June 5, 2016, Seeing the Overlooked – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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We all grew up learning history by learning about important people. History books are always about the important people – mostly men, people with power, people with money, people who did big, important things. Modern textbooks, more enlightened textbooks, make an effort to find important people who have been overlooked in the past – women or people of color or immigrants who were pioneers of science or medicine, or who built impressive buildings, or who brought about great social reforms. But the poor, the uneducated, the homeless – we only talk about people like that as a faceless mass, almost never as significant, individual human beings like ourselves. In the history of this world, poor people, vulnerable people, powerless people, these people are still and always pushed into the blank margins on the sides of the pages and forgotten.
But God never marginalizes the poor and helpless. In the lectionary today we read two different stories about some of the most vulnerable people in the ancient world – widows – and not merely widows, but widows who lose their only sons. But that isn’t a strange thing at all, actually, because the Scriptures have a lot to say about widows. In the Old Testament, there are 56 references to widows, and 26 in the New. The widow, and the fatherless, and the stranger: these are uppermost in the mind and heart of God. When God spelled out the law that would define Israel as a nation, he said this: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn…” The God of those great Patriachs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, promised that he would surely hear the voice of one poor widow, one orphaned child, one homeless immigrant who cried out in their distress, and that he would not only hear them but that he would come in his wrath to execute justice on their behalf.
Moses said of the Lord, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” David wrote, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” And the writer of Psalm 146, that we read today, says,
“Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! *
whose hope is in the Lord their God;
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger…
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow.”
And so, when God sent out his great prophets, and when he came himself to live as one of us, it should be no surprise to anyone that he reached out to those very people the world most often overlooks and exploits and despises – what Jesus called “the last, and the least”. He sent his prophet Elijah to a widow who wasn’t even an Israelite, a desperately poor woman whose only son got sick and died while Elijah was living in her home. And in today’s reading from Luke, when Jesus came upon the funeral procession of a man from a town called Nain, the only son of a widow, he was filled with compassion for her.
It is a terribly hard thing for a woman to lose her husband and her only child and to be left alone in the world, even today, but in the time of Christ, and in the days of Elijah and of David, it was devastating. When a woman married, she cut her ties to her own family. She became part of the husband’s family, in that any child she bore would inherit a share of the father’s property. But in the event of her husband’s death the only property she could claim, as a rule, was what she held in trust for her child or children. If she had no child, her relationship with her husband’s family was tenuous at best. A childless widow very often found herself in a social vacuum, with not a single person to provide for her, with no one to protect her, and with no family that would claim her as their own.
When Jesus met the funeral procession in Nain, a great crowd had come out to mourn with the widow whose son had died. It was the custom for the people of a village to come out in great numbers to weep and wail in sympathy for the bereaved. Within a few days, the villagers would return to their homes and families and businesses. The last casserole would be brought to her door; her kindly neighbors would stop by the house for the last time to express their sympathy, and the widow would find herself alone and friendless, an object of everyone’s pity and no-one’s love or respect, facing not only her own grief and loneliness, but crushing poverty as well. But Jesus, filled with compassion, put his hand on the bier that held her son’s body and brought the whole funeral procession to a halt. With a word, he called the young man to get up. And Luke says Jesus “gave him to his mother” which is such a plain, simple statement for what must have been an astonishing and incredibly emotional moment. God himself heard the cry of that one poor widow on that day, and he came to her help.
We worship a God who does things like that; who hears the cry of the unheard, and who sees the need of the unseen; who is a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows. It is what he has revealed himself to be, not once or twice in the Bible, but dozens of times. The man-made gods of the nations are always trying to rival the true God in power or wisdom or righteousness (though they always fail utterly) but no other God reveals himself in compassion and mercy, no other God has a heart for the vulnerable and weak and despised.
Remember what the Virgin Mary sang when the angel Gabriel came to her,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Just look at the people Jesus called to be his church – not the rich and powerful and great, not, for the most part, the men and women who are going to fill the pages of future history books – but us. He called us. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” We are all objects of God’s grace and compassion.
But more than that, our God has called us to share his heart for the vulnerable and the despised and the overlooked people of this world. We are called to look at our fellow human beings as beloved children of our Father. Dorothy Day, who spent her whole life serving the most vulnerable people, said that “the most radical thing we can do is to try to find the face of Christ in others, and not only those we find it easy to be with but those who make us nervous, frighten us, alarm us, or even terrify us.” “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor,” she used to say, “are atheists indeed.”
Our mission, as the body of Christ here at St. Philip’s, is to grow in compassion for our neighbors. Among the people we see on the street at the post office, or the people we serve at our Community Dinners or the people we welcome to the Thrift Shop, there are some whose lives are hanging by a thread. There are elderly people who wake and sleep and eat alone day after day. There are people who are in need who find it very hard to accept help when we offer it to them, and people who ask for more help than they should. The world despises poverty in all its forms – it is so much more comfortable to look down on the poor and feel that somehow we deserve the privilege and prosperity we enjoy. But as children of the God who loves the widow and the fatherless and the immigrant our greatest hope is to grow to be like our Father, to watch diligently for the overlooked, to listen closely to the unheard, to be friends to the lonely and defenders of the helpless.
We have all received the undeserved compassion of God, when we were nobody in particular. Now, by God’s grace I pray we may grow to be more and more like our Father, with hearts of mercy and compassion for the weak and helpless, seeing the face of Christ in all those people the world counts as unimportant: in a neighbor whose life seems to be crumbling around him, in a refugee from Syria risking his life to find a safe place for his family, in a nursing-home resident with dementia who seems to have no family or friends left in the world, in a mentally-handicapped person who is a little scary to us. Because we worship a God who cares about the last and the least, who looks with love on the overlooked and who hears the cry of the forgotten.
“Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” Amen. (psalm 68)