June 9, 2013
I Kings 17
We often say we as a people stand for “Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness.” So, what’s it mean when we say “Life”? Might be easier to define what death is, or what brings an end to our sense of fulfillment, being loved by God. We can imagine soul-deadening stresses in our lives, things that leave you feeling burned-out, joyless, and far from the sense of God’s warm protection. Some pastors might even be tempted to go into a long list of the problems we all face, but this morning, I’m more interested in what gives us Life. We teach children that if you make healthy choices, you’ll be more likely to have comfortable consequences. What is life-affirming in your own life?
Whether you are speaking about what makes you feel alive physically, emotionally, or spiritually, we can see that the Truly life-giving, life-affirming blessings are all from Our Lord, the God of Love & Grace. If you have ever had a conflict with someone you love, someone in your family, perhaps, and after fretting about the all the reasons you said & did whatever you did, you may experience that wonderful sense of freedom & new life and peace that comes with reconciliation. You may have to struggle through a time of confession & repentance, or you may be the beneficiary of unconditional forgiveness, but the surge of joy that comes when we let go of resentment, guilt, shame & all the rest of that soul-choking poison, creating that fresh start is part of our covenant with the Lord of Love.
I believe that Jesus Christ came that we may have a more abundant life. Jesus demonstrated how we are called to forgive our neighbors And our enemies. Jesus ate and drank with people who were trying their best to live according to the Covenant promises taught by Moses and the prophets, and Jesus ate & drank with people who felt they were not welcome to be part of the covenant, part of God’s Chosen People. Jesus began his ministry providing more wine at a wedding, then travelled all around the Mid-East healing people of congenital disabilities, people who had been ill from mysterious causes, and even people who had died.
The two passages from scripture this morning describe God working through Elijah and Jesus to demonstrate for a people of shallow faith that God creates Life and God creates everything we need to be alive. The Prophet Elijah does not claim to possess the power to do much on his own, but he does listen to God, and he tells people what God has revealed to him. I Kings, chapter 17 introduces us to Elijah telling King Ahab that there is going to be a drought throughout the land. Elijah is told that God has designated a widow who will provide for Elijah, and the prophet should go and live with her. This is going to the opposite extreme from living in the capital city with Ahab & Jezebel in the palace. A widow meets Elijah & explains she is down to her last scraps of food, and then she & her son will die of starvation. But Elijah tells her to make him something to eat before she bakes a little unleavened bread for her last supper. And she did as Elijah had said, and the widow and her son and Elijah ate for a year until the Lord sent rain upon the earth. Pretty amazing story, could be a parable about how God supplies us with food, and the evil King Ahab doesn’t. Could be that food is a symbol of the necessities of life, and even a widow and her child, although they did not have any status in that culture, no financial resources, even a widow deserves to be able to have enough food. Probably a message to our society about creating a food distribution system that provides for the poor and marginalized; I mean how much money from our taxes should the county spend on making sure people who are living on Social Security Disability at the Kiwanis Homes are not receiving too much assistance in the form of food stamps? If the county sends a person on such a limited budget more money on their Bridge Card, but later realizes the county had made a mistake & had allowed that person to get more food for a few months, is it right for that person on Social Security Disability with barely enough money to pay the rent, utilities & grocery bills, that they have to “repay” the county? Why don’t we just say that since she may have spent a little more on groceries, maybe she was helping keep the only grocery store within walking distance of downtown Charlotte in business? This was not a situation where the person applied for assistance fraudulently; it was just a bureaucratic mistake which was corrected within three months. But making a person on a limited income with no savings repay the entire amount will reduce her monthly income by more than 30% for several months. Certainly over the past five years we have seen that governmental agencies on all levels have had to cut back on services, and hard decisions must be made, but we are seeing more and more cases where the budgets are being balanced by those least able to afford it. This sounds to me like just the opposite of the story about Elijah, the widow, and her son being fed by God during the drought. Maybe there are other interpretations of this story, but I do not believe that the message about caring for the poor & vulnerable in our society is that we should do absolutely nothing, & hope that God will magically provide the necessities of life when our society chooses not to help.
OK, so that’s the first part of the story of Elijah & the widow, but then in I Kings, chapter 17, verse 17, the woman’s son gets sick and stops breathing. The widow reacts by blaming Elijah, and asks why he has done this, “Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt and to kill my son?” Wow, clearly God had provided food for a year and Elijah had never mentioned anything about her sin or guilt. Yet, that sounds pretty familiar; when something goes wrong, most of us might be tempted to forget the good things of the past, and leap to making assumptions about how God is punishing us for something! Let’s assume for a moment that the widow who has been feeding Elijah for over a year is actually guilty of one or more of the so-called “7 Deadly Sins”. Traditional Christian theology for the past thousand years or so has not said that the Seven Mortal Sins cause God to kill you, nor even that God is unable to forgive them! No, the presence of any of these sins was seen as being destructive of the God-given Grace & Charity or Compassion within a person, thus leading the person away from having life more abundantly. This may or may not be on the Final Exam, but the 7 big ones are: Gluttony, Envy, Lust, Pride, Sloth, Greed, and Wrath. Not that Elijah had ever heard about this list, but instead of responding to the widow’s fear that she must have done something wrong, Elijah appeals to the Lord. Elijah’s prayer is answered, and the boy returns to life.
So, I suspect that the parallel for us is about health care, because in our modern, scientific system of medical care, Doctors and Nurses & other specialists do have examples of people who stop breathing and their hearts stop beating, and the medical team brings them back to life. It’s just that the patients and their families usually don’t quote what the widow told Elijah, “Now indeed I know that you are a man of God; the Word of the Lord comes truly from your mouth.” Instead today we buy a big basket of fruit for all the nurses on the unit! J/K ♥ You may have heard that Jesus was Irish, because he answers ?s with ?s, but maybe Luke is saying he is really a nurse or a paramedic!
The gospel lesson this morning follows directly after the story from last week’s sermon, when the Roman Centurion’s servant was about to die, and the Roman military leader sent a message to Jesus, “Sir, I am not worthy to have you enter my house, but just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Today continues in Luke 7:11 with another story about a widow. The status and financial stability of widows had not improved much over the previous six centuries, and Jesus encounters a funeral procession for a widow’s only son. Jesus has compassion for her, because the widow had just lost her only child, thus her only financial security. Jesus stops the funeral procession by grabbing hold of the stretcher that carried the corpse, which was a taboo, since touching dead people makes you unclean. Jesus then speaks, and the man sits up and begins to speak. Clearly, God has given this man his life back, and the crowd begins praising God in recognition that God has visited his people.
I think this brings us back to my initial question: what is life-affirming in your own life? Or, from the opposite side, what is it that keeps you from experiencing the abundant life that Christ came to share? Is it the sense that you do not deserve God’s love, because you haven’t earned it? From the stories in both the old & new testaments this morning, it does not seem that a person feeling unworthy is sufficient cause for God to withhold a blessing! Yet there are ways we shut ourselves off from the new life that Christ is offering to us. Substance Abuse therapists work with people who have come to recognize that an addiction can take control of a person’s life, and separate us from the life God created us to live. However, we can become addicted to many dysfunctional patterns of denying ourselves the life-affirming spirit of God’s love. Seemingly intelligent people can become addicted to being needed, feeling that they are only acceptable to God or society if they are constantly denying their own needs to help rescue someone else from the natural consequences of their behavior. Having compassion and a sense of grace does not mean you must ignore your own needs nor reject the blessings of the Spirit that make your life worthwhile. Instead, the scripture stories about God giving life and God providing the necessities of life, demonstrate that Christ is calling us to turn away from our fears, and work with God to bring God’s Love to a world in need. We are called to share a vision of how God wants us to treat each other, to make our society and our world a better place for all people to live. The Holy Spirit is at work in partnership with us to create justice and peace, to create social systems that provide the necessities of life for widows, and for all who are struggling to survive. God is calling each of us to work together to help all our brothers & sisters. With an awareness of how all things are possible for God and for God’s People, let us join our voices in singing hymn #294, “There’s a Spirit In the Air.”