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


Easter 6A: Imagining an Unknown God

Unknown GodOLD TESTAMENT:  Acts 17:22-31

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

This passage is known as Paul’s “Aeropagus Speech”.  The Aeropagus is a hill of rock northwest of the Acropolis in the city of Athens.  It was essentially a sort of city-state within Athens that in the 5th century before the common era functioned as the place of the council of elders, essentially the Roman senate.  It later acquired the function of the investigation of corruption, even though the conviction powers remained with the ancient city of Athens itself.  It was the center of logic, reality, and belief.  It was the center of what was known and even what was unknown.  It continued to function during these Roman times in which Paul lived and it was from this site that Paul is supposed to have delivered his famous speech.

The writer of the Book of Acts cues the speech as if he or she were writing a play:  “Then Paul stood in front of the Aeropagus and addressed his audience by name—Athenians.”  He addresses them as a religious audience and notes an altar inscription that he had found near the Aeropagus:  “To an unknown God.”  Well, of course, he is being sarcastic.  He is claiming that these so-called well-learned, poetry-reading, literature-versed, theater-loving, religious people worship gods they do not even know!  Conversely, Paul proclaims, his God is “the God”, not dependent on anything else, transcendent, and all-encompassing.  Paul explains that, essentially, this God that IS God is the source of all there is and cannot be domesticated or limited by any creature.  In other words, God is not contained in shrines or offerings.  God is creator of all and the source of all being.  And then he goes on…not only is God the creator of all but God has created us such that we desire to search for God.  In effect, God has created us so that we are not either compelled or satisfied worshipping an unknown God.

Paul’s speech exposed the shortcomings of a religion that places value solely in inanimate objects themselves—in rocks or shrines.  Paul’s proclamation was that God was a living God, fully engaged in human life and so entrenched that God would bring about the recreation of all of Creation.  The point, for Paul, was that, when it is all said and done, there is no need for an Aeropagus.  In essence, Paul is proclaiming God’s “knowability” even in the face of what is sometimes human ignorance, even in the face of our missing what God has shown us, even when we fall short of imagining this unknown God.   Paul is not pitting his God against their God.  He is not claiming to be on the winning team.  He is claiming that we are all the same—just trying to make our way toward a God who cannot be fully known.  God cannot be proven.  God is God; we are not.

Now don’t take Paul’s berating of the rock so literally that you become willing to throw away centuries of icons and articles of worship, including many of our own churches and everything they contains. D. Stephenson Bond reminds us that, “one minute it was a rock and the next a talisman, a charm, a fetish, a relic.  It then became a stone made sacred by human imagination.”  In other words, a rock is just a rock until one imagines it to be something else, until one imagines it to be a threshold from which one can connect with God.  We, of course, do not worship the rock; we worship God.  But, with our imagination, the rock can help guide our way.

It has to do with a sort of “sacred imagination”.  We cannot fully know God.  I think Paul probably believed that.  It is not that Paul thought that we could fully know God; the point is that God desires to be known by us.  Where we fall short is cultivating our “sacred imaginations.”  Einstein once said that “your imagination is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

I asked the earth and it answered, “I am not he”, and everything in it said the same. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things and they answered, “We are not your God: Look higher”. I asked the moving air, and the air and everything in it answered, “Anaximenes was wrong. I am not God”. I asked the heavens, the sun and moon and stars, and they said, “We are not the God you are looking for either”. Then I said to all the things that pressed upon my senses, “You have told me that you are not my God. Tell me something about him”. And they cried out with a great voice, “He made us”. I had questioned them with my thoughts and they answered with their beauty (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10).

Ossip Gabrilowitsch was a Russian-born American pianist who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century.  He was one of the first pianists to record music via a reproducing piano and, as an aside, was married to Mark Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens. Walter Russell once sculpted a bust of Gabrilowitsch.  He claimed that when he began, Gabrilowitsch looked no more like a musician than a colonel in the army, or a lawyer.  After half an hour of work, [Russell] said to him, “I want to see you as a musician.  I want to see music in your eyes.  I want to see the very soul of music in you because that is what you are.  I do not want to do a bust of you just as an ordinary human being.” “What shall I do? [Gabrilowitsch] asked.  Russell told him to “Go to the piano and play.” “I cannot play for an audience of one, he responded.  I could play for an audience of a thousand, but not for one.”  “Yes, you can,” Russell told him, “you just play and forget me and I will take care of my part.”  Gabrilowitsch played for an hour or two at a time for sixteen hours.  Russell said that it was only then that he was able to interpret him as a musician. He claimed that the sculpture was one of his best works, because it portrays a man actually inspired by thinking music.

Imagine what we would be like if we thought God (not LIKE God, but God).  Envision what you would be if you truly lived and moved and had your being in God.  I don’t really think that Jesus walked this earth and taught what he taught to give us a book of doctrine or a list of what we should be doing as Christians.  I also don’t think we were ever intended to be handed a full and complete picture of who God is. What we were given in Jesus’ life was something much more profound, something much more valuable.  We were given the gift of having our imaginations opened enough for God to fill them.  Jesus did just enough to peak our imaginations about God so that we would continue to imagine God on our own.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does God’s “knowability” mean for you?
  3. How much does sacred imagination have to do with our faith?
  4. Do you really want a God that is fully revealed?  What would that leave for you to discover?
  5. What does that mean to you to “imagine God”?


 NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Peter 3:13-22

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage’s theme of Christ’s victory over suffering and evil makes it very appropriate for this season of Eastertide.  Here, in the light of Christ’s triumph, Christians can stand fast in the face of opposition or adversity.  (This also fits in with the Acts passage that we read.)  The writer tells the reader to always be ready to defend his or her beliefs and, in essence, not worry about what others are doing.  Just do right.  Just be who you are.  Verse 18 (For Christ suffered…) presents the underlying grounding for the blessedness of Christian suffering.

The understanding of the meaning of baptism in 1 Peter is that the waters have symbolic or sacramental power.  But that power is confirmed through the conscience or intention of the believer.  It does not work superficially, like washing your hands, but it works to bring the whole person into a lasting relationship with God.

I don’t like the idea of suffering being the “purpose” of faith, as if we all live to be martyrs in a world of partyers.  Maybe suffering for us means something other than being persecuted (which few of us really are.)  Maybe suffering means taking on the injustices of the world—immigration, medical care, sexism, economic disparity—you know, all those things that are “hot-button topics”, all those things that get you accused of being unrealistic or unpatriotic or un-something else.  Maybe today’s Christian is called to suffer the realism of standing up against a world that has settled into the naïve oblivion that God is going to fix it if we will only trust in God.  After all, doesn’t our baptism call us to be something more?


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does “suffering for what is right” mean for you in your life?
  3. Do we do that?
  4. What would change if we did?


GOSPEL:  John 14: 15-21

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

These verses describe two dimensions of the believer’s relationship with Jesus:  (1) The inseparability of one’s love of Jesus and the keeping of his commandments and (2) The abiding and the indwelling of the presence of God for those who love him.  The words also point to the ways in which the disciple’s love and obedience to Jesus determine their relationship with God.

This is the first time that the Spirit (parakletos) appears in The Gospel According to John.  The noun form here can mean “the one who exhorts” or “the one who comforts” or “the one who helps”.  The NRSV translates it as “Advocate”, but it is really a broader meaning than that.  The promise of Jesus’ return is invoked and the phrase “in a little while” sort of kicks off the interim period before the time of eschatological fulfillment. (or “on that day”)

All of Jesus’ words address the shape of the community’s life after the events of Jesus’ hour and farewell.  It needs to be understood in the context of the “farewell situation” Essentially, can the disciples still love him when he is gone?  And even more, can the next generation love him, without having had a personal relationship with him? So the question begs, can WE love him, really, really love him in the depth of our being?  These verses present love as the sign of fidelity to Jesus and the way to communion with God.

At the very end of this chapter, Jesus seems to be ready to leave. He says, “Rise, let us be on our way.” You can almost see him getting up from the table, then realizing that he forgot to say something. “I am the vine,” he says, sitting down again, “and my Father is the vine grower. Abide in me as I abide in you.” But how can we abide in Jesus? He has told the disciples over and over, repeating himself at the table: You will abide in me through the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit will teach you how to love one another. The Spirit will keep us connected, said Jesus. You to me, all of us to God. And you to one another.

Years ago I read something rather odd: “The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home.” Whoever said that was playing with us a bit, for we know mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff. But there’s another piece of truth here. When things get tough up on the mountain, when fear sets in, many a climber is tempted to say, “This is crazy! I’m going home.” The life of faith can be like that-doubts set in, despair overwhelms us, and the whole notion of believing in God seems crazy. Jesus knew his disciples would have days like that. So he told them we’re tied together like branches on the vine-or like climbers tied to the rope-tied together by the Spirit, to trust in one who is always more than we can understand, to keep us moving ahead on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd. “I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus. “I am coming to you.” (From “I Will Not Leave You Orphaned”, by Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad, available at, accessed 25 May, 2011.)

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What impact does the question of whether or not we can have a relationship with Jesus without knowing him have on you?
  3. What, for you assures that relationship?
  4. What gets in the way of it?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 I shut my eyes in order to see. (Paul Gauguin)

Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be so busy with world affairs.  He does not try to pull us away from the many events, activities, and people that make up our lives…He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities…Jesus does not speak about a change of activities, a change in contacts, or even a change of pace.  He speaks about a change of heart. (Henri Nouwen) 

My ego is like a fortress.  I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God.  But I have stayed here long enough.  There is light over the barriers.  O my God…I let go of the past.  I withdraw my grasping hand from the future.  And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman) 




Let us pray:  What truth does our worship reveal? (time of silence)

Living God, forgive us when our worship reveals other than the centrality of Jesus Christ in whom we meet you.  Retrieve our wandering minds and fix them on the wonder and holiness of the divine clothed in human flesh. Holy God, inspire and renew our worship with the Spirit of truth.

What truth do our lives reveal? (time of silence)

Eternal God, forgive us when we worship idols of our own making – gods fashioned for our own selfish ends. Merciful God, bless and renew our lives with the Spirit of truth.

What truths do our communities reveal? (time of silence)

Loving God, forgive us when we ignore the pain and hopelessness of so many people – young and old – in our communities and so deny Christ’s commandment to love one another in suffering, self-giving ways. Compassionate God, inflame and renew our love with the Spirit of truth.

What truths does our world reveal?   (time of silence)

Creator God, forgive us when our desire to maintain our standard of living contributes to the poverty of life experienced by countless people and to the  growing environmental problems throughout this world. God of all righteousness, restore and renew our sense of justice with the Spirit of truth.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen. 

( From “Liturgies Online”, by Rev. Moira Laidlaw, Uniting Church of Australia , available at, accessed 25 May, 2011.)