Proper 5C: Is There Really Room at the Table?

Photographer: Antonio Parente
“The Last Supper”, Tom Phillips, 2013, Flowers Gallery (Photographer: Antonio Parente)

FIRST LESSON:  1 Kings 17: 8-24

To read the passage from 1 Kings

The seventeenth chapter of 1 Kings begins the three-chapter account of the conflict between King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel and Elijah the Prophet.  After confronting King Ahab for his introduction of the pagan god Baal, known for insuring rain for crops, Elijah goes into hiding from Ahab.  (Actually, it was Ahab’s wife Jezebel that pushed for this affirmation of Baal.)  The passage that we read is included in a grouping of three stories of Elijah’s experiences while in hiding.  These stories serve to establish Elijah as a legitimate and God-sent prophet.

The main reading is the first part of our whole passage and the second of these three stories.  The story begins with YHWH’s command to Elijah to go to Zarephath where a widow feeds him.  Elijah obeys and finds a widow gathering sticks.  He requests that she bring him water to drink, which she does.  Elijah then asks her for bread.  This time she protests the request, explaining that she only has enough to prepare a last meal for herself and her son.  Elijah assures her that the supplies will not fail until YHWH sends rain again.  (Because, after all, it is God, not Baal, who sends rain.)  She obeys and they eat for days.  The point is that even in this land of Baal, God’s grace and extravagant generosity is present.  It’s a commentary on what can happen when we live a life of abundance, rather than hoarding our resources in a life of scarcity.

The second act that we read, the sons of the widow falls ill.  It was severe; he was near death, possibly, according to some commentators, already deceased. The widow blames Elijah for her son’s demise.  She believes that the illness has come about because of something that she has done and that Elijah’s presence as a man of God has turned God’s attention or, in her understanding, God’s wrath toward her.  Elijah offers a prayer of lament, complaining to God that God has caused this illness and brought it upon the child of a woman who had saved him at God’s calling.  Elijah petitions God to save the child. (If, as many commentators claim he was dead, this was REALLY an unimagineable request.)  YHWH hears Elijah’s prayer and the boy is revived.  Elijah takes the child back to his mother.  Her response is a confession of faith, an affirmation of Elijah as YHWH’s prophet.

On the surface, it seems that Elijah, just like the widow, doubted that God would provide, questioned whether or not God would come through after all this.  In fact, Elijah got downright angry at God:  “I did what you said and you give me this???”  That’s probably a normal reaction.  But Elijah kept going—he kept believing and praying and otherwise imagining.  And the text says that God listens.  This God to whom we are told over and over that we should listen has listened to Elijah.  Maybe that’s saying that this is more of a conversation, more of a relationship with God than we thought.  Maybe it IS about what we do.  Maybe when we do somehow learn to speak Truth, God listens.  The truth is that faith is not a blind, unquestioning embrace of God’s promises; we’re just called to imagine something beyond it, imagine what we cannot fathom, imagine what makes no sense at all.  We are called to imagine something beyond ourselves and then go there.  That is why Elijah is considered a great prophet—not because he knew how to preach and obviously not because he never swayed in his faith in God’s response but because he just dared to keep believing and imagining that there is always a resurrection—here, from scarcity to abundance and then from death to life.

How powerful it is to be reminded that sometimes we are part of resurrection, sometimes God works through human agents that dare to imagine something beyond themselves, dare to imagine what the Truth really holds, dare to imagine that God is offering us all the abundance that we need.


1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What most often stands in the way of our believing and imagining what God can do?

3)      How quick are we to blame God when our prayers are not answered in the way that we envision?

4)      What would it take for us to truly imagine resurrection in our lives or for our world?

5)      What stands in the way of our praying for the unimagineable?



NEW TESTAMENT:  Galatians 1: 11-24

To read the Galatians passage

Paul had founded the churches in the area in and around Galatia and then had moved on to do the same in other places.  But after he left, there were those who had questioned his authority, his “pedigree”, so to speak.  Instead, they were insisting that these new Christians had to first become Jews (or, in other words, be circumcised) or they were not really righteous at all.

So Paul begins by first re-establishing his authority not as a rabbi, a trained teacher, but rather as one called by God.  Paul doesn’t talk about his “conversion”, as if he is part of another religion.  Instead Paul refers to his experience as his “calling”, an experience in which his authority came not from human succession but from God.

This letter is odd.  It doesn’t begin with the normal salutation of the day.  Instead, Paul gets right to the point.  He is frustrated and angry that this newly-formed community seems to have gotten so incredibly off-course.

This is a difficult passage.  Paul is insisting that his calling, his authority, is divinely-received.  There is no tradition of the church or teachers.  There is no apostolic authority bestowed or any “laying on of hands” as Paul was ordained.  Paul, in fact, had never met Jesus and had actually spent years fighting against the very version of the Gospel that he was now so adamantly preaching.  This passage could very easily be interpreted as one in support of “non-organized” religion.  And yet, Paul is not completely denouncing Judaism; he is instead calling it to renewal.  (Hmm! It seems that most new denominations or new religions begin with a call of renewal for the ones that are already there.)  It’s not really clear if Paul sees himself as called to a revelation about Jesus Christ or a revelation given by Jesus Christ.  But Paul’s understanding of the faith was not one based on a set of rules or traditions but rather one that offered the tradition of faith to those on the outside.  Paul dared to believe that the revelation of God and the love of Christ is not limited by the bounds of our understanding of who God is.

In Feasting on the Word, Wendy Farley says it like this:


If this letter is bad news for authoritarianism, it can be good news for those committed to the constant renewal of Christianity.  It is good news for those outside systems of power who might see more clearly ways in which Christianity has cut off some of its own limbs in the name of tradition.  It is good news for all those oppressed by the church:  women, slaves, the poor.  It is good news for al those lovers of Christ whose wisdom about the Divine is distorted or repressed by leaders of the church.

Stepping back from the heat of this controversy, it seems that Christianity absorbed more of James than of Paul.  Though the Holiness Code and circumcision did not come to define Christianity, the rest of the Hebrew Scripture remains authoritative for Christians.  The authority of the church and its leaders has also survived just fine, but Paul reminds us that, as important as tradition may be it can never be adequate to the gracious and extravagant love God pours out on us.  For Paul, corralling grace in a particular community or in relation to particular practices will always violate the gospel.

I, personally, love the tradition of the church.  It keeps me grounded.  It gives me a springboard on which to start my journey of faith.  I don’t think Paul was against that.  He just didn’t believe that we should stop there.  So, Paul would probably contend that there was nothing wrong with holding the traditions of the faith and the traditions of the church close.  You just need to let them breathe into the present and leave room for the Holy Spirit to breathe into them a little.


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does holding too tightly to traditions do to the church?

3)      What does letting traditions go do to the church?

4)      Why is it that this balance is so difficult for us today?



GOSPEL: Luke 7: 11-17

To read the Gospel passage from Luke

This passage cannot help remind us of the passage from 1 Kings that we read earlier.  Elijah, which, of course was part of the tradition here, serves as an archetype for the growing understanding of Jesus.  But here, the widow never speaks to Jesus.  She’s really just a catalyst for the story.  Instead, the story draws attention to the character of Jesus and the character of God as one who embodies compassion for all.

There is something more here than Jesus raising the dead.  Remember that in this time, widows were typically poor and vulnerable.  They were the least of the least, the very margins of acceptable society.  And now this one has lost her son too.  Jesus probably didn’t even know this woman.  He heard about her dilemma from a bystander.  And, yet, he is filled with compassion for a total outsider.  Jesus, with compassion and inclusion, raises both to life.

Note that the people did not see this as Jesus looking favorably upon the woman, but being filled with compassion.  The woman didn’t even ask Jesus to heal her son.  There was no evidence of her faith.  It doesn’t say that she DIDN’T have faith; it’s just not an issue.  There’s not even any real gratitude when it’s all over.  This is the not the story that you would expect.  It’s not really about faith but, rather about grace—undeserved, unexpected, unimagineable.  The choice is whether or not to receive it.  It just depends on whether o not we’re ready to imagine the unimagineable.

The following is from a blog by R.M.C. Morley, “A Garden Path”, available at

This was big. A solemn and holy moment. And, they had no idea. Jesus tells the man to sit up.  And he does. The son of the widow is brought to life again by the touch of Jesus and his spoken word.

… on Trinity Sunday we wrestled with a God that is so big and mysterious that we have great difficulty comprehending how [God] even exists. God’s very existence is a struggle for us. And that is troubling to the soul and mind. But, here, we wrestle with the closeness of God. We have a God, a Savior, who touches us – solemnly, profoundly, and with purpose. And, isn’t that just as troubling? Isn’t it so much more desirable to have a God who is at arm’s length? Maybe not a universe away separated from us by incomprehension, but certainly not a God intimately reaches out his hand and places it upon us. We don’t do that.

Unless we understand ourselves as hanging on the precipice of birth and death. Unless we realize that we walk a tightrope, and in the balance is life itself. Because this story isn’t just about some guy who is brought back to life. I mean, that’s great and all, but this story is about us.

As Luke crafts this story he saturates it in death. There’s a woman who’s a widow. She is now a grieving mother. The corpse of her son is there. It’s a funeral procession. This story has been dipped and coated in death. It wreaks of decay, despair, and grief. And the one who is dead, is us. And Jesus, reaches out his hand and touches us. And he tells us to get up. And do we? Do we even know we’re dead? Do we even know that there’s a lifeline? Do we even know that there’s a life that’s so much better, if only we get up as Jesus asks us to? We get so comfortable in life that we think that everything is just normal – that all is ok. We’re “fine.” We’re “good.”

We can even get comfortable in church-life, shuffling along making our way to our pew. Sitting attentively. Behaving. Going up for Communion when it’s time, and dropping our money in the plate when the nice man comes by. We’re “fine.” We’re “good.” But, no we’re not. We’re either dead, or we’re being birthed by God. And, when you put it like that, touching is just fine. Bring it on. Bring those calloused hands on, and stop the parade. This is big. And we have no idea.

This story is not like many of the other healing stories.  We’re accustomed to Jesus being approached and asked for healing.  And we’re used to Jesus attributing their healing to faith  (as if somehow they deserved their own healing because they had faith). But nothing is said here about faith.  The woman doesn’t even ask.  She just cries.  Maybe that’s the point.  Healing is not predicated on our faith.  God is present when we ask and when don’t, when we listen and when we wander off doing our own thing.  God is God; we are not.  But, here, Jesus had compassion for one who was hurting, whether or not she asked, whether or not she deserved it, whether or not she was the “in-crowd” or not.  God’s Presence is not because we have faith.  God is there through pure, unadulterated, undeserved, unwarranted Grace.  What faith gives us is the ability to every once in a great while, get out of ourselves and imagine the unimaginable.  And then, just for a moment, we will experience the Sacred and the Holy, God’s Presence that is always there whether or not we know.

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      Why is it so difficult to chalk something up to pure, unadulterated grace?

3)      Why are we uncomfortable with the closeness of God?

4)      What do you think of the idea that we are either “dead” or “being birthed by God”?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Our spiritual famine is concluded—we are just beginning to restore the honor of the imagination. (Lauren Artress, Walking a Sacred Path)


Come not to discuss the words of others, but to listen…For in the sacredness of the moment Divine Grace is telling you alone all that is required.  (Jean Pierre de Caussade)


God is ready to give great things when we are ready…to give up everything. (Meister Eckhart)



Holy God of wind and fire;

Dance through this room today.

Holy God of [tornadoes] and illness;

Share our tears of sadness and pain.

Holy God of creation and new beginnings;

Show us again your vision of healing and wholeness. Amen.


(Katherine Hawker, “Outside the Box”, available at


Proper 4C: Faith Beyond the Edges

Coloring Outside the LinesFIRST LESSON:  1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39

Read the Old Testament Lesson

This reading is set in the time of King Ahab’s reign in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  These were contentious times.  Ahab’s father had entered into an agreement with the King of Phoenicia and had accepted his daughter, Jezebel, as consideration to become a wife for Ahab.  Jezebel was an avid worshipper of the god, Baal and was determined to replace the Israelites worship of Yahweh with her own religion.  Ahab could not stand against her and, in fact, even built a temple to his wife’s god, Baal, in the capital of Samaria.  Many of the Israelites had, in fact, begun to follow Baal.  It was probably easier, when you think about it, to worship an idol and participate in its feats of magic and sex rituals than to continue to believe in this unseeable and unprovable God of their own faith. After all, life was hard.  Drought surrounded them.  They had to look for something that would change the situation.

But Elijah objects to this Baal worship and challenges everything about it.  He gathers the religious leaders and he pushes the people to decide which God they would worship, to decide which God they would devote their life.  He got no answer.  After all, it is difficult to continue to follow a god when the culture and the society seems to be turning another way.  But, on the other hand, it is hard to give up one’s tradition, the very identity that one has always known.

So Elijah sets up a contest, a test really, in which he gave numerous advantages to Baal.  He built the altar of the Lord back with twelve stones to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel, to symbolize the God of all.  And then he began to pray.  He called on God and God once again was in some way revealed to the people that had once claimed this God of their ancestors.

This text is, of course, bothersome and problematic on several levels.  After all, was Elijah going through all of this to prove God to the people?  After all, any god who can be proven is nothing more than an idol.  And does God really want us to get into some sort of one-upmanship, a “my God can beat up your God” mentality?  Do we really want to worship a God that is “with us” and “against our enemies”?  Maybe Elijah’s intent was simply meant to be more of a reminder of who they were as God’s people.  They were people that did not need proof but rather a people who trusted God, trusted God to be present whether or not they could see or prove God, relied on God’s presence even when life was difficult, even when nothing about it makes any sense. After all, God is not playing some sort of game of divine hide and seek.  God is here, always present, always showing up, always revealing the Godself to us.  But when we begin to look for things that are what we would like God to be, we lose sight of the way that God is revealed to us.

God does not promise certainty.  God does not promise a life of ease and plenty.  God doesn’t even promise that every prayer that we pray will be answered in exactly the way we want.  Why would we need faith for that?  All that would require is some sort of prayer vending machine.  And if any of that was the case, there would be no reason for faith, nothing that would compel us to desire God in the deepest part of our being and to live lives that quench that desire by drawing near to the God who is already there.  God also doesn’t call us to a blind faith.  There is nothing that calls us to just shut up and accept it all hook, line, and sinker.  There was never anything about God that was that callous and inaccessible.  This grace-filled God instead invites us to participate in the work of God.  And, we are called to just open ourselves to what God offers and to the God that is already there.

God has many names.  There are many ways to God.  But the world is full of Baals, those things that are truly idols, that are easy, and touchable, and tempting to put at the top of our priorities.  But, the truth is, we have to let go of the Baals we worship, those things that we claim that make us into something other than the ones who God calls us to be. So, does God call us to choose?  You bet.  God calls us to choose the best pathway in our lives to lead us to the One who will quench the desire that is in the deepest part of our being, the desire to be with the One who will give us life and lead us to be life-giving for ourselves and for others.


1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What ways do we try to obtain proof of God?

3)      What are the Baals that we find ourselves worshipping at times in place of God?  What are those things on which we rely?

4)      What does this notion of certainty have do with our ways of evangelizing today?



NEW TESTAMENT:  Galatians 1: 1-12

Read the Galatians passage

The beginning of this letter from Paul to the newly-formed church at Galatia depicts Paul’s frustration.  Apparently, the members of this new community are somehow backtracking a bit, probably due to other charismatic preachers who are presenting a different translation of the Gospel than the one that Paul had preached when he was with them.  Paul is obviously frustrated.  Seemingly, the church has very quickly deserted the beliefs that Paul must have thought they had really understood.

So, he again, reminds them that he is called to lead them in the teachings of Jesus Christ.  He is not seeking approval but is rather emphasizing his tie to the Gospel.  He is also defending himself and his teachings against what must have been a slanderous diatribe from these false preachers.  This “new teaching” is actually much less inclusive than Paul’s.  (Boy, you don’t hear that often, do you?)  The claim from those attacking Paul was that Gentiles must first become Jews if they want to call themselves followers of Christ, which would include a requirement of circumcision for males.  For them, Paul was sort of watering down the Gospel to make it easier for Gentiles to become a part of it.

For Paul, though, this revelation of Christ has begun a whole new age.  The temple doors have been opened wide and all are invited to enter.  Paul insists that he has been given this revelation and that God has truly welcomed all into the Kingdom of God.  Through grace, God welcomes all not because of what they do or because of who they are but simply because they are children of God.

Perhaps it was easier to believe that one had to do something to please God.  Perhaps the thought that God just offers freedom and grace to all is unbelievable.  Maybe we have the same problem and try to turn the Gospel into something that it is not.  Our culture is based on consumerism.  You don’t get something for nothing, so, when you think about it, this makes no sense.  Maybe that’s why some Christians seem to adhere better to more of a rule-driven version of the Gospel, a clear and concise depiction of who is in and who is out.  But this is not what Paul preached.  This is not the Gospel.

Paul was clearly upset by these developments.  After all, he loved this church.  And the fact that they were lapsing into some sort of perverted version of the Gospel hurt him.  This letter was a bold statement.  It was a discourse against what this society was doing to Christ’s image, to the freedom and grace of the Gospel.  Maybe this text is not just a clarification for us of the Gospel but is also a calling for us to be the church, to speak against perversions of the Gospel of freedom and grace, to rid our church of those ways that we change the Gospel into something that is easier or more believable or more affirming of the way we live our lives.  What is the Gospel?  It means “good news”, but what IS the Gospel?  In its simplest terms, it is love.  It is love the way that Christ loved.  It is entering that love that God offers all and becoming love itself.  Because it is love that draws us to God and love that reveals God to us.  And that is REALLY good news. No, it doesn’t really make sense in this world in which we live.  Maybe that’s good news too.


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What are ways that we pervert the Gospel today?  What are our “requirements” for others to enter the Kingdom of God?

3)      How would you describe the Gospel, the good news?



GOSPEL: Luke 7: 1-10

Read the Gospel Passage

The profile of the centurion sets up this story.  First of all, he obviously wasn’t Jewish.  And he was also Roman.  In fact, he was part of the military hierarchy of the Roman army, sort of a mid-level officer.  He was part of that Roman occupation that was always such a problem for the Jewish people.  And, yet, he has heard of Jesus and he seeks his help.  He has to, then, have some level of faith.  In fact, he has done nice things for the Jewish people in his midst.  Still, for Jesus, this man was part of the enemy of his people, of those who he had supposedly come to save.  This man represented the culture that was the antithesis of who Jesus was, of the Gospel itself.

But, once again, God shows up in the most surprising of places.  And God is there for both the insiders and the outsiders, revealing the Godself in ways that are not the ways that we have figured out.  Jesus did not look at the centurion and see an enemy, see a representative of all that was wrong in his world.  Instead, he looked at him and he saw someone in need.  He saw someone who loved his slave enough to want the best for him.  He saw someone with faith.  And Jesus actually opened himself to being reshaped into a Messiah for all.

Maybe part of the message of this text is just that.  Reconciliation with our enemies, or those with whom we disagree, or simply those who are not part of us shapes us into what God is calling us to be.  It opens us to the real meaning of the Gospel.  Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s faith.  Here was a soldier, one in power, who freely and humbly submitted himself not because he thought himself worthy but because he yearned for what Christ offered.  And even Jesus was open enough to be surprised. So how open are we to God’s surprising us?

There’s another point to this too.  The centurion was not petitioning Jesus for himself.  Instead he was carrying someone else to Christ.  And he was risking between totally shunned, perhaps even harmed.  But he was offering the Gospel to another and in the process was showered in grace.  So what does that say to us?  Is it possible that if we open ourselves to offering the Gospel to even those who are not part of us, perhaps even to our enemies, that God will surprise us in a way that we never imagined?  Is it possible, even, that those whom we relegate to outsiders or even to enemies, might have a greater faith than we do and might be the way that God is revealed to us?  Is it possible that extending boundaries IS the Gospel of Jesus Christ?


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      Who are those to whom we are neglecting to offer the Gospel?

3)      In what places are you surprised to find God?

4)      What do you think of the possibility that God might be revealed through the faith of our enemies?

5)      How would you describe the meaning of the Gospel after reading this text?

6)      What does this say to us about the meaning of our church membership?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

“I won’t take no for an answer,” God began to say to me when He opened His arms each night wanting us to dance. (St. Catherine of Sienna)


Maybe others want God to be black-and-white, a figure of neat divisions and clear-cut Law, but I want God to be in flagrant swirling Technicolor. Only those who live beyond themselves ever become fully themselves.  (Molly Wolf)


Whoever you are, in whatever faith you were born, whatever creed you profess; if you come to this house to find God you are welcome here. (John Wesley)





Ever let mercy outweigh all else in you. Let our compassion be a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and that true image which belong to the Divine nature and Divine essence.  Amen.


(Isaac of Syria, c.700)