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Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016

Last week, I went to the drug store to buy a decongestant. Since those products are behind the counter, I had to produce my driver’s license for identification. As the clerk returned the license to me, I reflected on what my license showed about my identity. It was enough identity information to buy the drug, but in the long run, it was really a poor credential to show who I really am. It said nothing about my character, it said nothing about my social relationships, it said nothing about my being a follower of Jesus. To fill in those pieces of who I am for someone, people would have to tell stories about me and their experience of me. Even better, I would show up myself and demonstrate who I am.

In today’s lessons, we have two stories in which God is trying to establish who God is – one a story of Elijah the prophet and one a story of Jesus. In each story, God wants people to know who God is, what God is like and how God wants to be among the people. God wants people to learn from these stories that they can trust God and know God to be for them.

Elijah had prophesied a drought for the people of Israel because they were worshipping Baal. With the drought coming, Elijah has to flee There is no food or water because of the drought, so God sends Elijah to a widow from Sidon to be fed. At first it seems as if this has to be a mistake. The widow looks like she doesn’t have enough to feed herself, and she doesn’t. She is collecting a few sticks and a little water and some meal and oil to make a tiny last meal for herself and her son. But the story teaches us that God is a compassionate God, not only for God’s Hebrew prophet, but for this woman and her child, who are Baal worshippers and do not know God at all. God’s compassion reaches not only the chosen people, but foreigners as well. But there is more God wants us to know about God. God is not only compassionate, God is powerful. God doesn’t just feel sorry for people who are in trouble, God acts on God’s compassion with power. Elijah promises that the three of them will have bread and water for as many days as necessary until God ends the famine. And that is the case.

Then the woman’s son dies and besides being grief-stricken, she is upset and angry. She blames Elijah for drawing God’s attention to her sin because she thinks bad things happen to bad people. Elijah blames God, indignant that God would let this happen to someone who had been kind to him. But Elijah does not give up. He knows God is a compassionate God and puts his body over the child’s begging God to send life back into him. God has mercy and the child is saved. The woman now believes the stories Elijah has surely been telling her about God and God’s compassion and power. She declares him to be a man of God and proclaims her faith in the word of the Lord that he speaks.

This story gives us in a nutshell two of God’s major characteristics, power and compassion, and shows that God’s intent toward God’s people is good – to bring abundance out of scarcity and joy out of sorrow.

By Jesus time, God had decided that the people needed more than a prophet, they needed a Messiah. Jesus is God come to reveal Godself completely to the people and to let them know more about God’s compassion and power.

Jesus has just come from Capernaum and healing the centurion’s servant. On his way into Nain, he meets a death procession. Once again, a widow has lost her only son. Jesus doesn’t just stand there and let the procession go by. Jesus is interested in new life. So he tells the woman not to weep, touches the bier and raises her son. Elijah was alone with only the widow and her son when God gave him the power to do the healing, but a huge crowd is with Jesus and they are awed by what he has done. It is his first time bringing someone back from the dead, and the crowd knows the power of God is present. Jesus, like Elijah, has established God’s character as a God of compassion who acts with great power to bring abundance, joy and new life, and that word quickly spreads.

These two stories are similar, but they have some differences that tell us more about God. First, Elijah is a prophet. He has been directed by God and is given power to heal by God but it is on a case by case basis. In Jesus, God has come Godself because God wants humanity to recognize his loving compassion and Jesus, being God, carries the power to heal within himself. All he has to do is say the word and the centurion’s servant is healed. All he has to do is touch the bier and tell the son to rise and he does. Jesus carries God’s power within him all the time.

Second, it is important to notice the way God interacts with God’s people. The widow of Zarephath carries on a dialogue with Elijah. She refuses him food because there won’t be enough, she blames him for her son’s death. Elijah hears her and God helps her. The widow of Nain never speaks to Jesus. She probably doesn’t even notice him until he speaks to her. God is willing and able to enter people’s pain when they interact with God or God’s representative and when they don’t ask for help because they are just too traumatized. God is compassionate and powerful in all circumstances.

Even though reports of fantastic healings don’t spread far and wide nearly as often as they did in Jesus’ day, God’s compassion and power are still with us. Jesus still enters into our places of greatest pain, as he once touched the funeral bier of the son of the widow of Nain (M. Jan Holton). We all certainly pray for miracles of healing and sometimes we get them, but there are many other miracles we may experience at the time of our deepest losses – the death of a loved one, the pain over mistakes we feel we made, the loss of a job, the breaking of a relationship, even the agony of depression so deep we can barely feel anything. God comes to us in our tears and our anger, whether we ask for it or not, and plants Godself firmly at our side to bring us healing and comfort in big ways and small ways if we can but notice it. And God is also there in the midst of our culture, compassionate and concerned for the least of these. The widows in our stories had not only lost sons, they had lost any way they had of getting resources because any resources the son left would revert to the son’s family. God’s compassion for the community is shown in Jesus’ and Elijah’s pursuit not only of the healing of grief and restoration of relationship, but of social justice for the financially devastated.

The Bible tells us in its stories that God has persistently and consistently entered human existence to make God’s identity, character and intent (Gregory Anderson Love) known to us, God’s people. God is the one true God who is compassionate and uses God’s power on our behalf. One of the ways God makes Godself known is through the actions of people and that is where we come in. We have seen God’s compassion and power in our own lives and felt it in our hearts. Our baptismal vows tell us it is now our job to show God’s identity, character and intent to others, to tell our stories of God’s love toward us and to show God’s compassion and power by working for social justice in our society. We are called to do this as individuals and as a church. As we tell the stories of God and show forth God’s character, we will experience God’s power, compassion and abundance in our own lives and in our community. People need to hear what St. John’s has to say about God. People need to receive what this community can do on behalf of God. May we show forth God’s compassion, power and good intentions for us in the world. 

Works Cited: 
M. Jan Holton, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 3, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 120
Gregory Anderson Love, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 3, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 116