I am often critical of the lectionary editors when they cut and skip parts of or entire stories, so let me first sing their praises this week. Could there be a better combination of OT and Gospel readings for Healing Sunday? And, of course, the readings are even more timely reminders now that we have learned just before the service of the passing of Bob from this life to the next. No doubt this will jumble a bit of what I meant to say to you today, but we will trust that the Holy Spirit will be here comforting those who mourn and, perhaps, afflicting those who need to be afflicted.
Last week, we looked at one of Elijah’s “mountain top” experiences. If you skipped last week, Elijah did battle with the false priests of Ba’al on top of Mt. Carmel. Elijah was exasperated with Israel. To his question and exhortation “if Ba’al is God, follow him; If Yahweh is God, follow Him” Israel could make no sound. Elijah proceeded to do battle with the false priests, all 450 of them. Initially, it was a spiritual battle, but as I mentioned last week, once Yahweh won the spiritual battle, Elijah had the 450 false priests killed. Victory! Right? Israel obviously followed Yahweh, right?
We skip some of the story this week. Jezebel, the queen, is furious with Elijah. She puts a price on his head. How dare he kill Our priests! We will show him who is Queen! Elijah, rather than savoring the victory and earning the “well done good and faith servant” we might expect, is forced to flee. He goes literally from the mountaintop to a nadir. He is angry at God. He whines at God. And God reminds His prophet that His ways are not the prophet’s nor our ways. God reveals to Elijah that He often speaks in the still, small voice that Elijah’s anger and whining are drowning out. The great thing about God, well, one of many, is that God will work with us in spite of ourselves. And so He instructs Elijah to go to Zarephath and live there. God tells Elijah that He has commanded a widow to feed him there.
You know that part of the story--everyone does who has been part of a stewardship drive. Elijah asks the widow for water and food. She responds by telling him that “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked.” The prophet has interrupted her as she has been gathering sticks. Her intent, she tells him, is to use the remaining flour and oil to make a morsel of dough and to cook it over the fire she will make with these sticks. Elijah tells her that is all fine and good, but make him a little cake of it first and bring it to him. He goes on to tell her that God has decreed that neither her oil nor her flour will empty until the Lord sends rain on the earth again. It is certainly an amazing promise.
I can only imagine what was going through her head as she headed off. This idiot just will not listen. I do not have enough for me and my son, yet he wants some of that as well. But, she does as she is told. And God keeps His word. They eat for many days. All’s well, right? She obeyed; she is fed. Elijah obeyed; and he is cared for yet again. That’s the way it works in our minds, right? God blesses us when we do as we are taught, and He punishes us when we don’t--isn’t that what we are often taught or come to believe?
Fortunately, the story does not end there. The son of the widow becomes ill and dies. In my almost seven years here I have reminded you over and over again what life was like for widows. Widows without sons were often reduced to begging or prostitution. They really make the marginalized of today look like they are in the center of life. We get hints, but in a world full of pensions and 401k’s and Medicare and home ownerships, our widows do not experience the same physical / provisional problems as their counterparts a few thousand years ago. While there are still glass ceilings out there, and while there are emotional and spiritual pains which are common to both, most of our widows can and do provide for themselves in ways that would simply amaze their spiritual great, great, great grandmothers. That is why God, over and over and over and over again in the Old Testament, reminds His people that He loves widows and orphans. He wants His people to remember the most vulnerable in their midst.
In that death of her son, all the widow’s hopes have dissipated. Her only real hope, or so she thought, was to raise that son until he was of age to marry. The the son and his wife could care for her in her old age. Now, in spite of her willingness to obey the prophet, her hopes are dashed. Her plans are ruined. Her hope has been torn from her heart.
Look at how her mind works. You [man of God] have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son. It does not seem fair or just, does it? I mean, the least God could do would be to protect them for their faithfulness. What good is unending oil and flour if your loved ones are not around to share it? Israel deserves these kinds of punishments because they have chosen not to trust the prophet and to follow Yahweh, but this foreign widow does not. She has done precisely what God told her. Punishing her would be like Jesus zapping the widow who places a penny in the offering plate at the Temple. Notice, though, what we are told of her thoughts. First, God is Elijah’s Lord and God. She refers to Him as Your Lord and Your God, not our Lord and our God. There is a distance there. She is not of Israel. Second, she recognizes that her sin rightfully merited death. As happy and amazed as she must have been to be eating her fill, she immediately calls to mind a sin that justifies her son’s death. This lady, when we meet her with Elijah, is gathering sticks and preparing to die. It is almost like God has given her a brief respite of happiness and hope and then pulled the legs out from under her. Like the false gods, He seems capricious.
And Elijah thinks her complaint has merit. Why did You bring calamity even on this widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son? Talk about a roller coaster ride of emotions. Elijah gets to see these cool miracles, and then he gets to see the cruel vicissitudes of life. One moment he is exalting; the next moment he is whining and complaining. Isn’t that, though, our spiritual condition. When things are going well, we tend to fall into one of two traps: either we believe we deserve the good, or we forget to thank God for the blessings. I know I teared up this morning in the call to worship. Usually, I get time to compose myself when I lose one entrusted to my care. My problem this morning is that I knew the readings, and I could hear Bob’s voice in them. The problem for us pastors, sometimes, is that we see the struggles, the fears, the hurts, the unbeliefs, and worry that our faith is not enough. And we walk through those struggles with those entrusted to us. It is hard not to cry when you realize what has happened. And I realize that Bob is truly happy this morning. He has traded in that broken body and is likely playing bridge with his beloved bride, Mary Lea! We can rejoice at their reunion and joy in the Lord, but we feel their absence, and we pray for their loved ones who have not had the last year to become accustomed to their absence.
As most of you know, though, he suffered terrible pain from his vascular problems. When the stents would would and open up the blood flow, Bob would always give thanks to God. In fact, in approaching each operation, nurses and doctors would explain the risk, and Bob would sometimes cheerfully remind them not to worry if he died, he was trading in this clunker for a better one when he saw Jesus. As a pastor, it was great to watch him either teach nurses and doctors about God or remind them what they already new. More than once, it was remarked to me that Bob had that, “you know, that peace that passes all understanding thing.” Yes, I knew what they meant. But it was also true that Bob walked through valleys and wildernesses. He would, from time to time, hear of and see the miraculous healings in this service or at the hospital and wonder why he was excluded. Was it this? Was it that? Is God giving me this to punish me? Bob knew better than many here, and yet he, too, fell into that same trap. Looking at the nodding heads and tears, and remembering some of your stories, I know some of you share those fears, those hurts, those pains, and those doubts. Some of you are wondering Why has He not healed me all these years that I have faithfully come to Him in prayer and supplication? I said a moment early that we are fortunate in that the story continues to this death. Why? Because had it stopped there, we could all allow our imaginations to convince us that are sufferings of God’s punishments toward us. What happens teaches us that such is not at all the case.
Elijah stretches his body over the boy three times and cries out to God to let the child’s life come into him again. The Lord, we are told, listens to Elijah, and the life of the child was allowed back in. The boy, we are told, is revived. He is not resurrected, and this is important to understand. The young man will be subject to the same vicissitudes of life as you or me or his mom or even Elijah. This is not, not the Resurrected body he is promised if He follows God. This boy will one day die again. Even so, the widow recognizes God’s power in Elijah. She knows the words of Elijah are true. She does not yet think of God as “her God,” but neither is He “your Lord, your God.”
Fast forward now to our Gospel lesson. We encounter the same problem. A widow is burying her son. Fortunately for her, she encounters Jesus, who has compassion on her. In a simply amazing act, He stretches His hand to and touches the bier, bringing the procession to a halt. The prophet has made Himself unclean! What is He doing? Doesn’t he know the torah? This is going to cost Him? Like our Old Testament story, the dead boy of a widow is brought back to life. Notice, of course, the subtle differences. Elijah entreats God to act; Jesus simply says “Young man, I say to you, rise!” There is no stretching out over the body. There are no fancy incantations or gestures. Jesus’ power is absolute. He speaks a word, and even the dead obey! And while Elijah’s miracle is private; Jesus does His work of power in the midst of all those mourning. These differences are important because they help us answer Elijah’s question from last week.
We live in a world which testifies that the power of death is absolute. Want to show somebody just how powerful you are? Kill them. Does a month go by when we do not have somebody bursting in with guns and killing innocent people? If I say the words Newtown, movie theater, or mention California from this past week, we all recognize the truth that individuals think that real power is to cause someone’s death. And certainly, our companion dioceses have much to teach us about this attitude. The people in Nzara, southern South Sudan, have the Lord’s Liberation Army blowing through their towns and villages from time to time. The army kills, rapes, kidnaps, enslaves, and destroys to demonstrate its power. All of that, of course, is really just for spite. Nzara is considered poor by South Sudan standards which, as you know, are not exactly a bar set high. Similarly, our brothers and sisters in Swaziland live in this place where death is the ultimate expression of power. Think about it for just a second. How bad must your ruler be to be considered among the top three tyrants / despots in the world today? Certainly their widows understand our stories today far better than we. When their men or boys are killed, they are often forced into prostitution. Why does HIV affect so many in their country? How else can they survive, given the government and attitude of those in power? Even the cynic among us today might point out that, for all his love, for all his faith, Bob was even undone by death. God could have saved him, if He was real and if He wanted.
There are lots of counterclaims in the Gospel against the world, but today’s readings remind us of the one which separates us from the world and all its problems. Last week, Elijah asked of Israel and of us “Who is God, follow Him?” There exists lots of powers and principalities and gods who claim power by the use of death as the ultimate enforcement of their will. There is only one God, the Lord, who claims the power of life over death. Do you fear the powers of those others? Follow them as your God. Do you find hope in the power of Christ? Then you should follow Him. As with last week, silence is not an answer in the face of such testimony. Only God claims sovereignty even over death. And, in that sovereignty, the absolute power that is tempered by that same compassion which causes our Lord to stop the bier and take on the uncleanliness of death, the same compassion which caused Him to follow that path which led Caiaphas and Pilate and finally to Golgotha, we as human beings find hope. Why is it, as His people, can we take the blessings and vicissitudes of life and proclaim He is Lord, blessed be His name? Why is it that we can stand over a grave of sister or brother who has proceeded us in death and sing alleluia? Why in the face of death and destruction and despots and invading armies can God’s people have hope? Why is it our sisters and brothers in Swaziland or South Sudan or Connecticut or Colorado or California or Virginia can go on with life? It is because God conquers the grave! If these stories of the dead being raised back to life are false, then we are to be pitied because we have believed in a lie. But if they are true and, more importantly, if it is true that Christ was resurrected after three days, then we truly have reason to hope!
Brothers and sisters, your condition on earth does not reflect your Father’s love of you. His Son, hung on a cross, is His ultimate expression of His love for you. While you and I were yet a rebel, a prodigal son or daughter, He acted to save you and to save me. He took on our sin, our uncleanliness, and carried it to the grave when He died for us on that cross. Period. End of story? No. That we might know that He has the power to redeem all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, the Lord raised Him to new life.
We are focusing this year a bit more intentionally on our spiritual needs and our own lives as disciples. Last week, I asked you who or what was god in your life and encouraged you to follow it or him. As it turned out, it was a more challenging question than some would have liked to believe. There were some strong, but honest struggles with the question. That is perfectly fine. Until we join Bob and Mary Lea at that great bridge game (I am kidding, I hope no one will be forced to play bridge), you and I will continue to struggle. We will experience mountain tops and wildernesses; we will at times have no doubt of His love for us and at other times wonder whether we can ever be loved. This week, God through the plight of widows, and hopefully me through some impassioned and empowered teaching, has reminded you and I why we should choose to follow Him. Only God commands even the dead to rise. Only God stretches out His hand with compassion and stops our biers. Only God redeems, even the plight of widows. So I ask you again this week, “Who is God in your life. Follow him.”