Pentecost 2C, 2010
1 Kings 17:8-24
A widow’s lament pierces the hot Middle Eastern day. She cannot be comforted – her only son is dead. Her grief reaches to the bottom not just of her own soul, but of the entire life of the community. There is no sorrow like that of a parent over the loss of a child: parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Every good parent would willingly exchange her life for the life of her child; every parent would willingly endure surgery, illness, injury, pain, and grief, to spare the child. But in first-century Israel, the death of a widow’s only son meant disaster for the widow: not only was her future made precarious by the loss of the one obligated to care for her in her old age, but upon the death of the male heir all her husband’s property reverted to his nearest male relative. The widow weeps for her son, but also for herself: she is without means, without future, and without hope.
Someone once said that human beings can live three weeks without food, three days without water, three minutes without air, but only three seconds without hope. Infants not held and talked to can die from “failure to thrive” syndrome. In the classic movie The African Queen, the Methodist missionary pastor dies a day after German troops kidnap the villagers, burn their homes and the church, and leave the pastor and his sister in the ruins. As a pastor, I have watched many parishioners, when told by doctors there’s nothing more that can be done for them medically, die within days. Death rates spike shortly after retirement, when people who have worked all their lives suddenly have nothing to do. In the projects, young men resign themselves to short and violent lives, and fulfill their own prophecies with brief but lucrative careers in crime. People cannot live without hope.
Have you ever lost hope? Maybe it was the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship. Perhaps it was the death of a hope or of a career. Did your belief in a loving and beneficent God die with a college class when you learned that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John probably didn’t write the gospels attached to their names, or that the earth wasn’t made in six twenty-four hour days, or that St. Paul probably didn’t believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? Or was it when an innocent child died of a terrible disease, or a good friend died because of a drunk driver, or when someone you loved suffered terribly because of cancer or another condition? Maybe it was this week when you saw picture after picture of dead fish and birds on the Gulf Coast shoreline, and wondered why pelicans have to die because human beings took shortcuts to make more money. Let’s be honest before we come to the Lord’s Table today – every one of us here is mourning a dead hope great or small, sacred or mundane.
The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarepath and Jesus and the widow of Nain are almost exactly parallel. Widows lose their only sons and are left destitute. The disasters here are personal and corporate, individual and systemic. Both the prophet and the Savior address the private and the public issues with their responses to the widows’ cries.
Two things have to happen to make the dead boys live again. First, there are cries of distress from their mothers. When God appears to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus 3, God says he has heard the cry of his people in Egypt. Jesus told the parable of an unjust judge who finally responded to a widow – note the widow theme again – because she badgered him day and night. In Israel and in the ancient church, saints crying out to God in prayer tore their clothing, poured ashes on their heads, fasted, prayed and wept day and night until God answered their prayers. We toss off a quick dear God, bless the pelicans and then go shopping or eat some comfort food so we’ll feel better. Mahatma Gandhi said there were seven great spiritual evils in the world: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, and worship without sacrifice. We want God to answer our prayers, restore our hopes, and revive our lives, but we want it all with minimal commitment on our part. God hears the cries of his people: are we willing to sacrifice our time, our pleasure, our money, and our very lives so the dead can be raised? If our cheap and easy prayers go unanswered, don’t blame God.
Second, Elijah and Jesus respond to the widows’ cries with compassion. They don’t toss off an easy healing without any personal investment. Elijah takes the dead boy in his arms, carries him upstairs, lays him on his own bed, cries out to God in anguish, and then stretches himself upon the boy three times, transferring his own life into the dead boy. Jesus, seeing the widow of Nain, has compassion for her, stops what he is doing, and lays his hands upon the dead boy. Hope and new life only come with sacrificial involvement.
The genius of the Harry Potter books is that all the young wizards go off to Hogwarts thinking they’re going to learn the magic words and potions to be able to manipulate any situation in the world. As it turns out, the people in the books who use the spells and potions for their own purposes are the evil ones: Voldemort, the Malfoys, Umbridge, and Lestrange. In every book, evil is defeated not by dispassionate applications of magic devices, but always by an act of self-sacrificial love. At the end of the series, Harry, who is a Christ figure, sacrifices himself to defeat evil, and is resurrected.
When I went off to preacher school – my own Hogwarts Academy – I thought I would learn easy spells and quick potions to cure the world. To my great dismay, I learned there are no magic words to be said when a parent loses a child; when someone you love dies; when the doctor says there’s nothing more to be done; when friends and lovers betray; when a career goes under; when hurricanes and floods destroy homes and communities and lives. There are no magic words; no aspirin to take with instructions to call us in the morning. Instead, we sit and weep with the mourners, befriending them in their utter loneliness. We pray prayers when we do not believe, sing hymns when we have no voice, tell stories of the past when there is no future, shovel debris and hammer nails when we have no skills. The world is never healed by the healthy sharing their leftovers: there can be no resurrection unless the living, like Elijah, get into bed with the dead and, like Jesus, sacrifice their lives for the sake of the lost.
There is hope for the hopeless, and new life for the dead in all of us. But new creations and new births come only with great sacrifice and great pain: the sacrifice of a soul-wrenching cry from the depths of one’s life, of all other agendas and priorities surrendered in an all-consuming quest for deliverance. If, as Luther said, God does not forgive imaginary sins, then surely God also does not answer superficial petitions. Are we willing to rend our hearts and our clothing, for the healing of the world? More, are we willing to give more than our spare change, our spare time, our spare attention to raise the dead? If all we offer God and a dying world is what’s left over when we’ve exhausted our own interests, then we should not be surprised if, when we are the ones needing resurrection, there’s nothing left to revive.
When you come to the table this morning, I invite you to come in full and sacrificial cry for the dying and dead child of hope in you. And remember that Jesus didn’t give you his spare time – he died for you. Go, and do thou likewise.