|1 Kings 17:17-24
By David Grant Smith
1 Kings 17:17-24
In this story, as well as in this week’s Psalm and Gospel readings, we are faced with the issue of God’s relationship (if any) to human mortality. Here in First Kings, both the prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath outrightly state that it was God who caused the widow’s son to die. The proclamation of Bible passages such as this in corporate worship, if unchallenged, provides a voice of complicity to a commonly held folk-theology which asserts that God causes both good and bad things to happen, and that God even decides when (and how) each of us will die. There are those in most congregations, no matter how hard progressive clergy and lay leadership work to counter the notion, who believe that everything is “God’s will” — even tragic accidents and illnesses!
Stories like the one found in this passage often work to uphold that notion, unless preachers and teachers work to remind congregations of the mindset of the protological biblical writers: illness, misfortune, poverty, and death are the result of sin in a cause/effect equation. Both science and the trajectory of reason have helped to move our modern sensibilities away from abiding in a world of such stark and unfounded realities; but the faith tradition has been lagging behind in that regard. The result is that we still have twenty-first century Christians who let their faith impede them from going where their education and contemporary thinking do. This reading in the lectionary could provide a fruitful platform for creatively engaging this issue with which some of our faithful members are struggling.
One way to address this “faith vs. reality” struggle may be to engage the process-relational emphasis on the omnipresence of God. As process people, we challenge the notion of omnipotence. We don’t believe that God is all-powerful (“almighty”); but we do assert that God is omnipresent (always everywhere). God was with the child in his illness. God was with the widowed mother in her grief over his death. God was with Elijah in his angst over the child’s death and the effect it would have on the already-bereaved and vulnerable widow. And, had the child’s death been both “absolute” and “final,” God would have been with all parties in that situation as well.
However, God was not the cause of any of it. Rather, God was present in and through each person’s experience. And God was luring each one of them toward some kind of creative transformation of the experience in a moment-by-moment ongoing Presence. We process folk find that a proclamation of God’s omnipresence (and consequent ability to feel what we feel and know what we know) provides for a much more compassionate God than one who is omnipotent and is either the cause of suffering, or chooses not to prevent it. Furthermore, the idea that God remains present with us in and through the worst moments of our lives also provides a model for the way that we as people of faith can be present to one another in life’s difficult times.
Picking up on the process-relational concept of God’s lure toward creative transformation, we find a great example of that in the way that Elijah works with the situation and, apparently, works with God to bring about a new trajectory from the sequence of events. Despite Elijah’s initial prayer blaming God for the child’s death, his subsequent prayer to restore life helps him to reframe the situation. Elijah’s actions, which take place between the two prayers, seem to be a primitive form of CPR; an adult stretched out repeatedly on a child would certainly bring about chest/lung compressions. Whether there was any medicinal value to Elijah’s actions, they at least symbolically embody his second prayer to let the child live. And, if his actions did have some kind of medicinal value to them, they were certainly done so in partnership with God, whose will is for life, health, and wellbeing. A potential “take-away” from this part of the story might be that in the crisis moments of our lives, it could behoove us to pray and boldly take action (even physically) when the prophetic moment seems right to do so.
This story ends with the widow’s proclamation that she now knows that Elijah is “a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in [his] mouth is truth” (NRSV). Though her proclamation is certainly an affirmation of her gratitude (to both Elijah and God) for what has transpired, it also speaks to her own process of discernment. Her honest bitterness at the outset of the passage has been only one step on her own journey of faith and in her process of discerning where and how she experiences God and the Divine in her life. An important part of our spiritual praxis of discernment is to be honest with ourselves (as well as with God and each other), and to proclaim our understandings as they evolve and emerge.
Her acknowledgment of “truth” as being an attribute of God resonates with the way Whitehead identifies the qualities of the primordial nature of God: beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love. Our own (personal or corporate) practice and process of discernment can be greatly enriched by acknowledging those occasions when our lives intersect with any of these attributes of God’s nature; and we can greatly enrich the lives of others by sharing these insights and proclaiming them as being Divine gifts in our life experience.
The third verse of this psalm works as an immediate and appropriate response to this week’s first reading, and it anticipates the Gospel reading from Luke: “You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave” (Psalm 30:3, The Book of Common Prayer). The poetry of this psalm reflects an experience much like that shared between Elijah, the widow, and her son; there has been some kind of close-call with death, and some form of healing (creative transformation) has come to concrescence in the life of the ancient poet or, perhaps, in the communal life of ancient Israel. Like this week’s passage from First Kings, the psalm flirts with the notion that God is the cause of human suffering, or at least silently complicit with its presence in the human experience. Perhaps it would be best to assign some poetic and dramatic license to the ancient author of this hymn, and to remind faithful people that these “flirtations” with these notions are not the hub around which the wheel of the poetry revolves. And, if the psalm becomes a touchpoint for the preacher, there are more productive ways to engage this text.
The main point of this psalm is found in two places of this Psalm: first, at the center of it — “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (vs. 5b in NRSV; vs. 6 in BCP); and then at the end of it — “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever” (vs. 12-13 in BCP; vs. 11-12 in NRSV). The point of the psalm is to celebrate, proclaim, and give witness to the creative and transformative interrelationship which humanity enjoys with God. The rest of the verses function poetically and dramatically to underscore the overarching reality of creative transformation.
There are, of course, countless times in any human life when this kind of creative transformation is what is longed for, prayed for, worked for, and all in good faith. Yet the inevitability of death hasn’t been avoided, or the cure hasn’t been found, or the treatment was too late, or the tragedy wasn’t avoided. Death is as much a part of life as birth is; suffering is as much a part of life as joy is. This is not to say that the experiences of suffering and/or death, however, render us incapable of experiencing God’s lure toward creative transformation. These low points of the human condition can often be moments in which we can open ourselves to Divine possibility more than at any other time; we can feel God’s lure pulling us out of the depths of suffering and sorrow toward new possibilities.
As people of faith, we have a variety of ways that we articulate that reality. There can be healing, even when there hasn’t been a cure. There can be inner joy and calm, even when pain and suffering are present. There can be hope, even in the midst of grief. The creative transformation which we experience as co-creators with God is dependent on God seeing us as we are, and working with us to help us become what we can be. God knows our suffering, grief, and despair, and is always luring us toward those kinds of situations and life experiences which will help us to frame them in healthy ways, and to move always forward into renewing moments of radical hope.
Having only recently left the Easter Season, perhaps a sermon which engages the psalm text for this week might be best served by recalling the liturgical, scriptural, and other resources which were used to frame the celebration of Resurrection. The radical hope of Easter is founded on the notion that life is bigger than death, and that even when we experience death — whether our own, or the death of a loved-one — it (death) doesn’t have the final say. Together, we and God have the final word to offer. In its liturgy for “Burial of the Dead” The Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal Church, 1979) has a wonderful responsorial prayer which is offered over the body of the deceased which affirms our mortality, but also proclaims the Easter notion of radical hope. The most relevant portion of it to this psalm states simply…
All of us go down to the dust;
yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Partnering with — and being open to the lure of — God (whose primordial nature is beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love) puts us on a path of discernment and discovery which leaves us open to new possibilities… the possibilities of creatively transforming our present realities into new and renewing possibilities.
Although this week’s Epistle reading doesn’t focus on or question God’s role in human suffering, it does engage the issue of creative transformation away from living a life which causes and/or contributes to human suffering. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul is sharing his own journey on that path. He had such zeal for the purity of his own understanding and interpretation of Judaism that he became one who persecuted those who believed differently than he did. In this somewhat disjointed passage, Paul gives an accounting of his journey of transformation — a journey through time and space (as indicated by the places he has traveled, and the amount of time spent in them), as well as through his own spiritual evolution.
The metaphor of journey often is used to depict the way that human perspectives shift and evolve over time. We often speak of how we “move” from one point of view to another. Here in his discourse offered to the Galatians, Paul is sharing his own willingness to take that journey. The core issue which Paul is addressing in this Letter is, of course, the idea that some unnamed “preachers” have come among them lobbying for them to first embrace circumcision and other strict Jewish observances in order to be “true” believers of God. This is a perspective which Paul had embraced in his earlier years, he explains to them. But when he had encountered the message of Jesus — a message of radical inclusion — he grew to embrace a new perspective which sought to include rather than exclude.
When we think about it and reflect on the thousands of years of human history, we can see a long trajectory of bloodshed over the issue of peoples and nations trying to assert their strongly-held religious perspectives and beliefs onto others. There are any number of ways which a preacher, using this text, could offer a Christian perspective on the need for respect of other religions and/or differing observances of Christianity itself. If we know that God is always luring each individual, society, culture, and people toward the most creative ways of “living, moving, and having our being” in the world, we can trust that God’s lure is authentic in those contexts which differ from our own.
Where this passage intersects with the reading from 1 Kings is in the issue of discernment. We, as people of faith, trust that the Spirit guides us in our discernment of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love. It only stands to reason that the same Spirit will guide others in their discernment and understanding of the same aspects of God’s own nature. We would be wrong to impose our understandings onto others; we can offer our understanding, but need not force it on them! This is right where Paul lands; he affirmed the Galatians as being people who came to the love of God (and Jesus) as Gentiles; they needn’t be forced into becoming something that they are not in order to be considered authentic in their faith journey.
There are a number of startling similarities between this story and this week’s reading from First Kings. It may be that the author of Luke has done this intentionally! As with First Kings, this story is about the creative transformation of human grief into joy. The author of Luke pivots the story around the observation that Jesus “had compassion for her.” All that takes place after that phrase is centered on the process of creative transformation. One could suggest from this story that compassion is a quality which calls us to become partners with God in effecting creative transformation in our world.
Beginning with the process-relational assertion that God sees the world as it is and works with it to help it become all that it an be, compassion can become a world-view from which we all can operate in order to help that transformation begin. In a literal understanding of the word (and of its Latin roots), compassion is an invitation to “suffer with” others. The suffering may not be literal (and it needn’t be literal) in order for transformation to take place. But to put ourselves into other peoples’ situation from an empathetic and intentional mindfulness can be a door to open the way for new things to take place. When we understand human suffering for what it is, and consequently place ourselves in solidarity with those who are suffering, we pave the road toward being a prophetic presence in the world, following the example of Jesus (who was named as “a great prophet” by those who witnessed what he did for the widow).
The ways that Jesus placed himself in solidarity with the widow’s suffering can be instructive for us in discerning how compassion is the direction toward which God is always luring us. First, he noted her vulnerability. In his cultural context, the most vulnerable people were women who had no male relative to care for them. Her weeping would have been only in part out of grief for the loss of her son, but it was also for the stark reality which faced her in a society in which the only way for a woman to make a living for herself was through begging and/or prostitution. Jesus further placed himself into solidarity with this woman by physically touching the funeral bier on which the dead man had been placed. Again, looking at the cultural context, to touch a dead person or to carry a corpse would place someone into an “unclean” status for religious purposes — that individual would not be considered part of the community until after a specified time of purification had passed. Jesus was willing to put himself into the circle of those who would be treated as outcasts for having ministered to the needs of a family who had experienced death.
Once inside what could be called a circle of vulnerability, Jesus (no doubt responding to God’s lure) worked with God to bring about transformation. The dead son’s life was restored to him, and then he was restored to his mother. The restoration of life to this man was about more than his ability to “live and move and have his being” once again, of course; the story is about the restoration of the woman’s place in society. Whether the man coming back to life was literal or metaphoric, it isn’t his resuscitation which was deemed prophetic; it was the fact that a vulnerable woman was once again secure in her ability to live into her old age cared for by someone. In that cultural context — following a long trajectory from the ancient Torah and Prophets — providing for vulnerable folk like widows and orphans was an expected part of living a faithful life.
The fact that this widow’s vulnerability would be relegated to degrading acts of begging and/or prostitution in order to eke out a living was a symptom of a culture which had rejected the spiritual principles at its core. Jesus’ actions of solidarity helped to restore not only the widow to her rightful state of security, but the members of the society who surrounded her were reminded of their role in providing for those who are most vulnerable among them. It’s no small wonder that Jesus was proclaimed “a great prophet” by the crowd — prophets comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable; and all that had taken place in their midst.
Turning to our contemporary context, it could be helpful to consider what vulnerabilities we witness in our lives. Who are the ones among us who have been rendered voiceless? Who are those whose life conditions put them at risk through no fault of their own? It can also be helpful to consider how we are called to compassion in our contexts. How might we place ourselves in solidarity with those who are suffering? What risks might we take in order to be in solidarity with them; and to what degree are we willing to take those risks? How can we work to restore the marginalized to the safe, caring center of the community? How might we be a prophetic presence in our society, calling it to embody compassion?
Every moment in every day provides opportunity for us to discern how best to respond to God’s lure toward creative transformation. It is rare that a day will go by without some opportunity to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes through the spiritual practice of compassion. The Collect of the Day (or Prayer of the Day) provided for this week in The Book of Common Prayer puts this ongoing discernment in very straightforward language:
…Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right,
and by your merciful guiding may do them…
We may not be called on in our daily living to resuscitate someone from death or life-threatening conditions. But we are called upon daily to live in solidarity with those whose life circumstances are more vulnerable than our own, and to help make their lives better in some way. To pray for the discernment to see things that way, and to act accordingly, is at the center of embodying compassion, and being a partner with God in the ongoing work of creative transformation.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY, in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, David had a career as a lay professional in church music. In addition to his interests in weaving process theology into parish ministry through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and showing family & friends around the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate NY.