An unending jar of mercy

File:ElijahByLouisHersent.JPG

Thursday

1 Kings 17:17-24

18“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!”

Some translations at least make it a question: “Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son?!” Of course, others put it more bluntly, “that you should kill my son?”

It’s a remarkable turn for this woman, the widow of Zarephath, who has been sustained through the brutal drought and famine by the prophet’s promise that her jar of meal and of oil would not fail until the rains return. One moment she is the beneficiary of a wondrous divine mercy and now accuses God of petty vindictiveness. None of us are without sins, and the hazard of taking in a holy man, is that he draws the eye of God – and what may have once passed by in obscurity, is now revealed to the royal master. And he is swift to punish. Or so she thinks.

It is sad that she has not learned from God’s mercy that God is merciful.

I understand the fear that seizes her when her son stops breathing. I know these thoughts come. I know they blurt out in our frightful anxiety. But still, everything she has known about the God of Israel is generosity and compassion.

I have had these conversations, in the hospital, at a bedside, in grief. Years and years of worship, years and years of the word of grace and the feast at God’s holy table, yet in fear comes the question, “Why is God doing this?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

We do not learn well. God is not robbing us of life’s goodness; he brings true goodness. He brings true life. God heals. God delivers. God forgives. God rescues. God transforms. God brings new birth. God brings his kingdom. God brings the Spirit. God brings the New Jerusalem. God opens the grave.

And so now, when my child lies breathless, my cry is not about guilt and shame. My prayer is for mercy, yes. My plea is desperate, yes. But my cry is for God to show God’s goodness because I know God is good. Like the widow, I want my child to live, I will cry out for my child to live – but I know God will bring goodness, even if the price is tears.

There are things that happen because of choices I have made. I endure those as best I can. And there are things that happen because of choices the world around me makes. And I endure those as best I can. And there are things that just happen. I praise God for the times I am protected. And I look for God’s goodness in those things I suffer. For I know that the God who provides our daily bread from his unending jar of meal is the bringer of a true and imperishable life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AElijahByLouisHersent.JPG by Louis Hersent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Life restored

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Watching for the Morning of June 5, 2016

Year C

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 5 / Lectionary 10

We said last week that “the festal season may be over but the festal age is at hand,” meaning that though the liturgically richer Sundays from Advent through Pentecost are over, Easter has dawned for all creation. The reign of God is at hand, the grave is open and the Spirit given. The grace and mercy, healing and life of the age to come is at work in us and among us now.

We see the fruit of God’s reign again this week as the life of a widow is restored through the raising of her son. The realm of life has broken into this realm of death. But this is nothing new to God; the scripture reverberates with God’s life-giving. At Elijah’s intercession, life is restored to the son of the widow of Zarephath. The poet sings of God’s restoring mercy in delivering him from death’s door. And Paul gives his testimony how he was turned from a life that, in his zeal, brought death as he persecuted the followers of Jesus and was given a message that gave life to all – a message that does not come any human authority but from an encounter with the crucified but risen Lord.

The reign of God is present in this Jesus as the sick are healed, sinners forgiven, and life restored. The festal age is come. As the crowd will say in response to this stunning act, “God has visited his people!”RSV so we exult with the psalmist:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. (Psalm 30:11)

The Prayer for June 5, 2016

Gracious God,
you have not dealt with us
according to our sin and brokenness
but out of your great compassion.
As you restored the life of the widow and her son,
be at work within and among us
to restore us to the fullness of life in you;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 5, 2016

First Reading: 1 Kings 17:17-24
“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.’” –
Elijah’s plea for the life of the child of the widow of Zarephath is granted.

Psalmody: Psalm 30
“O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”
– The psalmist praises God for his healing from an illness that brought him near to death.

Second Reading: Galatians 1:11-24
“I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin.”
– Paul recounts the story of his life, declaring that the message he brought to the Galatians was not rooted in human authority but his encounter with the risen Lord.

Gospel: Luke 7:11-17
“Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain.” –
Following his encounter with the Centurion in Capernaum, Jesus meets a funeral procession and restores the life of a widow’s son.

 

Image:  Voroneţ Monastery, Romania. The church is one of the Painted churches of northern Moldavia listed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.  File: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVoronet_murals_2010_64.jpg  By Man vyi (own photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Free to do the right thing

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Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Thursday

1 Kings 17:8-16

10When 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.”

It seems like such a simple little request. But it is during a three-year drought. Water itself is scarce. Who knows whether Zarephath still had easy access to fresh water? Dry sticks, on the other hand, are sure to be available.

The prophet is in foreign territory. The widow refers to the LORD as “your god.” Her god – or, at least, the god of her people – is the god Ba’al. The worship of Ba’al is the source of all this trouble. He is the Canaanite storm god. The bringing of the winter rains. The source of water for the community and for the fields. The source of prosperity and abundance. Israel has adopted the worship of Ba’al. They have become part of the modern world. Tyre and Sidon are great cosmopolitan cities. They are the home not just of foreign trade and the rich abundance of this world’s goods; they are the home of art and culture. It is from Tyre that Solomon hires workmen to build him a temple – though Solomon at lead dedicated his temple to the LORD.

The king of Israel has married the daughter of the King of Sidon. She has come and brought modern sensibility to this backward nation in the hill country. They have built a temple to Ba’al and she has brought with her 450 prophets of Ba’al (and 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah).

She has also tried to stamp out the backward religion of this God of the desert who commands justice for all.

Few girls are named Jezebel today.

Jezebel is the one who schooled king Ahab in the use of ruthless power, taking Naboth’s vineyard – land God gave to Naboth’s family that now belongs to the king even as Naboth now lies in the grave.

So here is the prophet in the homeland of the queen. And he has asked for a drink. The widow shows hospitality to this stranger and goes to get him some water.

And then he asks for a bit of bread.

A bit is all she has. Her last handful of meal. Enough for one last small cake to enjoy with her son, and then nothing awaits her but death. It is why she is gathering sticks. Fuel for the fire to bake the one last small bit of bread.

The woman is faced with a challenge. Hospitality is the supreme value of the age. To feed the hungry is not only noble, but the one true thing. But this is her last bread. This her final meal.

She protests. She explains to this foreign prophet what she intends to do. “That’s fine,” he replies. “But first make some for me.”

First do the right thing.

And to this he adds an incredible promise: the jar of meal will not fail until the drought is over.

She is a hero of the faith. She dares to trust the promise of a foreign prophet and his strange desert God. She dares to do the right thing though it costs her everything. And she is sustained. She and her son and the prophet live from that small bit of never failing daily bread.  The gods of prosperity have failed her; the LORD, the God of justice and mercy has not.

It is a story like the manna in the wilderness: enough for today, trusting God for tomorrow.  It may seem like a hard way to live. But it is actually quite liberating. Let God worry about tomorrow. Let us be free to do the right thing today.

Image: Bartholomeus Breenbergh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Devouring widows

Watching for the Morning of November 8, 2015

Year B

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 27 / Lectionary 32

File:Widowsmite.png

A bronze Widow’s Mite or Prutah, minted by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judaea, 103 – 76 B.C.

Sunday returns us to “ordinary time” (the numbered Sundays of the year) after the festivals of the last two Sundays. Jesus is now in Jerusalem. Our narrative has jumped over the entry to Jerusalem (which we read on Palm Sunday) and the cleansing of the temple (which we read in Lent from the Gospel of John). We have skipped Mark’s description of the heightening conflict with the Jerusalem elite and Jesus’ stories of God’s pending judgment on the city. What remains before the account of the passion is this Sunday’s text and Jesus’ teaching about the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age.

The church calendar is shaped by the northern hemisphere. This is the season of harvest, or reaping and winnowing. And the texts and tone of worship at the end of the church year turns towards the notion of the final harvest, even as the Gospel narrative itself reflects the growing crisis between Jesus and the authorities.

So this Sunday Jesus warns his followers about the scribes who love the seats of honor and the show of pious prayer, but “devour widows’ houses.” Although the words are directed to his followers, we should not imagine that this is a private conversation. It is a challenge of the Jerusalem elite for all to hear. And no sooner are these words out of Jesus’ mouth then he is able to point to a widow giving her last pennies into the temple treasury. Here is concrete evidence that instead of doing justice and mercy, the temple system bleeds the poor.

No wonder they want to kill him.

We have been taught to hear Jesus as if he were praising the woman for her dedication, but the context shows that his words are a lament. He wants his disciples to see that this is a murderous system. And the haunting realization for the hearers of Mark’s Gospel is that the murderous system is about to turn on Jesus. Jesus is about to give his last two farthings, his last full measure of devotion. The priests and scholars of the privileged elite in Jerusalem will devour Jesus to maintain the temple – but it is the temple that will be destroyed and Jesus who will be raised. God will cast down the mighty and raise up the poor. Mary will find the tomb empty and Jesus the crucified will meet them in Galilee. God’s kingdom, God’s reign, is dawning and earthly kingdoms are falling.

So Sunday we will hear of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. When drought afflicts the nation that has turned away from the God of justice and mercy to the gods of prosperity, from the LORD of the Exodus and Sinai to the Ba’al of the storm, God provides for the prophet and a poor widow and her child with a never-failing source of life.

Sunday’s psalm will bear witness to this God of justice and mercy, declaring that he “executes justice for the oppressed,” “gives food to the hungry,” and “sets the prisoners free.”

And the author of Hebrews will continues his argument for the uniqueness and superiority of Christ over every human priest, declaring that Christ has not gone into an earthly temple to make the annual atonement for the people with the blood of goats and bulls, but he has ascended into the heavens and stands before the throne of God to intercede on our behalf. The God of justice and mercy. The God who does not devour widows, but gives life.

The Prayer for November 8, 2015

Guardian of the weak, protector of the powerless, Lord of all:
send forth your Holy Spirit
that your people may not seek the places of honor,
but stand with Jesus alongside the broken and poor.
May we be among those whose lives are given wholly to your service;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The texts for November 8, 2015

First Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16
“The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’”
– As the drought grows ever more severe after God has declared no rain will fall on the kingdom of Israel when it has turned to worship the rain god Ba’al, God provides for Elijah through the faithfulness of a widow already at the edge of starvation.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God…who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.” – The psalmist sings of the character of God (in contrast to human princes).

Second Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28
“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” – Arguing for the superiority of Christ, our true high priest, over earthly priests, the author declares that Christ Jesus has not entered an earthly temple to intercede for us, but stands before the throne of God in the heavens.

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” – Jesus warns his followers about the way of the scribes who “devour widows’ houses” and then witnesses a widow placing her last two halfpence into the temple offering.

 

Photo: By Randy Benzie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Randy_Benzie) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Widowsmite.jpg) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Watching for the morning of June 16

Year C

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 6 / Lectionary 11

The texts for Sunday are potent ones.  The prophet Nathan confronts King David after he has murdered Uriah and taken his wife.  A woman intrudes into a public banquet and ends up washing Jesus’ feet with her tears.  The psalmist describes his intense experience of guilt and forgiveness.  And Paul declares: “no one will be justified by the works of the law,” and speaks those powerful words: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

There is much that is said in scripture about God’s passion for justice, God’s care of the poor, God’s judgment upon societies that fail to protect the weak.  Jesus’ most familiar teaching that we should love our neighbor is not new to Jesus but found back in Leviticus (what is radical in Jesus is how he defines our neighbor).  But all this ethical teaching rests on a bedrock layer of sin and forgiveness, human rebellion and divine faithfulness, our dishonoring of God and God’s choice to release us from that debt.

We misunderstand the faith if we think it only about sin and grace.  But we likewise misunderstand if we think it is not.

Prayer for June 16, 2013

Gracious God,
whose infinite mercy should prompt in us an infinite love,
help us to taste and see your goodness
and to share that banquet with all.

The Texts for June 16, 2013

First Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26–12:10, 13-15  (The prophet Nathan confronts King David about the murder of Uriah to hide David’s affair with Bathsheba)
Psalmody: Psalm 32  (A song about the corrosive presence of unconfessed sin – and the healing power of God’s mercy.)
Second Reading
: Galatians 1:11-24 (We are justified by faith not by obedience to the covenant law.)
Gospel
: Luke 7:36 – 8:3 (At a banquet at the home of Simon the Pharisees, Jesus speaks to him about the power of forgiveness after a woman washes’ Jesus feet with her tears.)

“Why?”

1 Kings 17

Grief

(Photo credit: tombellart)

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!”

“Why?”  It is the most relentless and agonizing of questions in the face of sudden and unexpected death.  I have heard a woman grieve bitterly at the death of her child, though he was 68.  “It is not right for a mother to bury her son,” she wept, “The son is supposed to bury the mother.”  And then that troubling and persistent cry, “Why?”

Facing that question, the heart trembles at the thought that God might be punishing me.  It may be only a fleeting thought, but it haunts the shadows.  I push it away from me, but I know it lies in wait.

And so the widow of Zarephath speaks bitterly to Elijah: the prophet’s presence has brought her to God’s attention and for her past sins God has struck down her son.  Or so she fears.

Elijah is not a pastor that needs to shepherd her soul away from guilt towards the message of God’s grace, goodness and love.  He can take the child and draw down the power of heaven, beseeching God to restore the child’s life.  The breath/spirit of God is powerful in Elijah and it breathes upon the unbreathing and he is restored.  But I, I am left with the grieving mother – and my own grieving heart.

Faith is not believing so much as trusting.  I cannot persuade my head that God is not against me – I can only trust his promise that he is for me.  To the grieving widow I can only speak that same promise one more time.  These are not empty words designed to silence the grieving, nor mere platitudes of a funeral; they are words of power calling us to live in the promise proclaimed to us in Christ Jesus:

31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:31-39)

It can be for us about the healing of the world.

Luke 7Casket

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.

I have seen people brought back from death’s door; I have never seen anyone brought back through it.

If the scriptures are to be for us the truth of God and not a pious fairy tale, we have to acknowledge this.  What is being described here, if taken at literal face value, is impossible.  We have brought people back whose heart has stopped.  We have brought people back who have been immersed in frigid waters.  But there is a big difference between restarting a stalled heart and restoring life to the dead.

If we hear this text as a story of divine power we may find grace in it, for there are few of us who have not needed that reassurance in time of some distress.  God is a God who can transform hopeless situations. But there are also few of us who have not wept and prayed for God to do just this over the body of a child, a parent, a spouse or friend – and none of them have been raised once that breath is gone.

In those anguished moments, what can such a text say?  That God has no compassion for me in my sorrow?  That my prayer is not worthy of such an answer?  It is a painful road to travel.  And it usually ends with a disjunction between the world of the Bible and my world.  Such things happened then, but no longer.  Once upon a time…

But there is another way to hear the text – not as a text about the power of God but as a text about the compassion of God.  And this is what our sisters and brothers in the first century heard.

For them, raising the dead was a wonder, but it was not impossible. They did not stumble over that portion of the story.  What they heard was the word of compassion.  What they saw was that the God of heaven and earth, who gives the breath of life to all things, had come near to save.  The day when the veil of tears would be lifted was dawning.  The people who walked in darkness were seeing the first light of dawn.

A world of injustice was being turned towards justice.  A world of hunger was being turned towards the sharing of bread.  A world of violence was being turned towards peace, a world of hate towards love.  A world where humanity’s impossible debt to the honor of God was being erased and new life dawning.  A world governed by death was being governed by an unconquerable life.

We can see that in the text, too.  It doesn’t have to be for us about the power of God to do the impossible.  It can be for us instead about the healing of the world.