It is an occupational hazard amongst preachers that we are always looking for material for sermons, and we tend to view our lives as a series of events that can be sermon illustrations. When you get a few preachers together, and they catch up with what’s going on in their lives, invariably, after someone tells a particularly interesting or funny or sad story that one of us will nod sagely and say “That’ll preach.”
Doug and I had one of those moments on Wednesday.
He had gone out for a bike ride – yes, he’s a little crazy to do that on a hot summer afternoon, but that’s another tale – and I was busy working on the computer, working on this sermon, as a matter of fact.
And as often happens in the early stages of sermon writing, I sat there and stared at the screen and thought to myself, as the kids say, “I got nothin’.”
I was about to get up and fuel myself with a Coke when the phone rang. Odd. Not many people have the home number. Had the telemarketers found us already? When I picked it up, I noticed it was Doug’s cellphone number on the caller id, and immediately I thought he’d had an accident and the medics were calling me to tell me about it. But no, it was Doug. He said “I’m out on the back porch, and I’ve got a stray dog here. Can you get something I can use to tie her to the porch? I think I know who’s looking for her. Come out very carefully so she doesn’t get spooked.”
As is always the case when you’ve got to find something in a hurry, I scrambled and couldn’t find the one thing I wanted – a stout piece of rope. All I had was an extension cord, so I brought it out back, where Doug was waiting with bike and dog, and said “Will this do?” He said, “Yes, that will work. I saw the people who were looking for her earlier, at the beginning of my ride, so I’ll go back out and see if I can find them.” He had run into a couple in a car who asked him if he had seen a black dog who had run away, young, about 65 pounds, and he had promised to keep an eye out for her. Little did he know that the dog would be perched on our back step when he came back from his ride! The sweet-faced black dog, Jasmine by name, looked hot and tired, so I brought her out a bowl of water. In a few minutes Doug had returned. Behind him was a weeping young woman, crying, “Jasmine, Jasmine, don’t you ever do that again! You scared me half to death!” She said she was sorry she didn’t have any money to pay Doug – not that he would have taken it – and said “This dog is all I have. We were over here pick up the remains of my pet rabbit – we had her cremated over there – and this dog is my whole life. She’s all I have left.” Of course, I’m not sure the effect that statement had on the young man who was with her….he seemed to be a boyfriend, but who knows? If I didn’t know about the pet crematorium, I sure wasn’t going to hazard a guess about the relationship. It was a strange and wonderful moment. All that she knew was that this guy in the funny-looking biking gear had shown up out of nowhere and magically given her back her beloved pet. She didn’t know how to respond to it. She was grateful and overwhelmed and a little mystified, and clueless as to what she was supposed to do.
When it comes to stories like this, you shake your head. You can’t make this stuff up. Who would have guessed that the same dog that Doug heard about from the woman would decide to come sit on our back porch? Who would have guessed that the woman would still be driving around the neighborhood an hour after she first saw Doug on the bike? Who would have guessed, for that matter, that there was a pet crematorium in our neighborhood, but that’s a story for another sermon….
When strange and wonderful things happen, we have a hard time making sense of them. Preachers, of course, are required to try, and so we tell these stories, so that together we can try to make meaning of the things that cause us to wonder what it is all about.
There is more than a little bit of the strange and wonderful in the Gospel story today, when Jesus raises a widow’s son from the dead. Jesus and his followers come into a town named Nain, and they come upon a funeral procession. People are weeping and wailing over the death of this young man. The evangelist Luke makes a point of noting that this man is the only son of a widow….a widow who is weeping and wailing the loudest of all. Her loss is a mighty one – not only the son whom she dearly loved, but the man who would serve as her support and protection as a widowed woman. She was losing both love and stability in her life. No wonder her grief was so great.
Jesus saw her in all her misery, and knew he must do something. So he stepped forward. He comforted her, saying “do not weep.” He reached out and touched the bier on which the body lay and he spoke to the dead young man. “Young man, I say to you, rise!”
The gospel tells us that the young man sat up and began to speak.
What was the first reaction of the crowd to this miracle? Fear.
When strange and wonderful things happen, we have a hard time making sense of them. The crowd was afraid, because they couldn’t figure out what was going on, and what kind of power this man Jesus had that could cause him to raise someone from the dead. They struggled to make meaning of it, and once they got past their fear, they started to praise him as a great prophet and man of God. And even in an age without FaceBook or webpages, word got out that someone very special was doing very special things in the name of God. The people hadn’t quite figured out that Jesus was, in fact, God, but this was the start to the recognition of how truly strange and wonderful this man was.
Contrast it to the other story we heard this morning, of a widow with a dying child and the man of God who just happens to be on the scene. The prophet Elijah is staying with a poor widow in the town of
Now that would be strange and wonderful enough, this miracle of meal and oil in the midst of starvation, but the story continues and takes a darker turn. Suddenly the son of the widow takes sick. He cannot breathe. Is it a bad asthma attack? Some sort of pneumonia? We don’t know, but it is clear from the woman’s words that her boy, the thing she cherishes above all else, is about to be taken from her by death. And the woman tries to make sense of this difficult thing that is happening, this time not a strange and wonderful thing, but a strange and horrible thing…all she can imagine is that Elijah has something to do with it. Elijah has brought God’s grace, in the miracle of the meal and the oil. Has he now brought God’s fearful judgment and punishment in the illness of this child?
But once again, something strange and wonderful happens. Elijah prays to God to save this child. Unlike the Gospel story, when Jesus himself resuscitates the child, because Jesus is God, Elijah needs God to intervene. Elijah is simply the messenger. Interestingly, Elijah basically says to God, “You sent me here to be with this woman and her son, and things were going pretty well…then you have to mess up the whole thing by taking the boy. Please bring him back to health!” God considers what Elijah has said and brings the child back from the brink. Elijah brings the boy downstairs to his mother, alive, well, restored. A strange and wonderful moment.
The mother skips the step of fear that we heard from the crowd who witnessed Jesus’ raising of the young man from the dead. She immediately takes this as a sign that Elijah is indeed a man of God and a great prophet, and that his words carry truth.
That’s the way these strange and wondrous moments go. They happen. We cannot understand them. We try to fit them into our own human understanding. We react in fear, in pain, in wonderment, in awe. We shape them based on our own sense of who God is. God or his representative may be a hero, or a frightening being, or someone who only delivers the goods some of the time, based upon these moments.
But if we start from the premise that the only way we know God is through Christ, and that even that great gift only gives us limited understanding – remember Jesus saying last week “I have many more things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now?” – our attempts to make meaning of strange and wonderful moments will fall short of the mark. We cannot fit God into a human-sized box. So in those strange and wonderful moments, the one response that makes the most sense is the one that we heard in the Gospel: “They glorified God saying ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout