Homily: The Worst It’s Ever Been
I suppose every family has its sayings, words of wisdom or maybe just observation and insight from growing up together. I had these friends with 11 children in their family, and one of my favorite sayings comes from their days getting ready for school in the morning. They, of course, were always running late, always sure they wouldn’t make it to school on time this time, and invariably, laughingly, someone would say in the midst of the chaos, “This is the worst it’s ever been!”
Both our Gospel story of the widow burying her only son and our first reading about the prophet Elijah raising the son of a poor widow to life place us in circumstances where that saying comes to complete reality – and then God changes it.
God is at work in the most unexpected of places, in the most dreadful of circumstances, with the most unlikely of people. Some of the best stories in the Bible, the ones that remind us of other really good stories in the Bible, seem to happen in those out-of-the-way, across-the-border places, with people who are on the margins are surprisingly important in the grand scheme of things after all. While we know that Elijah was a particularly great prophet, and lots of wonderful stories are told about him in the Old Testament, Elijah’s good news was particularly good for the poor, not the powerful and arrogant.
The widow, preparing to die with her son, at the end of her rope, suddenly has salvation arriving at her door. Where there was scarcity, there is suddenly sufficiency. When the widow’s son lies dead, Elijah is summoned to be the means by which God brings new life. And, indeed, where there appears to be death, there is, amazingly, life! Small and powerless and yet full of insight, the woman recognizes that all of this is not magic, or the work of humans, but instead, it’s the hand of the true God at work in her life, and she makes the leap of faith to trust the word of this God in her life.
That is a subtle but important point of Elijah’s story. I find it a challenge to imagine that this poor, desperate woman has “faith” in any “God” (hers or Elijah’s) at this point: after all, she is preparing herself, and her son, to die. I suspect that there are other things than faith at work in her at this moment, things we don’t focus on as quickly or as easily in Christian writing, and hope is one of those things.
A reading like this one, in the midst of drought and famine, thirst and hunger, poverty and despair, provokes reflection on the phrase, “desperate hope,” for desperation, or despair, paradoxically, suggests hope-‘less’-ness. However, at the worst possible moments, hope can still persist deep within our hearts, no matter what God or god we have been raised to worship and taught to place our faith in. Perhaps the word “desolation” fits the widow’s situation even better, because it means ‘emptiness’, and when there’s nothing left, and you’re totally empty, there is room for all sorts of grace to move in and grow.
Could it be that surrounding ourselves with so many things, so many activities, so much noise, so many worries, makes it hard for us to open up our selves, our hearts, to God’s love and grace to fill in the empty places underneath it all? I just wonder about that. It’s not that we’re not hungry, deep down in our spirits, maybe even starving, but if we fill ourselves with enough spiritual junk food, we may not even be around when the prophet bearing good news – and hope – arrives.
The widow of Zarephath, however, is around when the prophet arrives, and she is empty, so she has room in her heart for hope. Contrast this record with these stories about prophets, stories that dare us today to imagine a very different kind of world, not based on power and might and greed.
When I majored in history in school, I had to learn what the “important” people did and when they did it, as if this were the only thing that mattered, and as if this history were also something objective, something established in fact. I suppose such information is helpful in understanding the context, the setting, in which the ‘really’ important things happened, even if those really important things were going on in remote villages and at the bottom of society, in encounters like those between hungry prophets and desperate widows, the kind of thing you don’t read about in history books.
For example, I confess that I was rather bored by the dry accounts of the formation of labor unions by the men at the top, instead of hearing the stories of the women who lost their lives in the Triangle Fire in New York City in 1911. Because of that tragedy, many significant changes happened, but I never heard that story in school. Years later, my personal reading is filling in the holes in my incomplete education, and I’m learning where the truly important and powerful things often happen, on the margins and in the most unexpected places.
Really, how much more important could an event be than bringing an only child back to life?
Something important does happen when Elijah prays for the widow’s dead son to be restored to life (an almost unimaginable thing to pray for), this something new in the life of someone who is “not privy to much newness.” That’s what “otherwise” is about: the new, unimaginable, and very different way for things to turn out, instead of the worn-out, despair-producing, cynicism-provoking ways of thinking and acting that we believe to be the way the world has to work. It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus stirred the memory of Elijah in his followers.
We need not only remember those great figures in history, like Martin Luther King, Jr., who have done the same, but to see our own lives differently as well, to live – or venture out into the “sacramental” practice of imagining a different world: a practice that is not only sacramental, but biblical as well A preacher might focus on religious imagination, then, or perhaps on the contrasts in this story, between power and powerlessness, hope and despair.
There are all sorts of wonderful things swirling around in our stories today: the power of God, the answers to our prayers, how things are never completely hopeless. When we look around at our lives and the life of the world, and the life of our churches, what abundance is about to break forth because of unexpected generosity and surprising compassion? What hope do we dare to welcome, and to entertain, in our own lives? What dreams of God are we, too, willing to imagine?
Could we make that the home page of our parish website, our parish Mission Statement?
“Imagine a church that cannot stay put, but takes God’s welcome into the world.
Imagine a church in conversation with other lives, other cultures, able to invite
and be invited, to sit at other people’s tables, to learn and share the inestimable
riches of God, to build relationships outside its walls. Imagine a church where
the hands, hearts and feet of every member, young and old, are shaped for service,
and a church that does not lack imagination about ways to use them. Imagine a
church compelled by the Spirit to travel with Jesus, healing, reconciling and doing
justice, a church filled with the daring and delight of the children of God. Imagine
a church on the open road, agile and able, willing to follow Jesus into life’s margins,
a church that gives itself away and asks nothing in return, a church mobilized for
mission: Imagine St James Church of Wilkinsburg!”, St James Church of Wilkinsburg, Amen!
What do you and our church dare to imagine, and to bring to life in the world, by allowing God to work through you in this world? How is God’s work getting done, through you?
What would happen in this world – this broken but beautiful world that God loves – if Christians shared their ‘hope’ as much as their ‘faith’? What if we were so full of hope that we ourselves would present the world – by our actions as well as our words – with something that the great scholar, Walter Brueggemann, calls ‘otherwise’? What if we were people who so deeply hoped for a more peaceful world that we ourselves would strive to bring to life a more peaceful way of living, first in our families and our churches and our communities and then, in our nation and in our world? When the world says that overwhelming power and force is the way to go, what if our hope for a more peaceful world inspires us to live lives of generous sharing, gentle humility, and open hearts? If the world thinks that war is the only option, what if we share our hope for ‘otherwise’?
If we read statistics about poverty, if we work with and for the poor, and we get discouraged at the suffering of the world, what if we are so filled with hope that we can see another possibility, a world in which everyone has enough to eat and clean water to drink, and good schools, and safe neighborhoods for their children to play in? If the world tells us that the earth itself is for our use, not for our care, and it’s just too bad if that beautiful earth has to pay the price for the things we want, what if we understand our role instead as stewards of creation, of caretakers of the gifts of God, enjoying the blessings of nature and all that the earth provides but taking good care of what we are responsible for so that generation upon generation after us will enjoy those same blessings? Can we offer an “otherwise” to ecological disasters, the extinction of species, the depletion of resources, the suffering of wildlife? Can we offer hope to a world that seems to have given up on “otherwise”?
What a blessing it could all be to the world! In your ministry, your warm hospitality and your inclusive vision, your witness for justice, and your hope-filled generosity, you and I could be bringing to life in this place the ‘otherwise’ of the gospel . Are you living in hope and inspiring hope in others? In the face of cynicism, greed, and despair, we, St James Church of Wilkinsburg, bring Hope. We can be imagining and bringing to reality a different way of living, and that is a gift to every single person who comes through our doors, seeking a new church home, a gift to our community here where we all are in ministry, and a gift to the whole wide world that longs for good news, a world that has filled itself too full with spiritual junk food, and hungers now for the gospel that fills your life, the gospel that you share.
I think it was Henri Nouwen who claimed that Christians “keep saying that a new way of being human and a new peace are possible.” You can say that because you are a people of hope. Out of that hope will spring generosity, a generosity that will share what you have been so abundantly blessed with by God, so that St James Parish will flourish and be a vital, thriving place of ministry and good news here in Wilkinsburg, and far beyond, in ways you can hardly begin to imagine. When the chaos catches up with us we say, ”This is the worst it’s ever been”, yet we dare to hope. For that is the very moment that God can bring new life.
Kathryn Matthews Huey