Friday, June 4, 2010

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Proper 10)

God's Compassionate Love

Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-17; Luke 7:11-17

The word of the Lord came to Elijah and he answered immediately. Not an easy thing to do, for in responding to God’s call Elijah is deliberately moving into the heart of enemy territory. It is an area where the religion of Baal has its stronghold. He finds lodging with a widow. Without the support of family, she is one of the most vulnerable in her society. Indeed, this particular widow is no exception. She and her son are on the brink of starvation. It is a Catch 22 situation for her. To help him could put her at great risk. Not to do so will mean starvation for herself and her child.

She takes a chance in helping Elijah, and for many days things go well. There is enough food for the household. They seem to be weathering the storm. Then her son becomes gravely ill and dies. “What have you against me, O man of God?” she rails at him. It is a cry from the depths of the human heart. She has lost her child. She searches for meaning where there is none. She turns on the one who has helped her. It is pain, bereavement, loneliness, fear, all pouring out of her.

And then she turns against God. The real culprit is God. After all, God could have prevented the tragedy. God is the villain. Isn't that our human response? Oh, we may not give voice to it. We may fear that if we do then something even worse may happen. Our faith mistakenly teaches us that God is a God of vengeance who will wreak even worse things on us if we do not toe the line. But she rails. In her anger and fear, she rails against Elijah. She rails against God.

And Elijah acts once again. Not without blaming God himself! But he springs into action. “Let this child's life come back into him again,” he prays fervently. And God answers his heartfelt prayer. The child is revived. Elijah returns him to his mother.

It is a wonderful story of the compassion of our loving God and of our need as the people of God to care for the stranger, the weak and the vulnerable.

Fast forward! Two processions, one entering the town of Nain, one leaving. Entering the town is a large and joyful crowd filled with hope for the future following their charismatic leader. Jesus is becoming known as the healer, as the compassionate one who cares for the sick and the downtrodden. Everywhere he goes a crowd follows. Leaving the town is a somber funeral procession. At the head of the procession is a woman, a widow, who is now burying her only son. For her there is no future, only private memories and regrets.

Here on the edge of town the two processions meet. Silence falls over the crowd as the mourners give voice to human loss and bereavement. Jesus has compassion on the widow. He knows that without her son she faces a bleak future. “Don’t cry!” he says to her. He is not telling her that crying is not a necessary human response to her loss. He is not telling her that she is weak for succumbing to her tears. He is not saying that there is something wrong with her. He is simply saying that there is no need for her to cry.

And then he speaks some words which must have startled the onlookers. “Young man, I say to you, rise!” What happened next must have shocked them even more, for the dead man got up and began to speak to his mother.

We could get into the usual arguments about this healing. We have no way of testing the reality of what might have happened, whether the son really was dead, whether symbolism or legend created the account, whether it emerged in a creative attempt to link Jesus with Elijah. What we do know is that the early Christians believed this account. In the whole scheme of things it did not make a great impact on society. It did make a huge impact in the life of one particular widow whose son was restored to her. It made all the difference in the world. At that moment Jesus becomes the source of new life to a young man and his family. By extension, we need to understand that Jesus is the source of new life to us.

It is certainly evident from Paul's story. His story is an amazing witness to God’s life giving action in the world. He loves to recount the transforming miracle of his conversion. Indeed, it almost sounds like bragging. He remembers the Damascus Road, the blazing light, the crashing fall, his blindness, the voice of God calling out to him. As surely as God gave new life to the dying child held in Elijah’s arms, as surely as Jesus gave new life to the young man outside Nain, so Christ gave new life to Paul. And he rejoices in it.

Let us fast forward once again to our own time. A friend of mine says that the saddest thing she had to do was to sell the family home following the death of her father. It brought home the reality of his death. As she packed up his things, memories welled up in her of shared family times, of her growing up years, and of wonderful family gatherings centered around food and always, she told me, there was music. The thing she remembered most about family events was gathering around the piano to sing.

The sale of the home didn’t go well. The house was in a state of disrepair. The decor was less than up to date. The price had to be dropped several times. It finally sold, but for far less than she had expected. And along with it went her treasury of memories.

Some weeks later she had the opportunity to meet the new owners. Not only were they lovely people, but they had children and grandchildren and a wonderful sense of family. The most astounding thing was that they were a family of musicians.

Now looking back at her reaction to the sale, she reflects, “Who cares about money? If Dad’s home continues to be filled with love, life and music, then it was the perfect sale.”

Our human condition is such that there are many ways in which we can be regarded as dead. Our faith can be dead. Our love can be dead. Our sensitivity, or joy, or hope, or trust can be dead. All that Jesus can say to us is, “I say to you, rise!”

Whatever we want to believe about miracles, they have a definite role within the Christian perspective. This miracle in particular has a powerful message for the way we live out our Christian faith. This is Jesus doing the ministry to which he was called by God. His ministry addressed the real needs of people. He did not simply preach. He lived the gospel. His loving and compassionate actions reached out to those in need in real and tangible ways. That is God's mission for each one of us. God loves humanity. Our mission is to reflect that great love as we reach out to those in need. Our compassion and love can bring about miraculous changes in the lives of those around us.

As surely as God gave new life to the dying child held in Elijah’s arms, as surely as Jesus gave new life to the young man outside Nain, as surely as Christ gave new life to Paul, so God offers new life to us.

So rise, and rejoice in it. Amen.

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