3 Pentecost C—6/5/16
1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
Pr. Scott Kramer
Over the past few weeks the church calendar has made a transition from the season of Easter to the season of Pentecost. We are now in the long season of green, in which God’s Word instructs us in the ways of spiritual growth and maturity. And yet, both our reading from 1 Kings and our reading from Luke are very similar resurrection stories. This sounds like Easter! What’s going on here?
The first thing that caught my attention when I picked up yesterday’s paper was that Muhammad Ali had died. Many of you remember the glory days of Muhammad Ali. He will be remembered by history in part for his showmanship: He was a loud-mouthed, trash-talking, self-absorbed braggart, in some ways similar to a certain orange-haired politician who makes headlines today!
But as news commentators have already noted, Ali’s more enduring legacy is likely to be his call to justice. Ali spoke fearlessly, publicly, and at considerable personal cost on behalf of those in our society who have been systematically discriminated against, persecuted and ignored. Ali’s example gave hope especially to African-American young men.
People in all times who call attention to the injustices of the society in which they live tend to be magnets for controversy. This was the case for modern leaders such as Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr. Such was the case for the prophet Elijah, and of course, for Jesus himself.
One day near the beginning of his ministry Jesus told his hometown crowd the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, our first story for today. For that, they tried to kill him. As we ponder today’s stories and move through worship see if you can see why.
Leading up to today’s story, Elijah had dared to speak out against the false gods of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Having made enemies with powerful people, Elijah is now sent by God to take refuge with someone who has no power at all. The woman of Zarephath is not only a foreigner but a widow, which means she has no means of protection and no livelihood. Such were the rules of her society that if you were a woman and had no male relative, you were less than nothing. To cap it all off, her one hope of dignity—and survival!—was her only son. But now he was dead. All hope was lost.
Except, when God’s people take seriously their vocational duty and power to restore hope to society’s poor and outcast, anything is possible! And one of Elijah’s God-given gifts happened to be raising the dead back to life. He did so, empowering the widow of Zarephath and restoring her to dignity and fuller participation in her society.
An almost identical story is the basis for today’s reading from Luke. This time it’s not Elijah but Jesus who raises to life the only son of a widow. Eight hundred years had passed between the time of Elijah and the time of Jesus. But in all those centuries the rules of society had not changed! Eight. Hundred. Years. It was still a man’s world. By Jesus’ day, if you were a woman without a husband or a son you were still less than nothing!
What would you say these stories are about? God’s amazing power to restore the dead to life? Well, maybe, but in that case these stories could become nothing more than parables that serve our personal self-interest, hinting at the day when God will raise the dead, including ourselves, to life again.
But these stories are not primarily about physical resurrection. These are stories of God’s justice. Both Elijah and Jesus are examples of courageous faith confronting the stubborn injustice that infects their societies. Both Elijah and Jesus dare to name those injustices and by their actions call attention to and, more importantly, disrupt the unjust systems that favor the rich and the powerful, and to restore the powerless to greater dignity and inclusion in their communities.
I recently finished a book by former President Jimmy Carter called Our Endangered Values. The book is a scorching critique of our own society’s deep and persistent injustices. Like societies in all times and places, we also have rules that never seem to change—rules that favor the rich and powerful, rules that ensure that millions of our fellow human beings live without dignity and without much hope.
Like Elijah, like Jesus, like even Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Carter has used his celebrity status to speak out against the rules of society that never seem to change, rules that treat certain classes of people with deference and dignity, others with condescension, contempt or indifference. Such public figures tend to be mocked and ridiculed by those who fiercely defend rules that protect their self-interest.
So, what about you and me? I for one am no Elijah and I’m certainly no Jesus. Although I’ve conducted dozens of funerals in my time I have never once resurrected the dead! And, I’m no celebrity like a Muhammad Ali or a Jimmy Carter. So what do today’s stories of resurrection have to do with regular folks like you and me?
No matter who you are, your mission in the world is identical to that of every other Christian, no matter how famous or how unknown: to be a vessel for the saving power of God in Jesus Christ for the world. Each of us is uniquely gifted and empowered to bring justice, dignity and hope to all God’s people. You and I are called to recognize and disrupt rules and laws that serve our own self-interest and dehumanize others. In thought, word and deed, from the ballot box to the marketplace to our relationships, each day we make choices that ensure hope or despair, life or death, humiliation or dignity for our fellow human beings.
Here’s another way of thinking about what that might mean: I recently finished another book by conservative author and NY Times columnist David Brooks called, The Road to Character. Brooks is a man of faith who, like many people, struggles to integrate his religious faith with his daily life. One of his observations has stayed with me: Many people ask, “What can I get out of life?” In other words, how can I accumulate and preserve wealth, get ahead, become more comfortable, more secure, more in control. There’s a different question we might consider, Brooks says: What is life asking of me?
Or, Christians might ask, “What is Christ asking of me?” When we take seriously that question we might be troubled by the answer. Standing up to injustice and the rules of society is not easy; there’s a price to be paid! The answer to what Christ asks of us is almost surely not the same as the answer to, “What can I get out of life?”
And yet, every single one of us is gifted and empowered by God through the Holy Spirit to grow into the very image of Christ, to bring hope, justice, and new life to the world!