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Sermon – June 6, 2010: Widows’ Sons

Sermon for Sunday, June 6, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Widows’ Sons

Psalm 146; 1 Kings 17: 8-24; Luke 7: 11-17

In the sixteenth chapter of John’s gospel Jesus is encouraging his disciples to

believe that though his death will be a terrible thing for them, the results of his resurrection

and glorification will bring them joy. He tries to find a comparison that they all will understand,

for the concept of going through great pain and then forgetting it completely because of

what follows, and he chooses childbirth. He takes it for granted that his hearers understand

that the pains of labor are terrible for the mother, and also that giving birth is so wonderful

that the pain involved in childbirth is at least put into perspective, and perhaps even

forgotten.

We sometimes imagine, because infant mortality has become so relatively rare

compared with past periods of history and in comparison with other parts of the world, that

the pain, when it occurs in our midst, is proportionately greater. We suffer so much, we

know such distress and anguish, that we attribute people’s surviving the loss a hundred

years ago or thousands of miles away not to the healing available to the human spirit, but to

other generations or other culture’s becoming numb to the grief. We feel that nobody could

endure such grief over and over, and so tell ourselves that the generations who did live

through it, or the cultures still hostage to its prevalence, grew accustomed to it, and could be

philosophical about it, because of its frequent recurrence.

This is one reason it is useful to have ancient writings to take seriously. In the Old

Testament King David loses a son and takes it hard; and in the gospels Jesus takes it for

granted that everyone knows that a woman who gives birth gains such joy by bringing a

child into the world that the pains of travail are eclipsed. We may find it hard to believe that

mothers who experience the death of several of their offspring are able to find it as painful

as we find such losses, because we feel it would be unendurable, but the record of

scripture suggests that mothers twenty centuries ago felt for their infants the way mothers do

today. The warning to Mary, the mother of Jesus, near the beginning of Luke’s gospel, that

a sword would pierce her own heart in connection with what would happen to her son is true

to the experience of motherhood in general, the deep way in which a mother’s life is

involved in the life of her child.

There is another perspective which is worth questioning in connection with the stories

we have today about Elijah and Jesus raising the sons of widows and restoring them to

their mothers. Widows, as we see in the Bible story of Ruth and Naomi, and in the

provision for their help made by the early Church, were an economically vulnerable group.

There was a high probability that an adult son would take responsibility for looking after his

aging mother, and we know that custom from Jesus’ arranging on the cross for his disciple

John to regard Jesus’ mother as his own. It is okay to point out that the young man

resurrected by Jesus at the city of Nain might have been his mother’s sole provider, but

what mother would think that was the primary reason for Jesus to pity the woman and

intervene? Is it not enough that she be pitied for losing the great love of her life, the great

focus of her effort and object of her satisfaction and pride?

I’ve been speaking of this in general terms because specifics are too painful. Suffice

to say that the connection between parent and child involves the most tender of bonds, and

when these attachments are torn apart by death, there is great suffering. It is bad enough

when children lose their parents, no matter how late in life and no matter how natural in the

course of things. It is far worse when parents lose their children, because it is always too

soon, and it always is unfair.

These are miracle stories, Elijah’s and Jesus’ raising the sons of these widows. We

live in an age disinclined to believe miracles, and generally speaking I think that is a good

thing. It is so outside the ordinary that God provides an outcome contrary to what is

reasonable to expect, that a person ought always to stick with reasonable expectation. On

the other hand, it makes sense to be open to the miraculous, because not only the

testimony of scripture but of many persons throughout history is that miracles happen.

The psalm we read today says “don’t put your trust in princes but in God,” and

points out that God is champion of the vulnerable. In our government, which is dictated by

our desires, it is our own limitations in the end which prevent our achieving a better life for

ourselves and everyone else. Human power goes only so far; and the power of God

remains, to achieve what we hardly can believe.

The two raisings of widows’ sons in the Bible prefigure the resurrection of Jesus. He

is a widow’s son himself. God’s mercy and compassion are not offered only to Mary, but

to the world. The loss of Jesus’ love, his righteousness, his mercy, his wisdom, his

willingness to suffer in order to do others’ good, would be so much for us all to bear. It

would seem as though the way Jesus encourages us to go were a dead end.

That it is not a dead end is a matter for faith. We who believe that God raised Jesus

Christ from the dead believe that all of us likewise are offered resurrection, not by virtue of

our nature, but by virtue of God’s compassion and power. We believe that we belong in

that circle of those who know the limits of this life, and the trials of mortality, just like the first

disciples Jesus called, ordinary people subject to all the vicissitudes of mortal existence–

but joined with a Lord who promises us something more. That’s the connection we

celebrate at the table of communion, where the vulnerable are supported by a Lord who

triumphs through self-sacrifice, where tokens of his life are given and received

 

 

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