1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24)
We enter ordinary time today, the time of the church a time when we’re not bound by the church calendar to be thinking of particular highlight events like Christmas or Easter or as more recently Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. It’s that time of the year for the church families when there are no family birthdays! That means two things – firstly that we can spend time as a church family being family doing our regular things. Secondly it means that we are presented with the rich harvest of the Bible; with the stories of the church past that speak to church present an d tell us of how we should be shaping church future.
And as we enter the church family time, what better time to be welcoming a new member of our family? Baptism is not only about that one special day but that welcome into the regular every week every day -ness of the family. I heard from my brother on Friday that Michael and I are also welcoming a new member of our family as my sister in law gave birth to their second daughter Constance. Welcoming a new member of the family is such a delight whether it’s a new baby like Constance or like ____________________ or whether it’s a new member of our church family in the form of a new visitor to our church or someone newly baptised or confirmed. These are times of great joy for the family.
Unfortunately families also face times of sadness, as so many families in Cumbria faced this week. The experience of grief is common to many of us and in some ways the stories we’ve heard from the Bible this morning may seem rather unhelpful to those who have lost loved ones in Cumbria or elsewhere. These stories would bring the experience of those families into sharp relief. Picture it if you can, a small town called Nain and everybody has come out to support this poor woman who has lost her young son. Middle Eastern mourning is so very verbal, there would have been wailing and moaning. All this emphasising that with this son’s death, the family line ends and she faces destitution. Then Jesus enters and seeing the grief he touches the bier on which the coffin is being carried and then those words, “Jesus gave him to his mother.” And the community rejoiced saying “God has come to help his people” How many families in Cumbria now wish Jesus could do the same for them? How many might once more ask that eternal question: How can there be a God when there is such suffering?
I think what the gospel reading today shows us is that though the world may be one in which there is suffering and sometimes great tragedy, that does not mean that God is a vindictive God. No, when God in the form of Jesus is faced with such a tragedy he is moved to compassion and does all he can to help. The Old Testament story shows us that being moved to compassion by such things is not just the role of Jesus but of all those who believe in God. Elijah too is moved to compassion by the widow he meets. These two stories show that God’s compassion is available both to individuals or families and to whole communities. God’s compassion is there for us if we like the widow of Zarepath, retreat into our home in sorrow or if we are mourning as a whole community, like that at Nain or those in Whitehaven, Lamplugh, Egremont, Frizington, Wilton, Gosforth, Seascale and Boot.
How can there be a God when there is such suffering?
I think for those of us that do believe the better question is:
Where is God when there is such suffering?
These two stories we heard today tell us of two widows met at the point of need and provided for by the servants of the Lord. Two acts of service not self glorification as prophets: Yet also two different settings one very public one very private. So too the church now serves many of those today who are bereaved, both publicly and in private, helping them through the initial grieving and shock. I was so pleased that the vicar of Whitehaven was one of the first local voices to be heard responding to the tragedy and is still at the forefront of much of the coverage. The church is there for people not just with the planning of the funeral but also for the more long term in being family for those who have lost members of their family or those without family. I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 a few weeks ago about loneliness and hearing many people talk about their isolation from their immediate neighbours, the loss of family through divisions or grief or the great distances that globalization now places between some families and which lead to isolation for many people in our global world. I heard people talk about their loneliness and I thought how blessed we are in the church that we have a community around us. The widow of Zarepath had no-one but her son. The widow of Nain, likewise faced a life of isolation without her son. Unlike today neither of these women could have gone and got a job or received state benefit. A widow was dependent on the charity of family or, like the widow of Zarepath, faced starvation and death. This is why so much of the bible talks about the importance to care for widows and orphans because without such charity and help as showed by Elijah and Jesus they faced destitution.
For example, Deuteronomy tells the people of Israel not to be too careful in their harvest but if they miss sections, to leave it for the widows and fatherless (much as Ruth and Naomi gleaned from the fields of Boaz)
The two stories we heard therefore call us to help widows but also those whom society overlooks just as the society in the bible overlooked widows.
The Letter to the Romans shows that Christian service encompasses being there for people at their point of need – just as Elijah and Jesus were
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.Romans 12.15
These two stories remind us that our faith calls us to serve those society shuns and who is “society” but us? Who do we shun? Drug addicts, ex-offenders, the uneducated, the Asbos, the young people “hanging around”. How the list could go on! The greater question is;
how is the church sharing bread with these people as Elijah did with the widow at Zarepath?
How are we bringing hope back to them as Jesus did at Nain?
How are we bringing people in distress to a place of praise with a cry “God has come to help his people”?
These stories today remind us clearly of two important things about Our God.
Our God is a God of the individual
Our God is a God of the community.
The question for you today is – How are you showing that in your individual actions and how is our community reflecting God’s presence?