Sunday, June 10, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 10
1 Kings 17:17-24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent.

We are officially in the season of Pentecost. During the first half of the church year we have studied the story of God, particularly as manifested in the life of Christ. We have experienced the birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. We have seen Him complete His work, ascend to heaven and send the Holy Spirit to the disciples. Now, in Pentecost, we are asked the question, “What are you going to do with this?” What do we do with the gift we have been given? What do we do with the knowledge that has been imparted? Now that the ministry has been handed over to us, where will we go with it?

Our lessons this week include two stories of resurrection. In both the Old Testament and the Gospel lessons we see the raising of boys. They are both sons of widows; widows who would have been lost not only in the grief but also to the society in which they lived. As widows with no children, they would have no means of support. The loss of their sons meant certain death.

Some churches will begin the Old Testament reading for today with the story of Elijah being fed by the widow and her son in a time of famine. By the power of God, the jars never ran out of flour and oil. During Elijah’s stay, the woman and her son had plenty to eat while others starved. After such a miraculous experience, you would think that the woman and her son would be happy and believers in the one true God. But when the starvation danger was past, the widow’s son died of an illness. She attacked Elijah, “What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? thou art come unto me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son!” Though she might have had a glimmer of faith, it came crashing down around her when her son died. She blamed Elijah, and thus God, for the death of her son. Why would a loving God bother to save the widow and then take her son away?

Did the woman really believe in God? I am not so sure, but the faith may have been very shallow because she does not make any confession of faith after the miracle of the flour and oil. I wonder if she still doubted because that miracle was self-preservation for Elijah. As long as there was oil and flour, the widow could make Elijah a meal. Would he be able or willing to do something for someone else? When the woman’s son died, the death had no meaning to Elijah. He had not reason to bring the boy back to life. Yet, Elijah unselfishly took the boy into the upper room and prayed to his God for healing and restoration. It was when the boy was alive again that the woman could proclaim, “Now I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of Jehovah in thy mouth is truth.”

How many times do we do things for other people that benefit ourselves? In volunteer training I often heard the trainers say, “Keep track of your volunteer work; it looks good on a resume.” Many people are more than willing to donate to a cause when there is a reward on the other end. Even if we do these things with the right heart, the world is cynical about our good deeds. Our actions as Christians in this world show others the love, mercy and grace of God. Yet, if we always benefit from the good deeds, the belief they might have in God is shallow and uncertain. As soon as something falls apart, they blame us, and God.

In this story we are reminded that it is not the filling of bellies that will bring true faith in God. We see that true faith comes from resurrection – not necessarily physical, but the spiritual resurrection that comes with the Word of God in Christ Jesus – and it is resurrection that we are called to bring to people. In resurrection there is restoration – restoring God to His people and people to one another as the dead are given back to the living. In resurrection and restoration they will see God and say, “Now I know that you are from God and that God’s word is in your mouth.”

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus sees a funeral procession and has compassion on the widow who has lost her only son. Again, the woman would be left alone and as good as dead without the young man to provide for her needs. In this story, two things stand out for me. First of all, Jesus did this miracle in public. Many of His miracles were done behind closed doors, out of the public eye. It is not that Jesus wanted to hide God’s power from the world, but He knew that the people would be drawn to the miracles rather than the Word.

The other thing that I noticed is that the widow never asked for Jesus’ help. He saw her and decided to do something. His “heart went out to her” in a very real and life-changing action. He went out of His way to help her, even stepping over the boundaries of proper obedience to the societal and religious rules of the day. We are reminded that we are called to manifest the power of God to the glory of God in this world. It is not enough to have compassion for the people to whom our heart goes out. It is up to us to be like Christ in this world, willing to step up and make a difference, to bring life to the dead and restoration to the people whose lives are broken.

When our “hearts go out to others” it is more than a passive feeling of compassion on them. We are called by faith to reach out and touch the dead, to bring restoration to people. Our purpose is not to fill bellies or bring attention to ourselves. We are called to manifest the kingdom of God and to bring the dead to life by the Word so that God will be praised and glorified. Our ministries might give us credibility and bring attention to what we have to say, but it is God’s Word that will change lives and bring restoration to this world.

I think it is valuable to note that Jesus touched the coffin in this story. Touch is very important in human relationships. It is amazing how a hug can change a mood. Sometimes words mean nothing but a touch of the hand on another hand or on a shoulder says a million words. Though we are verbal, we are also physical entities and a touch makes a connection that words can never make.

I’ve often seen people reach out to touch a coffin at a funeral procession. It is one last chance to say good-bye, a final moment of intimacy. Many people find closure in this act – there is a sense of finality in the feel of the wood and knowing the body is inside. That was not typical of the people in Jesus’ day, however. For the Jews, even touching the coffin was an act that would have made them unclean. Those who carried the coffin would have had to follow a prescribed course of cleansing, including sacrifice and separation. So, it was rather unusual for Jesus to touch the coffin of the young man that day.

The widow did not seek God’s blessing. God reached out and met her deepest need. He even touched the untouchable. I wonder if we could do the same with those who need a touch of the hand and a heart reaching out to their need. It is often so difficult to know what to do to help someone. When someone is grieving we have compassion but do not know what to do. So, we offer our help and say, “Call me if you need something.” This is comforting to those in grief, but the call never comes. The grieving do not even know what they need, or they can not take the offer seriously, or they simply do not want to be a burden on others. So, they manage on their own. Jesus didn’t wait for the call to help. He went to the woman, offered her comfort and then actively made a difference in her life.

Now, it is very unlikely that we’ll ever raise the dead. I suppose that is the hardest part of reading stories like this. We know people who are in similar situations, whose lives come crashing down around them because of some catastrophe. We want to help, but it is often difficult to know what to do. We can’t offer them a miracle or even promise a life-changing experience. But we can touch them and give them a word of grace, being like Christ in this world and restoring the relationships that have been broken.

Everybody suffers at some time or another. We all experience broken relationships, disappointments, discouragement, doubt, dis-ease and earthly troubles. I have often said during those times, “I am so thankful that I have God in my life or else I do not know how I would get through it.” On the same note, I have wondered how people without faith manage in hard times. What do they have to give them hope? Most of the time when we deal with difficult things we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We can find our hope in the promise that the illness will end or that they will eventually be a solution to the problem. We can rest in the reality that our problems are nothing compared to that of others, whether we have faith or not. Those non-believers do not see faith as a way out of our trouble; they see it as a placebo and foolishness. When a Christian does find themselves in the midst of suffering, the non-believer asks, “What God?”

Faith is not a way out of trouble. Faith is a way through it. We don’t believe in God because we think He’ll keep us from harm. We believe in God because we know He has promised something greater in the end. Whether our current circumstances lead to a new beginning in this life of the new beginning of eternal life, we trust in God because we know that He will be true to His promise.

Our psalm for today was written as a hymn of praise at the dedication of the Temple of David. David sang praise that God saved him from his enemies, but it is not a hymn of assurance that there would be no more trouble. David knew that life in this world might mean suffering and pain. David knew that there would be moments in life when it seemed as though God was not present. There are certainly times in our life when it seems as though God has abandoned us. Though faith is great, it is hard to imagine that our God of mercy and grace would allow us to suffer. However, through those times we know by faith that we can cry out to God – not because He is gone, but because He sees and understands our pain.

We are called to be the presence of God for people who are grieving and alone. As we travel through life as people changed and transformed by the power of God, as Pentecost people, the answer to the question “What now?” is that we are to be like Christ raising the dead and restoring people to one another. The dead are not just those who have died in the flesh – the dead are those who have not come to believe in the Lord. They may be angry with God, unable to understand why He would take from us the people we love like the woman in the story from 1 Kings. They may not be seeking God’s grace like the woman in the Gospel from Luke. When we see them, God’s heart goes out to them and He leads us to do what He would do – touch them in a very real and life-changing way.

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