Instead of Death: A Sermon for Ordinary 10

Texts: 1 Kings 17.17-24 (Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath); Psalm 146; Luke 7.11-17 (Jesus and the Widow of Nain); Galatians 1.11-24. Sermon title adopted from William Stringfellow’s book of the same name.

The situation was miserable and the outlook bleak. The Land was cracked, dry, and parched, not altogether unlike the way it looks around here in the middle of August; and no rain was in the immediate forecast. Crops had long since failed; oil jars and lamps had long since been emptied. The entire Land and the chosen people Israel were parched and dying of hunger and thirst.

Some miles away, at the capital of an apparently strong kingdom, a ruler was working overtime to keep his subjects happy and alive with a smorgasboard of political and religious policies designed to keep things the way they had been, and have been for a long time, policies that had been in place to safeguard the health and security of his people since the days of Solomon. Israel, after all, lay on the great road from the riches of Egypt and the power of Assyria, the one the economic and food capital of the world and the other the undisputed military leader and enforcer of the region. It was certainly in the state’s best interests to keep the financiers and the military police happy, and if it meant sacrificing a little piety here and there, or giving up the poorest people of the country to the state or even to death, well, such were the costs of living in an international economy. If it means that the widows and the orphans and those without a way to contribute to our security and way of life lose out, so they must have reasoned, so much the better; they’re off the books. Or, as Dickens might have put it, “If they’re going to die, then they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population!” Better to keep all but the wealthiest people under the thumb of the state than to allow those who hate us to come in and destroy our way of life. And, these rulers reasoned, since we know, of course, that God is on our side, we absolutely must keep worshiping him in the way we always have for him to take care of us. The Word of the Lord is the same as it’s always been since he gave it to us.

The scene I’ve described sets the political, economic, religious, and indeed cultural background for our two primary passages today. The story from 1 Kings about Elijah is set against the background of Israel’s living in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire during the notorious drought and famine under the reign of a strong but paranoid king named Ahab. In the Gospel, Jesus is living and moving under the deeper shadow of the Roman Empire. Our studies of the history and of the archaeology of first century Palestine are making increasingly clear the amount of sheer poverty that existed as a result of Roman policies of taxation and industrialization of local industries in Judea and the surrounding provinces. We are also aware of corresponding and increasing religious conservatism in the context of both the Kings and Luke passages; the one entrenched the long-standing practices of Israel in order to safeguard the security of the nation against its enemies, while the other adopted the same policies in the Jerusalem Temple establishment in order to protect the people Israel from annihilation from an oppressive empire that was already installed and controlled the Land and its People. “They haven’t killed us yet,” the Jewish leaders thought, “so better to maintain the church’s status quo, lest the Romans destroy us and our holy place.” And so, under Ahab’s reign and under the rule of the Romans 800 years later, we find, in the words of the Psalmist, more

trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help (Psalm 146.4)

than

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 (Psalm 146.5, 7).

The texts tell us that the power of the princes of the world is one of death, no matter how great the temptation is to see all our institutions as righteous and effective. The Psalmist, again, tells us that when

princes and mortals die,
when their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish (Psalm 146.4).

The prophetic word is one that challenges these powers with an alternative that we can choose instead of death. In the case of Elijah and the widow and her son at Zarephath, Elijah has issued a challenge to King Ahab and his politics and his religion by announcing that God and God alone has power over life and death, and to prove it, yhwh has decided that no matter how well-laid the king’s plans are, they cannot compete with his own ability to grant or withhold rain on the Land, which, in an agricultural society like Israel, was tantamount to controlling life and death itself.

But neither Elijah nor the LORD are without compassion, as merciless as this divine decree might seem. After such a word to the king, Elijah is naturally a fugitive. And, with the Word of the Lord rejected by his own people, he leaves and takes the Word to “them.” “We” have rejected the life-giving Word of the LORD, and so those who bear his Word are obligated to take his Word to “them.” Elijah flees to Sidon, to a “suburb” called Zarephath, where he meeds and stays with a widow and her son, who is himself little better than an orphan as a result of his lack of father and protector for his mother. Where God has delivered a Word of judgment against those who consider that they and only they have received his Word and who believe that they and only they have God on their side, the bearer of the Word goes to complete outsiders, indeed, to those considered to be the Enemy (as Queen Jezebel herself was a Sidonian) who might recognize “the LORD your God,” but whose recognition is hardly at the expense of the Ba’als of virility and sexualized Asherahs of fertility. And it comes to a widow, and a minor son, of all people! People who have nothing, and whose plight is made even worse by the very drought and famine of this yhwh, uttered from the very mouth of the prophet she is now putting up in her house. And sure enough, even after the miracle of the never-ending bread and oil, the widow’s son eventually dies, and she casts the blame squarely on Elijah himself. But the Prophet of God, the bearer of the Word of the Lord, will have no truck with the death of the widow’s son; for he knows that while her son has capitulated to death caused by the powers and policies and institutions of Ahab and this world, the Word of God brings life to those who will receive it. Instead of death, the widow’s son receives life! Elijah, angered over the death of the son of his host, cries out to God to restore the woman’s son to her. Yhwh is the God of life! Even for those who “we” say are not “eligible.”

Jesus raises the Widow’s son at NainLike Elijah, Jesus rejects the finality of death of this world, and especially the alleged authority of those who think they have power over life and death in today’s Gospel passage from Luke. Jesus, on his way to a town called Nain, bumps into a funeral procession carrying out a dead man, who happened to be his mother’s only son; like the widow of Zarephath, this woman was a widow and, with the death of her son, was almost automatically consigned to a life of destitution and perhaps even prostitution under the “rules” of the day. Jesus was moved to compassion for her and her inevitable future of a living death; and like Elijah, Jesus rejects death, both that of the woman and that of her son! By the life-giving Word of the LORD, Jesus restores the life of the man and gives him back to his mother, and thumbs his nose at the powers of death in the world. The Psalmist tells us that

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146.7b-9a).

Instead of death, the Lord grants the gift of life! This is the Gospel, this is the message of Easter, this is the message of Easter, and this is the message that we must bring as bearers of the Word of the Lord. Against the institutions, ideas, policies, economies, corporations, governments, and so on that can only lead to death, we as Christians and Easter People who would follow the example of the Lord and of the Prophets who anticipated his coming must bring the Word of the Lord to those places that might make us a bit uncomfortable, places where we’d probably rather not go; do things we’d rather not do; say things that we would really rather not say.

Rembrandt’s St. Paul in PrisonThis is not only evident in the Elijah and Jesus stories, but it is also the thrust of Paul’s point with the Galatians in Galatians 1.11-24. This passage is infamous as Paul’s ironically self-righteous, self-justification of his apostolic activity. But beyond all the evident frustration in this part of the letter, what Paul is doing is he is pointing out that God’s intervention overturns our life of comfort and predictability, which is bound to bring us into conflict with that predictable, comfortable world’s powers of death. God’s apostolic and prophetic call disrupts Paul’s life, as it must disrupt our lives, in that he comes into direct conflict with his established traditions, his accepted religion, his comfortable church. The Word of the Lord, the Word of Life instead of death, is a word of intercession and intervention and disruption that is not going to be welcome. It is not going to supply pleasant and enjoyable fulfillments of our needs. Paul’s point is a warning that we in the church today do not take seriously enough; if we are to be prophetic witnesses to the Gospel, to bring life instead of death, to practice resurrection, as the poet Wendell Berry says, the reality is that that prophetic Word may very well need to start with our own people; our own community; our own government; our own church.
What is to be our response, then, to God’s action of bringing life instead of death? The Psalmist tells us once again: It is to

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long! (Psalm 146.1-2).

The Gospel of Life, The Kingdom of God, tells us, as the Psalmist does, that through the power of life over death

The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord (Psalm 146.10)!

Advertisements