Parishes of the Episcopal Church introduce each Sunday with a particular collect intended to focus attention in a particular direction during worship. The coming Sunday begins with a prayer asking that by God’s inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by God’s guidance do them.
To think and to do. Easier said than done.
Asking God to inspire us to think those things that are right is a dangerous prayer. It has nothing to do with asking God to plunk godly ideas into our heads without any effort on our part. To think requires work. To think is not to state one’s firmly held belief or untested opinion. To think requires an evaluation of the world about us in relation to the questions asked in as objective a way as possible, and that means a willingness to honestly test one’s self as well. I don’t know about you, but I find within myself a well honed ability to be dishonest about being honest about myself.
The prayer gets heavier with the qualification to think those things that are right. What is right? Among its many definitions, it means that which is factually true and morally good, which is what I take to be the intended meaning here. That’s not easy to do. We are asking God to help us know what is factually true based on the evidence available to us, and to determine if it is morally good.
There is nothing easy about it. One of the reasons that Ordinary Time is my favorite season is that we will take the next six months to study the life of Jesus as reported by Luke, probing the text to point us toward what is morally good so that it can help us unravel the world about us in pursuit of what is factually true. Answers may not always be clear but we will be learning to do the hard work of thinking as God would have us do.
But wait, that’s not all!
Our prayer foolishly adds a plea that we be inspired by God to do those things that are right. Thinking, it seems, is not enough. We actually have to do what is right. To follow Jesus is to act, to do, to physically engage the world about us, or as St. James said, “faith without works is dead.” God may do the inspiring, but we have to do the work. There is no way out of it. Well, there is a way out of it. We could simply not do the work we have been given to do, but then we would not be followers of Jesus. We would just be bystanders waving as the parade passes us by and leaves us behind. That’s something to think about too. What does doing work look like?
As it turns out, the lessons for this Sunday provide one example among many yet to come. Sometimes doing the work God has given us to do means entering into the life of another by participating in it. Jesus did that by entering into the life of the widow from Nain, and Elijah did that by entering into the life of the widow from Zarephath.
It is said that Jesus had compassion for the widow from Nain. I wonder why? Compassion, in the biblical sense is a very strong word. It means something gut-wrenching, soul searing; it’s not a warm fuzzy feeling. It’s outrage over the injustice of it all. So what was going on? As a widow without any other family would she would likely been forced into poverty and an early death from malnutrition? Wouldn’t the local community have taken care of her? Not if she was one of “those widows.” A woman who never had a husband. Whose son was born out of wedlock. Could that be what was going on?
Maybe Jesus was thinking of his own mother, and what she would go through after his death. Maybe he was outraged at the injustice of a woman cast aside by the community that should have loved her and and helped make life possible for her. We will never know. We only know that he entered into her life and gave her life in the life of her son.
“I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.”
The one who was bereaved became the most blessed in her community. The outcast among her fellow human beings had been welcomed into the life giving love of God.
In what ways can you and I help make life, abundant life, possible for others? That’s worth some thinking. On the other hand, we are not always called on to be the heroes. Sometimes we are the widow? Then it’s time to ask, in what ways can we open our broken, burdened hearts to the life that Jesus would give to us?
Elijah was on the run, a fugitive, an alien in the land of Sidon when he came to the widow of Zarephath. I wonder what kind of widow she was? Oddly enough, we never learn anything about the other people of Zarephath, a little fishing village on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s hard to imagine a famine in a village next to an ocean full of fish. Like the widow of Nain, this widow may not have had the support of the community. Maybe she too was an outcast.
In any case, times were tough, there was a famine in the land. Why she allowed Elijah to enter into her life is a question to ponder. It certainly wasn’t an act of faith. It was a gigantic leap of faith that made no sense. Why Elijah entered fully into the life of the widow and her son is another question. The text suggests that in the intimacy of his relationship with God, he knew that in her welfare laid his welfare, and that God would be with them both to preserve and enrich their lives. Life! It’s always about life! Without Elijah, the widow and her son would have died of hunger. Without the widow, Elijah would have had no where to hide out, and nothing to eat. He too may have died.
Does it strike you that God is constantly pushing us in the direction of recognizing the outcast and marginalized as the places for us to begin thinking about what is morally good, and then doing it? “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”