Two widows on the edge of the abyss. Already they were near the edge, women without husbands in cultures that had no other provision for them, other than the ones not unknown in our day–begging or prostitution. And now, both of them already headed over the edge, their only sons dying or having died, leaving them not only without the hope of future support, but also, as any parent can testify, without their hearts. Who can imagine anything worse than losing a child? Some of you have been there. Others of us can barely allow such a thought into our minds.
And then into each story, just before their feet leave the scrabbly ground on the edge of the cliff, into each story appears a man of God. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “Give me some water.” “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” “Do not weep,” the other one says. Each one an utterly ridiculous statement or request. Each one speaking of a possibility that had, just an instant ago, seemed impossible. Each one grounded in an abundance where only utter desolation and scarcity seemed to be the order of the day. Each one ushering newness into the life of someone, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, was not “not privy to much newness.” (Cited by Kate Huey in Sermon Seeds, 6/9/13) Each one bringing life where there had appeared to be only death.
There are plenty of people today whose lives appear to be as hopeless and destitute as these two widows’. People who have long ago given up trying to find work. People overwhelmed by bills demanding to be paid with the income side of the ledger pathetically inadequate. Or the widows or widowers who maybe have just enough resources to get by, but who wonder if ever again they will experience that abundance of heart, that joy and energy in living, now that he or she is gone. Or those for whom physical or emotional wounds or conditions just seem never to heal, or if they do, only to give way to something else. “Don’t be afraid.” “Do not weep.” “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”
There are those who see the church in the same situation as the widows. Declining numbers. Ever-shrinking budgets, at least on the income side. Loss of credibility and influence and relevance. Aging and dying. “Don’t be afraid.” “Do not weep.” “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”
These stories–of Elijah and the widow of Zarapheth and of Jesus and the widow of Nain– bear on their telling and hearing reminders that when we are utterly empty, there is room for grace, and hope. “Today’s passages,” writes Bruce Epperly, “assert that faith opens us to new dimensions of reality and within these new dimensions, miraculous releases of energy, congruent with the laws of nature, are released. Willingness to trust God despite appearances opens us to new possibilities, new energies, and a greater sense of vocation.” (Adventurous Lectionary, 6/9/13)
The realities of our lives–our economic hardship, our declining membership, the loss of loved ones or of former significance–all those are “real,” but they are not the whole story. “Realism that doesn’t take into consideration divine possibility,” as Epperly says, “stifles the imagination and lends itself to self-fulfilling demise and decrepitude.” (Ibid.) We need to be “realistic” AND we need to stay open to God’s possibilities and creativity. It’s not an either/or, but rather both/and.
There are some who say that, since God is all-powerful, God must have willed the drought that had devastated the widow of Zarepheth’s life (and the story-teller in 1 Kings certainly presents it that way), but more than that, God must have also willed the death of the widow’s son. What if we let go of that idea that God must be all-powerful, “omnipotent,” and say, rather, that God is all-present, “omnipresent,”present in every moment, offering transformation? “Bring me a little water in a vessel,” Elijah says to the widow, gathering the last bit of firewood, “so that I may drink….And while you’re at it,” he calls to her, “ bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” Such tiny openings–a little water, a morsel of bread in your hand. “As the Lord your God lives,” the widow says, “I have nothing…. nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; ..my son and I are going to die.” “Do not be afraid,” Elijah says. “This is plenty for God to work with. Make a little cake for me and something for yourselves.” “And 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.”
Well, ok, we made it through that crisis. But then the son of the widow dies. “What are you going to do about this, man of God?” cries the widow. And Elijah carries the boy upstairs to his room and prays to God to save him, and perhaps in a kind of artificial respiration, stretches himself upon the boy’s body three times, crying out in between, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” And “the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah,” the storyteller says; “the life of child came into him again, and he revived.”
The story of Jesus’ raising the son of the widow of Nain is a little more “miraculous.” Here it appears to be only at Jesus’ word that the young man’s life is restored, but there still may be lessons for us. When Jesus encounters the crowd accompanying the bereft widow and sees her despair, “he had compassion on her.” The word “compassion” means not only to “suffer with,” but it comes from an amazing Greek word splagcnizomai, from the noun splanxna, meaning “bowels, heart, lungs, liver, or kidneys,” what was thought to be the center of emotions. Jesus’ gut wrenched when he saw the widow. He stood in her suffering. And then he crossed the boundary into the circle of the unclean. He touched the funeral bier. He literally entered into their circle of contamination and vulnerability. “And the bearers stood still. And he said ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
That’s when “fear seized all of them.” Death we know. Death is all around us. But resurrection? New life emerging out of contamination and death? Now that’s terrifying! Maybe we are all too willing to look for signs of death around us–in our own lives, in the life of our church–but do we have the courage to look for signs of resurrection? New possibilities appearing in nothing more than a morsel of bread in a cupped hand? Do we have the imagination to join with Elijah and Jesus to allow transformation to enter in at any moment, through the tiniest crack or gesture?
“There are all sorts of wonderful things swirling around in [these stories]:” writes the UCC’s Kate Huey, “the power of God, the rains of mercy on parched earth and dried up lives, the small ones lifted up, the generosity that transforms the direst of situations, the blessings of God multiplying in unexpected and unimagined ways. When we look around at our lives and the life of the world, and the life of our churches, what abundance is about to break forth because of unexpected generosity and surprising compassion? What hope do we dare to welcome, and to entertain, in our lives? What dreams of God are we, too, willing to imagine?” (Op cit.)
The by-laws changes that we are voting on today will not bring about transformation or resurrection. No matter what structure or constitution we adopt, unless we put our flesh and passion into action, unless our lives reflect the power and compassion of the God who is with us at every moment, able to work with and through us to bring new life and possibilities where there had been too much staleness and cynicism, unless we lean into God’s amazing creativity and strength, transformation will not take place. But if faith is not a matter of “believing” such and such a thing about God, but rather about trusting in–really trusting into– the incomprehensible mystery of God, then such faith will carry us through, into God’s future. “Faith is radically embodied trust,” says Robin Meyers, our keynote speaker from Annual Meeting. Just a morsel in your hand. Just a touch. Radically embodied trust.
God is already in our future–the future of each one of us, the future of our nation and world, the future of the church. “Do not be afraid, and do not weep.” God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark