Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost June 10, 2007, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Stories under the Stars
“The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail
(I Kings 17:16)
Last week Ton Whiteside commented that worshipping in the Parish Hall would be a bit like going to church camp, and I think he’s right. I never went to church camp, but I did go to regular camp, and I see some resemblances to what we’re doing here. We don’t have a campfire, but in a while we will gather in a circle around the altar, our own center of energy and warmth. We won’t eat hotdogs and lemonade, but we will be fed with food and drink that satisfy the soul. We can’t look up and gaze at stars shining above us in the night sky, but because we are gathered in God’s presence, we are opening ourselves to the big picture, the long view, the larger mystery in which we swim. We know that the stars are shining, and that God’s light shines within them all.
And like campers everywhere, we will tell stories. Today’s readings give us two wonderful stories, and after saying a few words about them I will tell you a third story.
Story #1 is from the First Book of Kings, and it might as well begin like this: “Once upon a time there was a widow who lived with her only son in the city of Zarephath.” The land was undergoing a terrible drought, and the woman was so poor that she had no fuel for her fire and no food except one last handful of meal in a jar and a bit of oil in a jug. Now the word of God came to the prophet Elijah and told him to visit the poor widow, for – surprisingly enough – God had commanded her to feed Elijah. Elijah set out, and at the gate of the city, Elijah found the desperate woman gathering a few sticks for a fire. She figured that, after cooking the morsel of food she had left, she and her son would just lie down and die.
But Elijah interrupted her despairing slide toward death. “Bring me a little water,” Elijah told her, “and bring me a little cake of the oil and meal, and don’t be afraid. There will be enough left over for you and your son.” I imagine the woman staring at him in amazement. She must have thought he was crazy. But then it got even stranger – Elijah promised that not only would she and her son be fed, but God wouldn’t let the jar of meal be emptied or the jug of oil run out until the rains returned and the drought had come to an end.
And it was so. In an act of quite astonishing trust, the generous widow placed the little she had into Elijah’s hands, and lo and behold, God kept re-stocking that jar of meal and re-filling that jug of oil. And for days on end, until the rains came, everyone ate and was satisfied.
This wonderful story shows what God wants – for the hungry to be fed, for the weak to be protected, for the poor to be satisfied, and for all of us to be caught up in the life-giving, liberating, and loving energies of God. Sometimes we feel like the widow of Zarephath, desperate, helpless, and afraid, and are astonished by God’s power to rescue us when we’ve reached the end of our rope. And sometimes we feel like Elijah, listening to the urgings of God and heading out into our family, or out into the world, to bring a word of hope.
That is Story #1: Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
Story #2 is from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus was like Elijah, traveling where God sent him, and like Elijah, when he reached the gate of the town – in this case, the town of Nain – he saw a desperate widow. As in our first story, this widow was probably poor, or soon to be poor, for her only son had died and the young man was probably her only means of support. And now she was alone in the world, grieving and bereft.
At the gate of the city, the two large crowds met, approaching from different directions – on one side, Jesus, his disciples, and a great throng of followers; on the other, a large funeral procession made up of family members, friends, and hired mourners and musicians, as the dead man was carried on a bier, a kind of wicker-work basket or frame, for burial outside the city gates.
When Jesus saw the grieving mother, he had compassion for her, for that is God’s way. That is the nature of God. And in a miracle story that couldn’t be told with greater simplicity, Jesus came forward, touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. The walk toward death was stopped. We can imagine silence falling over the crowd as the flutes and cymbals were hushed and the cries of grief were stilled. Confused, startled, maybe even resenting this interruption, everyone looked at Jesus. Then, very simply, without any drama or ritual, without even saying a prayer, Jesus commanded the young man to rise. And, the story tells us, “the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother” [Luke 7:15]
It is another miracle story, another tale that expresses both the depth of human misery and the compassion of God, the power of God to set us free. Where should we look for God? Wherever people are suffering, lonely, and lost. Wherever people are marching or sliding toward death. That’s just the place where God is likely to show up and say Stop! Or Rise! Or Be healed! as Elijah did for the widow of Zarapheth and her son, and as Jesus did for the widow of Nain and her son.
Stories like these remind us that God is with us in our longing for life, and that God yearns to work through our hands and minds and hearts so that we too can bring healing to the world, so that we too can stand up for life. Sometimes we do this very explicitly, knowing that our longing for life is God’s longing, too. Elijah knew what he was doing when he reached out to the widow of Zarephath, and Jesus knew what he was doing when he reached out to the widow of Nain and her son — they were listening to God, and filled with God, and allowing the power of God to flow through them.
But sometimes God uses us to bring life into the world in ways we never intended or expected, and in ways we may never even know. Which brings me to Story #3.
This is a true story about a woman named Rebecca Parker, a woman who at one point in her life felt as hopeless as the two biblical women in the stories we just heard. Someone close to Parker had died, and as the weeks went by, she began to spiral into deep despair. During the day she worked dutifully at her job, but at night she couldn’t sleep, and would pace the rooms of her house and wail.
One night, she writes, “[my] sorrow, despair and isolation came to a crisis. I was past living one day at a time, or even one hour at a time, and was down to the question of whether I was willing to continue to live at all. In the depths of that sadness, I stopped pacing… It was past midnight. I left my house and walked down the hill to Lake Union. The city was quiet. My face was wet with tears as I set my course toward the water’s edge. I was determined to walk into the lake’s cold darkness and find there the consolation that I could not find within myself.
“At the bottom of the hill, the street ended and the lake-side park began. I walked across the wet grass and climbed the last rise before the final descent to the water’s edge. As I crested the rise, to my surprise I discovered that between me and the shore there was a line of dark objects, stretching the whole length of the field, a barricade I was going to have to cross to get to the water.
“I didn’t remember this barricade being there before, and it was so dark I couldn’t tell what I was seeing. But as I edged closer, I discovered it was a line of human beings, hunched over some strange looking, spindly and bulky equipment. Telescopes!
“It was the Seattle Astronomy Club. A whole club of amateur scientists up and alert in the middle of the night, because the sky was clear and the planets were near.
“In order to make my way to my death, I had to get past an enthusiast in tennis shoes. He assumed I had come to look at the stars. ‘Here, let me show you ” he said, and began to explain the star cluster his telescope was focused on. I had to brush the tears from my eyes in order to look through his telescope. There it was! I could see it! A red-orange spiral galaxy! Then he focused it on Jupiter and I peered through to see the giant, glowing planet. I could not bring myself to continue my journey. In a world where people get up in the middle of the night to look at the stars, I could not end my life.
“I know there is grace,” she goes on, “because my life was saved by the Seattle Astronomy Club, by those human beings that night who held fast to the desire to see the beauty of the universe, in spite of the cold or the late hour. I was saved by the human capacity to love the world and the distant reaches of the unknown. I was saved by one particular human being who assumed I shared a desire to see the stars. I was saved by being met, right in the pathway of my despair, by one – actually one hundred – who wouldn’t let me go that way. I was saved by the stars, by the cool green grass under my feet, by the earth, the cosmos, its presence, which won me over and persuaded me to stay.”
So here we are, campers all, pilgrims, listening to stories, and I have to tell you, I want to be like those amateur astronomers with their telescopes pointed at the stars. And I want us all to be like them, too – so caught up in the beauty of life, so grateful for the fact that we are here, that anything is here at all, so convinced that life is good and worth living – that we become a barricade for anyone who is openly or secretly on a march toward death. If it hasn’t happened yet, I hope it will happen now – I want us to fall in love with life this summer, to fall in love with God.
So I give thanks for the jar of meal that is never emptied and the jug of oil that never runs dry, thanks for the God who has compassion for the poor and raises us from the dead, thanks for the God who can use anyone – even you, even me, even “an enthusiast in tennis shoes” – as a channel for grace.
Rebecca Parker, “Blessing the World,” The Center Post: An Occasional Journal of Rowe Camp & Conference Center, Spring 2007, pp. 1, 5, excerpted from Rebecca Parker, Blessing the World, Skinner House Books, 2006.