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June 5th 2015 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
3 June 2016

Readings

1st Kings 17: 8-16

Maurice Andrew points out that the story we are about to read about the widow follows the same general theme as the one that immediately follows where the son is restored from death.  In fact some of the other Elijah and Elisha stories are very similar.  The theme is that Yahweh has the power over life and death and therefore, unlike Baal, Yahweh is the true God of life.  Andrew goes on to quote Claudia Camp who points out that five of the eight miracle stories involving Elijah and Elisha also include women.  Women represent the groups struggling for survival, and the miracle stories are stories of empowerment.[1]

Luke 7: 11-17

This reading from Luke has no parallel in the other Gospels and draws on our previous reading from 1st Kings.  It also includes a direct quote from the story of raising the widow’s son that follows our reading and from an Elisha episode in 2nd Kings: According to Fred Craddock there are also similar stories in Hellenistic or Greco-Roman culture. [2]

Luke’s referencing back to the Elijah story gives a dramatic example of Jesus’ compassion and, as the onlookers proclaim, identifies him as a great prophet.  The object of that compassion, Craddock writes, is the woman whose sole means of support, and her entire family, is her son. 

Luke is telling us that Jesus is more than a healer, he is a prophet and his healings have a prophetic as well as a compassionate role. Above all Jesus’ mission is not something unique and new but part of, and an extension of, existing religious tradition.

Sermon

There is always a temptation with the stories in both our readings to want to try and speculate what actually happened.  That is a question that is imposable for us to answer but the real question is how the story might be relevant to us. 

Feminist biblical scholar Professor Claudia Camp helps us in that quest by pointing out that five of the eight miracle stories involving Elijah and Elisha also include women.  She then explains that in these stories women represent the groups struggling for survival, and the miracle stories are stories of empowerment.[3]

It helps in understanding that suggestion that the story of Ruth and Naomi highlight the difficulty women on their own had to survive in the ancient world.  Regrettably that is still true today and even in subcultures of Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Certainly there are immigrant communities that bring their culture which we struggle to understand.  But there also subcultures where women are marginalised in Pākehā society ranging from the economically disadvantage to those self-righteous groups that see themselves as holding traditional ‘family’ values.  We have subcultures where women feel trapped in abusive relationships.  We even have subcultures where women who leave a violent relationship are murdered.  

However Camp suggests that the women in our biblical stories represent groups struggling for survival, and the idea that these miracle stories are stories of empowerment.  Those suggestions open the discussion to include both women and men. 

These stories highlight the impact of the prophetic voice on empowering all sections of all communities. 

Before we pursue that line of thought we need to identify the connection between our two readings.  

In comparing both today’s readings we focus on the way our Christian culture is grounded in Hebrew culture and challenges us to be the Christ that liberates and empowers people and communities.

If we read on from our first kings reading we discover that the widow’s son dies and Elijah restores him to life, which of course saves the widow from destitution.  In the Gospel incident Jesus restores a widow’s son to life which identifies him with the prophets like Elijah and Elisha.  

Luke is telling his readers that Jesus comes in the succession of the prophets.  Luke is also honouring a tradition of Hebrew sacred writing where stories are retold and retold and heroes of the faith are affirmed by repeating the deeds of previous heroes of the faith.  Claudia Camp mentioned that Elijah and Elisha both have miracle stories that include women.  Indeed the biblical text attests to Elisha’s authenticity as a prophet by having him mirror the Elijah stories.  The most notable is the succession episode where both Elijah going and Elisha returning divide the river Jordon by holding out Elijah’s mantel.  In today’s episode Luke adds Jesus to that succession of mirrored episodes.

However there is a further thread that ties these two episodes together, a thread that weaves them into our own quest for a way of life that mirrors the life of Jesus. 

Both Elijah and Jesus act out of compassion for the widow.  Such compassion is often lacking in our individualistic rational and budget driven society.

The other point that is made particularly by the story of the widow and Elijah is that humanity is a communal species.  People may well survive as individuals but in adverse circumstances folk survive best together.  

In the First Kings episode the woman was going to make her last loaf of bread.  When that was eaten she expected that she and her son would die.  But by sharing with Elijah they not only all lived but Elijah was able to bring healing when the boy was ill. 

In the story that was a divine miracle.  When such incidents happen in our world the spiritually aware can detect the divine presence in the miracle of compassion and team work.

Ernest Gordon’s 1963 book Miracle on the River Kwai tells the story of life in a World War Two prisoner of war camp where the survival rate improved when cooperation and compassion replaced the ‘every man for himself’ mentality. on a study that examined data from more than 309,000 people. The analysis revealed that those without satisfying family ties or social bonds with friends, neighbours or colleagues are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely. The mortality risk is comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.[4]

Jane Addams, was a pioneering social worker in the United States who lived between 1869 and 1935.  She saw education as the foundation for democracy.  She also argued for women's suffrage and for the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.  Her pacifism led her to oppose US entry into the First World War and after the war she was active in organizing relief supplies and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.  Among all her other achievements she is remembered to have said ‘The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life’[5]

There is little doubt that from a biological point of view we, like a good number of other mammals, are a communal species.  But our modern lifestyles are creating loneliness that many social scientists and psychologists are suggesting result in major depression. 

In the beginning of chapter seventeen we can read that Elijah has gone into exile in the wilderness drinking water from the wadi and being fed by the ravens.  However the wadi dried up and we are told that God sent him to the widow.  Apart from the threat of thirst we could well imagine that Elijah could have been heading towards depression and a number of other nasty side effects of isolation that modern science identifies.  Therefore although the story focuses on the benefits that Elijah bestows on the widow the human contact also bestowed benefits on Elijah.  No matter how the jars of meal and oil kept refilling the widow separated from the community simply by being a widow and Elijah separated from his community by politics they found renewed life by sharing in a time of adversity.  A time when circumstances could well cause anybody to refuse to share the little they had and take the destructive ‘every person for themselves attitude.’  A way of thinking that seems very prevalent in a lot of the economic ideology of our world.

We can certainly see how the widow benefited but at the end of the chapter when Elijah has restored the life of the widows son she says to him.  ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Yahweh in your mouth is truth.’ (1st Kings 17:24)  In our understanding that is certainly the sort of comment that would restore self-esteem that must have been somewhat dented by his need to flee into exile.  

We can read the story and see Elijah as being very demanding of the widow but he certainly shows compassion in the healing of her son.  More significantly we see compassion from the widow who shares the last bit of food with the destitute stranger.

Luke makes it clear that it is compassion that moves Jesus to raise the widow’s son.  When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.’ (Luke 7:l3)

In both the 1st Kings reading and the gospel the miracle is initiated by compassion for the widow, the person ‘the system excludes’. Both incidents ask us who our society’s systems exclude and what miracles can we expect if we treat the excluded with compassion rather than a burden on the taxpayer. 

We will never know how many homeless children are given a new start in life by those who have the compassion to organise school lunches. 

We can however read about the runway boy from welfare homes and the teacher’s compassion who took him into a special class that launched him on the journey towards becoming super-scientist Sir Ray Avery.

In amongst the blatant kiwi jokes added into Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress to make the film Hunt For The Wilderpeople there are still subtle treads of truth.  Amongst the mayhem and hilarity Hec’s reluctant compassion moves an unwanted Ricky towards his own understanding and expression of compassion.  The slow building relationship between the man and the boy contrasts with the box ticking child welfare officer who just happens to be named Paula.  With the full force of the law and support of the news media Paula tracks Hec and Ricky while chanting the slogan ‘No child left behind.’  Meanwhile Hec and Ricky both find meaning in the growing compassion they have for each other. 

Like so many story’s Hec and Ricky’s story came from the imagination of a great story teller.  But even with Taika Waititi’s adaptation and ability to find a part for the cream of New Zealand’s comedians there are great threads of truth within the story. 

In many of the stories we might consider as ‘our stories’ there are truths that provide the prophetic voices that can empower sections of community in the same way the stories of the Bible can challenge and empower people from generation to generation. 

All these stories are people’s stories and it is indeed people, not buildings that make a church.  It is people who build communities that helps people survive and overcome adversity.  Furthermore today’s readings suggest that it is compassion that builds true community. 

As we at St Albans Uniting seek to move our church into the future in a way that honours this new complex and is truly a church that is the body of Christ we must be both a compassionate community and a community of compassionate people. 

A community that even in our poverty welcomes the destitute stranger and in that welcoming welcomes a prophet.  A church that reaches out to the marginalised as it lives out its role as the body of Christ.

It is in our compassion and our willingness to be a welcoming and empowering compassionate community that we can truly sing:

I am the church!  You are the church!

We are the church together!



[1] C.V. Camp, 1 and 2 Kings, pp.97, 106. in Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p248.

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), pp. 95-97.

[3] C.V. Camp, 1 and 2 Kings, pp.97, 106. in Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p248.

[5]http://www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/addams6.htm 

 

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