Lectionary Reflections for Pentecost 3 – June 9, 2013
I Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
Abundance in a World of Scarcity
“The jar of meal will not be emptied, nor will the jug of oil fail.” Today’s passages assert that faith opens us to new dimensions of reality and within these new dimensions, miraculous releases of divine energy, congruent with the laws of nature, are released. Willingness to trust God despite appearances opens us to new possibilities, new energies, and a greater sense of vocation. This is not denial of the harsh realities of life – economic shortfalls, conflict, mortality – but the recognition that these realities are not the whole story. Within the concreteness and limitations of life, unexpected possibilities may emerge. God’s gentle providence brings forth possibilities where we only see limitations.
The encounter of Elijah and the widow of Zaraphath could be ripped from today’s newspaper or on-line headlines or the latest congregational newsletter. It portrays the constant struggle to affirm abundance in a world of scarcity. Elijah is given divine guidance to travel to Zaraphath, outside of Jewish territory in Sidon, and find a home with a widow. He is even told that she will provide board as well as room. When he initially encounters her, his request for a meal is met with a firm “no.” The widow has nothing in the cupboard for the spiritual leader. In fact, she is preparing one last meal for herself and her son with the expectation that they will eventually starve. Elijah is insistent that he be fed – one wonders if his insistence is intended to still his own stomach pangs or open the widow to new possibilities of divine nourishment for the widow and her son. Eventually, she relents, feeds the spiritual leader, and receives the blessing of continuously replenished jar of meal and jug of oil.
The widow’s response is realistic – she has nothing left to eat and death awaits her and her son. I have heard the same message countless times in congregations: “we have only a few years left and we’ll have to close the doors,” “we’re all gray hairs and don’t have the energy to carry on,” “we’ll have to cut staff and mission to survive.” All of these may be accurate assessments of a congregation’s present and future. But, do they present the whole story? Realism and bottom line thinking are necessary to run institutions honestly and effectively. But, realism that does not take into consideration divine possibility stifles the imagination and lends itself to self-fulfilling prophesies of demise and decrepitude. The deeper realism of God’s presence raises provocative possibilities and opens the door to vitality. It does not insure success but it inspires faithfulness regardless of the result.
Many of our congregations are on life-support and may close in the next few years. But, like a person diagnosed with an incurable disease, they can still live fully in the time they have left. The reality of our limitations can inspire us to open to new ways of looking at ourselves and the world which breathe new life into stagnant institutions. New congregational pathways may enable congregations to die well; it may also enable them to rise vigorously like the phoenix from the ashes of anxiety.
The words of Psalm 146 inspire us to praise. We praise God because of God’s grandeur and saving presence in our own and our people’s history. Our praise, however, goes beyond the recognition of God’s power and protection. It is inspired by God’s character: God heals, brings justice to the world, sustains the hungry, and frees the prisoners. The God worthy of praise is a justice-seeking, welcoming, and healing God. God’s moral character inspires us to be companions in the quest for justice in our time and place.
Paul’s words to the Galatians are autobiographical in nature, and his autobiography recounts not only his deeds but God’s gracious movements in his life. Paul asserts that his message comes from God not mere mortals. God has set him apart for a unique vocation – to share God’s good news to the Gentile world. Paul sees his vocation as prenatal in origin. Although we may challenge the notion that our vocation is determined prior to our births and that we are merely working out God’s blueprint for our lives, we can affirm Paul’s sense that his life was intended to bear fruit in sharing God’s good news to outsiders. Looking back, he can see traces of God’s providence in his Jewish childhood, theological education, and professional accomplishments. These moments were not accidental but bear the imprint of divine inspiration. While he has let go of his past achievements, Paul’s ability to proclaim the good news of Christ Jesus is grounded on precisely these achievements, including his persecution of members of the Christian movement.
Paul’s experience of vocation is an invitation for preachers to reflect on the question of our vocations. What images are calling us forward? Where are we invited to sojourn in our life’s journey? Can we find a blessing in the events and decisions that have led to this particular moment in time? While congregants may not see their experience of blessing as dramatic, they can be invited to recognize that God is working in their lives, providing direction, possibility, and energy for themselves and the world around them. What “great work” is God calling us to do in the quotidian events of life? How can we do ordinary things with extraordinary faith?
The Gospel reading bounds on the fantastic. On occasion, we hear accounts of new limbs growing and people raised from the dead; these almost universally come from developing countries, untouched by science and postmodernism. Even if we believe that God aims at healing and wholeness, we can be skeptical of such accounts. They seem to go against the regular laws of the universe and medical science. People who have been dead – lacking vital signs for hours – never regain any meaningful form of life as a result of oxygen deprivation. If medical science is correct and the preponderance of evidence suggests this, what are we to do with Jesus’ raising of a widow’s dead son? Did Jesus defy the laws of nature? Could Jesus truly reverse brain damage? Can people raise the dead in similar fashion today? If so, why does this seem to occur only in countries virtually untouched by scientific thinking? Moreover, why do these events only occur in an infinitesimal number of cases, teasing us, but not delivering us and our loved ones in our hours of need?
I believe that healing energies can be released in the dynamic process of divine call and human response. I believe our touch and prayers can transform mind, body, and spirit. Still, my experience is that our intercessions and anointings often are effective in incremental rather than dramatic ways, and that often the only result – and this is perhaps the most important – is a transformation of spirit that may ease the pain and give confidence in God’s care, even though the ultimate diagnosis remains unchanged.
Still, the healing of the widow of Nain’s son provides an important glimpse into Jesus’ healing ministry and our own. Healing is grounded in compassion, in a feeling of heart-felt and visceral solidarity with the pain of others, in this case, the loss of a child’s life and his mother’s grief and diminished economic situation. The quest for healing challenges us to cross boundaries of clean and unclean: Jesus’ own ritual purity is compromised by his touching the corpse. Finally, our compassionate, boundary-breaking action, can elicit amazing responses: the dead may not rise, but dying spirits may be revitalized. While we cannot negate the possibility of such dramatic healings, we can be God’s partners in the everyday healings that may be more life-and-world-transforming over the long haul. We can experience a life-changing abundance of divine energy in a world dominated by scarcity thinking.
(For more on Jesus’ healings, see Bruce Epperly, Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel; Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice; and God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus.