Monday, June 10, 2013

Ordinary Time 10C, June 9, 2013

Guest Preacher:
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Executive and General Minister
Pittsburgh Presbytery

When all Hope is Gone 

1 Kings 17:8-24 
8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah. 
17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” 19 But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20 He cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 
22 The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” 24 So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” 

Luke 7:11-17 
11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 
15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. 

Over the past ten days, Pittsburgh has experienced a classic case of crashing hopes, as its beloved Penguins moved from being favorites to go to the Stanley Cup finals to elimination by the nefarious Bruins of Boston. Going into the series with the Bruins, Pittsburghers almost swaggered with optimism, but the swaggering stopped after the first game. Still, fans and local sports journalists were hopeful for a quick reversal of fortune’s negative turn. A disastrous second game all but snuffed out hope among most of our fans and media, with only the players themselves expressing real hope for winning the series. After a hard-fought multiple-overtime third game finally ended in Boston’s favor, even the players’ tone changed – all they dared hope now was for a single win, but of course one at a time, they could still win all four. A small sliver of hope still remained. But we all know the rest of the story… 

Hope for the widow of Zarephath was even more slender, as our Bible story unfolds. She had been victimized repeatedly, first by the death of her husband, leaving her to raise their son alone, then by the depredations of a drought that had ravaged the region for three brutal years. Moreover, she was outside the realm of God’s chosen people, a Gentile from the region of Tyre and Sidon, which was considered among God’s people in the same category as Sodom and Gomorrah. Even though she had none of the benefits of being among God’s chosen people, she shared in their punishment when God declared drought on the land in response to their persistent idolatry of the things enjoyed by their surrounding culture. 

Gentiles from that region are shown to be reached by God’s mercy in other parts of the Bible. In the days of the early church, Cornelius, a Roman centurion, lived near there, and called upon God to intervene in his life. During the time of Jesus’ ministry, a woman from that area had a sick daughter, and cried out to him for help. In both cases, after Peter and Jesus dealt with some serious wrinkles related to their being Gentiles, they received the blessing from God they sought. 

But the Zarephath widow asked God for nothing. She had abandoned all hope, and had resigned herself to the fate that she and her son would soon starve to death because all their resources had been exhausted. As if losing her husband’s support were not enough – the drought added only further to her misery. She was out gathering wood for one last fire to cook their final meal, when she ran into the guy who was at the top of the Most Wanted list down at the post office – Elijah, the guy who prophesied the drought into existence three years earlier. 

And there she came into her destiny as God’s anonymous servant. God had told Elijah, “I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So Elijah asked her first for a drink, which she was glad to provide, until he added, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.” He asked nicely, didn’t he? But she had none to give. “As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread,” she replied. Notice the language – “The Lord your God.” She claimed neither to know nor to serve this God. Yet God claimed to have directed her to feed Elijah. That’s often how God uses us – we have no idea that what we’re doing is prompted by God, but in doing the right thing, we may indeed be instruments of the Almighty without knowing it. 

I used to think that the point of the story was that because she fed Elijah first, God blessed her with a bottomless supply of oil and flour. She got something because she gave something. I’ve heard preachers wax eloquent on that idea – give the little you have to the Lord (typically, that means give it to the preacher), and the Lord will reward you with more than you gave. But that’s not what the text says. According to the text, her provision for herself and her son came not as a consequence, but as an accompaniment to her gift to Elijah. As she went home to bake her last loaf, Elijah said in essence, “You’ll find enough in your pantry to make two loaves, one for me and one for you – and it will keep being that way for as long as this drought lasts.” 

The lesson is not that we should give in order to be rewarded, but that when we give to those in need, we are not depleted. That’s how it is with sharing spiritual gifts – we give to others what they need, and find that in so doing we lose nothing, because what we are giving comes from God’s storehouse rather than from our own pantry. 

That would be a nice end to the story – but there’s more. Not long afterward, the widow’s son fell ill and died. She bitterly accused Elijah of raising her hopes falsely by providing food to keep them alive, only for the boy to die of a subsequent illness. I can identify with her – I’d rather never have had my hopes raised at all, than to have them raised only to be dashed. This is how Jesus’ disciples felt at his crucifixion – “Jesus, you raised our hopes for deliverance, only to let them be crushed by letting yourself get falsely arrested and executed. We know you could have escaped easily – why did you raise our hopes only to surrender yourself to death?” 

Elijah didn’t scold the widow, but turned her distress into prayer. The text says he “cried out to the Lord” that the boy would be brought back to life. God answered his prayer, and the boy was revived. It seemed all hope was gone, but Elijah refused to give up. The boy’s mother had given up, but Elijah did not. 

That’s often how it works with hope and prayer – when we see no hope whatsoever, God brings someone our way to supply hope where we have none. We may believe praying is useless, but they pray anyway. We see no point in trying yet again to do something at which we have failed, but they encourage us not to give up. One of the main reasons we need each other is that each and every one of us sometimes loses hope, and were it not for others stepping in to carry hope on our behalf, we’d simply give up. 

Our Gospel story sounds some very similar themes – a widow loses her son, her hope is gone, and she has no faith for God to intervene. Still, Jesus raises up her son, even though she didn’t ask him to. She is not a Gentile like the Zarephath widow, but we have no indication of any piety on her part. God blesses her not because of who she is or what she has done, but simply because Jesus infuses his hope into her situation when she has none. 

The parallels between the two stories are obvious enough. Both are part of a small collection of resuscitation stories scattered through the Bible. In each case, resuscitation happens to highly unlikely folk, people without faith or power or wealth. They do nothing to deserve a second chance at life, yet it is given to them. 

There is a raft of current books written by people who have had what we call “near death experiences,” detailing what they experienced during the time they were declared clinically dead. Many of them state that they were not particularly pious before their near-death experiences. God blesses us with second chances, not because we have earned them, but simply because God is good. That’s just how it was with both of the widows in our readings. 

These stories confirm what we learn definitively through the death and resurrection of Jesus – death is not the end for us! The widows from Zarephath and Nain didn’t know this – all they knew was that they had been cut off from their last true hope. Their stories remind us that our hope rests not on how advanced our faith may be, but solely on how good God is. 

Frankly, I am prone to skepticism when I read people’s accounts of what they experienced when they were declared clinically dead. We certainly can’t build any good theology on such anecdotes. But one thing I have learned over my years as a pastor, as I have kept vigil with people as they breathed their last – the line between life and death is nowhere near as clean as you see on the heart monitor, which is either pulsating or flat. I’ll never forget when I prayed for Frank as his heart fluttered its final feeble beats – I prayed aloud, with his family beside us, holding Frank’s hand as I did so. Frank had been comatose for a couple of days, utterly unresponsive to anyone or anything. As I prayed for him in his dying moment, long after he had uttered his last words, I closed with my customary “Amen,” whereupon he suddenly gripped my hand with a vise grip and fairly shouted, “Amen!” Then he was gone. 

As I said earlier, I can be quite the skeptic when I read stories about purported experiences of people while they were clinically dead. But here’s one I can’t deny, because it happened to someone I know, and I was there. Margi was a middle school teen in the church I served. Her Granddad, to whom she was very close, lay dying in the hospital, and she kept nearly constant vigil with him. But she had to go to a dental appointment to get some work done, so she left his bedside and headed to the dentist. She was deathly afraid of needles, so she opted to be put under general anesthesia during the procedure. In the middle of her procedure, she suddenly awakened, sat bolt upright, and said, “Granddad just came by to tell me not to worry, everything is fine.” Much relieved, she went promptly back under, until the dentist finished with her. When she awakened, she called her parents to ask about Granddad, and sure enough, he died at precisely the moment she sat up and said he had come by to see her. 

Again, we can’t build theology on such experiences. But one thing we can take away is this – it is never too late for hope. Death itself is not the end of Christian hope. We preach a risen Lord, and hope that we too shall share in his resurrection, somehow. In the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, the funeral service is called “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.” Its focus is on our hope that, because Jesus conquered death, death is not the final word for us

Some folk look on churches whose numbers have dwindled, whose glory days seem to lie somewhere in the past, and pronounce them to be “dying.” It’s getting harder and harder for those who remain to pay all the bills, and it’s just a matter of time before they’ll have to close their doors. At least, so say those who have abandoned hope. But just when all hope seems gone, God sends someone along with a vision for new life. The congregation’s future may not look like its past, but God isn’t done with it – far from it! The question is not whether the church will live or die, but what will be the nature of its life in the years ahead. 

That how the Lord works: to send us someone who stirs up our hope just when all hope seems gone. The Penguins’ hopes for a Stanley Cup may be gone for now, but they will revive in a few months. If that’s true for something as mundane as a hockey team, how much more true is it that for the church of Jesus Christ in the face of temporary setbacks! 
Each of us will eventually die, just as those boys eventually did whose lives had been restored to their widowed mothers. But even when we die, that will not be the end. This is the Christian hope, sealed in the resurrection of Jesus. It is as sure and dependable as God’s Word itself – but sometimes we need someone to help remind us of it. Thank God, that just when we need it most, God sends us just whom we need to help restore our hope in the Lord. To God be all the glory and thanks, now and forever! Amen.