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Monday, June 28, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: II Kings 5:1-14 and Psalm 30:1-12, Isaiah 66:10-14 and Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

The reading for II Kings involves an encounter between the representatives of two nations whose relations with one another are not particularly friendly. The people of Aram (part of Syria with Damascus as its capital) share some common ancestry with the people of Israel but are also a constant threat to them.

The story probably has some political significance. Certainly the young girl in the story began her life among the Arameans as a prisoner of war. She has become the servant of a high-ranking commander of Aram’s army. (II Kings 5:2) This commander, Naaman, suffers from leprosy. (vs. 1) Some might think the young captive girl would rejoice over the suffering of her captor. Instead she wishes that the prophet Elisha could come and cure him. (vs. 3) She represents an alternative way to approach those who might be considered our enemies. Work and pray for their well-being. Remember Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Luke 6:44) The young unnamed girl offers a lesson in extreme humility.

Then the chain of command kicks in. Naaman goes to his king who then sends a letter to the king of Israel (along with some generous gifts) which contains what is, in effect, a command that Elisha heal Naaman. The king of Israel is rightly worried, suggesting that “he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” Apparently the king of Israel is not sure he can deliver what is requested. How would you respond if someone with the power to cause you harm came and said, “I want you to cure so and so.”? The king of Israel rips his clothes. (II Kings 5:4-8)

Elisha, upon hearing of the request, rather than offering the dramatic miracle Naaman wanted, orders Naaman to wash in the muddy Jordan seven times. Naaman, in his pride, refuses, bragging about how much better the rivers of Damascus are. (vss. 9-12)

Naaman’s wise servants instead wonder at how simple the task is. “Wash, and be clean.” (vs.13) We have a difficult time believing in the simplicity of God’s gifts, the extravagance with which God’s grace is offered. We think we should, or can, do some major task in order to deserve it, when all that is required is a little humility. The reading ends with Naaman following Elisha’s instruction and receiving healing.

If we went on in the story, we would find that Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, is jealous of the easy treatment Naaman has received. He collects a fee for the healing and, in the end, is himself afflicted with the leprosy that was removed from Naaman. (II Kings 5:19-27) It is a theme in more than one biblical story. God’s grace is offered to the “enemy,” while the jealous Israelite whose vision is narrow and parochial is eaten up by his “hatred.” Confronting our enemy on the battlefield can be costly; probably far more destructive is the enemy of hatred-or hatred of enemy-within.

We are to let humility be a guideline for our relationships, with enemies and friends. Our reading from Galatians instructs us in bearing “one another’s burdens,’ not thinking we are “something, avoiding “pride,” etc. (Galatians 6:2-4) The context is those who view circumcision as a source of pride. (vss. 12-13) Paul says such things have nothing to do with our worth. Our worth is a gift flowing from the love shown by Jesus. (vss. 14-16)

None of this means that we are to be passive. Humility puts us to work in serving others. We are not too proud to get our hands dirty. We are not to be aloof thinking ourselves better than those we might serve, too good to reach out to them in kindness. Galatians 6:9-10 tells us to “not grow weary in doing what is right . . . let us work for the good of all.”

In the Gospel lesson, from Luke, chapter ten, Jesus sends forty disciples out to minister. They go humbly with “no purse, no bag, no sandals, relying on the hospitality of strangers as they go from town to town.(vss. 1-7) Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World notes that the Greek word for hospitality is literally “love for the stranger.” Not just inviting friends to a party, or hosting them for a weekend in our home, but welcoming the “stranger,” which is an extreme act of humility. These verses are a remarkable commentary on listening and being listened too. Every conversation is rooted in humble appreciation of the “other.” We enter into the conversation as representatives of Jesus. (vs. 16) It is only out of such encounter that “peace” emerges. (See vss. 5-6)

When the disciples return, they are more excited about their power to exorcize demons that they are about the relationships they entered into (vss. 17-19), but that’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say here that Jesus tells them they are rejoicing about the wrong thing. (vs. 20)

The reading from Isaiah calls the people to rejoice over the restoration of Jerusalem, a national healing of sorts. (Isaiah 66:10) The image of nursing at mother’s breast is powerful. (vss. 11-13) The image is less one of triumph than it is of the humble child be held and comforted in the mother’s arms and bounced on her knee. Healing calls forth joyous thanksgiving, but continues to remind one of one’s vulnerability. Appreciating life in its fulness, even in rejoicing, is best done with a humble attitude. It’s not that we deserved this, not that we are part of a specially chosen people (or nation); it is pure gift.

The Psalms call us to the same note of rejoicing in response to healing. (See Psalm 30:2) Joy is seen as clothing given by God. (vs. 11) The focus is not on what we have done, but upon what God has done. “How awesome are your deeds!” (Psalm 66:3) “He is awesome in his deeds among mortals.” (vs. 5) “Bless our God, O peoples, . . . who has kept us among the living . . .” (vss. 8-9)

God has done remarkable things and continues to do such things. Each time we are moved by God’s Spirit, in our quiet (or troubled) inward being, in our relationships, in our active outreach and hospitality beyond the boundaries of our “in” group, we are humbled, have occasion to rejoice,
and peace finds fertile ground for growth.

And what do we do with all this on a Sunday when our nation sometimes celebrates its birth in a mood of triumphant patriotism? On such a day, some of us need to hear again the story of Naaman and other strangers who are welcomed by men and women of God and find healing. God’s word is a word of welcome to the world, welcome in which we are called to participate. The job of welcoming is not yet finished!
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 19:15-16 & Psalm 16:1-11 OR II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 & Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20,Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

As the lectionary continues to take us through the Elijah stories, we come to the time when leadership passes from Elijah to Elisha. The biblical stories come from different groups within the Hebrew people, living in different places, using different names for God, etc. The stories have been woven together so that it is difficult to separate one from another.

Some have suggested that Elijah and Elisha may be two names for the same person, coming from two different groups, reconciled by making one the successor of the other. In any case, they present two people with similar ministries and somewhat different personalities and approaches. Elijah is the rough-and-ready, brash, character who goes at things head on—a contest in calling down fire from heaven, for example. Elisha has a more spiritual approach, his stories containing more miraculous elements. God can work through both kinds of personalities and approaches.

The selections for I Kings and II Kings seem to be two versions of the passing of leadership from Elijah to Elisha. In I Kings 19, it is fairly straight forward and down to earth. After Elijah’s encounter with God is the wilderness, he is sent back to anoint a couple of kings and to anoint Elisha as his successor. (I Kings 19:15-16) Elijah simply throws his mantle over Elisha’s back, the mantle being the symbol of spiritual presence and authority. (vs. 19) Elisha wants first to go back and tell his family good-by. (vs. 20) In contrast to what happens in this week’s Gospel lesson, he is allowed to do so, in fact, prepares a feast which his people all eat before he departs. (vs. 21) “Then,” verse 21 ends, “he set out and followed Elijah and became his servant.”

The version in II Kings has Elijah and Elisha walking to a place where Elijah is going to be taken up “to heaven by a whirlwind.” (II Kings 2:1) He keeps telling Elisha to stay behind and Elisha keeps saying, “No.” (vss. 2 & 6) Elisha wants a “double share” of the power Elijah has. (vs. 9) Then it happens: a chariot of fire and horses comes and Elijah ascends into heaven in a whirlwind. (vss. 11-12) Pretty dramatic, huh?

In this version of the story, it is only now that the mantle of Elijah falls to the ground. Elisha picks it up, using it to part the Jordan River. (vss. 13-14) That’s where the recommended reading ends, but it’s certainly incomplete without the next verse (15), where the prophets who were observing all this declare, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”

The stories might cause us to think about transitions in leadership. How is the blessing of a beloved leader of many years passed on to someone new? How does a new leader avoid measuring himself or herself against the former leader, thinking he or she has to be twice as good to gain acceptance and be effective? The effects of previous leaders live on, as they should, but there also needs to come a point at which the followers need to be able to say the spirit has moved on to our new leader.

It is the “spirit” that is the key to all this. These stories are stories about following, Elisha following Elijah and the people following a new leader. It is not, however, just about Elijah and Elisha. The call is to follow where the “spirit” leads. May we seek the directions in which the spirit is leading us—as a congregation, as individuals, as societies and nations.

The Gospel lesson is also about following. Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem. Twice we are told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51 & 53) I take it as a moment when Jesus clearly sees and accepts his destiny. He is setting off on a high-risk mission and he does so deliberately, turning to “face” it head on. But woven into the story is Samaritan ambivalence about this move, since Jerusalem is not the center to which they would have him turn. They will not receive him into their village. (vss. 52-53) James and John want to bring fire down on the village, but Jesus refuses to let that happen, simply moving on to the next village. (vss. 54-56)

Jesus’ example is a challenge to all of us to turn and take risks as we follow in his ways. Are we up to it? James and John say they are. Jesus reminds them that it may take them wandering into places that don’t seem too friendly or comfortable. (vss. 57-58) “Follow me,” he says, but they first want to go take care of some family matters. (See the response of three different individuals in vss. 59, 60, & 61.) Jesus’ response is not as much anti-family as it is warning them against clinging to the past. He senses that they are not ready to let go and move on. Following involves turning, responding to the mission which is ahead, not behind.

Paul, in Galatians, puts the choice in terms of two contrasting sets a values/attitudes, with the leadership of the Spirit being key. Following means living by and being led by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16 & 18, ending with vs. 25: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”) Paul contrasts “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” with the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (vss. 19-23) Tucked away in verse 15, is the pithy admonition, “If . . . you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” Choosing to follow the Spirit, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, is to build a community of mutual support rather than an adversarial dog-eat-dog atmosphere.

The two Psalms are, among other things, celebrations of and commitments to God’s guidance. They are another way of looking at the paths we are “following.” Psalm 77 ends with these words: “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” (vss. 19-20) Psalm 16 speaks of a God who “is my chosen portion and my cup,” who “holds my lot” (vs. 5), who instructs my heart at night (vs. 7), who is “always before me” (vs. 8), ending with the declaration in verse 11: “You show me the path of life.”

As Pastor Rick so vividly pointed out last Sunday, Elijah issues a challenge to the people to choose. “How long,” he cries out in I Kings 18:21, “will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” Questions of choosing and following are before us every day. We blunder and stumble along the way—and always will—but again and again God will pick us up and ask us to turn our faces toward realities we’d sometimes rather avoid. The saving grace is that the Spirit seems to be facing that way as well.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 19:1-15, Psalm 42:1-11 & 43:1-5, Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Scripture is full of people who cry out to God in frustration, loneliness, and despair, whether it is personal or social or political. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, some of us have sung. Elijah did it. The Psalmist did it. The prophets did it. Even Jesus wept when he saw Jerusalem ignoring the ways of peace.

In the back story for this week’s reading from I Kings, Elijah gathers the people and wants to know “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (vs. I Kings 18:21) He feels put upon: “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.” (vs. 22) Four hundred and fifty to one. It’s enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed. These were Israelites, Elijah’s and Yahweh’s own people, who were chasing after Baal, a god of materialism and hedonism. Which will it be? Even today those who follow the ways of peace and justice are easily drawn into the ways of power and greed. The story, full of drama and mystery, ends up with the death of Baal’s 450 prophets.

When we move on to this week’s reading from I Kings 19, Ahab and Jezebel, the royal couple presiding over this state of affairs (who have already identified Elijah as their enemy), hear what has happened. (vs. 1) Jezebel lets Elijah know that she is going to get him, so he runs for his life. (vss. 2-3) Elijah finally sits alone under a broom tree wishing he were dead. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (vs. 4) He moves on to a cave (vss. 5-9), still complaining. “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (vs. 10) Earthquake, wind, and fire shake the mountains as Elijah stands in the entrance of the cave looking on, hoping to hear the voice of God. (vss. 11-12) It is only when “a sound of sheer silence” returns that the conversation resumes. Many sermons have been preached on the importance of meeting God in the silence. It’s a message we need to hear and take seriously when life is getting us down and we feel overwhelmed. Maybe we need to take a time out.

Elijah just starts complaining again. “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (vs. 14) God doesn’t seem to be very sympathetic. He simply tells Elijah to get up and go back to work. (vs. 15) Sometimes that’s what it takes. Stop feeling sorry for ourselves and notice that there is still work for us to do, a place where our lives make a difference. A couple of verses later, God tells Elijah that, if he bothers to notice, he will find 7000 who have not bowed to Baal. (vs. 18) Elijah is not quite as alone as he thought. We usually aren’t. In this age of Internet communication, it’s amazing how many people find common connection.

The point I want to underline, though, is that it’s okay to cry out in our frustration. The Psalmist did it. “My soul thirsts for God . . . When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night . . .” (Psalm 42:2-3) I remember when times were better but now “my soul is cast down within me . . . Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk mournfully . . .?” (vss. 4-9)

The prophets were often overcome when they saw the unfaithfulness and abuse that seemed rampant around them. Isaiah expresses the Lord’s (and his own?) frustration with “a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good . . . a people who provoke me to my face continually.” (Isaiah 65:2-3) Like Elijah, he wants to lash out and destroy, but the message is finally one of mercy. If only we could realize that mercy in our own being, perhaps we would be raised from our funk and look toward a future full of promise.

The alternative reading from the Psalms—chapter 22, verses 19-29—moves to something more upbeat and promising. While beginning with a cry for help and deliverance (vss. 19-21), the Psalm ends with a vision of hope for the afflicted and poor (vss. 24 -28). At their best, it is such a vision that kept the Psalmist, and the prophets, and God’s people in every age, going. May it sustain and draw us forward when life gets us down and we feel all alone. There are thousands, even millions, who are drawn by such a vision. Let’s all reach out and touch one another and we will no longer be alone.

Footnotes on the other readings: Galatians 3:23-29 offers more on Paul’s understanding of law and faith/grace. We’ll not get into the doctrinal complexity. It is sufficient to see another message of mercy. Life comes to us as a gift, a gift in which there is the power of change, power which can lift us out of the doldrums and move us along, as if we were now “clothed . . . with Christ.” (vss. 26-27) Galatians also offers us another vision/promise that is part of that prophetic stream helping us to see possibilities beyond hiding in a cave, beyond abuse of power, greed, and injustice. It is a vision of a world in which all barriers are broken down, the walls and perceptions and judgments that divide, so that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (vs. 28)

Finally, the Gospel lesson from Luke, chapter eight, is the story of a man possessed by demons. Jesus casts them out, and they enter a herd of pigs who rush into a lake and are drowned. (vss. 27-33) As in other stories, there is an impact on the local economy (pigs). People are upset and want Jesus to leave. (vs. 37) Does this story parallel, in a way, the story about Baal? Pigs were considered unclean. Is this a story about “cleaning up the mess?” The man who has regained his sanity wants to stay with Jesus, to remain close to this one with the power to restore him. Similar to what happened in the story of Elijah, though, Jesus simply sends him on his way with a task to do.

Tying this story in with this week’s larger theme, perhaps we can see a parallel between the demons and the inner agony of those in the earlier readings. Elijah was, in a sense, wrestling with his own inner demons. Don’t we all? What are the demons eating away at our inner being—or at our culture, for that matter? Whatever they are, today’s lessons call us to get up and get dressed and move one. The vision—a great and inspiring vision—is still out there (and within?) calling us onward. There’s still work to be done and there’s still hope.
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 21:1-21 and Psalm 5:1-8 OR II Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15 and Psalm 32:1-11, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

The lectionary for this week offers us two somewhat similar Old Testament lessons, one from I Kings and one from II Samuel. Prior to this time, the people had gotten along with a fairly egalitarian social system and governance, taking their disputes to a series of judges who decided their cases. By Samuel’s time, the people wanted a king. Samuel didn’t think it was a good idea, nor did God with whom he talked it over. Kings will tax you to death, send your sons into war, be corrupt, etc. (See I Samuel 8:4-17) Then–these telling words in verse 18: “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves . . .” The people still insist saying, “We are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (vss. 19-20) Notice those words—“so that we may be like other nations.” Where has that race gotten us over the years? It is my belief that the books of Samuel and Kings were written as sort of an “I told you so. You wanted a king. I told you what would happen. Sure enough it has. Where did it get you all?”

It give you this background because this week’s two Old Testament stories involve royal abuse of power—in the extreme, even to the point of murder. In II Samuel 11, the king is David, who desires Uriah’s wife. In order to get her, he makes sure that her husband is killed on the battlefield, with the help of his trusted commander, Joab. In I Kings 21, the king is Ahab, who wants to obtain one of Naboth’s vineyards. The story has its touching side. He wants to turn the vineyard into a “vegetable garden, because it is near my house.” I like my vegetable garden to be as near my kitchen as possible, so I can run out and get whatever I want to serve at dinner. In fairness to Ahab, he offers what seems to be a fair trade, or a reasonable price. (vs. 2) He isn’t intending to just commandeer the vineyard.

The property, though, has been in Naboth’s family for generations, so he refuses the offer. (vs. 3) Ahab is not happy and Jezebel, his wife, takes notice. (vss. 4-6) Jezebel says she will take care of things, which she does by having Naboth killed. (vss. 7-14) Ahab then gains possession of the vineyard.

In both stories, however, there is a prophet of God who speaks truth to power. God always sees to it that there are people who aren’t intimidated by those who abuse power, who speak up and confront the emperor who has no clothes. In David’s case, it is Nathan, who tells the king a parable about a rich man how takes away the only lamb of a poor man to offer it as a feast to one of his guests. (II Samuel 12:1-5) David is furious with the rich man in the parable, at which point Nathan says, “You are the man!” (vs. 7) In Ahab’s case, Elijah is the prophet who speaks out, telling Ahab that just as the dogs “licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (I Kings 21:19) Psalm 5 underlines the message of these prophets when it speaks of the boastful not standing, the destruction of those who speak lies, and how “the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.” (vss. 5-6)

As important as it is to stand up to those who abuse power, these stories, along with the other readings for this Sunday, also have to do with personal sin and confession and forgiveness, subjects we don’t always handle too well. We are sometimes slow to take responsibility for the consequences of what we have done.

Ahab does not acknowledge his sin. David does, saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan declares that “ . . . the Lord has put away your sin.” (II Samuel 12:13)

Churches have sometimes emphasized sin almost to the point that forgiveness and grace become afterthoughts. One must grovel before one is worthy of grace. Many of us would prefer to emphasize that grace comes first. In some traditions which include a formal prayer of confession as part of the liturgy, words of forgiveness are spoken following that prayer. Pastor Rick suggests that maybe they should be spoken before confession, that they provide the context for confession.

Whatever the sequence, the remaining scriptures speak of the joy of grace and forgiveness. Psalm 32 begins, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity . . .” (vss. 1-2) It ends with the assurance that “steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.” (vs. 10) In Galatians, Paul acknowledges that he (and all of us) is a sinner, but that the overarching reality is God’s grace, which is not something we can earn through right living. (Galatians 2:17-18, 20-21)

In the Gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus is taken to task because he allows himself to be touched by a woman who “is a sinner.” (Luke 7:36-39) We could try to figure out who the woman was and what her sin was. Jesus simply speaks of the love and hospitality she has shown him, according to the customs of the times, something they have not done. (vss. 44-46) He also tells a parable about a creditor. Two men owed him money, one ten times as much as the other. The creditor forgives the debts of both. “Which one is going to be more grateful?” Jesus wants to know. (vss. 41-41) He forgives the woman's sins, and tells her to go in peace, leaving the others wondering how he dares to do such a thing. (vss. 47-50)

All God’s people are sinners surrounded by steadfast love. The sins may be greater or less, according to human standards. Today’s readings show us sins by the most powerful and the most lowly and remind us that God has a place, and grace, for every one of us.

As a footnote, notice how today’s Gospel lesson ends. Jesus and his disciples go “through the cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” Who were these disciples? The twelve, it says, “as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Without this strange band of “sinners,” male and female, we might never have known. Because of them, and Moses and David before them, the story lives on today. May it live in each one of us.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 17:8-24, Psalm 146:1-10 or Psalm 30:1-12, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

First—an unpaid commercial announcement. The materials I prepared for our recent 24-hour prayer vigil have been posted on this website. On the home page is a button labeled “Prayer Vigil 2010.” Click and find some thoughts on the practice of prayer as well as links to various handouts that were made available to participants. Their relevance and use is not limited to that one 24-hour period.

Now some highlights form the Psalms for this week.

Psalm 145:3—“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” Power often becomes corrupted. Consider the present oil spill crisis, the failure of the Catholic Church and the scouts (and other organizations) to address abuses over the years, the stalemate in Congress, the intransigence of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, etc. Scripture calls us repeatedly to be vigilant, speaking the truth to power.

Psalm 145:7-9 speak of the results in terms of justice for the afflicted and oppressed. It is a vision that guides the truth we speak to power—“justice for the oppressed,” food for the hungry, freedom for prisoners, care for strangers, orphans and widows.

Psalm 30 is a Psalm of healing and restoration which reminds us that “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (vs. 5) Many of us have been through enough ups and downs in life to know that the “pit” is not the final resting place. When I was a kid, my mother and I went on a five-day bicycle trip in northwest Washington state with old single speed balloon-tire bicycles. At one point after miles of pushing the bikes up hill to coast down the other side, I said to my mother, “For every down, there’s another up.” At that time, I was thinking of the “up” as something I didn’t want to face. The “downs” were easy and therefore good. Whatever we call the “good” part, let’s watch for its coming every moment along the way. The Psalmist speaks of his personal resurrection to good health in terms of mourning being turned into dancing.” Can we be among the people who restore a spirit of dancing to life?

In I Kings 17, the Lord sends Elijah the prophet, hungry and thirsty, to a widow in Zaraphath to ask for food and drink. (I Kings 17:8-11) She says she only has a handful of meal and a little oil, just enough to make bread for herself and her son, “that we may eat it, and die.” (vs. 12) There is a cloud of death over the house, but Elijah tells the widow that “the jar of meal and the jug of oil will last for many days, which they do. (vss. 13-16)

We often have “enough,” even when we think we are up against the wall. I’ve experienced that several times in life. The story should not, however, be applied lightly to those who have literally come to the last crumb of sustenance. Elijah was recognized as a “man of God.” Perhaps this story is also a reminder of how “men” and women of God are called to help those in need stretch and supplement what they have, personally and through efforts to reform social policy.

As the story continues, we find that the widow’s son becomes ill until there is “no breath left in him.” (vs. 17) Elijah calls upon God to restore the boy’s life (vs. 21). When the widow sees that her son is alive, she says, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (vs. 24)

The New Testament lesson, in a story that only Luke tells, is another story of a mother’s only son being resurrected–this time apparently an adult son, “a man.” (Luke 7:12) Luke tells us that this is another instance of Jesus’ “compassion.” (vs. 13) As in the Elijah story, the resurrection of this young man is followed by a recognition of Jesus as “a great prophet” of God, and words spreads about him “throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.”

In Galatians, Paul speaks of the change that God has brought in his life, dramatic enough that it might be called a “resurrection.” At the time of this writing he is still “unknown by sight to the churches of Judea.” He is known simply as “the one who formerly was persecuting us” who “is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” (vss. 22-23) It is a change that is so dramatic that it is hard to believe, so dramatic that it could have only come from God, whom they glorify “because of me.” (vs. 24)

So, what are we to take from these resurrection stories? To take the stories literally strains our credulity. I’ve never seen a person actually come back from death, at least in the way these stories are told. I’ve seen people go through a few “near-death” experiences and come back from brief moments when the monitor showed death or after long comas. I was called to the hospital many times over a two-year period for one of my parishioners who was about to die. He went home from the hospital and was alert and living when I moved on to another parish. So—I know something about living against all odds. In the end, however, they all died.

We can treat the stories as metaphors for the new life that seems to miraculously overcome the dark side of human existence. The change in Paul’s life is an example. Many of us have experienced “resurrections” in our lives. We have known moments when things that were weighing us down eased and a new chapter of life began for us.

Scripture is about the possibility of life in the face of death, about something at work in life that keeps us going, that fills us with hope, something that has a whiff of miracle in it. Jesus is seen as a life-giver overcoming the death-dealers, calling us not just to experience life in its fullness but to be forces of life in the face of death. The central message of resurrection in any form is that death is not the final word. It cannot destroy what is of value in God’s creation and in human existence. Many fear death and destruction, the loss of all that seems to give them worth or meaning. Will it all be simply blotted out as we sink into the darkness of a brain shutting down? The answer of scripture is an emphatic “No!” We cannot describe it, much less explain it. It is miracle and mystery. I’m glad we have such stories of miracle and mystery that live not just on the written page but in the living breathing Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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