Sunday, June 06, 2010

From Death Into Life

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
June 6, 2010

Year C, Proper 5: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:8-24
Psalm 146
(Galatians 1:11-24)
Luke 7:11-17

From Death into Life

What is God really like?

Last Sunday, Lauren and I and preachers all across the Church were faced with the daunting challenge of preaching a sermon on a doctrine of the church – preaching on the Trinity – the term we use for our very limited understanding of God’s interior life. God reveals God’s self to be three Persons in one God - a perfect relationship of love. We preachers prove every year that it’s impossible to explain how God can be both one and three. Ultimately, in this life anyway, the Trinity will always remain a profound and inexhaustible mystery. In that deepest sense, for now anyway, we cannot know what God is really like.

But, because God wants to be in relationship with us, because over and over God reaches out to us, we can give at least a partial answer.
What is God really like? Well, to answer that we can look to the Bible – the book that’s a collection of many books, inspired by God, created and collected over many centuries – the book that tells a long story of God at work in the world, God revealing God’s self to human beings.

What is God really like? Well, as Christians, of course, to answer that first and foremost we look to Jesus – the person in whom God reveals God’s self in a unique way to the world. In Jesus, God says this is what I’m really like.

What is God really like? Well, as Christians to answer that we also look to two-thousand years of Christian history – the story of how despite often horrifying human sinfulness, God has been – and continues to be - at work through people who have given away their lives sharing the Good News of Jesus, standing up to injustice, and selflessly serving the weakest and the poorest among us.

What is God really like? Today’s lessons – the very similar stories of Elijah and Jesus both raising a widow’s son from the dead – give us an important answer. We don’t know everything about God, but we do know that over and over God offers to lead us from death into life.

I’m reminded of a hymn that’s not in our Episcopal hymnal, but was and maybe still is popular in the Roman Catholic Church. The refrain is:

“Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”

That’s what God is like. In this life we can’t know God completely, but the truth is God has revealed all that we need to know. What is God really like? Over and over God offers to lead us – to shepherd us - from death into life.

Today we heard a story about the prophet Elijah, who lived in the first half of the 9th Century B.C. What we know about him comes from the book of Kings, written several centuries later. Like all prophets, Elijah’s main task was convincing the Israelites to put their trust, their faith, in God.

In each of the stories about Elijah we see Elijah being open to God’s call and then God’s power is made manifest in him.

In the story we heard today, God sends Elijah to a widow living in Zarephath, a port city in Phoenicia – what would be today Lebanon. From the start, the gloom of death hangs over the scene. Elijah encounters the woman gathering sticks and asks her for water. Without a word, she begins to accommodate his request, but then he asks her for a morsel of bread. And then it’s as if all of her sorrows and despair come pouring out of her. She says to Elijah,

“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 my son, that we may eat it and die.”

Yet, although she seems consumed by despair and impending death, she is also open to God’s power. Notice that she acknowledges God’s existence, saying, “As the Lord your God lives…” And then, rather than telling this stranger to get lost, she does what he says, making “a little cake” for Elijah.
The author of the Book of Kings tells us, “She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah.”

Because this poor woman is open just a little, she experiences God’s presence, power and abundance. She experiences what God is really like.

God shepherded her, beyond her wants, beyond her fears, from death into life.

But, then there’s a twist to the story. The gloom of death still hasn’t lifted.

The woman’s son dies suddenly and, interestingly, she seems to blame both herself and Elijah for this calamity. She says, “What have you against me, O man of god? You have come to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

“You have come to bring my sin to remembrance.” It seems this woman may be carrying around heavy guilt – some recognition of her own sinfulness. And living with our sin and feeling unforgiven is a kind of death, too, isn’t it?

But, regardless of our sins, God always offers to shepherd us, to lead us from death to life.

It may be hard for us to understand or even accept God’s offer of life. Look, even Elijah seems to misunderstand what God is really like. Elijah cries out, “O Lord, my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?”

Well, no, of course, not. By reviving the son, in a literal and dramatic way God reveals what God is really like, that God always offers to lead us from death into life.

God shepherded the woman, her son, and even Elijah, God shepherded them all beyond their wants, beyond their fears, from death into life.

It’s a powerful story that reveals a lot about what God is really like. And the evangelist Luke obviously draws upon the story of Elijah resuscitating the boy in his account of Jesus raising the widow’s only son.

Luke of course is eager to make the point that God’s power flows through Jesus just as it flowed through Elijah. After the miracle, Luke quotes the people as saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!”

But, Luke knew, and the first readers of the Gospel knew, and we know, that, yes, Jesus is a prophet but Jesus is much more than a prophet. In Jesus we see what God is really like. Jesus is the ultimate example of God reaching out to us, making God’s self known to us. And Christ’s Resurrection is the ultimate sign and promise that, even when all hope seems to be lost, God always offers to lead us, to shepherd us, from death into life.

For two thousand years, countless Christian women and men have allowed God to work through them – sharing God’s offer to lead us from death into life. And that work continues all around us even now.

On the Men’s Mission event a couple of weeks ago I had the chance to spend time with Christians who are doing God’s work of shepherding people from death into life.

On the first day I went to the Seamen’s Church Institute at Port Newark and spent the day trailing one of the port chaplains, my good friend Megan Sanders, as she went about her work.

The port is a fascinating, dangerous and largely hidden world of enormous equipment, diesel exhaust and tight security. Many of the seafarers sign contracts that take them away from home for many months. For a variety of reasons, many are not allowed off their ships when they finally reach port after many weeks at sea. It’s not much of a life. In fact, it’s a kind of death.

But, we followed Megan around as she spread God’s love to these nearly invisible people – doing seemingly small things - offering much-wanted phone cards, offering rides to the Jersey Gardens mall, asking about their lives, promising prayers.

One of the crewmembers said that lots of people come on the ships but the chaplains are the only ones who care about them.

In small but profound ways, that day at the port we saw what God is really like - shepherding those seafarers – and us – beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.

On the second day of our mission event, I went out to Hope, NJ, to a place called Haven of Hope for Kids. I knew Grace Church gives them outreach money but didn’t know much about this organization that was co-founded by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, a small congregation in Hope. Currently Haven of Hope offers one cottage as “a retreat for families caring for a child with a life-threatening illness.” Some of you know first-hand the horror of that experience – how the illness of a child can be a kind of death.

At Haven of Hope, families can spend most or all of their time in and around the pleasant cottage, which is just behind the church. Or they can take advantage of some of the other attractions in that beautiful part of our state or over in Pennsylvania.

Now, Haven of Hope is expanding its ministry into a second cottage – and our group of Grace Church men transformed this second cottage from a drab gray into a bright, welcoming, hopeful yellow. Our two-day painting effort will make a small contribution to Haven of Hope’s mission of giving these families “a renewed sense of mutual support, courage, confidence, joy and optimism.”

In small but profound ways at Haven of Hope we saw what God is really like – shepherding frightened families – and us – beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.

So, what is God really like? Because God wants to be in relationship with us, because over and over God reaches out to us, we can give at least a partial answer.

We look to the Bible, we look to Jesus, and we look to God working through people in history and all around us, right here today. And when we look we discover that over and over, even when all seems to be lost, God always offers to shepherd us, to lead us, beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.