June 5, 2016
3rd Sunday After Pentecost
Donna G. Joy
1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
The God we worship is a God who intervenes in the midst of death and disappointment, creating new hope – new life – new possibilities. Of course, this is a challenging proclamation, because anyone who has ever known the experience of genuine tragedy... anyone who has suffered the death of a child... anyone who has received that diagnosis that everyone fears... anyone who has lost loved one, perhaps complete communities in a war torn context and had to flee from their homes to an unknown future... Anyone who has known the experience of genuine tragedy... It is more than reasonable that he or she may say that this simply isn’t true. That this terrible thing happened and God did not intervene. And I know from my own experience that in those terrible and terrifying times... this is how it feels.
And then, I think about Jesus on the cross. And I think about Jesus’ prayer the night before in the garden, “Father, if it be your will, take this cup from me.” And it seems that the Psalm he draws on as he dies on the cross was the prayer that so many of us have been known to pray. God I asked you to intervene, and yet, here I am, suffering and in pain. My God. My God. Why have you forsaken me? And he dies. So, where’s God’s intervention in that? Well, he rises to new life, and then ascends into heaven so that through the gift of the Holy Spirit working through his followers his presence may be in all and with all. Intervening in ways that continue to surprise us.
Our readings this morning are particularly helpful in terms of continuing to unpack this message of God’s ongoing surprising interventions. In the story from Kings, Elijah raises a man from the dead; and in Luke Jesus performs the same act. In each story a mother’s anguish over the death of an only son is compounded by the fact that in that culture she is a widow and is now without future means of support. In both stories a word is said and life is given to a corpse. In both stories the witnesses to the miracle recognize the hand of God at work in the event. The parallels between the two clearly make the point that Luke sees Jesus as a prophet like Elijah.
Chapter 17 of the First Book of Kings reflects a time when the citizens of Israel have (for numerous reasons) seriously lost the hope they had placed in their king. They have, it would seem, lost all hope; it was a very dark and difficult time in the life of the Israelite people. But their loss of hope is not the only problem Elijah addresses as he enters into the situation. Despite the king’s claim to have the power to save Israel, the people are experiencing a devastating famine. When Elijah arrives at the home of a widow he finds her and her son preparing what they believe will be their last meal. With Elijah’s intervention and the woman’s openness to this gift, the woman and her son are spared from starvation. But despite this, the boy becomes ill and dies.
The mother is beside herself with grief, and convinced that Elijah is an agent of God sent to punish her. At this point, Elijah steps forward and calls upon God to bring the boy back to life. When Elijah’s request is granted the woman is filled with joy and very clearly affirms her faith. She says, “I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” So, in effect, God’s messenger has the power to do what the king was not able to do.
Several centuries later Luke describes another death and another woman/widow mourning the death of her only son. In this story Jesus becomes the one who raises new life out of the ashes of death and despair. Jesus and his disciples find themselves in the company of the funeral procession following the boy’s death. Luke says that Jesus has compassion on the woman, and we can only imagine what is in her mind as she watches Jesus approach the cart on which her son’s corpse is being transported. This woman is clearly grief stricken, and in the midst of her grief she is seen by Jesus, whose is filled with compassion and says to her, “Do not weep.” So she is no longer lost in the crowd because Jesus is with her in that place.
And then, of course, the story gets even more interesting as we are told that Jesus raises the widow’s son from death to life, at which point all who witness this event are truly amazed. They say, “A great prophet has arisen amongst us!” and “God has looked favourably on His people!” or, as in other translations, “God has visited His people!” For Luke, the appearance of Jesus on the scene is all about the visitation of God; the arrival of God in the midst of life and death.
So, the primary and consistent theme found in both this morning’s stories: God intervening in the midst of death and disappointment and creating new hope – new life – new possibilities. And in Luke’s story, it is in Jesus that God has come.
As we read and reflect on these stories we might wonder why God raises some people from the dead, and yet others fully endure the hardship of the death of a child, or spouse, or parents, or siblings, or good friends... As we read and reflect on these stories we might wonder why God makes this possible for those in these stories but not for those who have been near and dear to us and to those we love. And for some, these stories are simply not believable.
Even those who are willing to accept that miracles do happen sometimes have trouble accepting these particular stories. Some may wish to point out that both stories were told and retold before they were written down and that it is next to impossible to tell what actually happened on those occasions. But to wonder why these miracles are made possible for some and not others, or to focus on whether or not the stories themselves are believable is to miss the point. Something far deeper is at work in these stories, because however we may choose to interpret them, both texts clearly proclaim the power of God working through Elijah and Jesus, and they challenge each of us to be open and respond to that powerful gift.
Unlike the culture in which we live today, the bible does not try to cover up the pain and suffering of human life. Instead, it reveals/confronts the pain and suffering that is so much a part of the human condition. Certainly one of the most devastating of human experiences is death, particularly the death of a child. Even those who have not endured that trauma firsthand almost always know someone who has. The widows in this morning’s stories are no different from the friend whose child died of cancer or the family member whose child was killed in a tragic accident.
Whether ancient or modern, the pain and hopelessness of bereavement is excruciatingly real. Whether ancient or modern, in the midst of pain and death and bereavement, what we need is a gesture of hope, a sign of life, and the occasional glimpse of victory – the occasional glimpse of God creating something new. This is the point of this morning’s two stories.
And, as I mentioned at the onset – as a Christian people – we cannot speak of these stories without recalling Jesus’ own rising to new life from the grave. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is significant as we reflect on these stories because it is a reminder that – in Jesus - death is never the end of the story. With the event of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection we are reminded that there is no realm, including the realm of death that is excluded from the visitation and experience of God’s love; excluded from the experience of God’s transforming embrace. We as followers of Jesus are called to know that our tears and our grief can be transformed with hope and even with joy. Which is why, right from the very beginning, Christians have always experienced that double (conflicted) feeling about death: the very human tears at losing someone we have known and loved, and yet that very distinct undercurrent of joy, knowing that there is hope in the midst of our sadness and loss and despair. And so, these stories this morning remind us that death is never the last word.
And we are invited into these stories. We are invited to look at them not simply as miracles that happened thousands of years ago, with a focus on wondering why we and those we love are not spared in the same way. On the contrary, we are challenged to remember the resurrection of Jesus – that event which offers new hope in the midst of death and despair.
There’s an old Indian story about a 12 year-old boy who died of a poisonous snake bite. His grieving parents carried his body to the holy man and laid it in front of him. And the three of them – filled with sadness - sat around the body for a long, long time. The father finally went over to his child, stretched out his hands over the feet of the child and said, “In all my life I have not worked for my family as I should have.” And the poison left the feet of the child. The mother stretched her hands over the heart of the child, and she said, “In all my life I have not loved my family as I should.” And the poison left the heart of the child. And the holy man stretched out his hands over the head of the dead boy and said, “In all my life I have not believed the words I have spoken.” And the poison left the head of the child. The child rose up, and the parents and the holy man rose up, and the village rejoiced.
This story is significant for us today for two reasons. First and foremost, it offers a graphic example of what Jesus has done for us. Through his crucifixion and resurrection Jesus has removed the poison from each of us, so that in this life and in the next, we may rise up out of our fallen state and taste the victory of new life; new life that rises out of our disappointments, our losses, our grief, and new life that occurs with physical death, as we rejoice with God and the heavenly chorus in a new and intimate way. And secondly, by divine providence you and I live in this time, in this place, and this moment in history; and every one of us has the power to be a channel through which this message of hope may be conveyed to others in the midst of their own disappointments, loss and grief.
As Jesus recognized that grieving widow, was moved by compassion, comforted her and created something new in the midst of her devastation, we are called to be channels through which this gift is made known to others. Whether that be reaching out to someone and supporting them through a difficult time; or volunteering at West Broadway Community Ministry, or St. Matthew’s-Maryland Community Ministry, or Winnipeg Harvest; or participating in prison ministry; or supporting any number of outreach ministries of the church., or supporting the refugee sponsorship program that St. Peter’s has committed to...
I encourage each of us to recognize that in these stories this morning, it is the gesture that emphasizes the whole point. It is the sign of hope that rises out of these stories and makes its mark; the hint of everlasting life, and the glimpse of ultimate victory. Jesus has done this for us, and we are invited to offer this same gift to others.