The story begins with Elijah of Tishbe in Gilead and king Ahab, the worst king Israel had known. One day, Elijah came to 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 king was angry, very angry, and then the long drought began. 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, as she told him, to cook her last handful of grain with a little oil, one last meal for her and her son. The drought on top of her already marginal existence as a widow meant that starvation was inevitable for her and her child. And 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 radically 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 then Elijah, 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 didn’t die of starvation. They ate for many days, and the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.
If this were a Hallmark movie, you’d see smiling faces, perhaps rain clouds on the horizon, and the closing credits with the sound of thunder in the background. But in the Bible 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 comes again very close, but God listens to the prayers of Elijah, and the boy is miraculously revived and returned to his mother.
The names of king Ahab and queen Jezebel are 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 people who live in dry times. In dry times, we tend to look at our own meager resources, that last handful of grain, that spoon of olive oil at the bottom of the jug, and we go and gather sticks for that last fire. This story blows up our assumptions and reminds us that God’s possibilities go beyond what we can imagine. The woman’s radical hospitality and the prophet’s prayer open the gates through which life returns.
The cover of the current New Yorker shows a familiar scene, a congressional hearing. In the foreground, we see a man in a grey suit, standing behind a table, his right hand raised as he is being sworn in to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He faces a panel of committee members; they are the ones who ask the questions that will bring the truth to light. It is an unusual group of investigators, among them a pelican, a dolphin, a large fish, and a penguin.
Obviously, this isn’t a banking committee hearing, and the gentleman in the grey suit isn’t a hedge fund manager from Wall Street. More likely he’s Tony Hayward, C.E.O. of BP—and while we also have a number of questions we would like him to answer for us, in this hearing we are lined up behind him, and we can’t just sit in the audience. Before this panel, Mr. Hayward is not only answering for his company, but for all of us and our part in the disaster that is unfolding in the gulf and along the gulf coast. We must answer, because we have created a culture that interferes constantly with natural systems, and too often with very limited knowledge of the risks involved for other living things or future generations.
Last week the Boston Globe published a portfolio of pictures by A.P. photographer Charlie Riedel, pictures of pelicans and other sea birds drenched in oil, taken on East Grand Terre Island, one of several barrier islands on the Louisiana coast. They are pictures of agony and death, and almost too much to look at and allow in. It is hard to see these pictures, knowing that I can’t just point at Mr. Hayward and the senior management at BP and blame them for the deadly mess, knowing that the way I live my life has a lot to do with the death and suffering in the water and on land. It is like living through a different kind of drought, where it’s not rain that is lacking, but wisdom and care.
The story continues in 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 bier 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. She carried more than the weight of her grief. Without a husband or a son to take care of her, her future looked grim. Most widows had to depend on the compassion 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 strangers for a little mercy.
Death is a biological reality, and all living things eventually die. But death is also a social reality. Life expectancy is significantly higher for the rich than for the poor. In many places, child mortality rates among girls are higher than among boys. And in many societies, after the death of a spouse, life offers more opportunities to men than to women. Death is the great equalizer that ends every life, but it also invades our lives and prevents them from flourishing with different rules for men and women, for people born in poverty and wealth, for people with access to education and without. Death doesn’t just mark the end of life, it is a present reality that keeps it from thriving.
In a good funeral procession, people cry in their grief, but they also strengthen the ties of friendship between them, they share stories that make them smile, memories of the one whose body they accompany to its final resting place. In a good funeral procession, people travel in gratitude, with tears and smiles, carrying seeds of hope and joy and new life. But when people make that journey without a promise for tomorrow, they follow a bier in a procession of death. It’s a different kind of drought, where it’s not rain that is lacking, but hope and imagination.
So we see an old widow on the way to the cemetery to bury her only son and with him her own life. Traveling with her, the many women from areas where it hasn’t rained in years, gathering sticks for that last meal for themselves and their children. Traveling with them, the children born in cities of blatant inequality, the men and women whose hope disappeared like smoke from a snuffed candle. Traveling with them, fishermen with empty nets and people carrying the bodies of pelicans drenched in oil, dolphins and turtles. A long procession of those who know all the ways in which death invades life and sucks it dry.
They pass through the gate, and there, outside of town, coming toward them, is another procession. The two columns meet, and the Lord of life touches the bier on which the body lies, and he says, “Rise!” And it begins to rain—it rains hope and imagination, wisdom and care, it rains life and joy. The young man sits up and Jesus gives him to his mother and the crowd shouts and sings, praising God.
The procession of death stops, and it does not just stop 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 death’s dominion, and life restored in fullness begins to shine forth in glorious beauty. The procession of death stops, because it can go no further than to the cross, and at the cross God said “No!” to all that keeps life from flourishing, and “Rise!” to a new creation where sin and death are no more.
The Psalm for this Sunday praises the Lord, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever (Psalm 146). And line after line unfolds how the Lord keeps faith,
executing justice for the oppressed
giving food to the hungry
setting the prisoners free
opening the eyes of the blind
lifting up those who are bowed down
loving the righteous and caring for the stranger
sustaining the poor but bringing to ruin the way of the wicked
The Lord keeps faith by paying close attention to those living on the margins. 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. The Lord keeps faith by calling us to follow Christ who leads the procession of life.
And we keep faith by doing the small things that never make the history books. Small things like sharing a meal with the stranger at the gate, because that is how we honor the Lord of life. Small things like paying attention to those living on the margins, even if they are seabirds and dolphins, or little wiggly things whose names we barely know – because that is how we honor the Lord of life. We keep faith by doing small things like not pointing the finger at one man, because we realize that three fingers are pointing back at us.
We are not the ones who stop the procession of death and say, “Rise!” But we follow the One who did just that, and he will always show us a way to continue the invasion of death’s dominion with hope and imagination, with wisdom, care, and new life.