My sermon this week did indeed focus on the abundance of God’s love for us, and our tendency to get stuck at a subsistence level of faith, but it also ended up acknowledging the tragedy in Cumbria by making a small journey through a story of personal grief which had a Cumbrian connection… Ian (who you will read about) wrote and drew the image shown here and with which I close this sermon:
Life is full of surprises.
I remember when I celebrated my 21st Birthday I made a conscious decision to forswear the search for a serious man in my life and focus very clearly on revision and my finals…. Within three weeks I was dating Graham!
Others surprises aren’t so good. A few years later and a couple of years married, Graham and I were back in Aberystwyth where we’d met at college, catching up with old friends during our holiday. We were invited in to tee with Graham’s old boss, Stuart the vicar. It was he who had to tell us that our close and newly married friend Ian had suddenly lost his battle with Leukaemia, shortly after his honeymoon. A shocking and upsetting surprise.
The prophet Elijah constantly surprised people. H would appear seemingly from nowhere, proclaiming God’s justice and dominion over this world. In Old Testament history, her arrives only a few verses before our first reading this morning, startling King Ahab with the news that God is going to withhold the rains. Why?… because basically King Ahab’s marriage to Queen Jezebel and the increased Baal worship that followed, made Ahab the baddest of the bad Kings of Israel.
But just as fast as he appeared, Elijah has vanished again, this time to his homeland to be fed by ravens near a burbling brook.
However Elijah isn’t immune from receiving surprises himself – God’s provision for him won’t let him remain on home turf; the water runs dry and God sends him instead into the homeland of all that Elijah stands against in God’s name – to Phoenicia, the native land of Queen Jezebel and her fellow Baal worshippers!
There, Elijah surprises a widow preparing to cook her last meal before starving to death with her son. The woman had almost nothing left, but, with only a little convincing by this holy man of a foreign God, she shares her meagre reserves and is rewarded by an adequate and unending supply of food. The God of Israel, who had brought this drought upon all the lands of the region, has seen fit to preserve her and her son in exchange for her hospitality. She must have thought the worst was over.
I wonder if we’re like that sometimes, or perhaps most of the time, if we’re truthful. We’ve encountered the mighty works of God, perhaps through some unexpected source, or our almost grudgingly given response to someone’s request. We recognise that God has provided us with the means of survival, spiritually,… and physically. We know that our day to day existence is enabled by God, but it’s only at the level of basic subsistence.
That’s fine, until another of life’s little surprises comes along – perhaps the loss of one of the few things left that we value as giving us hope, or our quality of life. For the widow, it was her son and, as she would have understood it, her future security.
Human nature is such that, events beyond our control or understanding need someone or something to blame them on. Sadly, we’ve seen that this week in Cumbria, as communities and the police desperately search for reasons behind a shockingly violent and devastating episode.
It’s the blame game. When our understanding of God’s love and provision is limited and we are living on subsistence rations of faith, its very easy to blame God, or at least those that minister in his name. That’s what the widow of Zarephath did – she forgot the God that had kept them alive and blamed that God and the man that had brought him into her life… I wouldn’t be surprised if many ministers in Cumbria this week find that God, is getting the blame for allowing such an appalling tragedy to happen, and unlike for the widow and Elijah, God has not stepped in to raise anyone to life on this occasion.
We don’t know who the widow at the gates of Nain was blaming for her sons death in this morning’s Gospel reading. Perhaps, surrounded by the community in which she lived, she was too numb to blame anyone, lost in her tears and grief. Certainly she would not have concerned herself with the crowd coming the other way across the rocky plain, not even when the stranger leading the group stopped to console her. But she, with the pall bearers, would certainly have been taken aback when that same stranger reached out his hand to touch the bier. No Jew would make themselves ritually unclean in such a way. But their shock turned to joy at the life that was brought back to them before their very eyes.
The miracles of Zarephath and Nain were not teaching tools. They weren’t particularly designed to correct wayward believers, or signify God’s revelation of himself to peoples beyond Israel. Elijah and Jesus were inspired by the compassion of a loving God who despite the evils and diseases of a sinful world, wants us t recognise the truth of his concern for us and experience the abundance of his love for us. As each boy is given back to his mother, it is the truth of God’s existence, his active and powerful love, that is acknowledged and proclaimed.
There are few documented miracles of such magnitude since Biblical times, though I understand that they have occurred. Perhaps for that very reason, some of us find our faith remains at subsistence levels. Although we believe, and may in fact have always believed in God and the special relationship with him that Jesus made possible, we are often simply surviving, and may have come to think that God’s action in our lives in negligible, and that the resources that he has given us are scarce.
But, that is not the truth that Jesus brought us, and bought us, and its not the life which his own resurrection set us free to experience, and to share with the people around us. God does provide for our deepest needs and we should acknowledge and celebrate the people through whom he meets those needs, or the work in which he engages us that we know is part of his plan, however repetitive or low key it might seem to the world.
Where can we recognise the love and life that Jesus brings, filling our existence with abundant good things? For me it is through the abundant love, generosity ad patience of my family and friends. For you, it may be something different.
As a church we might also be able to accuse ourselves of living at a subsistence level of faith, dwelling too much on what we don’t have and what we see ourselves losing. Hopefully we are not as despairing as the widow of Zarephath when Elijah first greets her, but we may think that our church is purely subsisting on what each week seems to be deep down in the bottom of the jars!
But that oil and meal at the bottom of the jars, are the means of making bread – the bread of life. And, Jesus loves us and desires, with compassion for our hurts, to fill us with the joy of a new life. This isn’t just a hope for the future either, it is a certainty that God loves us so abundantly that in many ways we are already showing and sharing his abundant love through our activities (like Discoveries, Wayfinders and Messy Church.)
If our subsistence level faith has been been filled to overflowing because of the willingness of a Christian friend to call out to God on our behalf, we need to give thanks for their faith and the gif of grace that we have received. If our subsistence level experience of church has been overcome by an exciting new area of ministry – we should share that news. It is through these things that we encourage and build each other up as the body of Christ, and support each other through the lean times when personal or corporate lives get tough.
That holiday I spoke of at the beginning, where reunions were disturbed by the news of a good friends death, ended with a long and slightly sombre journey from West Wales to Cumbria, where Ian grew up. He had been a friend of faith, acknowledging through out his student life, loves and Leukaemia, that he was sustained by the abundant gifts that God had given him: a love of nature, a strong understanding of the importance of friendships, a willingness to say sorry, and the mind and hands of a poet and artist. By celebrating this, his widow of 13 weeks, enabled many (his grieving ex-girlfriend included) to have their spirits lifted to once again appreciate God’s abundant love.
Inside Ian’s funeral service sheet, inked in his own hand, was reproduced this picture poem, which reminds us of the “deep, deep love of Jesus” and the constancy of God – “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free”:
Among high marble summits I can see you there,
On the wild churning ocean I can feel you there,
On the cold autumnal air I can sense you there.
During my loneliness – I know you are there.
Through troubled waters you hold me there,
In my darkest hours I can see you there,
And when we reject you – you are still there.