Additional text for Preaching:
“I Looked Up” by Mary Oliver
“…What misery to be afraid of death.
to believe only in what can be proven…”
And I would add, what desolation
to live without capacity for imagination.
The next few moments are an act of imagination
I hope to drag you into.
So let’s begin
by breaking the bottle over the head of the giant:
We do not get to know
if these stories about Elijah and Jesus
returning life to dead bodies
are factual and historic,
or simply legends told to inflate their greatness –
as in one-upmanship in competition with other prophets.
“Oh yeah, well my guy brings dead people back to life before breakfast.”
“Did it really happen,”
is a question we can ask until we are blue in the face
and we still will not get an answer.
All of us have been trained
to assume it did not really happen,
or could have only happened if they weren’t really dead in the first place.
Most of us,
most of the time,
live within the wretchedness of only believing
what can be proven.
In fact, when we ask the ancient text a question like,
“did it really happen,”
the voice within us that answers
is the one that refuses to believe anything
that cannot be proven.
“No, that could not have really happen.”
So let’s go back door
and step around that sleeping dog of wretchedness
and see if we can sneak in another way.
It’s no accident
that the stories of Elijah and Jesus zapping dead guys
appear on the same Sunday.
Nothing about the Biblical readings
paired together each Sunday is accidental.
The mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches
placed these and all the other Bible stories together
in a particular way
in a particular order
to reinforce particular theological points of view
about particular themes of faith.
In the same way the New York Times, Washington Post,
and Fox News edit their stories
and place them in proximity to each other
in order to underscore
particular themes and narratives of the day,
the Revised Common Lectionary of Biblical readings
also put in close proximity
Biblical stories that had nothing to do with each other
or were otherwise written and told centuries apart.
So one of the things a preacher should do,
and anyone else listening to the Sunday lectionary,
is to wonder about what the modern day editors
of the lectionary
wanted us to think
by placing the stories they do together,
because it may be different
from what the stories intended to say.
For example, paired with the Elijah story
today’s miracle in Luke becomes a one-upmanship story.
Where Elijah, the greatest prophet of Israel,
called upon God to return life to one widow’s son,
Jesus took care of the business himself.
One was an intermediary
the other was the direct agent of restoration.
“Our guy is even greater than your guy,”
is the punch line even though it is the same God
authorizing the same miracle in both instances –
which buy the way,
were eight hundred years apart
and had nothing to do with each other.
I think, though I do not know for sure,
the faceless Lectionary committee
paired these two stories
as a way of saying that ‘our guy,’ Jesus,
is bigger and badder than their guy, Elijah.
But that is not what these stories were about
when told in the context of the Bible.
There is a clear thin thread
loosely connecting the stories
of Elijah and Jesus reviving dead bodies
eight hundred years apart.
The thread is a widow.
In both stories,
Elijah and Jesus look at the dead
and they look at the widow,
who has lost a son,
and both of them recognize
the severe grief cascading from the women
and of course, they feel compassion.
But there is more at play
than compassion for the pain of loss.
These are not stories about death.
These two prophets eight hundred years apart
both recognize the desperate poverty
and the extreme vulnerability that a single woman
in both those societies was exposed to
without a father, husband, son, or brother.
For a woman, the only social safety net
that existed in those days was a man in the family.
In a culture that saw no value in her
before or after childbearing years,
there was no protection for a lone widow.
We have all heard or read headlines
about women in Afghanistan,
India, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan
set on fire,
stoned to death,
and gang raped.
Closer to home in the United States,
we have seen the stories and headlines
about young women imprisoned in men’s basements
or the sex trade trafficking young women
in an underground network
of what amounts to slavery.
All of that is happening NOW, in 2016!
All of that and more
was the routine of violence and abuse
done to women who were on their own
in the days of Jesus and Elijah.
Because they are prophets,
Elijah and Jesus immediately engage in a social critique.
Instinctively they recognize
the widow they see before them
is like a lone gazelle on the Serengeti Plain
surrounded by predators.
Even if she manages to avoid violence
she will likely die a slow death of starvation.
Elijah and Jesus,
rather than simply pausing to shed a tear of empathy
amidst the raw emotions of grief,
do something else.
They turn toward God
and insist that the way things are
is just not right.
They object to God’s management of the situation
and insist on another outcome.
That, by the way,
is what prophet’s do.
They not only voice God’s critique of humankind
they also critique God
on behalf of humankind.
Prophets bang the hell out of those they perceive
as contributing to injustice
even if the culprit is God.
A prophet will hold God’s feet
to the fire of accountability
with the same vigor as he or she holds human agents
accountable for our injustices.
The most fun line in these two stories
is when Elijah turns around and says to God,
have you really brought calamity
even upon the widow with whom I am staying?
Really, you killed her son?”
Then Elijah turns back around
and undoes the death
as if standing with his hands on his hips
daring God to pretend innocence.
Elijah, prophet, is not about to let the injustice stand.
Death is not the enemy here.
There is no critique of death itself,
as if somehow death makes a mockery of life.
That’s not a biblical critique.
It is that in each case,
because the society and culture are so brutal,
the death of their only possible protection
renders these widows utterly destitute and defenseless.
So in the face of that brutality,
Elijah and Jesus use their power
to return the social safety net to a widow.
They use the power and resource they have
to re-establish what social safety net is possible
for the most vulnerable people in the society.
That is our job too.
If we don’t get fixated on the wrong question like,
“did it really happen that way?”
then we can see what the prophets do to restore justice in their respective situations.
Then we can look at what WE are doing
to restore justice in OUR situation.
The question, “did it really happen?”
is a question that lacks imagination.
Instead, it is a question that lives within
the wretched tracks
where if something is to be embraced,
it must first be proven.
There is nothing I can say to you
that would prove WE are to be the prophets
of our own time.
But if we use the power and resources we have
to name the wounds of injustice
and the egregious violations of godly life
that happen daily within our own community,
we will discover it is true.
It doesn’t get proven first
it happens after we imagine our way into it.
Our prophethood requires imagination
and that we use it and follow it
to discover who we really are.
Mary Oliver’s bird could have, in actuality,
been a grackle with purple-green iridescence
or a pileated woodpecker with a flame of red,
but instead she saw
“…the wings enormous and opulent…wreathed in fire.”
She saw both bird
and the spectacular creature of her imagination,
evoking them both.
Likewise, in these stories,
we can see both the act of prophets inciting justice
and an act of imagination on our own part
that brings to the fore
our own prophethood.
If we live in the miserable fear of death,
we will never go there
because a prophet’s life is risky.
If we live in the wretchedness
of only what can be proven,
we will not color outside the lines
for fear we might encounter something
we do not understand.
But if we have the courage to travel on the wings
of our imagination
and ride these and other stories
to the places they want to take us,
then we will see and hear
that WE are Elijah and Jesus.
Suddenly they won’t be about strange miracles
that long-ago people could do,
but they will be a challenge to US
about the miracles WE can perform
with the resources WE have at our disposal. Whoa!
There is violence,
and injustice galore
all around us –
down the block,
up the street,
and across the globe.
We are not the observers and mourners in
the stories from 1 Kings and Luke,
we are Elijah and Jesus.
Not only do we need to confront God,
we need to incite justice.
You and I need to incite justice
with the resources we have at our disposal.
Let’s get on with it.