From last Sunday. As with most sermons, I wrote sparingly and then in the preaching the sermon expands, but I think this captures my primary thoughts.
Proper 5, Year C, RCL
1 Kings 17:17-24
The Widows’ Sons – Why Not Mine?
When I came back to services one of the things I promised myself was that I would not bring our personal loss into every sermon. Our recent readings, particularly today’s make it extremely difficult to keep that promise. In both readings we find the son of a widow being resuscitated, brought back to life. God intervened to bring life where they believed was only death.
You will notice I did not say “resurrected.” It is a technical difference, but an important one. Both of these men came back from being dead, but unlike the risen Christ who ascended into heaven and did not die again, these men, like Lazarus, lived again but only for a time.
The widow of Zarephath accurately states the cries of so many of us when we feel like we have given everything to God, suffered all we can bear, and then something worse happens.
“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!”
Just when it feels like we have it understood, when we are being faithful to God and things are beginning to work out (remember, the widow was near death when the prophet showed up and said, “feed me” and when she did so, in faith, they had enough to survive), things come crashing down.
Truth: This fall was incredibly difficult for me. I was wrestling with major issues in three areas of my life, but by the middle of December things had resolved themselves. I said to Elizabeth on Christmas Eve, as we sat wrapping presents for the kids who were asleep upstairs. “I feel so relieved that everything has begun to sort itself out. All is well and that makes me nervous about what the New Year will bring.” One week later Mack was dead.
I understand the Widow’s cry. We all do; how much more can you ask of us God?
But when I read these passages and ask, “why were these two sons saved” the answer is actually fairly obvious and is stated in each passage. They were saved in order to demonstrate that the one healing was truly from God. The widow of Zarephath announces, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” After Jesus resuscitated the boy, the people of Nain “glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’”
So we have two questions we can ask of such circumstances in our lives and of such passages in the Bible. In the first case, we reasonably ask, “how could this happen?” We want to know what possible reason there could be for a widow, or anyone, to lose their child. And when we read such passages as these, where God intervenes and brings someone back from death, we ask, “why were they saved and not others?”
The latter question is, I think, the one worth posing because the former is sadly obvious.
Our children die because that is the natural and normal order of this world. Illness and accidents, evil people and thoughtlessness are all sadly part of this life, it is, by definition, ordinary. What is extraordinary is when miracles occur, when God intervenes.
Why sometimes and not others? It is not easy to say, but in our readings tonight we know that it is so that the messengers of God would be known and respected. The miracle confirms their message and mission.
I’m a preacher, I have sought to be a messenger of God, so why not Mack? Why not save him so that I could declare of God’s grace and salvation?
I don’t know. Neither does church historian Jerry Sittser who lost his mother, wife, and child in a car accident. Nor does theologian Nicholas Wolterstorf who lost his son in a mountain climbing accident. Nor do the multitude of faithful who have lost their loved ones, there was no miracle, no resuscitation, no second chance. I cannot say why not our children.
Perhaps it is so that we might speak for God not into the extraordinary, but into the ordinary, to address the real life experience of the vast majority of us, an experience that all too often includes death.
Yesterday at the diocesan convention someone thanked me for writing about Mack’s death and my own struggles and questions. He said that he especially appreciated my saying that his death, like all deaths, is the results of our living in a broken world. He said, “I had not really thought about the world in this way.” Perhaps it is because I have spent so much of my adult life studying the Old Testament, but to me, this is the only conclusion we can come to after reading Genesis three. This world was created to be perfect, but the exercise of our free will has broken it. The ordinary, real life that we live is enduring those scars and fractures.
Over 15 years ago I was on an email listserv of Christians from Cornell. There was one person who argued that Christians should only ever die of old age (or martyrdom or accident); never from illness. Our faith should heal us, he argued. My son, according to his argument, died because the prayers of my wife and I were ineffectual. But I would point out that we know Jesus didn’t heal every person who was ill, he didn’t resuscitate from the dead the many who called him Christ, even those who died before his own crucifixion.
Why? Because although there were extraordinary moments when God’s glory had to be exhibited there was also the normal business of life and death that would continue after his work on earth had been done. We continue to live in this real, physical, broken world. And it is in this world that we find grace.
Grace is not only God’s forgiveness of our sins, even when we do not merit forgiveness, but it is also the comfort and love sent from God to endure through the unendurable. How are we to endure it? In the knowledge that in God’s grace we have been forgiven and so this death is not the final death. In the knowledge that Mack is healthy and well and that we mourn, not for him, but for our dreams of the future we had hoped for with him, in this world. We rejoice, however, in the grace and knowledge that we have an eternity to be with him, with one another, and with God, through the resurrection of the one whose death brings us eternal life.
We don’t look for the resuscitation of the dead; we await the resurrection. ✠