Sermons


http://img.timeinc.net/southern/events/news/images/ThanksgivingFeast.jpgThis time of the year evokes a lot of emotions and feelings within us. For some of us there is a sense of nostalgia for being close to family. For others, we might feel the almost magical warmth of Christmas events and the coming of the New Year. For others, we start feeling the excitement of the beginning of college hoops, football bowl games, the merciful end of the Orange’s football season, and so on. We feel the closing of once cycle and the new beginnings of another with the annual celebration of Harvesting and of sharing the abundance that God has given us with others, as in Thanksgiving meals and the giving of gifts during Christmas. With this time of year, one season of our lives comes to a close, and another begins.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, and with the Thanksgiving season we also enter a few others as well. We enter, for example, the Christmas season; I would imagine that, if you’re like me and my family, you’ll be starting to decorate your house, pull out the greenery, and finally succumb to turning your radio dial to Sunny 102.5 for non-stop, 24/7 Christmas and holiday music.

Related to this is, of course, the “holiday shopping” season, which in reality starts now around Columbus Day rather than Black Friday. And it is fitting that, with this being a seasonal crossing between the old and the new, the Holiday Shopping season participates in this cycle in that there is no other time of year when we are in the full-fledged mode of “Out with the old, and in with the new!” With the Holiday Shopping season, we are absolutely bombarded with advertising assuring us that we really do need NEW and IMPROVED! “this-that-and-the-other-thing.” We’re sucked into the idea that we have to have to get rid of something that might be perfectly good and replace it with a new item. The whole season can awaken the cynic in us that not only starts questioning whether our new and improved lives and gadgets are really any better than we had it a year ago. The omnipresence of advertising and of commercial icons (Nike “swoosh,” Coke, Pepsi, etc) dulls our ability to recognize that which is truly new from the simply repackaged, and when the truly new does finally arrive, we often fail to recognize it, and be thankful and grateful for it. We would feel much better, I think, if the truly new would really advertise itself as such in such a way to shock us into recognizing it, so that we CAN respond appropriately with blessing and thanksgiving.

We’re in luck. Today’s lections from Isaiah and Luke, in particular, give us God’s advertising, and they are so counter-cultural and contrary to our most deeply-seeded common sense that we find it hard to take them seriously. The evangelist reports Jesus’ apocalyptic words in Luke 21 to us on the pretext of prophesying the destruction of the Jewish Temple; he uses vivid imagery the does not, in fact, describe anything in a satisfying, “feel-good” way. Unless we have an apocalyptic fetish, neither should we think of any of these images as anything to look forward to; certainly the earliest Christians did not.

What I want to suggest here is that, far from advertising anything “new,” no matter how bleak and destructive, Jesus here is advertising in no uncertain terms the eternal state of affairs in the world. Really, how can “wars and insurrections,” “nations rising against nations,” empires taking arms against empires, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other “dreadful signs” from heaven be advertising anything new? Are arrests and persecutions and betrayals of Christians for religious or political reasons anything new?

Advertisements specialize in imagery and depend on our familiarity with their logos, slogans, and products in order to have any effect. In this they function like icons and have tremendous staying power. In Luke today, Jesus employs the truth of these icons to advertise for all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear the way the world is today. He refuses to sugarcoat the first century, much like the ancient prophets refused to sugarcoat the state of the world in which Israel and God’s called ones found themselves in. As prophecy from the mouth of Jesus and in the context of his pronouncements on the Kingdom of God, Luke’s description of the world carries the force of the “always already” and “to come” at the same time.

So much for one kind of God’s advertising; small wonder that these things would either be glorified out of all proportion to the rest of Christ’s and the Prophets’ discourses on the Kingdom of God, or these messages are systematically and institutionally suppressed or ignored out of not wanting to appear offensive or pessimistic about the state of the world (this, of course, is the classic liberal, “progressive” heritage). But I should like to remind us all that this is not at all the only advertisement we find; instead, I want to remind us that this season of the old coming to a close and the new day dawning, both in commercial Christmas and Thanksgiving, the season of Advent is even now on our doorstep waiting to disrupt the state of the everyday.

What advertisements do we have to represent and “sell” God’s newness during the season about to break upon upon us? How will God shock us and upset us? We have seen that Jesus’ advertising strategy sells us nothing new, but more of the old; it awakens, evokes, our desire for the New.

The passage of Isaiah is one of the most outrageous advertisements of God’s Newness, a newness that, like Jesus’ Kingdom of God, is always already and to come if we but know where to look, put faith where it belongs, and do what we are commanded to do. And here we see the other element of advertising; the idea that what is being presented is so outrageous, so out of touch with our reality, so absurd to our financial sensibilities that we cannot help ourselves but desire what the advertisement is trying to tell us we want more than anything else. And the most effective ads even cause us to contemplate doing anything, even sacrificing whatever we have or who we believe we are, in order to have what it wants us to have.

What is God’s ad here? Let this sink in, and let it inform our Holiday sensibility here, especially with Thanksgiving, and Advent, and Christmas. There will be a new earth, a new Jerusalem. Not a repackaging in better boxes of what is already there; but utter newness of the earth and the heart of the people of God’s calling. There will no longer be the sound of weeping or tears of sadness. There won’t be any homeless, nor will there be those oppressed or terrorized by life today to cry out for still more deliverance. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving, because in God’s new world there will not be any infant mortality or elderly men and women outliving their lives or widows or young men who die in war, for there will no longer be wars fought. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving because there will no longer be the outrage of eminent domain or foreclosures on homes, and those who build will live; those who plant will reap, and those who harvest will eat and have abundance. The big will no longer consume the small, and all will live under their own vine and fig tree.

Is the Advertisement of God’s newness in Isaiah, the Advent of abundance, blessing, thanksgiving, and gratitude, too much to hope for? Isn’t it worth selling ourselves out to God’s newness, to be seduced by this advertisement, to make this an Always Already and speed up the To Come?

Advent and Thanksgiving are both upon us. May we share our abundance in the spirit of newness, and may our Thanksgiving be an advertisement to that which we, as people of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, have always already, and may our expectation of his coming stir in us and in those who know us, a new season of Hope. And Life. And faithful abundance.

handsdirt1.jpg26 August 2007
First Baptist Church of Exeter

To Pluck and to Plant

 

A few years back in our neighborhood, another family of about our own age was faced with a difficult decision. The home where they lived, roughly 1 tenth of a mile from us, had been part of Joe’s family for generations, and now he was married with a small child. But the house itself, while a much-loved part of his family’s memory and heritage, was in a really bad state. It was decaying and rotting, sinking in places, with bulging sidewalls and sagging roof, poor and dangerous electrical system, and contaminated water pipes. Entire rooms were without heat and unusable.

It would have been so easy for him to try to convince himself that he could just patch a few things here, replace a few wires there, buy some electric space heaters, and so on, and the place would be as good as new, just like it used to be, just like it had always been, just like it was in his memory from when he was a child. But the reality was that the house would never be able to survive extensive gutting, and it was not in the least a cost effective solution. And so Joe and his wife made a very painful decision; to raze their ancestral home to the ground, and build a new one for their new and future life in that place.

The prophet Jeremiah could relate to Joe’s decision to tear down and destroy an old and decrepit structure like his house in order to plant and to build a new one. Only in the prophet’s case, he was summoned by God not to pluck up actual buildings and trees and so on, but the ancestral structures of order and conventional wisdoms of his day that his people loved and cherished and believed would be their salvation and protection against a very uncertain immediate future. You see, Jeremiah’s call was to look his people and his community in the eye and unflinchingly challenge the conventional wisdom of the leading political and religious authorities of the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE. During these days, the mighty Assyrian empire was in its final years, and the international power scene was shifting in the favor of the mighty Babylonian Empire. The King of Jerusalem and his advisors remembered that formerly Assyria was unable to capture the Holy City of Jerusalem, and they attributed this failure to their belief that God was on their side (as he was apparently not, some hundred and thirty years earlier, on the side of Israel and Samaria, which was captured by Assyria as punishment for failing to adhere to the Law of Moses and for setting up houses of worship outside of the “official” House of Jerusalem). The Temple of the Lord protected us once, and it will do so again! Babylon will never overtake us, and the Lord of Hosts will fight for those who know that God is on their side. We adhere to the Law of Moses; we are the heirs to the throne of David; we worship the right way and in the right place. Babylon will break upon the walls of Jerusalem like water on a rock!

But the entire book of Jeremiah is a prophetic witness against this exact attitude. The prophet warns his people, whom he dearly loves, that Judah’s and Jerusalem’s shortcomings and infidelity to the Lord are now too great, and that no amount of right worship, no force of “legitimacy” to the throne of David, God’s own anointed, no claims to the right and only Temple/Church or ability to do all the right things and obey all the right laws and keep the right morality or thinking the right way will be enough to stem the tide of God’s justice and newness, for which he is now using Babylon as his agent of power. Jeremiah’s message is “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, and to build and to plant.” It is a message specifically to “our people,” the people whom I love, who claim to be on God’s side, who think that “our” way is “God’s way.” But Jeremiah warns that our interest in doing thing’s “God’s way” may in fact really be getting “in God’s way!” Numerous times Jeremiah pleaded with the people and with the religious leaders and political authorities to stop putting their faith in the Temple (Church?), the Law, (morality?) the office of the King (president?) and turn and repent. But he fails repeatedly. And so when it is too late, Jeremiah counsels the leaders not to resist, but to stay in the Land or to go to Babylon as God exerts his justice on the people. But the leaders and the people refuse even this, and continue to believe that if they kept doing Temple/Church and listen to their spiritual talking heads and political leaders (evangelical leaders?) God will see our godliness even in our distress and we’ll be OK.

Jeremiah’s message is a painful one, and his summons and call to be a prophetic witness to God’s work in the world is devastatingly difficult. And indeed, he doesn’t want to do it! Despite his initial (and continuous) protests, Jeremiah ultimately cannot resist his calling to speak to his people, to call them out as part of his work of plucking up and pulling down, of destroying and overthrowing, the conventional wisdoms and accepted beliefs and practices of the community his is part of and of its political and religious leadership: Believing that our Church and our Evangelical or Liberal heritage, morality, practices, and so forth, and our God-ordained political leadership will protect us, and, when that fails, to flee and avoid all responsibility, is “God’s way” for us.

Having done his job (and mostly failing at it), Jeremiah returns home, but his actions symbolize the aspect of his calling that was yet-to-come, and which, in fact, he never saw the fruits of during his lifetime. Later on in the book we find Jeremiah, having given his messages, on his small farm, planting and sowing for himself, and for the future of Israel. In the words of the poet Wendell Berry, Jeremiah, in the face of catastrophe, stood in his field / sowing clover.

Lest we become over depressed at this state of affairs, let us turn to the Gospel, the good news; surely the work of Jesus has something more cheerful to hear and experience than the prophetic witness of Jeremiah? Alas, this is not the case, and indeed, Jesus’ own prophetic witness is much the same as the embattled prophet from 600 years before! Like Jeremiah, Jesus’ actions in this incident in Luke is as much a challenge to “the establishment” as Jeremiah’s was, only with a far more dramatic – and physical! — element. Healing was the prerogative of God, and only those who were “legitimately” plugged into God, via proper interpretation of the law, following the morals of the local religious leaders, attending synagogue and “playing by God’s rules” while they were there, and going to the “right” house of worship, and so forth. And what healing did was not simply to restore a person’s physical well-being, but to restore him or her in “our people” even when those who claim to be the final arbiters of that position declare otherwise. Our Lord had no patience for people who screwed over those who were disadvantaged, different, “unclean,” or who thought different from us, who were “liberal” or “conservative” or “postmodern” or who “we” had marked as being outside of “us,” who had to conform to “our” rules in order to regulate who has access to the Lord!

The ruler of the synagogue in this passage, probably a Pharisee, was more concerned about upholding the letter of the Sabbath Law than he was about the pain and plight of the woman. After all, how could Messiah ever come if the people of Israel were flagrantly violating the Law like this upstart country bumpkin Jesus? Enough of this! Messiah is never going to come unless all the people stop sinning, so you, Jesus, knock it off and let the real religious people handle this kind of stuff. Jesus’ response is a stinging rebuke, and of course the Gospel tells us that the Messiah is already here! The blind see, and the lame walk, and the dead rise! And if your godly piety gets in the way of prophetic witness to the kingdom of God and God’s new and present action on earth, then you, whoever you are, are on the side of the enemy.

The witness of Jeremiah and the ministry of Jesus both testify to the presence of the Kingdom of God among us, a presence that will not be hemmed in by our orthodoxies and prevailing wisdoms of the day. But more than that, the Kingdom breaks in; it tears down and destroys; it plucks up and pulls down, and above all, it builds and plants.

Our challenge as Christians and as citizens of the kingdom of God is to live in imitation of Christ, as Thomas a Kempis says, and in prophetic witness to the work of God and the Kingdom as both Jesus and Jeremiah did. Our challenge is to look our piety, our conventional wisdom in the eye and see whether it is really God’s Way, or whether it is In His Way. We are summoned, as Jeremiah was summoned, to be a prophetic witness. And today, there are may evangelicals and progressives and other Christians who are bucking the conventional wisdom of “their people” to be that witness; people like Richard Cizik in his Kingdom work of promoting environmental concerns in the churches. Men like Greg Boyd, who challenges the church to look beyond the old issues of morality in trying to promote an authentic Christian ethic of life; or Tony Campolo, who has been tirelessly working to dismantle categories of “conservative” and “liberal;” or Brian McLaren, who work to challenge the way evangelicals think of our modern world and help build bridges to the postmodern era; or Jim Wallis, who seeks to engage evangelicals in the political issues in ways that are not wedded to one particular party. Others could be named; but these are examples of contemporary evangelical leaders who are acting as prophetic witnesses by taking long, seriously hard looks at our stock answers to the world as we see it today.

My neighbor Joe was faced with the difficult job of plucking up his home in order to allow the seeds of a new life be planted. May we, like Jeremiah and Jesus, not be afraid to answer the difficult summons to pluck up … and to plant.

foundryhillfinal1w180h142.jpg Dilapidated Barns: A Sermon for Proper 13/Ordinary Time 18
Hosea 11.1-11; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21; Psalm 107

One of the most common scenes when you drive through rural New England, particularly in Vermont and New Hampshire, is the old, run-down, partially flattened, crooked, caved in or otherwise dilapidated barn. Some of us perhaps don’t need to even go very far to see one or two; I have to look at ours pretty much every day of the week in the summer when we’re here in New Hampshire. Most of us, perhaps, look at them and think nostalgically back to days when beautiful barns stood proudly in a field of carefully tilled soil, like a symbol of good, hard work, provision, care, and extended family. Others drive by these collapsed structures and perhaps think to themselves “For heaven’s sakes, that thing is an eyesore! Why don’t they just knock it down and build something new and better, something that will hold old all their stuff, or at least make the yard look better?” Where the former observer might feel a sense of sadness, the latter is more disgusted.

Our dilapidated barns are indeed good symbols of our society today. Our society is littered with storehouses of various types that are old and run-down and decrepit, signs of what is always, invariably, the final result of investing so much into a close-to-suicidal consumerist economy that places such a premium on cheap-junky stuff that surpasses our needs and instead satisfies our whimsical desires, as well as our real needs, at the cheapest price possible. Worse still, our participation in this state of affairs fattens the bank rolls of the very people who confidently tell us that participation in their system is all to our benefit. “Soul, store up, hoard, and consume for many years, and you will be happy, taken care of, and provided for.”

Regardless of where we find ourselves here, the Scriptures from today’s lection do not permit us the luxury or thinking along the lines of the world today, and for that, I think, we should be grateful. Hosea 11.1-11, today’s first lection, reads:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2The more I* called them,
the more they went from me;*
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my* arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.*
I bent down to them and fed them.

5They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
6The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
7My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.*

8How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.*

10They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

What I want for you to see here in this passage is the heavy dose of Exodus imagery that appears all over this passage, and I also want you to see how important the theme of idolatry is here as well. Both themes are two of the central elements in the story of Israel and, I submit, of God’s chosen generally, whether Jews or Christians or anyone else. There is also the theme and threat of exile sounded in verse 5. We also see God portrayed here as a nurturing mother in one of the most moving descriptions of God’s tenderness in all of Scripture in verses 1-4 and 8-9. We need to unpack this a bit.

In Egypt, Israel built up storehouses for their Egyptian rulers and overlords. They were caught and stuck in a system that created profound need for those with little while simultaneously creating-and attempting to satisfy-want and desire for those with much. By introducing the theme of Egyptian slavery and building the Egyptian storehouses, the writer of Hosea sounds a note that was profoundly sensitive to his 8th century hearers. For Israel had spent 400 years in Egypt, the world’s most powerful nation, a nation who wrung their bread from the sweat of Hebrew faces. And yet God, in his tender mercy and fierce justice, heard their cries for help, justice, salvation, and deliverance from Egypt even while they continued to build the barns and storehouses to preserve and store up the things of earth.

In antiquity, these storehouses and barns were the equivalent of today’s stocks and investment accounts. People believed that a full barn or storehouse was their security for a future of eating, drinking, and making merry all the days of their lives. But Hosea reminds us that the lesson of Egypt is that our storehouses, no matter where we put them, are no guarantee of security, and indeed, they could prove to be a profound security risk and liability, just as they are today. Ancient empires were founded on their ability to consume the resources of other nations, especially successful ones, and the result was always the same cycle of conquest and reconquest to determine control of the barns and coffers of rival and successful states. The story of Egypt reminds us that not even putting faith in carefully planned provisioning will provide security and safety from the justice of God, as the 10 plagues show, and Hosea warns his contemporaries from 2800 years ago that Israel, who has similarly placed her faith in places where it ought not be placed, is about to suffer the same fate as the might Egyptian empire did at the hands of the Assyrians (v. 5-6). As the storehouses of the Egyptians ultimately proved to be their undoing – twice! – so Israel’s faith in gods other than yhwh would be theirs.

Hosea pleads with Israel to abandon her dependency on things that do not satisfy. He begs Israel to cease making sacrifices to Baals and idols, reminding Israel that it is the LORD who nurtured and loved her, who called her out of Egypt, to taught her to walk and who took her in her arms, who healed them and who led her with kindness like a mother who lifts her babies to her cheeks and who bent down and fed (nursed?) them. We see here the agony of God, whose heart recoils within him as he struggles to uphold justice against his wayward child even while nurturing his warm and tender compassion (v.8). Our provision comes from the LORD himself, who loves us with a mother’s love, but who also disciplines us as a father might; desist from counting on our plans, our barns, our accounts, to be there for us in our hours of greatest need, for this is the world’s way, not the way of the heart of the LORD.

Like Hosea, the apostle Paul warns us against putting our faith in the world and in the world’s “solutions”.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your* life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.* 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.* 8But now you must get rid of all such things-anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive* language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal* there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

(more…)

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)!