Pentecost 2 June 6, 2010

1 Kings 17:17-24                                                                 June 6, 2010

Luke 7:11-17                                                                       John L. McCausland

The Bible is peppered with poor widows. Like the two in the readings today, they are almost all nameless. Women in general in biblical society were without rights, including the right to own property. Indeed, they were themselves property, property of the men in their lives: first of their fathers, then of their husbands, then of their sons. And if they were widowed, they depended completely on their children, particularly their male children, to support and protect them. So these two stories tell us something important when they explain that in each case the widows had only one son, and that son was dead. Here we have two women utterly without earthly security, as good as without identity or meaning.

Why is the Bible so fond of these poor widows? I think it’s because you and I, all of us, are in reality just a few steps away from poor widowhood ourselves. Yes, of course, we have legal rights and a social safety net and material comforts beyond what all but a tiny few enjoyed in the time of Jesus. But for all of that, we really don’t have much control over our lives and the world. We have little idea what the world will be like in 50 years, whether there will even be human beings on the earth’s face. And in the shorter range, we don’t know about our own health five years from now, or the security of our children or grandchildren. So the poor widows of Scripture are Everyman, Everywoman, the human condition stripped of illusions — us.

The widows in these two stories don’t have names, nor their sons. The named roles are given to the two prophetic figures who save the widows from disaster by restoring their sons to life: Elijah and Jesus. During his lifetime, some people thought Jesus was a reincarnation of Elijah, the most important of the Old Testament prophets. Like Elijah, Jesus exercised the power of God, spoke the word of God, confronted the corrupt and proud.

We don’t see that Jesus ever suffered a lack of confidence in God, except in some of the gospels at the very end when he was nailed to the Cross. But Elijah suffered from an almost Woody Allen-like state of chronic anxiety. He was always trying to escape the prophetic role that God had thrust upon him, trying to run away from God and hide. “Why can’t I just lead a quiet, normal life? Why me, God?” So Elijah is a reminder that God does not call us to easy things. And perhaps in those early morning prayer times with God that we read about, Jesus too was coming to terms with just how deep was his calling as God’s Son.

What is going on in these healings/restorations to life? The acting out, I think, of what we would call very inadequately trust in God. You remember that St. Paul tells us that there are three essential components of life in Christ: faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13:13). By faith he doesn’t mean believing a lot of things in your head. Nor does he mean a superficial, positive-thinking optimism. He means an essential, foundational trust in God – that God will be there in life no matter what. It was that kind of trust that Jesus had, perhaps by his very nature as Son of God. It was that kind of trust that Elijah also had, though he wavered in it, again and again – had to be called back. It is that kind of trust that is being acted out for us in these two miracle stories.

A good friend of mine, now an active Episcopalian, spent some years as a Quaker. They were good years for him, though eventually he wanted things the Quakers do not offer. And especially, he says, they were valuable because the Quakers taught him about trust:

My attachment to the Quakers . . . I can now see, was an attachment in part to their immense individual and corporate trust: trust in the Spirit to move you before you spoke, trust in your capacity to know it was the Spirit,

trust in the meeting’s capacity to listen and respond, trust in the power of the Spirit to salvage the situation where there were misjudgments; in meetings for business, trust in the Spirit to unify the meeting, or to respond and heal when there were divisions; trust in one’s enemy not to beat you or kill you, and if they did, trust in the Spirit to make the loss ultimately a gain. More than that: trust in the individual and the meeting and the Spirit to make their way in the world, without creed, without liturgy, without sacraments. Trust trust trust, and to me it is beautiful, even if, as I ultimately found, I needed what the Quakers do without.

What Jim says about trust is that ultimately it isn’t just a word, just an idea. Ultimately, it’s something you can only know by putting it into action in your own life – as the Quakers do. You can only trust by trusting. I think that’s the point of the very physical, embodied nature of these two stories. (Somewhat shockingly embodied in the case of Elijah; imagine if I came to pay a pastoral call and wanted to send you out of the room and lie down on top of your child! Call the Safe Church police!) But the point is, trust is a total physical, life-over-death thing.

Our Christian faith, like Holy Scripture, is radically, even shockingly “embodied.” We are not just called to talk and think “about” God and Christ and faith. We are called to be and do – no less than Elijah, no less than Jesus. So here at the outset of this green season after Pentecost, when we walk the walk with Jesus, it is fitting that we begin with these lessons about how radically embodied is our Christian call to trust.

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