A tradition in Haiti with very small children is for parents or siblings to give them a slice of bread, then ask them to give back one bite, so that from a very early age they learn to share. When I was in Mexico, when someone had a pack of gum they would ask anyone near by them, even a stranger, if they wanted a piece, even if it meant giving out the last piece. In the story from the old testament today in 1 Kings. A single mother is almost out of food, and Elijah, a man of God, was sent to her by God. When he arrived to be with her, he asked her to share. Well, you can imagine that since she was almost out of food, she wasn't all that willing to share anything. But he assured her that by doing so, God would provide more food for her. So she did share, and God did provide more. I think sometimes those who have a lot of things, have a harder time sharing than those who have very little. But God rewards those who share, ensuring that they will always have enough. I hope that you may be willing to share, some of a slice of bread, or some of your gum, or whatever you may have, if someone comes to you in need. That person may have been sent by God....
Have any of you seen how high I toss Ruby Gene in the air? I love it. It's fun to do this during bell choir practice. The bells are silenced, and the women gasp. And Ruby Gene is just smiling, as she flies through the air, arms outstretched and then I catch her. I've only dropped her a couple of times!
We have a new trick: she's started taking a "swimming class" at the Chavez center. She floats around in the water and kicks looking for floating toys. I can really toss her high in the pool. I was enouraged by the instructor to dunk her. To do this, he told me to wet her head, I felt like i was baptizing her, and then blow in her face so she closes her eyes, and then dunk her underwater! Just a few seconds, and then lift her out. Her eyes are squinting and she takes her hands and puts them at the back of her head and tries to peel the water off of her. After she orients herself, she smiles...and resumes her kicking and searching for floating toys.
She is so trusting, I wonder if she has ever doubted us, if she even has the capacity not to trust...
But I know it won't be that way forever. There be an incident--hearing Trasie and me in an arguement, or one of telling her no very sternly to not do something-- and a slight shift will occur..and she'll wonder, can I really trust my parents? Are they really on my side?
What about her experience of God? Being the preacher's kid, she will certainly get a lot of God talk. And I pray that one day early on she may embrace and hold onto GOd, in an innocent way.
But what about when her preacher daddy does't practice what he preaches? What about when the community of faith subjects her to an unreasonable standard because she's the preacher's kid...and she is judged unfairly? A shift..a shattering...something goes wrong...will she trust God?
Seeing how Trusting Ruby Gene is makes me think it's soemthing she was born with, something we're all born with. When in our lives do we lose trust lose faith...in our families? in the church? in the world? in God? When we experience Disappointment...Suffering...Tragedy...Life that happens in a dramatic way.
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, suggests that people live with certain core assumptions about the world, that is that the world is benevolent (bad things will not happen); The world is meaningful (events of the world should make sense); and that the self is worthy (events of the world correlate to the good or bad that we bring into the world). Now at first glance, we might say certainly we're smart enough, wise enough to the world, to know that life is not fair and sometimes tragedy follows no line of reasoning. Yet in that moment when our world comes crashing in around us, some of the first questions to rise from our lips may be: How could this happen? Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?
As people of faith we must go one step further, and ask, "Where is God in the chaos that threatens us?" You know this is what they are asking in the gulf coast. This is what they are asking in Palistine and Israel...
And based on our own sufferings, and those of others, we may take the core assumptions suggested by Janoff-Bulman a step further:
What would it mean if we no longer lived in a trustowrthy world? I was terribly bothered when I heard from Milee, that her boy James, the day before he was to graduate, was hurt so badly by his classmates that they had to rush him to ER. She said, angels were watching over him, and he is going to be okay. He is at home now, and we pray for his recovery. We pray for the boys who did this as well. How is James experiencing God?
What would it mean if events in our lives are random (without meaning)? An elderly neighbor came over this week to visit with Ruby and me, and she shared with me about the death of her own daughter, when her daughter was just seven months old. Why would a seven month old child die? How was God with her and her husband through that tragedy?
If we assume a correlation between good behavior and good outcome, what would it mean if we have no control over the events of our lives? This is what a single mother of three--who is a very good person-- is asking after her application for a Habitat house was denied, after her employer didn't consult her when setting her work schedule, and didn't take into consideration her children. How is she experiencing God? What gives her hope? As we were saying good-bye, i feebly said to her, "keep your head up...and she said, "I have to, I have three mouths to feed. I've got to keep my head up. My grandmother always saying 'have faith.' And that's what I have to do....
I think our task as people of faith, is to go to those places of pain and suffering, and seek to discover where God may be. As people of faith we must think theologically about these very difficult existential questions....and we don't always find easy answers. How does my experience of the world and of God help in difficult times, not only for myself but for others? How is the God of Scripture revealed in the midst of desperate situations?
Two stories from the Bible read this morning...stories of two women found in absolutely desperate situations: widows, vulnerable to exploitation or simply being discarded in their cultures.
How is God revealed? How is God present with them?
The widow from 1 Kings is visited by God's prophet Elijah. Elijah had challenged the wicked King Ahab and his infamous wife, Jezabel, because of their idoloitrous worship. As a result, Elijah was challenged to trust in God's care. After hiding out in a mountainous region, God sends him 100 miles through a drought stricken land to Zarephath (try that one out...)...just 8 miles from Jezabels' hometown, a real test of faith...where finds this poor widow--a single mom--with problems of her own. "Bring me a little cup of water and a small cake of bread," he pleads. Not too much to ask, right. And for the widow: water, no big deal even during the drought. But bread...that was too much. "I have so little... what little I have will be for my son and me, we will eat it and die," she says while gathering sticks for a fire. Somehow, the desperate Elijah, convinces her to have faith...that God would provide, and somehow together, all three of them, would make a go of it. And day after day as Elijah and the widow and her son ate their little cakes of bread, they were reminded that God could be trusted--for another day. Desparation, solidarity, provision, every day their faith grew.
In Luke, we find another story about a widow and her son. Only this time, the son is dead. With no husband, and now no son, what future does she have? The funeral is in process, the body laid out on the stretcher...the town follows showing respect. The widow has lost her son...a mother has lost her son. Jesus sees, he is filled with compassion. That word translated compassion is a great word-splanchnizomai, it would make a great password. Splanchnizomai, compassion-- The essence of solidarity, pity, mercy, and love. This is what motivates Jesus to just stop the funeral procession. How did he do it? "Hold up hold up...woah...halt. He touches the body, the crowd is hushed, Jesus is now impure. But he doesn't care. He raises her son from the dead. He gives him to his mother. Her life has hope. THe crowd is fearful, the prophet promised by God, has come.
In these stories where desperation and hopelessness is transformed into hope, life and salvation, we see a God who does care, who provides, who has compassion for and suffers with those who suffer. What do these stories mean for us in the light of our own lives our own experiences? HOw do they shape our experience of God?
I want to share something very personal, that was extremely helpful for me and has been for many others. As some of you know, my cousin, Matt Pendergrast, a year and a half my younger, with whom I was very close growing up, disappeared some 9 years ago. He has never been found. A few months ago, Matt's mother, my aunt Mary Ellen, was interviewed by Dr Ben Campbell Johnson, as part of a series called Experiences of God. I would highly encourage any of you who are interested to check out his interviews with people who have had a variety of experiences of God. www.bencampbelljohnson.com
I want to share with you some of the interview, and I want you to think about my aunt's story of losing her eldest child, her only son, and how she experienced God in that loss, as a way to deal with our own losses and suffering, as well as showing ways we may be the hands and feet of Christ, through our compassion to those who are hurting...
Dr. Johnson asked my aunt, "How did you respond to the realization that [Matt] was not going to be found easily?"
She replied, "It was a gradual process; of course initially the hope that he would be found was most important...But, he was never found...But, we could not have survived without the support of the community. People, some of whom I had not seen for 10 years, called and brought food by and the hugs, and so many times people would come and I could tell they just plain didn't know what to say, but they were with us, we were never alone. They were here and I felt their support, their [compassion], their concern."
Dr Johnson responded: "It is so important that you and your husband Jeff were able to receive that. Often people want to help and to support, but some don't accept the efforts of others."
"There's something about giving and recieving that is important," she concurred.
"Mary Ellen, I know this is a dark path, but I want to ask you, what kind of thoughts and feelings did you have when you felt "I may never see [my boy] again."
She forced a smile as she answered, "I actually didn't think I'd never see him again. Initially, I hoped, I kept hoping that he would be found, that we would know what happened.
Then, I had a very special experience on Valentines day, which was like 10 and a half weeks after he had disappeared. We were still in the throws of will we ever see him again, but I got a very clear message that day--from him I'm convinced--That he was okay. I didnt know what that meant. I didn't know if he was still in his physical body, or if he wasn't. But I got the message that he was okay. That eased my anxiety to get an answer. Because what's more important for a mother than to know that her child is okay..."
She continued, "I may never find out what happened, and that's okay, he's with God."
"How did you and how do you experience God in this pain?" Dr. Johnson asked.
I'm amazed by her response: "Some people feel God allows pain or gives us situations that cause pain so that we can grow. I don't believe that, I believe that God is with us through the pain. I think God cries with us. I think God is sad when these things happen. He would never cause it to happen to test us, I don't believe. God is with us, and God is with us in the hands and hugs and thoughts and prayers of others, too. I really believe that."
I struggled to make sense of the many stuggles I encounted this past week. I was inspired by my Aunt Mary Ellen's faith and courage, and her words of wisdom, which certainly reflect the reality of God as revealed in the stories of the two widows...
So let me ask you....What have been some of your losses, and at what cost? Has God been there with you? Can you allow Jesus to show you compassion? What have been the losses and suffering of those we come into contact with on a daily basis? Can we be Christ's hands and feet, stop the funeral procession and reach out with compassion.... We are the only ones who can stop ourselves from praying for even the most impossible of miracles, especially when it concerns the lives of those we love. I believe Jesus hears the cries hidden in the deepest abyss of our despair, just as he heard the heart of the grieving widow. He touches us in the place of our greatest pain, just as he reached into the place of death that boy's coffin. Jesus steps into the chaos of our unpredictable overtunred or shattered world to bring meaning from even the most desolate suffering.
Let us pray: Gracious God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. You Create us, you give us life. You redeem us, you give us hope. You inspire us to be your hands and feet in a hurting world. Like the widow at Zarepheth, fill those empty places of our lives and make us whole. Restore us now, heal us, stop the funeral procession that some of us may be experiencing. Give us faith, help us to trust again. Amen.
M. Jan Holton, "Luke 7:11-17, Pastoral Perspective", Feasting on the Word, ed. Bartlett and Taylor, p 119-120
Quoting: Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma, (New York: The Free Press, 1992).