Sunday, June 6, 2010

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

Now I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of Jehovah in thy mouth is truth.

The movie “Over Her Dead Body” begins with a bride, played by Eva Longoria, anxiously surveying her wedding venue, picking out miniscule details that need her attention. She is going crazy with her zealous deeds, unhappy with even the slightest faults. Her groom tries to get her to calm down, but she is the essence of the bridezilla, unwilling to accept less than perfect and unyielding on even the least important details.

She is arguing with the catering staff on a point they had discussed just moments earlier when an old pick-up pulls into the venue with a large ice sculpture secured in the back. She sees it arrive and runs over to make sure everything is perfect. It isn’t. The sculpture is meant to be an angel, but the artist created a figure that simply looks like a woman. “This is supposed to be an angel!” she cries. “It is,” he responds. “But angels have wings. Where are her wings?” she screams. “Angels don’t all have wings,” he explains.

She tries to get others to agree with her, but nobody knows for sure. She insists that her sculpture must have wings and tells the guy to carve a new one. “It takes a long time to carve an ice sculpture,” he tells her. “I don’t care what you do, but that sculpture must have wings. Just carve some and slap them on the back if you have to,” she screams. He refuses to ruin his design, so he places the sculpture back into the bed of his pick-up and starts to back away. She tries to stop him by running behind the truck, and for a moment you think he’s just going to hit her and run over her body. At just the last moment, though, he stops and she’s saved. Then, just as you think it is over, the ice sculpture wobbles and falls on her head, killing her instantly.

It just doesn’t make sense when someone survives one accident and then dies in another. Why were they saved in the first place? I’m not sure I know anyone personally who has gone through such a tragedy, but I am sure that it happens. On the show N.C.I.S., which is a fictional representation of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the story often revolves around a sailor or marine who has recently returned from a war zone. Typically, they are found dead just days after they have returned from overseas, suffering because of some unrelated criminal activity.

I remember that there was a family in the military, some years ago, who had a series of unfortunate experiences. They had been stationed in Florida when a hurricane hit Homestead A.F.B., destroying everything. They were moved to Kansas, as much of their life replaced as possible, and then McConnell was struck by a tornado, doing an incredible amount of damage, including the home of this family. I don’t know what happened to this family, but I would understand if they began to ask “Why?” It just doesn’t make sense for a family to have to suffer over and over again. There may be no good answer to “Why?” but there comes a time when we all ask the question.

The widow of Zarephath asked, “Why?” when her son died. See, she was blessed among women in Zarephath because Elijah the prophet knocked on her door during a famine. Though she was about to make one last cake for her son and herself to eat before they would die of hunger, Elijah promised that they would be fed if only they gave him a cake first. The promise was fulfilled; the jars of oil and flour were never depleted and they all ate for a time. Her obedience to the words of the prophet insured life for her son and herself.

But then her son got sick and died. “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!” She saw this as a particularly cruel punishment for some sin. She may have been thinking that her impending death when Elijah arrived at her door was a punishment for something, and she was ready to accept her fate. But then the prophet arrived and they were saved. Was this a sign that God did forgive her? If it was, the forgiveness was not eternal: they boy died from an unrelated disease. For a person who believed in the pagan gods, this must have been a double whammy: the gods played with her faith and then punished her anyway.

I can imagine what she was thinking that day when Elijah arrived. She was a mother, and her first thought would have been to do whatever was necessary to keep her son alive. Though she talked about eating the cake with him, I can see her giving him a larger portion. They both might die no matter what she did. However, if she died first, someone might take her son and raise him as their own. Despite the famine, people might be willing to take a young man, whose strong body might be put to use in the fields. An old woman, however, would be left to die. Without her son, she was as good as dead anyway. So, as a mother, I can see her trying to help him survive even if she couldn’t. Elijah helped them both to survive.

But then the boy died. She would have grieved for the loss of her child, as we grieve, but the grief was even greater in her day. Without her son, she had nothing left; she had no worth in her society and would not have been helped by the neighbors. She would have been left to die. If she’d followed her plan her son might still be alive; she would have suffered the consequences of her sins but he son may have survived to live on. Elijah saved her instead of her son, sacrificing the only thing that might have made her life worth living. In a world where offspring are the only thing giving a woman worth, taking her only son was worse than death. It was eternal death.

“Why?” she asked, and we ask also. Why did the woman have to suffer so much? She didn’t ask Elijah to help her; she was ready and willing to die. He filled their bellies even while their neighbors were still suffering from the famine. Did she believe in the God of Elijah? Was it enough to have a full belly to confess faith in Him? No. She makes no statement of faith in the first part of this story. She simply does what Elijah tells her to do. Then, when her son dies, she is quick to blame Elijah and the God he represents. It isn’t until Elijah and his God gives life back to her son that she sees the truth in Elijah’s words. “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.”

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. In resurrection there is restoration: restoring God to His people and people to one another. In this story, and the Gospel lesson, dead boys are given back to their mothers. The return of those children provides not only relief from their mourning, but also a chance at new life.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus and a crowd of His followers were headed into a small town a few miles from Nazareth. They met a large crowd from the town on their way out of the gate accompanying a funeral procession. The dead person was the son of a widow. We know nothing else about the family. How old was the son? What were the financial circumstances of the family? The difference between this widow and the one in the Old Testament lesson is that she had support in her grief. A large crowd walked with her to the graveyard. But would her life have been any different after her son was buried? Would she have support in that crowd when she was alone, or would she lose everything with the loss of her only child?

It is interesting that in this story the woman didn’t seek Jesus’ help. Jesus didn’t even ask about her. He simply had compassion and told her not to weep. The grace we see in the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath is multiplied in this story of Jesus with the widow of Nain. There is, perhaps, no reason for Jesus to raise the son, except that His heart went out to the woman. He identified with her grief and He wanted to stop her tears. She may have faced the same tragedy as the widow of Zarephath, considered as good as dead without her son. But we don’t know that from this story. We know only that Jesus had compassion and restored her son to her.

Jesus was willing to go beyond the usual condolences. I think about those times when I have grieved, crying over some loss. Once I get going, the words, “Don’t cry” don’t help. As a matter of fact, I usually end up crying even harder when someone tries to get me to calm down. But Jesus took His compassion a step further. He not only consoled her with words; He touched the son with His grace. 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. He touched the dead person’s coffin, risking His own cleanliness for the sake of one weeping woman.

She never answers Jesus’ gracious action with a confession of faith. The crowds see the miracle and are shocked by it. They praise God and proclaim that Jesus is a great prophet. They might have been reminded of the Old Testament story of Elijah. They saw this as a sign that God had come to help His people. God had been silent for a very long time. The Inter-testamental period (between Malachi and Matthew) was about four hundred years; during that time, God was silent. They were praying for God to speak; they were watching for God to do great things for His people again. The widow did not seek God’s blessing. In Jesus, God reached out and met her deepest need. He even touched the untouchable.

We should note that in Luke 4, Jesus references the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. He says, “But of a truth I say unto you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.” Nain, the city where they met the procession, is visible from Nazareth. Jesus produced this miracle just nine miles from His hometown, a place where they would not accept Him as He was. The people from Nain saw Him as He is: the voice of God returned to His people.

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 we think He is gone, but because we know that He sees and understands our pain.

This is the first regular Sunday of Pentecost, and for the next few months we’ll study what it means to be Pentecost people. We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit, who will help us to share God with those who need His grace. We are called to manifest the power of God when our hearts go out to those who are suffering and in pain. He gives us eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to acknowledge the cries of those who need healing and resurrection. It is not enough to have compassion; 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.

How were the lives of the widows changed by the resurrection of their sons? We don’t know, because their stories end with praise to God. I’m sure their sons died again some day, although probably long after the mothers were gone. The famine in Zarephath eventually ended and life returned to normal for that town. Did it ever return to normal for the woman who came to faith when God raised her son? Life eventually returned to normal in Nain, as people went about their lives again, but did it ever return to normal for the widow whose son was restored to her? They were changed by God’s grace; they experienced the transforming hand of God and were never the same again.

Paul was also changed by God’s grace. He was met on the road to Damascus by a blinding light, during which Jesus Himself called Paul into ministry for the Church. He didn’t learn the new faith from teachers or figure it out for himself. He received the Gospel in a miraculous way, and the son (Paul) who was dead (persecuting the Church) was brought to true life in Christ. He was restored to God and sent into the world to share God’s grace with others. We see in Paul’s words as a reminder that what we do in sharing the Gospel is not by our own strength or our abilities. God’s grace is shared when Christ is revealed in and through us. We can’t feed the hungry and expect God to be glorified unless there is also resurrection. Faith doesn’t come from the filling of bellies, but from the transforming power of God’s Word.

We may never experience God’s grace in such a miraculous way as raising the dead, but we know people whose lives are crashing down around them. 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. That’s what we are called to do: be Christ for our neighbors as He is revealed through our lives, offering resurrection and restoration to those whose lives are broken. 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.” They will see His work and proclaim, “To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Jehovah my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.”

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