confirmation faith partners who say, “I don’t think you really want me… but I would love to be a faith partner,” or any of us that think “this person does not know all my faults,” but say, “I will serve,” there is a trust in God instead of a trust in ourselves that allows us to do follow and serve. There is a belief in the idea that something bigger than ourselves is at work in our midst.

In her book “Leaving Church,” Barbara Brown Taylor describes how in her early years in parish ministry, she conceived of faith as the core certainty about God and godly things that equipped her for ministry. She describes how she had reasonable answers for all the questions of life that confronted her along the way. It was not until she experienced the slow loss of her father to cancer that she began to feel her way into a different concept of faith. As she describes her experience sitting by his bedside in Hospice Atlanta, she says this:

“(My dad) and I were past talking by then, which meant that I never found out where he was with God. All I found out was how helpless love can be, with nothing left to do but suffer alongside with the beloved. Marooned by my father’s bed day after day, listening to him whimper in the night, unsure what he believed about God, unsure that it mattered, wanting to pray, for him and for me, without managing anything much beyond “Please,” I discovered that faith did not have the least thing to do with certainty. Insofar as I had any faith at all, that faith consisted of trusting God in the face of my vastly painful ignorance, to gather up all the life in that room and do with it what God alone knew how to do.”

“Since then,” she says, “I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place.”

I find it fascinating to realize that in our text for this morning the doubt of both Isaiah and Simon Peter come before the call. In both of our stories this morning the call comes after admission of sinfulness and unworthiness. Isaiah says, “I am an unclean man,” Simon Peter says, “I am a sinful man,” and Jesus says “Follow me, and you will catch people…”

As we turn from Simon Peter’s view to the response of Jesus we notice that Jesus does not even acknowledge Simon Peter’s confession and humility. Jesus does not forgive him or heal him, he does not tell him to repent of his doubt. Instead Jesus puts him to work. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” And as Simon Peter leaves all his belongings behind he chooses in that moment to follow in spite of his doubts about his own worth. He chooses to follow because his smallness is embraced by Christ’s immense greatness.

“Do not fear,” Jesus says, “from now on you will be catching people.”

The response that Jesus gives to Peter’s doubting heart is not to erase his doubt in himself, it is not to convince him so that he is clearly sure of himself for the remainder of his journey. Instead Jesus only says, “Do not fear,” and asks Peter to join his journey even in his doubtfulness, and to ask others to join this journey as well. Jesus says, “Do not fear, but come with me anyway. Bring your doubt, your questions, bring others too; I am not about certainty. I am about hope.”

“Do not fear,” Jesus says, “from now on you will be catching people.” And perhaps the idea of catching people even as we doubt our faith or ourselves seems hypocritical or confusing. If catching people means being certain of every thing we believe about God or Jesus then we are sunk.

But if catching people means that we invite others to join us in our uncertainty then there is hope. If catching people means that we ask others to celebrate our lives together – both the good parts and the difficult parts without trying to explain them away then there is grace. If catching people means that we invite our neighbors to labor together to leave this world a little more like the kingdom of heaven, well the Church just might be a place of wholeness.

The community of Christ embraces our doubt and our shortcomings in order to do the work of the Kingdom. And it is because we do this work – the work of healing and feeding and serving and hugging – that the church grows. It grows because we are excited about the work we do here and we want to share the excitement. It grows because a loving community is sure to attract people seeking to love and be loved. It grows because we are willing to live with uncertainty, trusting God in the face of our smallness and God’s expansive greatness.

You are a part of the catching greatness of God. “Do not fear,” Jesus says, “from now on you will be catching people.” Amen.

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Dreams

Wow. It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything – which says something about how my last month has been both at home and at work, but I thought I’d come back with a Friday Five post to get me going. Sophia at RevGalBlogPals posted this on dreams:

With the beginning of my college teaching semester I have been having some unusually intense and memorable dreams lately–especially related to my Women and Religion class. With the beginning of a new calendar year many of us are engaging with dreams of another kind: planning, brainstorming, setting intentions or resolutions, etc. And many churches will celebrate the baptism of Jesus this Sunday, reading the Gospel account of his vision of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the “beloved child” words of Godde that set him off on his mission sharing Godde’s dream for the world. So let’s take a few minutes on this (where I am at least) lovely snow-blanketed Friday morning and share about the many different dreams and visions in our lives.

1. Do you tend to daydream?

I have always had my head in the clouds – from childhood into present – I find it sometimes challenging to pull myself down and get to work, so yes, I still daydream as much as possible. The daydreams that come most often and easily are of the *hopefully* near future when we might find some family stability, but I also dream of travel, opportunities to explore my creativity, exciting new endeavors for church and home. Just about anything could get my mind to wander off the beaten path and into new territory… care to join me?

2. Do you usually remember your night dreams? Do you find them symbolic and meaningful or just quirky?
I don’t often remember my night dreams, but when I do they have been usually quirky and strange. Very occasionally I find that they are meaningful, but those often are meaningful warnings: fearful or anxious dreams that are signs of what might be going on for me during my days. Those mornings are good, in that I often don’t realize how worried I am about something until I dream about it. And I see those dreams as a signal to move back to a place of love and faith; to learn to let faith guide me rather than fear.

3. Have you ever had a life changing dream which you’ll never forget?
I can think of one daydream that was life changing. I was riding in the back of a truck after a beautiful fall day in Haines, Alaska. The day was exquisite, the leaves were yellow and circling up behind our truck, and I found myself thinking of my *then* boyfriend (I was very much in love). We had been living out a long-distance relationship for almost 2 years, and I thought of him often. And for some reason, with the season and the colors and the day, I dreamed that he would be my husband, and I dreamed we would get married in the fall. (As I write this I realize it is totally completely cheesy! Blech!) But the thing is – I wouldn’t be writing it unless it became true. And now we have two beautiful boys and are living out that daydream… I’d say it was life-changing…

4. Share a long term dream for one or more aspects of your life and work.
I have lots of dreams for my life and work, but I’ll share only two. I dream of travel – both for life and work. I dream of going to exotic places for ministry and vacation, learning about different cultures, exploring places I read about in books. It’s a dream I hold lightly – since I have small children and no money, but I dream of it nonetheless. I also dream of seeing my name, however small, in print, on paper, in a book. (don’t we all?)

5. Share a dream for 2010….How can we support you in prayer on both the short and long term dreams?
I dream that 2010 will be a flagship year: for home – that hubster will finish that awesome dream of his (the doctorate!), that we will settle ever more in our new home, that we will find a community of friends. I dream of *just a little bit* of stability, so I can delve into this writing thing a bit more. I dream of more time outdoors, away from it all. I dream of health for my family and time with my friends.

Bonus: a poem, song, artwork, etc. that deals with dreams in general or one of your dreams:
This poem is one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. Perhaps it is about dreams – the desires and dreams we have for ourselves – perhaps I just love any excuse to share it. It speaks to me often and much, I hope it will to you too…

Thirst
by Mary Oliver

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away, expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

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I’m preaching this Sunday – on Reformation Sunday – and I’m so intrigued by this quote from the Institutes that I must share it…

“We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we come entangled in many errors. Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: whatever the character of the person, we must yet love them because we love God.” (Calvin – Institutes, II, viii, 55)

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