Preached 9 June 2013, Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, Albuquerque
You may have heard the variation of that old joke about the wife who is trying to get her husband out of bed on Sunday morning. He’s says, “I don’t want to go church this morning.” And the wife says, “I really think you should.” And the husband says, “Why” And the wife says, “Because I really think you need to hear the sermon this morning.” The husband says, “How do you know?” And she says, “You left it open on the computer when you finished writing it last night.”
I can assure you Deborah didn’t have any trouble getting me out of bed this morning. I am excited to be here, but after reading it over again this morning I realize this sermon is definitely something I need to hear.
When hearing these lessons, the thing that my mind goes to right away is the pain that these mothers, these widows must have felt at the death of the children. In the reading from 1 Kings, we have a widow, who in the passage just previous to ours was preparing a final meal for her and her son, expecting that after that last meal they would die of starvation. Elijah comes along, asks her to make him some food. When she does, her supplies are miraculously multiplied and she and her son are saved from starvation. And, then, just like that, her son dies. And she turns to Elijah and says, “Is this some cruel joke? Did God save my son from starvation just to have him die?
As a father of one, with another child on the way, as someone who in the past has felt the pain of miscarriage, as someone who has stood by as people very close to me have dealt with infertility, I can only just begin to understand the devastation of losing a child, or of not being able to have children. It is a devastation that I couldn’t adequately put into words even if I wanted to. But it is an important aspect of our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning. The biblical writers only hint at the agony these mothers, these two widows, must have felt at the death of their children.
These two readings remind me of another story, found in 2 Kings, in which Elijah’s protégé, Elisha, encounters another woman who extends hospitality toward him, and when he finds out that she and her husband cannot have children, he prays and she conceives and gives birth to a son, only to have that son die several years later. And there again is that heart-rending question, why? Why God did you give me this gift only to take it away? In fact the Bible is full of these stories, having to do with children, of couples who have trouble conceiving, of children nearly dying, or dying, of sometimes getting raised back to life, and sometimes not. There are literally dozens of stories like this in both the old and new testaments. What does all this say about us, about children, and about God?
As mentioned earlier, my wife and I are expecting our second child, so I have been brooding about these questions for some time before I began preparing this sermon. I have been experiencing what is hopefully a normal phenomena; I call it world-nesting, where I not only want to make a place for my unborn daughter in our home, I want to make a place for her in the world, meaning I feel compelled to solve all the world’s problems for her, make everything perfect; you know real quick, I’ll just figure out a way to end violence in our schools in between painting the nursery and buying a new crib. Ask Deborah, when she is pregnant, I become the recycling Nazi, because I don’t want the world my little girl grows up in to be a dump. The morning paper becomes my to-do list for things in the world that need fixing before it is safe to bring my daughter into it. And of course I can’t get past the first headline. And then a few weeks ago, I ran across an interview with the theologian, Stanley Hauerwas. Dr. Hauerwas was asked about radical Christianity, radical in the sense of counter the culture of this world, radical in the sense of living into the strange and revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God. He was asked, what was the most radical thing a Christian could do? Here was his answer:
“One of the most radical things that being Christian commits you to is the willingness to have the patience to have children. It’s very radical. What it means to have a child is to learn to live without control. And to learn to live out of control. We try to become very good at controlling the world, to make the world safe for children. And as soon as you try to make sure that your children are not at risk, because you want to make sure they can get out of life alive, then you do them a disservice. This is a dangerous world. And by being a Christian, it makes it more dangerous.”
The willingness to have the patience to have children, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. As much as I like to be in control, or more accurately, as much as I enjoy the quaint illusion that I are in control, I cannot hold onto that as a parent, and we cannot hold on to that as followers of Jesus. We are not in control. That is the first message of the stories of the two widows who lost their sons. The world is a dangerous place, and none of us, and none of our loved ones can make it out of life alive.
So why, why does God give us children, why does God give us anyone to love, why does God give us a caring community, only for it all to go away? It is easy to give in to fear, to become pessimistic, or nihilistic. It’s easy to wonder what the point of it all is. But then we come to the second message of our two readings. I like how Hauerwas puts it:
“Christians have children, in great part, in order to be able to tell our children the story. Fortunately for us, children love stories. It is our baptismal responsibility to tell this story to our young, to live it before them, to take time to be parents in a world that (although intent on blowing itself to bits) is God’s creation (a fact we could not know without this story). We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living—and not because ‘Children are the hope of the future,” but because God is the hope of the future.
Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of hope, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary, that God has not abandoned this world. Because we have confidence in God, we find the confidence in ourselves to bring new life into this world.”
That is why children were the most important people to Jesus. Why he had compassion on the widow and raised her son from the dead. That is why we must have the faith of a child to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. That is why our most important job as Christians is to be patient and caring toward our children, and not just our own children, but the children in our church and our wider community. In fact, it is why we must be patient and caring toward all those who do not have anything to offer in return, because that act bears witness to the grace and compassion of a God who, in our weakness, came among us, became weak with us, and showed us a better way, a way of redemption and reconciliation and peace for all. When Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead, the people exclaimed, “God has visited his people.” God has not abandoned the world, quite to the contrary, Christ on the cross abandoned himself to the world, and for the world.
And so we must be patient. And that after all is what ordinary time is about. If Easter is about Resurrection, about Christ conquering death, if Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the church, then Ordinary Time, the time after Pentecost, is about patience. Patience means trusting in the promise of Easter in the face of everyday life, both its mundane parts, and its incredibly painful parts. Patience belongs to the ones who accept that they are not in control, the ones who know that through patient caring for one another, for the weak and for the vulnerable, we can live into what we are destined to be as the church: a sign that God has not abandoned the world. Amen.