Rev. Anna Woofenden, The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
Scripture: 1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24) and Luke 7:11-17
On Tuesday I was standing at my kitchen sink washing an endless pile of, wait for it, Swiss Chard. As my hands made the familiar movements of moving the big leaves through the water and smoothing off any dirt or bugs, I had a moment when something that had been dead in me was brought back to life. If you’d been standing in my kitchen, you wouldn’t have known it, I kept washing large green leaf after large green leaf, but inside of me something shifted. A culmination moment of conversations and prayers and ponderings and sortings, and I felt something in me that had been pushed so far to the side of my being that it felt like it had died, being brought back to center, to focus, given breath, a part of me was brought back to life.
These stories today are kind of complicated to preach on. And kind of really simple. They’re complicated because, well what do we do with these texts that talk about people being raised from the dead? What do we make of such stories, fact or fiction? These miracles seem to be a time and place away, and are beautiful in many ways. They are also painful, because why didn’t Elijah show up for your niece who died of cancer or the child shot by the police? Where is Jesus at our loved ones funeral?
It’s complicated because I haven’t literally seen Jesus or a prophet raise someone from the dead, and I would personally feel out of integrity as your pastor and preacher to suggest that we can expect such things. But then, it’s also super simple: God brings dead parts of us to life all the time.
God has always been in the business of raising the dead, feeding people, making a lot out of a little, giving us just what we need for the day, providing for us moment-by-moment. From the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, to when the Lord walked on earth and raised people up and fed thousands with loaves and fishes, to the way our community meal always seems to be enough for everyone who shows up, to moments like I had in my kitchen, where parts of ourselves that we thought had gone dormant and died, have life breathed into them and we feel God’s presence with us.
I asked my Facebook feed, “What’s an example in your life of something that you felt was dead in you that was brought back to life?”
And so many powerful answers flowed in:
One friend shared: True caring about others.
Another: My passion for writing
- Performing in a band.
- It took asking God to help me let go of addiction to get life back.
- My ability to be loved and loveable. That changed when I met my husband and he proved me wrong.
- What came back to life for me was: Feeling. For 30 years I was almost emotionless. Getting involved in community theater brought it all back.
- My vocation!
- Who I was after my kids grew up.
- My faith
- Art. There was a chapter in my life that I wasn’t creative. No time or some other excuse. Once I put colors on paper again there was a spark!
- Faith in people caring for others
- Belief in myself.
And then one woman wrote: I felt dead inside after my son died. It hurt too much to be alive. Over time with God’s help and love of family and friends, I learned to trust living again. Ten years later, it is one step at a time, one day at a time.
Both of our stories from scripture today tell of a widow, a woman whose husband had died, with an only son, who has died as well. A woman who not only had lost her husband, but now also has just lost her only child, her son. In the culture at this time, this was not only a deep loss relationally, it was also economically fraught.
A woman, and a widow was not the most financially stable person at these points in history, and losing her son, her only child, put her on even more shaky ground. She no longer had someone to help her pay the bills, or grow the food. Basic needs were a big worry for her. They are for most people. But now she was faced to deal with them alone, without any other immediate family members, to return to her home all-alone and without any hope for security, companionship, provision.
Do you know anything about uncertainty? About longing? About loneliness and desire? Where your next meal is coming from? How your child is going to be able to thrive? Maybe it’s wondering about our aging parents’ health, or our own body’s struggle. Are you going to find that relationship that you long for, or the new job, or sobriety?
In a world ridden by conflict and urgent need, we thirst for such miracles. The story of Elijah and the widow of Zaraephath and this gospel text dramatizes the miracle of divine compassion that unfolds when we dare to receive the prophetic into our midst.
The miracle of the oil and flour not running out, can remind us that the Lord provides every day, but rarely as far ahead as we would like to see it, or with the guarantees of what it’s going to look like. The refills happen daily, just as when the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, the manna came every night, but if you gathered it up and tried to keep it, it would go bad. Just as we pray in the Lord’s prayer, give us this day, our daily, bread, give us today, enough bread for today.
The Lord provides as we need it, but rarely in the timing or the way we want and expect. But these stories in the Bible and in people’s lives remind us: provision always comes, in one form or another.
Elijah the prophet provided a widow with an endless flow of flour and oil, Jesus fed thousands, and there were baskets of fragments left over, widow’s sons are raised from the dead. These are stories that show us the nature of Divine Love, that remind us, in the words of a insightful 11-year-old after he heard this story read at Noontime Prayer on Friday:
“That if you need help, you can always ask the Lord for help because he will always help you, no matter who you are, what you do, the Lord will always help you.” —Malik
Even when we’ve hit total bottom, even when we think all is lost, even when we don’t even have the desire to have a desire for hope or new life. Jesus has the audacity to say, “Do not weep”
Not because weeping and grief are not incredibly important and appropriate responses to loss and pain, and recommended. But because in this moment in our gospel story, Jesus knows what’s coming next. Jesus knew, knew that bit further.
When we’re in those places of despair or wondering, uncertainty or rock-bottom, the Divine love is there, gently stirring us. Swedenborgian theology talks about the laws of Divine Providence, the ways the Divine interacts with us and the universe, and gives us the idea that the working of Divine Providence can only be seen from behind, from after the fact, when we look back and say, “Wow, that time was really really difficult, but I see now how good came out of it.” We don’t know how the new life is going to be brought forth, how the new birth will come, but we can trust that God is a God of new life and is always working towards it.
As these mothers, these widows, weep in great despair, we can weep with them. Grieving the places of loss in our lives, acknowledging the places in our lives that feel dead, the hopes we’ve given up on, the parts of ourselves we haven’t been willing to give the time of day. Even in our weeping, we just may find the Divine at work, stirring in us, reminding us of the things we care about, opening us up to the possibility of life.
And when these parts of us that have gone dormant, parts of us that have died, are breathed back into life, it’s for a reason. God raises us for a purpose. We’re brought to life FOR something—to be happy, to be useful, to be present to the expansive love of God pulsing through the universe.
My cousin wrote in response to the question of what had been brought back to life for him: My zest for life. A few years ago my heart took a dive. I had to have the full open-heart surgery. I was sure that I wouldn’t make it off the table but then…..SURPRISE, I’m still alive. I’m not going to take this life for granted anymore. That’s when I made some major changes.
When we’re brought back to life, it’s for a purpose; it’s for a reason, and we are changed by it. It’s for us to show up and meet God where God meets us and choose to live in the ways of new life.
God meets us in the unexpected places, in the places where we are feeling hopeless, afraid, uncertain, alone, and She breathes new life into the cracks and crevices of our hearts. God meets us in the places that we’ve hidden away so deeply we don’t even admit them to our closest friends, God gently stirs the dreams and hopes that we have covered over with protective layers, God takes the most impossible situations and invites us to tilt our head to the side and say, “Oh, interesting, I hadn’t seen that angle and possibility before.”
One friend wrote: After my divorce I rediscovered trust through social dance. I started taking partner dance classes as a solo. I was uptight at first, but learned to relax and be completely carefree as I was as a child. I remembered it was ok to make mistakes. I allowed myself to become completely dependent on a partner to guide me in the dance with no fear of their expectations. A teacher told me it was simply a social engagement with no strings attached. We would rotate partners as the woman would form one circle moving clockwise and the men the opposite direction. These brief moments to share a dance completely changed my outlook.
God meets us in the places where there is uncertainty and fear…
Another friend writes: I thought my marriage was dead. Pretty much felt that way. The day I realized that is how I felt is seared into my memory. When my husband was in treatment I had taken off my betrothal ring….but left my tiny wedding band on. I made that promise very sincerely back in 1982….and at that bleak moment I realized I just had to consent each day…sometimes each hour. I chose my husband freely, I could choose freely to stay or not….but the covenant stayed with me. Little by little I said yes each day….and didn’t worry about the future. Eventually the seedling love took root again. I felt it was attending 12 steps that gave me my church and life back again. God never left me/us! That was the ONLY thing I was sure of during that horrible desert time. I could stay. I could say yes. We could say yes. We are alive and thrive, imperfectly today. No turning back.
When God gives us new life, we get to choose it, to receive it, to slog through the moment-by-moment stuff to continue to act and show up in it. God love us so fiercely and so relentlessly that God is always reaching out to meet us in the midst of our deepest longings and to meet our deepest needs. Divine Love that is so powerful and so big God can grab hold of us as we walk the beach, or are on the street, or in church or at the kitchen sink while washing Swiss chard.
God reaches out and meets our needs in the places within us where we never even imagined God could feed us, and loves us with abundance, with consistency, every single day. Giving us the nourishment we need each day, each moment, meeting us in the unexpected places and bringing us back to life.