Saturday, June 30, 2007

Pentecost 5

On an email group this week a colleague shared a story about feeling stressed out and having too much to do.  I hasten to add this wasn’t a priest from this Diocese, or even this country – so I don’t feel like I’m telling tales out of school.  Anyway, this priest was going through in her mind all the things she had lined up for the day – a busy schedule of meetings and paperwork, and somewhere along the way trying to find some time to start thinking about Sunday’s sermon when, as she backed her car out onto the road, she saw a pigeon sitting on the verge with a broken wing.  Now, I suppose a lot of things go through your mind at a time like that – maybe she thought, ‘oh I just haven’t got the time’, or, if she was a bit nicer than me she might have thought, ‘oh, poor thing’, or even, ‘what was that Jesus said about God seeing even the sparrows when they fall?’ – at any rate, she got out of the car and picked it up, wrapped it up in one of her son’s school shirts and looked up the Yellow Pages for a wildlife rescue sanctuary.  To cut a long story short, just finding such a place was a major exercise – but eventually my colleague arrived home just before evening having made the magpie comfortable in its new home, and having spent some time in the country and made some new friends in the process.  Somewhere along the way, she wrote, something clicked into perspective for her.  She stopped fuming about the sermon that wasn’t getting written and started actually looking at the baby pigeon sitting next to her, trussed up on the front seat of the car, looking back at her just as intently.  Somewhere through the course of the day she started to notice the compassion in the voices of the veterinary nurses and the wildlife carers she spoke to, to enjoy the sounds and the smells of the bush and to slow down a bit.  Somewhere along the way, in other words, she began to realise that where she was today was exactly where God needed her to be. 

The story from the gospel today is clearly meant to focus our minds, as disciples and would-be followers of Jesus, on what’s actually important.  It happens right at the beginning of Jesus last long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, in Luke’s gospel this fateful one-way journey becomes the context for a cycle of teaching and storytelling, and when you read it straight through you can almost visualise the small group of fellow-travellers being joined along the way by travellers on other journeys, by locals who fall into step with them for a few kilometres, others whose lives are so changed by the chance encounter on the road to Jerusalem that they want to leave everything and follow.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem seems also to function like an extended metaphor for the journey of faith and the challenges that all of us as disciples are going to have to face for ourselves.  And the theme for today seems to be, how seriously are you taking this?  Are you really a disciple, are you really following, or are you just dabbling, is it just one lifestyle choice among many, are you getting distracted by stuff that isn’t important?

Except that, in the same story, there’s an uncomfortable little reflection about the opposite extreme, the pitfalls of religious extremism.  What happens when we start to take religion so seriously that we forget that we forget about what lies at the heart of it – the connection between loving God and loving people?  Like over-eager Crusaders at the very beginning of the journey, James and John want to help Jesus spread the gospel of peace by calling down fire and brimstone on an unsuspecting Samaritan village that didn’t seem to get the point.  My Bible commentary points out that here, in Samaria, was where Elijah called down fire from heaven on the prophets at Mt Carmel, and either the gospel writer is weaving that into his story or else the disciples thought they could repeat the act.  Jesus, of course, tells them off – but the point is, how often have Christians thought of the gospel not so much as a gift of love, as a weapon to wave around in people’s faces?

I was privileged last week to be asked to help formulate a response by the Diocese to a draft covenant that national churches are being asked to consider signing as a way of agreeing on those things we have in common and committing ourselves to remaining in conversation and seeking a common mind about the many issues that divide us.  These are difficult times in the life of the Anglican Communion, of course, and the idea of signing a covenant to remind ourselves that we all belong together even though we might have some fundamental theological disagreements seemed, at first glance, not to be such a bad idea - but looking at it more closely I couldn’t help but wonder if this too could become a way of forcing wayward parts of the Anglican Communion back into line, or even expelling parts of the global Church who seemed to be straying from what the majority decided was the correct party line.  When factions within the Church, whether it’s at a local or an international level, start playing power politics to enforce their own view of what God is like – then we’re back with the disciples asking Jesus to help us nuke the opposition.  And Jesus rebukes us for that.  There is at the moment a very real risk of the worldwide Anglican Communion splitting apart, but no amount of legalese is going to prevent that, the only thing that might make a difference is if we start taking Jesus’ command to love one another a bit more seriously.

So, here, Jesus rejects extremism and fanaticism.  Discipleship isn’t about forcing others to accept your truth.  But the problem is, a few verses later in today’s reading, Jesus himself seems to be taking a hard, almost fanatical line with would-be followers who make some entirely reasonable requests.  ‘Is it OK if I just bury Dad, first?  At least, let me say goodbye to the folks’.  And Jesus tells us, ‘nobody who puts their hand to the plough and then looks back, is fit for the kingdom of heaven’.  Isn’t this entirely unrealistic?  Somebody once pointed out to me that this story was the lectionary gospel reading for the day on 11 September 2001, the same day a number of young men left home and family to do what they believed was God’s will.  Isn’t this a gospel for fanatics, coming straight after Jesus’ rejection of fanaticism?   Is it even possible to turn aside from home and family to follow Jesus, in fact, isn’t our everyday life more likely to be the best context for discipleship?

Some of the standard preachers’ interpretations of this text – for example that maybe Dad isn’t quite dead yet, and the young man is just procrastinating – or else that Jesus is just making us decide what we think is most important – interpretations like this, I think, can be really unhelpful.  I mean, does anyone really want to be thought of by their son, or their husband or wife, as being a little bit less of a priority than God?  As soon as we start working out the implications of this sort of discipleship we arrive at the contradiction that loving God results in some pretty unloving behaviour toward human beings.  Maybe in fact that contradiction is what the story is really getting us to think about.  The people who come to Jesus seem to come with the assumption that discipleship is an either/or choice.  Setting your face toward Jerusalem means giving up everything else, ‘yes, Lord, I’ll join you on your journey, I’ll just finish this other stuff first’ – like changing trains – ‘for me to join you on your journey means I’ve got to get off my journey first’.

In some ways you can’t blame Jesus for reacting negatively to that, because what he rejects is the idea that discipleship is just one priority among many, just another thing that’s got to be fitted in to your busy schedule.  But I wonder what the reaction would be if the would-be follower had said, ‘Yes Lord, I will follow you, and I’ll do it by honouring my Dad.  I’ll follow you, and I’ll start by sharing your gospel of compassion and forgiveness with the folks at home.’  What if discipleship isn’t an either/or sort of thing, but a both/and sort of thing?  What if Jesus expects us to follow at the same time as doing all the other things that fill our lives?  What if we are actually meant to notice that it’s by paying attention to the ordinary details of our lives, and the ordinary people around us, that we learn to be a disciple?

This is a very Benedictine sort of idea, living the ordinary in an extraordinary way, making all of life a prayer.  Setting our face toward Jerusalem isn’t about abandoning everything else, or about avoiding distractions, but about seeing the ordinary things around us in a new way, taking detours we might never otherwise have noticed but for the receptivity and the awareness of discipleship.  What if setting our face toward Jerusalem, above all, means opening ourselves up to the surprise and the delight of the journey, wherever it takes us, and committing ourselves in love to the companions God gives us along the way?


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Pentecost 4

The release, a fortnight or so ago, of a report into the problems of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities, exposed a situation that I think we can only describe as a national shame.  A lot of it, of course, was nothing really new – the problems of unemployment and boredom, glue sniffing and alcohol abuse have been well-documented, we knew about the appalling levels of domestic violence in remote communities – but I guess the report entitled ‘Little Children are Sacred’ shocked us all over again.  Because the reality, it seems, across much of outback Australia is that children have been treated as anything but.  And so, yesterday, when I opened the newspaper to read the Prime Minister’s announcement of a massive intervention, strict community policing and the banning of alcohol and pornography, compulsory medical checks for all children in remote communities and the withholding of welfare payments from families who fail to send their kids to school – I think there might be huge problems in implementing it and part of me thinks a return to the bad old days of treating Aboriginal people like children might bring about problems of its own, but you have to cheer the attempt.  What’s at stake is an entire generation that has lost not only its way but its identity.  A whole generation defined by the interlocking logic of problems that seem to have a power and a life of their own.  I guess we can only wait and see – and pray that the Government’s new approach is going to free the people of outback Australia from their demonic dreamtime, instead of adding yet another layer of compulsion and resentment to the mix.

Luke’s gospel tells the story today of Jesus’ trip across the Sea of Galilee into what Jewish people would have seen as the moral and spiritual darkness of Gentile territory - where he deals with a bad case of demon possession.  It’s one of those stories where we need to take into account the difference between our own worldview and the worldview of the first century, where demons and good as well as evil spirits were thought to take possession of people fairly routinely.  Certainly, a lot of what passes for demon possession in the Bible we would probably think of today as mental illness, and so this story of Jesus having compassion on this unfortunate man and expelling his unwelcome psychological tenants can be a real word of hope for people who suffer from depression or anxiety.  God’s intention is for human beings to be whole and free.  The authority that Jesus shows over the evil spirits reminds us that what is sometimes too hard for us is never too hard for God.  The self-defeating habits of mind, ways in which human beings limit their own potential through negative self-talk, the unwanted baggage of failure or rejection or shame left over from some ancient episode that we mistakenly believe is who we really are – these things are demonic in the true sense of the word because they rob us of our true selves.  And so the first thing Jesus does is to force the demons to name themselves – the identity of the man in this story is so submerged that he can no longer even give himself a real name – he can only name himself as the mob battling for control within and over him. 

The second thing is to notice that Jesus sees the whole person underneath the seething conflict of the forces pulling him apart.  However we think about the demons who have taken up residence in him, it is clear that this man is alienated and split off from his own centre.  It sounds like a very modern condition, the divided and distracted self that has lost its moorings in the divine, pulled this way and that by forces it has no control over.  In expelling the demons, Jesus reminds us of the divine will for wholeness that is always at work in us, whatever our circumstances, if only we are prepared to take notice.  Maybe this morning’s story of Elijah tells us how to do that: we recover our equilibrium, and remember our connection to God, not in the busyness of life, not by listening to the loudest voices around us or by watching the most impressive displays but by attending to the stillness and the silence of God, and by reflecting on the question we hear in it: ‘what’s actually important?  what are you actually doing here?’

But I think we can take the story a bit further than that.  There’s another aspect of the demonic that it tells us about.  Because Bible scholars tell us that this story, the way Mark and Luke hand it down to us, has got a few not so subtle clues built in that Jewish Christians especially would have noticed.  This foray of Jesus into Gentile territory, the backdrop of a cemetery which Jewish people thought of as the abode of spirits and a source of ritual uncleanness, the comic image of demons sent packing firstly into a herd of pigs – regarded by Jews as unclean – and then stampeding into the deep waters of the lake which in Jewish folklore represented the forces of chaos – Jewish Christians would see this as an epic tale of the holiness of Jesus coming into contact with a whole range of potent symbols of unholiness, which promptly self-destruct.  The fact that the ancient town of Gerasne was actually about 60km from the Sea of Galilee tips us off that there’s been a bit of poetic licence in the retelling.  Or else that the pigs had a mighty long run.  But here’s the underlying joke – the name the demons give themselves - Legion – isn’t a numerical reference, it’s actually the name for one of the armies of ancient Rome – the one stationed in Palestine, in fact, which carried on its standard the picture of a wild boar.  It’s as if the story is reminding us that the external circumstances that control peoples’ lives can be every bit as demonic as the internal ones – certainly Jews in the first century would have had no trouble seeing the presence of Roman troops in the same terms as the madness of demonic possession. 

This I think is the second really important thing about the truly demonic – which you’ll have realised by now I’m carefully distinguishing from the superstitious variety – as well as being that which robs human beings of their God-given identity, the power of the demonic is that it has a life of its own.  It overwhelms human life because it is bigger than the individual.  Which is why, for example, we used to talk about the demon drink.  In the tragedy of remote Aboriginal communities the demonic takes the form of drug and alcohol abuse, addiction to pornography and glue-sniffing, the smouldering mood of resentment and boredom that spills over into violence and sexual abuse.  We have to be careful when we name these things as demonic because what we have to be clear about, always, is where the responsibility for evil really lies.  Naming social evils as demonic doesn’t take away the responsibility from perpetrators.  But the advantage of naming these things as demonic is that we begin to recognise the structural sources of evil in the external circumstances, and the political and historical forces that have power over peoples’ lives.

So, what’s to be done about it?  If the truly demonic is just as much at home in the 21st century as it was in the first, where’s the good news in this story for us?  Is it just meant to impress us as part of the general miraculousness of Jesus’ career?  Or are we actually claiming that Jesus still brings about a confrontation with the powers that hold people captive?  Are we actually claiming that Jesus in some way can defeat the demonic circumstances of our own lives and the lives of other people in the world we live in?  Because if so, it begs the question – how?  What’s the good news in today’s gospel for Aboriginal children living the demonic nightmare of sexual exploitation?

I hope you’ll forgive me for having to admit that I don’t know.  The timetable of God’s promises does defeat our expectations.  Except that what we proclaim about Jesus makes a claim on our own lives.  If we look carefully, we see in this story a clue about how we ourselves might be transformed, and how we might learn to be a transforming community.  Maybe that’s what it’s really all about.  Jesus recognises a kinship and a connection with people who his culture would have told him didn’t matter.  The story makes an important point – one that you and I mostly take for granted but that first century Jewish Christians were struggling to accept – that Gentiles matter, that Gentiles also belong.  Compassion, in other words, doesn’t recognise geographic or ethnic boundaries.  The compassion of God that travels outwards to wherever we are, that we see modelled for us in Jesus.  The sort of compassion that refuses to believe there are some people who just have to get left out.

It’s worth a try.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Pentecost 3

One of my very favourite TV shows is ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’.  Of course it’s so long since they made a new season that we’re watching re-runs of re-runs – it’s got to the point where we tune in to the opening scene and immediately turn to each other and say, ‘oh, it’s the one where Raymond gets a cold and Deborah doesn’t believe he’s really sick’ – and we know exactly how it’s going to turn out but we watch it anyway.  I guess what’s so good about it is the squirm factor – like any sitcom it’s an exaggerated version of real life – over the top but at the same time we can’t fail to recognise some of the basic dynamics.  Things do go wrong in families.  In the society we live in where so much value is placed on the perfect nuclear family, where family life is held up as the main way we can learn about enduring values like love and commitment, about caring for one another and making sacrifices for one another – all too often we aren’t very good at it.  All too often we hurt one another, we let one another down, even though we never set out to try to be selfish or unloving we all too often find ourselves in competition with the very people whose lives are most connected with our own.  It’s just a human thing.  We struggle to take a perspective that’s wider than just our own needs, and all too often we’re not very good at it.

It’s one of life’s paradoxes, the more we try to find our identity, not just in ourselves as individuals, but in the project of living for and through one another – in that whole which is greater than the sum of its parts we encounter moments of grace, but we can also experience frustration and even anger.  As somebody – I forget who - wrote in a book I read somewhere – ‘people who love community destroy community – only people who love people build community’.  It’s why, in the weekly liturgy, we confess our sinfulness and it’s why we offer one another the hand of reconciliation and peace.  Because as God’s forgiven people we continually find it necessary to forgive and to seek forgiveness from one another as well. 

Our readings this morning reflect the challenges of interdependence, and perhaps especially, the challenges of living together in a community of holy reference.  The story of Naboth’s vineyard is a classic fable that gets repeated over and over through every culture’s folklore.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, or, in this case, stoned.  Those with power use it to get their own way at the expense of those without power, all too often justifying their actions to themselves on the basis of the national good or economic rationalism.  It’s a pattern that’s so familiar it almost escapes notice, it’s just the way the world is.

But the story makes a bold claim, which is that when we take advantage of the vulnerability of others, there is a cost.  That when we choose power over love, when we treat people as commodities, we pay a price.  In the story the prophet Elijah shows up – Ahab greets his old sparring partner with what almost sounds like resignation – and Elijah informs the king that his own fate, and the fate of his wife, is going to be the same as Naboth’s.  In a sense it’s not even that Elijah is passing on God’s judgement, more of a case of ‘what goes around, comes around’.  What in New Age jargon they call ‘karma’, or the underlying symmetry that is essential to the interdependence of life.  There is a certain remorselessness in the order of things.  We reap what we sow, whether in hard-heartedness, inability to experience God, or to receive the love of other people.  Injustice and selfishness limit the scope of divine possibility in our lives.  Justice awakens us to the deeper presence of God in ourselves and in others.

And so our own experience of pain – in our lives as individuals and certainly in our collective life – might be connected with our inability to share the perspective of those whose lives are bound up with our own.  So, for example, the mess in Iraq and the background anxiety of living with the threat of global terrorism might just be connected with the failure of wealthy nations to share their resources with the two-thirds of the world’s population that lives in poverty.  When things go wrong in our church community, when we wound one another, when Christians can’t stay in communion with one another, we need to re-examine our own practice of interdependence.  The justice of interdependence can bring us up with a jolt, it always calls us to repentance and personal transformation, and to think about the relationship between our own pain and the unacknowledged pain of others.

Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is about interdependence and the experience of grace.  Paul makes a really big thing of arguing, here and in the letter to the Romans, that our ability to receive the grace of God is itself the gift of God, totally unearned.  He doesn’t deny the value of selfless action, what we call in jargon, good works, but he says doing stuff is useless unless it comes from our experience of relatedness.  If we don’t stay aware of what holds us together – the experience of the interdependence of grace – the whole spiderweb of mutual dependence on one another that because it’s grounded in the self-emptying love of God – if we fail to attend to our relationships with one another that are grounded on God’s relationship with us, then the best of our intentions and the busiest of our actions will eventually lead to envy, mutual incomprehensibility and division.  Attending first and foremost to our relationships reminds us that our actions and even our faithfulness to God grow organically out of an environment of divine interdependence and inspiration.  God’s grace that can’t be forced or earned or bargained for comes first.  What we do with that depends on our ability to receive it as a gift to be shared in community.  The building only stands up if we build it on the foundation of holy relatedness.

Finally, the gospel shows us the grace of receptivity, the grace of accepting the holy gifts of others.  Jesus shocks his host, a righteous (if not self-righteous) Pharisee, by allowing an unknown woman to anoint him with expensive perfume in a most intimate and socially embarrassing encounter.  Mark and John each tell the story a little differently, Luke seems to need to interpret the scene by telling us she was a repentant sinner.  Maybe so, but the uncertainty about whether she is forgiven because of her love or loves because she has been forgiven almost spoils the main point - which is that her gift is accepted.  In communities of holy reference we dare to bring our most precious ointment out of its hiding place, and we offer it to one another.  When you think about it, that’s probably the main reason we keep coming here.  Some of us do it awkwardly, unsure of ourselves - some of us have never before dared to reveal our most precious gifts.  Some of us know, deep down, that what we have to offer is gauche or clumsy or unattractive.  The point is that we risk rejection.

For others, the hardest part is receiving the gift.  We don’t know whether Jesus was impervious to social embarrassment, whether for him it was scary to not be in control of the situation, whether he was at all worried about the damage to his reputation – but if he was, it seems none of this mattered as much as receiving and honouring this unknown woman’s act of love and affection.  Graciously receiving the inappropriate gesture is itself a great act of giving.  Holiness involves receptivity as well as activity, and the willingness to accept the hesitant grace of others.

In one episode, Raymond is desperate to go on a golf weekend after Christmas, but he’s sure Deborah isn’t going to stand for it.  So he gets her a really expensive Christmas present, at the same time dropping hints that all he wants is socks and hankies – on Christmas Day his face drops when Deborah gives him the DVD player he’s always wanted.  Then he figures if he’s got her an expensive gift because he wants her to do something for him, what’s she after?  Of course, it ends badly, as it always does.  Because the real gifts we offer one another are not bargaining chips but acts of self-giving love.

We know that, just sometimes we need to remind ourselves.



Saturday, June 09, 2007

Pentecost 2C

Ninety years ago, two writers had an argument about the writing of children’s stories.  One writer, Bertram Stevens, thought the way to really grab children’s attention was to write about fairies.  His friend thought the most enduring and popular theme, even for children, was food – and to prove his point Norman Lindsay set about writing a story about a bad-tempered pudding named Albert.  In ‘the Magic Pudding’, the hero, a koala named Bunyip Bluegum, joins up with a swaggie named Sam Sawnoff who happens to be the owner of a most remarkable pudding.  As Albert himself explains, he tastes like whatever you want him to taste like, and no matter how much of him you eat he never runs out.  The one thing that makes Albert most bad-tempered is when his owners ignore him or finish their meal without eating what he regards as enough.

Norman Lindsay was right.  Even in fantasy, we want to have our needs met, we crave security and safety.  Especially at times when the world around us seems scary and unpredictable, as it did in the middle of the Great War when Lindsay wrote ‘The Magic Pudding’.

Today’s Old Testament version of the Magic Pudding, of course, is the jug of oil and the jar of flour of the widow of Zarephath.  To begin the story at the beginning, of course, Elijah the prophet is on the run after telling King Ahab that God was sending a terrible drought as punishment for worshipping his wife’s foreign gods.  Out in the desert, God sets up a raven delivery service to bring Elijah food for a while - but then sends him on into enemy territory, into the drought-ravaged land to throw himself on the mercy of the local Baal-worshippers.  Begging a meal from a woman and her dying son in the middle of a drought that, in a sense, he is responsible for himself - Elijah repays her kindness by pulling off the miracle of the Magic Pudding. 

What, do you suppose, is the point of the story?  From our vantage point in the 21st century it’s easy to see stories like this as legendary, to question the obviously magical thinking – but we, too, live in a country where drought makes life precarious for many people.  Most of us, I think, would be uncomfortable with the idea that God causes droughts as divine punishment for failure to come to church – but maybe we struggle a bit more to understand where God is and what God is about when much-needed rain fails to arrive.  Human beings who fantasise about the basics of life, who are vulnerable to the slightest environmental variations – we have a powerful need for a God who cares about us, and we long for a God who is in control.

It’s a strange little story until we recognise that the most important thing about it is not who was responsible for the drought or how they managed to ration the oil and flour.  The most important point of the story is the compassion of the widow, who shares her last handful of flour with an enemy on the run.  That’s where we see in this story what God is like, and maybe that’s the secret of the Magic Pudding as well. 

We’re going to be staying with the Elijah cycle of stories over the next few weeks, mainly because it seems to part of Luke’s agenda – the gospel writer - who seems to have structured some of his own material, the stories of Jesus, to make the point that Jesus is like the mighty Elijah who according to legend was taken bodily up into heaven, and who many expected to be putting in a return appearance sometime soon.  Just like Elijah, Jesus miraculously feeds people in the desert.  Just like Elijah, Jesus raises a dead widow’s son from the dead.

The description of the miracle itself is strange and compelling, structured with the logic of magical wish-fulfilment.  Elijah takes the boy up to his room and prays.  I think we need to notice that he doesn’t hold anything back here.  Elijah feels free to accuse God of an enormous injustice.  We might question his assumption that everything that happens is God’s doing – but the point is that his relationship with God is transparent, no holds barred.  Then he lays himself out over the body three times – his mouth on the mouth of the widow’s son, his eyes on the boy’s eyes, his palms on the boy’s palms, and breathes into his body.  The intimacy and physicality of this resuscitation maybe strike us as odd – but at the same we recognise that Elijah is giving something of his own life to restore life to the widow’s child.  It’s a telling story – in the middle of this big-picture history of kings and government and power the prophet finds compassion and discovers a shared humanity in the home of a pagan woman.  Only then does this woman – unnamed because in the big-picture logic of the story she is seen as unimportant – only after this moment of compassion and vulnerability does the widow of Zarephath exclaim, ‘now I know that you are a man of God – now I know the words you speak are God’s words’.

When Jesus also restores to life a widow’s son the description is less intimate, less vulnerable – maybe Luke is trying to show us that it’s easier for Jesus than it was for Elijah – no angry words with God, no physical shenanigans – and what I think we’re most meant to notice which is that the onlookers are seized with fear.  Like us, they know that death happens.  It defines how the world is.  What does it mean when death comes unstuck?  It’s like the world as we know it starting to run backwards – theologian James Allison comments that through Jesus the whole mechanism by which death controls the lives of human beings is shown to be invalid – death no longer has the power to impose a structure on human life.  Resurrection unravels the fearful logic that we’ve got used to and that makes it both scary, exhilarating and full of hope.

Well we’ve got to be careful how we hear this.  Many Christians argue – one way or the other – about whether we can really believe literally in stories like this.  Can we actually believe that either Jesus or Elijah really brought their widow’s sons back from literal physical death?  In Luke’s story, doesn’t it make more sense to interpret it symbolically, as Luke’s way of telling us that anything Elijah can do, Jesus can do better?  Or to interpret it theologically as saying that the God who creates us is deeper and more powerful than death itself?  Other Christians argue equally passionately that we need to take these stories at face value if we are to believe in the resurrection of Jesus himself.  But I think that argument is a whole lot less important than the observation that in the world we live in, miracles like this don’t happen.  To have a faith that depends on short-cuts to human suffering like this is not going to work in the real world where just in the last week, in our own safe country, young children as well as adults have died in a train accident at a level crossing on a clear sunny day, whole families have died in floods and in earthslides.  Magic pudding thinking doesn’t help.  We need to ask ourselves, ‘really, what’s the good news that these stories contain?’.

Well the good news is compassion.  The word Luke uses for the compassion Jesus feels for the widow of Nain is splagcna – literally, something that happens deep in the bowels.  Jesus doesn’t just take the widow’s needs seriously, he takes her anguish into the core of his being and he makes her pain his own.  Jesus reacts out of that deeply shared pain and, like Elijah, spends something of his own self and his own life in giving life to another. 

The God who created the world we live doesn’t cause drought.  God didn’t cause the death of the son of the widow at Zarephath.  We know that, because God intends creation for life and flourishing.  But we know, too, that in the natural cycle of things droughts and floods happen, we know that fragile human beings die and God doesn’t prevent that.  We dare not pretend otherwise.  But we know that the God who gives us life shares our suffering, that’s what these stories are telling us.  The compassion of God, splagcna – something deep in the bowels of God that can transform us, and the world we live in.  The costly compassion of God that longs to superimpose itself on our lives, mouth to mouth, eye to eye, hand to hand – and to breathe new life into us. The compassion of God that, if we allow ourselves to be shaped by it, can be a radical threat to our world’s dominant culture of competition and self-preoccupation, can unravel death itself.