Learning to discern God at work in our lives

An Irish folktale recounts the story of a poor widow who sold her soul to the Devil for the money to raise her children. With the money the devil gave her, the widow educated her children. The eldest son became a priest. The second son became a doctor. And the daughter became a lawyer. Many years passed, and the Devil returned to collect the old widow’s soul. The priest pleaded for his mother’s life, and the Devil granted her one more year. When the Devil returned the next year, the doctor pleaded for his mother’s life, and the Devil granted her one more year. The following year, when the Devil returned, the lawyer asked that their mother be allowed to live until the candle by her bedside burned away. The Devil readily agreed. Then the lawyer walked over, blew out the candle, and pocketed it. Since the candle would never burn away, the Devil never got the mother's soul.[1]
Although separated by a thousand years and living in rather different cultures, the widow of Zarephath about whom we heard in today's first reading and the widow of Nain about whom we heard in the Gospel[2] faced grim prospects akin to a bad deal with the devil. Their problems were much greater than grief at the loss of a son. Both widows lived in male-dominated, subsistence economies that lacked a social safety net. Widows had three grim choices: quickly marry a new husband, regardless of the man's character; depend upon the tenuous, ongoing charity of family and friends; become a prostitute in spite of its inherent physical risks as well as facing inevitable moral condemnation and social ostracism.
At least three principles should guide our interpretation of today's texts. All three have broad applicability, but the third is especially connected to today's readings.
First, God cares equally for all people. The Bible, read chronologically, charts an expanding circle of ethical concern. The circle started small, centered around one family, expanded to include an entire clan and tribe, stretched to encompass an entire nation, and then extends to all creation. Scripture repeatedly affirms God's equal concern for all. The Torah, illustratively, instructs Jews to treat both fellow Jews and resident aliens the same. Jesus emphasized that loving our neighbor has no national, religious, or gender boundaries. The Book of Acts reports Peter's discovery that God loves all persons equally through a vision. Any hypothesis about what actually occurred in the healing of the two widows' sons should recognize that God's concern for the well-being of everyone in the present matches God's concern for the well-being of the widows of Zarephath and Nain.
Second, God acts today in ways that are broadly consistent with how God has acted throughout history. Conversely, God acted two and three thousand years ago in ways that are broadly consistent with how God acts in the present. Sound biblical interpretation requires openness to the Holy Spirit and in depth study of the entire Bible informed by insights from multiple disciplines. These include not only archaeology, art, and history, but also the social and physical sciences.
Almost annually, I hear of a child or children dying needlessly and tragically because misguided Christian parents insisted that God heals exclusively through prayer and not medical care. Similarly, I occasionally read reports of people who refused to allow a deceased loved one's burial, mistakenly believing that prayer, offered with sufficient ardor and the right beliefs, will prompt God to resuscitate their loved one. God's alleged failure to heal the dying and to resuscitate the dead reflects an appalling misinterpretation of today's texts. Although we cannot know with any certainty the actual historical events that the readings chronicle, we can safely trust that God acted two and three thousand years ago in ways that are generally consistent with our perceptions of how God acts in the present.
Third, God acts to bring life out of death. God's actions are rarely, if ever, flashy and flamboyant. Instead, God's equal love for all and the temporal consistency of God's actions reveal that God acts in subtle, undramatic ways and that God often uses a person or object as a channel of grace by which to bring life out of death. This is the message of the cross. I have personally experienced and repeatedly witnessed God bringing life out of death in this way. I have seen people discover life's meaning, broken relationships healed, their strength sustained, and hope renewed. I have seen persons who lived in bondage to drugs, alcohol, and anger set free. I have watched the hungry eat and the thirsty drink. I have seen priests, physicians, lawyers, and many others defeat evil and bring life out of death. I chose the Irish folktale to begin this morning's sermon because it portrays God acting in a very ordinary, yet unexpected way, to defeat the devil. The priest did not perform a miracle nor did the physician use heroic medical measures to save his mother; instead, and in a reversal of widely held stereotypes, a female lawyer simply and creatively pocketed a snuffed out candle.
The nursing aides for an 89-year-old active and alert retired doctor planned a surprise party for him. Family, friends, and volunteers filled the brightly decorated room. He looked at the group and signaled a sweet six-year-old girl, the grandchild of one of his aides, to come over to him. He reached out and put his arm around her. He introduced her and announced, "She is my mascot!" He went on to say that he would never forget her first visit. He had been feeling sorry for himself, struggling to adjust to life with only one leg, and spending most of his time in a wheelchair. She came in, looked at him and his folded up pants leg in the wheelchair, and in her charming voice asked, "Where is your prosthesis?" He was astounded she knew the word. She showed him her prosthesis and told him her story. When she was three years old, a man broke into her home, killed her 17-month-old brother and, with a machete, cut off her leg. He said this young girl taught him not to complain and to be grateful for the 88 years during which he had two legs. They share a very special bond.[3]
Recognizing that God's actions express equal love for all people and are broadly consistent across time, may we experience God's healing love and may we, like a six-year-old girl, and like Elijah and Jesus before her, be channels of grace for others. Amen.

[1] “A Bargain is a Bargain,” Irish folktale recorded by Sharon Creeden. Fair Is Fair: World Folktales of Justice (Little Rock, AR.: August House Publishers, 1994), pp. 114-115.
[2] 1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 7:11-17.
[3] Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, and Barry Spilchuk, Chicken Soup for the Soul, 1996, accessed at http://www.soupserver.com/.


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