One day, the prophet Elijah came to king Ahab and said, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The prophet and the king had been clashing over what kind of power was life-giving, and whose power it was – the king’s or God’s.
Ahab was angry, very angry, but the long drought began as the prophet had declared. God sent Elijah across the border, away from Ahab’s reach, to Zarephath, where a widow would take care of him. When he came to the gate of the town, he saw her; she was gathering sticks. Sticks for one last fire, to cook her last handful of grain with a little oil, one last meal for herself and her son.
Elijah, who had asked her for a little water to drink and a morsel of bread, said to her, “Go and do as you have said, but first…” First do this other thing, this rather odd thing to do on the verge of death, this incredibly generous and hospitable thing, first “make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” That last handful of grain, divide it by three instead of two, and feed me before you feed your child and yourself. And the stranger from across the border added, “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
And so it was. They ate for many days, and the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail. If this were a movie, you’d see smiling faces all around, perhaps heavy rain clouds on the horizon, and the closing credits with the sound of thunder in the background – a happy end. But the story continues. In a tragic turn of events, the widow’s son becomes ill, and the illness is so severe that there is no breath left in him. Death again comes very close, but God hears the prayers of Elijah, and the boy is miraculously revived and returned to his mother.
King Ahab and queen Jezebel have their names written in the royal archives and the chronicles of Israel, but nobody wrote down the names of the widow and her son. Their story is not for the history books, but for ordinary people like you and me and our neighbors, people who know life in dry times. It’s a story we have been telling for generations because it speaks of a hope and a power beyond what our drought-stricken hearts can imagine. It encourages us to put our faith in God, in hospitality, and in prayer.
Folks down in Coffee County are living through a dry season, but it’s not rain that’s lacking for life to flourish. On Tuesday night, the American Muslim Advisory Council, headquartered in Murfreesboro, had organized an event, called “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society.” It was billed as an educational opportunity for the public to learn about American Muslims, as well as how the civil rights of all citizens are protected under the United States Constitution.
Many of you will have heard about Coffee County Commissioner Barry West posting a picture on Facebook a few weeks ago, many of you may have actually seen it. It was a picture of a man pointing a double-barreled shotgun at a camera, and the caption read, “How to wink at a Muslim.” Commissioner West initially thought it was funny, but has since not only apologized for the post and removed it, but also met with Muslims who live and work in Coffee County.
Almost 1,000 people attended the event Tuesday night, and while some where there to listen and learn, a majority came straight from a preceding anti-Muslim and “free speech” rally, and they had other plans – to intimidate, undermine and disrupt the event. Their stated reason for being there was to protest what bloggers had called the government’s attempts to take away an individual’s First Amendment rights to post whatever he or she chooses on social media sites without repercussion.
The real reason, however, became apparent shortly after the presentation began. Wrapped in American flags and waving Bibles, the protesters shouted, “speak English” at a Muslim man who has been in the United States for three decades. They cheered and clapped at photos of a burned mosque in Columbia, Tennessee. They booed at photos of American Muslim soldiers killed while serving their country in the United States military. They accused all Muslims of being terrorists and yelled at them to “go home.”
Some good friends of mine were there, Christians, Jews and Muslims, and they felt wave after wave rolling over them, hot waves of ignorance, fear, and rudeness. It’s a different kind of drought, one where the wells of wisdom and care are running very low. In dry times, it is good to have stories that speak of a hope and a power beyond what our drought-stricken hearts can imagine.
Luke takes us to Nain, a small town in Galilee. Jesus approached the gate of the town just when a man who had died was being carried out. A large crowd, probably the whole town, followed the stretcher with the body on it. Apparently the man had not been married; there was no young widow, no children – only his mother. A woman who had already lost her husband, and now her son, her only son. Without a husband or a son to take care of her, her future looked grim. Widows often had to depend on the kindness of their husband’s family to survive, and many ended up sitting in the gate or by the road side together with the blind and the crippled, begging neighbors and travelers for a little mercy.
Death is of course a biological reality and part of life, as all living things eventually die. But death is also a social reality, a moral and spiritual reality. Death invades our lives with different rules for boys and girls, for men and women, for people born in poverty and those born in wealth, for members of the majority and for minorities. Death has ways of making life smaller and poorer than it could be, and long before it comes to its biological end.
In a good funeral procession, people cry, but they also share stories and memories that make them smile. In a good funeral procession, people travel in grief and gratitude, with tears and smiles, carrying seeds of new life. A good funeral procession is a procession of life. But when people make that journey without a promise for tomorrow, they are in a procession of death. They are barely surviving, in a drought where it’s not rain that is lacking, but hope and courage.
So we’re watching a widow on the way to the cemetery to bury her only son and with him her own future, her own life. And traveling with her, all the women who still gather sticks for one last fire to prepare the last meal for themselves and their children. And behind them in the procession, the many whose hope vanished like smoke from a snuffed candle. And behind them, you notice your friends whose wells have gone dry, and perhaps you recognize yourself in that long procession of all those who have seen and felt death invading life and sucking it dry. They all pass through the gate, and there, outside of town, coming toward them, is another procession. When the two columns meet, the Lord of life sees the widow, and moved with deep compassion he says, “Do not weep.” Then he touches the stretcher and the bearers stand still.
And now the Lord says, “Rise!” and the young man sits up – and right there and then, it begins to rain: showers of hope and courage, of wisdom and care; the Lord speaks and it rains life and joy. The procession of death stops, and not just temporarily, it ends here where the Lord of life says, “Rise!” The procession of death stops, because with Jesus the reign of God has invaded the old dominion of death. The procession of death can go no further than to the cross, where God says “No!” to all that makes life smaller and poorer than life’s Creator intended, and where God says “Rise!” to a world where sin and death are no more.
“Praise the Lord who made heaven and earth, who keeps faith forever,” are the words that called us to worship this morning. The Lord keeps faith forever, bringing justice to the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting the prisoners free. The Lord keeps faith forever by redeeming all whom death has bound, by lifting up those who are bowed down, by watching over the strangers, and upholding orphans and widows. The Lord keeps faith through acts of judgment and redemption that bring to ruin the way of the wicked and stop the procession of death.
And we? We who have been called to follow Christ in the procession of life? We keep faith by doing the small things that never make the history books. Small things like listening to those outside our circles and to the stories they tell. Small things. Like practicing hospitality by entertaining ideas that are very different from our own. Small things like telling the bully to stop. Small things that are in truth huge because every small act of faith is an act of witness and a step in processionof life.