Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:17–24
Prayer of the Day: Compassionate God, you have assured the human family of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Deliver us from the death of sin, and raise us to new life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I lost both my parents during the last decade. Their deaths grieved me deeply, especially my mother’s passing. Yet there is something natural about such grief. I always knew that I would one day bury my parents-just as they buried theirs. We are not gods, but creatures. Our days are not without limit and we can only pray for grace to live them wisely and well. Both of my parents went to their graves full of days and with a legacy of love and faithfulness to each other and to their children. What more can one ask from a creaturely life? Death is surely grievous, but not evil-at least not to the degree that the dying creature lets go of life and enters a trusting free fall into the merciful hands of its Creator. I buried my parents with deep sadness, but also in hope.
Burying one’s child, however, is another thing altogether. I fear the deaths of my children and grandchildren far more than I fear my own. They carry a part of me that would surely die were I to be so unfortunate as to outlive them. Their very existence makes me vulnerable in the way that God became vulnerable in sending the only begotten Son. Something of that vulnerability is expressed below in this week’s poem by Brenda Atri. My children force me to pray, work and hope for a better future. Because they live, I cannot allow myself the luxury of despair. For that reason, death inflicts irreparable destruction when it comes before its time. The bullet that takes the life of a school child leaves a hole far bigger than the one in the corpse. It leaves parents with inconsolable grief; it inflicts on siblings both incomprehensible loss and survivor guilt; it destroys a community’s trust; it scars the narratives of so many young lives. An untimely death is an evil death.
This Sunday’s gospel tells the story of a funeral for a young man from the town of Nain. We don’t know the circumstances of his death, but we know that he died leaving behind a mother and a grieving community. That is enough to make clear to us that his death was a great evil-an evil Jesus simply will not tolerate. That is why he stops the funeral train in its tracks, raises the young man from death and returns him to his mother. No dead kids on Jesus’ watch!
By contrast, our culture has become appallingly tolerant of untimely deaths. As a people, we here in the United States are becoming increasingly comfortable with extremist anti-immigrant proposals barring even children fleeing for their lives from finding sanctuary within our borders. Worldwide, millions of children die each year of entirely preventable causes such as hunger, abuse, neglect, gun violence, bullying, exploitation, malaria, tuberculosis, war and lack of adequate health care. We see the statistics, but not the deep craters of human agony behind the raw numbers. For each such death, there is a sad funeral procession made up of irreparably damaged souls.
Jesus has come to put an end to these funeral processions for children and young people needlessly sacrificed to death. Jesus would have his disciples know that it’s time to stop tolerating the toxic environments in our neighborhoods, schools and homes that put children at risk. It is time to stop tolerating politicians who tell us that we cannot afford adequate health care, proper nutrition and educational opportunities for our children. Over and over again, Jesus made children his priority, teaching his disciples that the kingdom of heaven was made for them. Our prayer that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven therefore includes an implicit plea that no parent should ever again have to bury a child.
Your face mirrors mine,
As mine does my mother’s.
Your smile is a smirk
That quickly explodes
Into sublime lightness.
Your skin has a blush
As does plums true wine,
When young men turn their heads
And whisper your name to each other.
Your hair casts a curtain
Over your face. It acts as a veil to
Guard your thoughts and hide your moods.
It falls long and silky to your waist,
and parts in a sliver, to allow one eye to spy.
If I could love you more
It would surely be like a violent death,
For I would faint, become breathless,
And my heart would burst forth from my breast
My life has been in free fall since your birth.
A never ending plunge into bottomless depths,
Fearing for your wellness and happiness.
I live only to hear you call my name
Hopefully with joy, and not with tears.
On that face that mirrors mine.
C. 2011 by Brenda Atry & published on Poetry Soup. You can sample more of this Atry’s poetry at the above website.
This story follows immediately upon the text from Sunday, November 8th of last year. Elijah is staying with an impoverished widow of Zarephath, a coastal town in the pagan country of Phoenicia. He had been driven out of Israel by King Ahab who blamed Elijah for the three year drought that was devastating the whole region. This fugitive prophet had taken up residence with the widow and her son. All three of them were living off one jar of meal and a single jug of oil that had miraculously been sustaining them throughout the long years of drought. Then, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes deathly ill. The widow lashes out at Elijah and, by extension, at God for bringing this evil upon her. That is not unusual. In the face of unbearable suffering and loss, people often question God’s mercy, wonder whether they are not somehow at fault for what has occurred or become angry at God. What is truly remarkable is the prophet’s response. Elijah does not scold the woman for her impiety or remind her of how good God has been to her thus far or explain to her that the death of her son is really a blessing in disguise that she will someday come to recognize. Elijah takes the woman’s complaint directly to God without any censorship, editing or pious window dressing. He turns and says, “Yea God! What did you have to go and kill this poor kid for? This lady saved my life! Can’t you give her a break?”
There is a lesson in this for all of us who deal with people in times of grief. It is not our place to defend God’s reputation or make explanations for God’s actions or seeming lack of action. After all, God would be a shabby excuse for a deity if he had to depend on us to cover for him. Our responsibility is to show compassion to the sufferer. That sometimes means entering into his or her anger and despair. There are precious few devotional aids that teach us how to pray when we are heartbroken, doubtful or just plain mad at God. That is where the Psalms come in. The psalmists know how to pray on good days and bad. They know how to praise God for every source of joy and beauty, but they also know how to let God know when they feel that God has let them down. That is exactly how Elijah prays over the widow’s son.
The son’s recovery demonstrates to the reader that Elijah’s prayer is heard and that God’s mercy extends beyond the confines of Israel to all nations where people of faith are found. But it is important not to lay too much stress on the healing. The message here is not that God grants whatever request a person makes-even such persons as Elijah. Rather, the point is that God hears and God acts. Such actions may not come as dramatically as in this story and they may not comport with our wishes. In the end, God means to take all of our lives. So the healing of the widow’s son amounts only to a brief reprieve. Death will eventually part the widow and her son. That the boy has been given back to his mother for an indefinitely longer period of time is sheer grace. As such, this miracle has the larger purpose of evoking the faith expressed in the widow’s response: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” Vs. 24.
This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. It is impossible to determine precisely the danger or threat from which the psalmist has been delivered. It is possible that the psalmist is a warrior giving thanks for deliverance from death in battle. It is also possible that the psalmist is thanking God for recovery from illness. In either case, the psalmist is deeply thankful for God’s mercy which lasts forever and triumphs over God’s anger that is only momentary. S/he acknowledges that, prior to his/her troubles, s/he had become cocky and complacent. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” Vs. 6. It is perhaps this very pride and presumptiveness that led to trouble for the psalmist. Prosperity and ease can create a false sense of security and invulnerability. When all is well and everything seems stable and secure, it is easy to forget how fragile a thing life is. Just one second of inattention to the road by me or someone else can tragically alter the course of my life forever. If that tiny spot on the X-ray is what I fear, then it matters not how successful I have been, how much I have stashed away in my savings or how carefully I have planned my retirement. Suddenly, it becomes very clear just how dependent I am for life upon the God who gave it to me and who will sooner or later require it from me again.
The psalmist aims what appears to be a rather presumptuous rhetorical at God: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” Vs. 9. Seriously? Does this individual really believe that God needs his or her praise and testimony so much that God simply cannot afford to let him or her die? I suppose that is one way of looking at these words. Of course, there is another take on this as well. We are, after all, created to give praise to our Creator. Perhaps the psalmist is merely pointing out to God that s/he has learned his or her lesson. Meaning and security are not found in prosperity, however impressive it might be. Human fulfillment and joy cannot be found apart from faithful reliance upon God and a life of praise directed to God. Whatever remains of the psalmist’s life, much or little, will be spent in such praise.
As we are going to be in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians for the rest of this month and into the beginning of July, you might want to read the overview by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at enterthebible.org. You may recall that Paul is writing to the Galatian believers out of concern that they are forsaking the good news about Jesus that he has preached and are listening instead to the message of certain Jewish Christian evangelists. These folks were arguing that Gentile Christians must be circumcised according to Jewish law. Paul insists in reply that people are justified by faith in Christ rather than by keeping the requirements of Torah.
Last week’s lesson opened with Paul’s surprise and outrage that, so soon after hearing the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus, the Galatian church is now turning to “another gospel.” This week Paul launches into an account of his upbringing within Judaism and his former hatred of the church. In part, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers that his own Jewish credentials are as good as or better than those of his opponents, but his objective is not to establish his superiority to them on that basis. He wishes rather to make it clear to the Galatians that, although he has as good a claim as anyone to Jewish ancestry and upbringing, he does base his preaching and teaching on these credentials. Instead, he basis his preaching and teaching on his encounter with the risen Christ and Christ’s commission for him to preach the good news of God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Paul also wishes to make the point that he is in fellowship with the Church at Jerusalem and has received the blessing of the rest of the apostles for his ministry.
It is important to note this twofold claim of authority. Paul is emphatic that his apostleship is grounded in his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. (See Acts 9:1-30 for Luke’s version of this encounter.) But he is also careful to point out that he had gone up to Jerusalem to visit with Peter and James to receive their blessing. He also points out that the church in Judea recognized his preaching and glorified God on that account. Thus, apostolic authority, understood as the authorization to preach, teach and administer the sacraments publically, is grounded in the apostle’s conviction that s/he has been called to this work. But that alone is not sufficient to make an apostle. Apostolic authority must be recognized and conferred by the church as well. I believe that this twofold call process exists in some way, shape or form in most expressions of the church. Throughout its history, the church as striven to exercise apostolic authority in ways that encourage and stimulate creative ministry and preaching while also holding preachers and ministers accountable to the biblical witness, the ecumenical creeds and our respective confessional/teaching traditions. We have not always gotten that balance quite right, but we keep trying. Perhaps that is what it means to be a church of the Reformation?
This account of Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son is found only in Luke. It is naturally paired with the Elijah story in I Kings, also involving the death of a widow’s only son. Indeed, the Elijah narrative might well have been on the peoples’ (Luke’s?) mind as they exclaimed, “A great prophet has risen among us.” Vs. 16. The other comment made by the crowd to the effect that “God has [visited] his people” reflects the Benedictus in which Zechariah declares: “for [God] has visited and redeemed his people.” Luke 1:68. The NRSV translates the verb for “visit” as “look favorably upon.” While not inaccurate, this rendering does not reflect the sense that God is coming to or making a saving visit to Israel. I prefer the old RSV’s use of “visit.”
Nain is a tiny Galilean village approximately twenty-five miles south of Capernaum. See map. Luke reports that Jesus raised the young man near the town gate, but no evidence of a gate or wall has ever been found at the site. Either the gate was only part of a simple enclosure or the word was used figuratively, referring to the place where the road entered the houses. In either case, it would have been necessary for the funeral procession to pass out of the town as burial of the dead would not have been permitted within the town proper.
Jesus’ compassion here is not for the dead man, but for his mother. As indicated in my opening remarks, the life of a woman without a husband or children to support her would have been a bitter lot in first century Palestine. This is yet another passage in which Luke’s particular concern for the lives of women and their participation in the gospel narrative is illustrated.
Jesus touched the bier to stop the poll bearers from proceeding further. Such an act might well have been considered rude and disrespectful. It also rendered Jesus legally unclean for the balance of the day. But this brash act makes clear Jesus’ intent to put a stop to this sad procession and turn it around.
Jesus raises the young man by commanding him to arise. He uses similar means in raising the daughter of Jairus. Luke 8:54-56. See also the raising of Lazarus at John 11:43. This harkens back to the first chapter of Genesis where God speaks the world and all of its creatures into existence. Genesis 1:1-2:3.
Luke tells us that word of this event spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding hill country-strange given that the miracle took place at a small town in Galilee. Some scholars attribute this discrepancy to Luke’s general lack of knowledge about Palestinian geography.