SERMON 5 JUNE 2016
It has been a tough week. There have been a number of tragedies and traumas relating to children: the four year old trapped in his grandfather’s ute and drowned; the 12 year old girl trampled to death by her pony; the mother and two children murdered in their home; the 4 year old boy who fell into the gorilla’s enclosure and the shooting of the animal; the baby drowned after a refugee-laden boat capsized, so not just the baby’s loss but so many others also. Each one of these creates a ripple of grief and loss that spreads out as it affects close family, friends and the community around. And those of us who watch and listen to the news about these things are also saddened, though we are able to move on, and have to, because we can’t carry an ever-accumulating bundle of trauma.
In today’s readings we have two stories of struggle, suffering and grief. Of course the story from Luke’s gospel carries echoes of the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. This is by no means the only occasion when links are made between Jesus and Elijah or Moses. It is part of the message Luke tells of the Hebrew Scriptures finding their fulfilment in Christ, whether by showing how prophecies come true in him or by his actions.
Both these stories we have heard have a significant place within their own context. What we hear about Elijah is an interlude in Kings which mostly tells of the ups and downs of the kings of Israel and Judah. We get a glimpse, today, of the suffering of the time: famine and the ever present struggle to stay alive. Elijah himself had been kept alive by ravens who brought him food. Water he found in a brook. But then that dried up and he hears God telling him to go to Zarephath. We can imagine this widow who must have lost her husband when she was quite young, left to fend for herself, bent over, using what little strength she had left to gather sticks so that she could go home, light a little fire and bake a small loaf of bread from her very last bit of flour. Imagine doing that, sharing it with your only child, knowing that there was no more food you could give him. This was the end. And then come this strange man asking her to share this precious last meagre meal. How could she believe his promise that her the flour and the oil wouldn’t run out? We might say she had nothing left to lose. But her extreme circumstances didn’t make her mean or defensive. She continues to live with hospitality even when there was really nothing left to share. She does as Elijah asks, and, as he promised, the food didn’t run out. Elijah stayed at her house and they survive. But after all that, the boy becomes sick and dies. What strange play is this? How would we feel, to have survived one trauma only to be hit with tragedy like that? No wonder the woman is thrown back to wondering what she has done to deserve this. She knew Elijah must be a man of God since clearly God had intervened to help feed them. God must surely have it in for her after all. She must have done something wrong. Perhaps she already felt that, having lost her husband. We know what happens. Elijah gathers the boy in his arms and carries him upstairs. He too, cries out to God. “Have you indeed done this God?” “Lord, let him live!” The boy breathes again and is restored to his mother, whose faith in God is also renewed.
We turn to Luke’s gospel. Jesus sees a funeral procession as he comes near to the village of Nain, about 14 kilometres from Nazareth. A young man, his widowed mother’s only means of support, has died. This is another story full of emotion and Jesus himself is deeply moved. His heart went out to the mother and he says “Don’t cry”. Jesus’ intervention in simply told: he goes up to the bier, the stretcher-like thing the body was lying on, and the people carrying it stop. This was a very unexpected and unusual thing for someone to do. A body and the bier was unclean and should not be touched according to the Law. But Jesus does touch it. He speaks to the young man’s body, telling him to get up. The young man sits up and begins to talk. He is restored to his mother and everyone is amazed.
What is not part of the reading, but is significant, is that this event is followed by John the Baptist’s disciples coming to Jesus and asking him to tell them if he really is the Messiah. “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?” Jesus was not what they were expecting. He was not what they imagined would be the source of hope for Israel and her people. Jesus, as ever, doesn’t directly answer the question but tells them to look around. The story of the raising of the widow’s son concludes the first part of Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry that began in the synagogue in Nazareth when he read from the scroll of Isaiah, telling the people that the words are fulfilled in him. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Now he tells John’s disciples to “Go back and report what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Their hopes are indeed met in Jesus. He is indeed this unexpected, surprising Messiah.
These stories can be seen as clinching the argument. But they have to do more than that for us, because these accounts inevitably raise questions, just as the tragedies we thought about at the beginning raise questions. There must have been many starving people in Israel in Elijah’s time. There were always grieving widows and sons dying too young. The human saga is littered with such things on every page. So what difference do these two incidents make?
First of all they are about compassion. They both tell of emotion and involvement in personal, individual relationships and, in so doing, they bring some hope. They act as some symbol that, even there is so much darkness, all is not lost. God is still there, and God still cares. Maybe we cling to an idea that all we have to do is pray and all will be well. But the human story tells us that that is not so. It can never be a measure of faith or lack of belief that so many prayers appear to go unanswered. It is a question that lurks at the depths of our human psyche: “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do terrible things happen to innocent people? How can God, if I can believe in God, how can a good God allow these things to happen?”
Can we really imagine a world where, whenever something went wrong, all we had to do was pray, to tap into God’s goodness, and then everything is automatically made right? We would then have God at our beck and call, a mere gift box just waiting to dispense goodies whenever they are required. How trivial that would make both God and our faith! Somehow we have to live with the mystery that is both human suffering and God’s grace.
So how might these stories today speak to us? Let us remember how Elijah cried out and how Jesus was moved with compassion. Let us remember how Jesus told John’s disciples to look around and see and hear the things that pointed to God’s Kingdom. Let us look at what we see in the human response to tragedy. Who are the people whose actions seem to point us to the Kingdom, whether they would name it as such or not? I have friends whose surname is Kelly. One of their children, Thomas, has just been awarded a young citizen of the year award by his local council. His parents are very proud. Thomas got a letter from the parents of the young man, Thomas Kelly, who was killed in a one-punch attack some two years ago. Since then, his parents have campaigned to get the law changed about one punch attacks, and they have been successful. They wanted to meet this other young Thomas Kelly because, in some way, he exemplified for them a connection to what is good that they had lost but still believe in. Through their actions they have kept alive the memory of their son and turned it from a wasteful, senseless death, into something that has meaning. Think of Rosie Battie and how she has turned her tragedy into a campaign against domestic violence. Think of Daniel Morecombe’s parents. There are very many more we might turn to, people who believe that their suffering is not the way things are meant to be and that they don’t want others to face what they have had to, often alone, and so they act in hope and commitment to caring.
Somewhere, underlying all this, is a deep and strong thread of compassion and selflessness that is always there beneath the surface. It connects with the heartbeat of God’s grace and compassion. Without this heat-beat that resonates with the pulse of our own life, we become isolated and lonely, adrift in the suffering.
Jesus carried forward the story of Elijah and made known to people that this compassion was God’s purpose and intention. He lived it and he died in that same compassionate purpose. In an important way, the cross stands between what Jesus demonstrated in his life and God’s ongoing purpose beyond his death because of resurrection. We live on the other side of that cross, to pick up the thread of compassion and carry it forward in our lives and in our connectedness. The cross is a symbol that speaks of mercy, like a tree on a hill that we look towards when tragedy, suffering, pain and injustice would overwhelm us. It is there, always. Just as the things of our everyday life are there, things that ground us and help us to feel secure. And so we have today the bread and wine, that symbolise for us the very basic things of our human connectedness, the stuff of life, taken by Jesus, made holy, broken apart, poured out and offered, so that we might all be fed and nurtured in his compassion as we share in it.
The tragedy of human life is not the suffering but how the struggles we have can drain us of hope and darken our vision, unless and until we find a hand reaching out in compassion. Then we can believe, understand and hear the heart-beat of love that resounds within the ground of our being, the very presence of a merciful God.