June 9, 2013
At a Memorial Day exhibition in Grant Park a few years ago I was standing next to a mother and a little boy of about three. The exhibition was simple but powerful: pair after pair boots belonging to soldiers who died in Iraq, arranged alphabetically and by home state. Many boots had special mementos like photos or stuffed animals attached to the laces. In the center of the display of boots was a circle of civilian shoes–sneakers, loafers, pumps, sandals—representing the Iraqi and other civilian casualties of war. Some of them had name tags on them, but most just had general tags like “Member of the Ramallah family.” Some had no identifiers except a label like “Deceased, Tikrit” and a date. The little boy next to me was not much interested in the soldiers’ boots, but he was mesmerized by the pile of ordinary shoes. He pointed out a pair of red bedroom slippers saying they were “just like daddy’s shoes.” He was most fascinated by the little tiny shoes, the baby shoes. He asked his mother why there were so many little shoes. I didn’t hear his mother’s response, but I heard his reaction loud and clear: “But Mommy, kids don’t die!”
And there in the middle of thousands of boots and thousands of civilian shoes, I began to cry. I couldn’t stop. I wanted to shout at God, “But God, kids don’t die!” while all around me were signs that lots of kids do indeed die. Kids from every state in the Union. Kids from countries I have never been to. Oh yes, it feels wrong on every level, but kids—far too many kids—really do die, every day.
Kids die in two of our Scripture lessons today. In the Old Testament reading, a foreign woman offers shelter to a wandering prophet, and just after she feeds him the last of her food, her son dies. The prophet calls on God to bring back life to the boy. In the New Testament story, Jesus comes upon a funeral procession in the town of Nain, and is moved to touch the bier (something that no strictly religious Jew would have done, as touching death was thought to defile and make a person unclean) and bring the boy back to life.
The truth is, these aren’t just stories about new life for the kids in them. The mothers are also brought back to life in these stories. That is just as much a miracle, as I know many of you could attest. Some of you know the pain expressed in these stories, the overwhelming heartache, the feeling like every light in heaven has gone out because your loved one has died.
And let’s remember that for these women, the death of a son followed a previous loss. The Scriptures states that these women were widows. That meant that each had already experienced a significant death–the death of a husband. Grief upon grief. And in a society where women were provided for by their families of origin until marriage and then by their husbands, these women have lost their breadwinners as well as their mates. Now their sons, who would have taken on their father’s roles as family providers, are also gone. To women with no means of supporting themselves, their sons’ deaths might signify a prelude to their own. Alas, stories like this are not ancient history. Women and children are always the primary casualties of war, and single moms are always the most vulnerable in times of economic crises. It is for women like these two Biblical widows and their current counterparts that the Bible is so full of mandates to the church that we care for the widows and orphans.
Which may make us wonder, “If the problems persist, why doesn’t the remedy? Why isn’t God raising kids from the dead today? Where was God when those little kids in Newtown were shot? Why didn’t God rush to bring new life to the little ones in Bangladesh who were crushed when the factory where they worked collapsed? What about the child whose feet once fit in a tiny pair of white shoes that bore the label, “Baby Girl, Baghdad; August”? Those shoes were empty when I saw them. Where was God?
How do we reconcile the fact that kids DO die with our understanding that our God is a God of life, and life abundant?
Let’s begin by noticing that today’s Bible stories are not primarily about children dying–both are more significantly resurrection stories. God brings life to the two dead children and grants renewed life to their grieving families and extended communities. God does not strike kids dead. Instead, God brings new life to seemingly hopeless situations. God WAS there with “Baby Girl, Baghdad,” when she breathed her last. God was in Newtown. God was in Bangladesh. And God IS still there. God is in ALL the places where there are empty boots or flip flops, but where they are never enough tears to adequately mourn the lost children. God is touching the funeral biers and breathing life back into the children in every one of the troubled parts of the world right now. How, you might ask, is God doing that? How can we see it and know that it is true?
Because we know that God is present in the world in the Body and Blood of Jesus. That means that wherever there is a cup and some bread and some wine and two or more Christians, God is present. It means that God is present in and through, and sometimes in spite of, The Church. You and me and our brothers and sisters in Christ on every continent are collectively the Body of Christ for the world. And what kind of response does the body of Christ make when we encounter empty boots and full coffins? We do not deny that kids die. We face the grief head-on, and we announce that resurrection is God’s desire and intention. We practice hospitality among those who mourn, give them a safe haven for lamenting. We speak words of comfort and we offer practical assistance as we can.
In bread and wine we are united with all the hurts and hopes that have ever been. We are one with all the world that God so loves. In participating in the life and death and resurrection of Christ, we transcend time and space, uniting with our ancient kin in Zaraphath and Nain and our contemporary sisters and brothers in every community of faith, worldwide. We acknowledge bravely that death is part of what we experience in human families, and we also breathe out words of trust that God will never leave us, and death will never have the last word.
Which is all lovely in theory, but how can we put flesh and blood action around this? How can we embody the ELCA’s tag line, “God’s work, our hands”? How do we alleviate pain and bring hope and new life to a hurting world?
Let’s start with a recent example. Not many of us were personally victimized by the tornadoes that struck OK last week. But many children of God were. And immediately following the disaster, members of the ELCA’s Disaster Response were there, assessing and addressing the damage. Likewise, following the shootings in Newtown and the the hurricane in NJ, and numerous other calamities, individuals and agencies of the Church stepped forward to offer support and consolation. Maybe YOU personally didn’t hug a grieving parent, or pick up the pieces of a demolished home, but through our offerings and prayers, we made it possible for our counterparts in the larger Church to do exactly that. Let’s take this opportunity to remember that when we put a dollar in the offering plate, it isn’t just our friends at Trinity we support, it is the whole people of God, locally and globally. We are part of a worldwide communion of saints.
When we don’t see it first hand, we sometimes forget that the Church is a far-reaching family of God in the world. But God is at work here in our community too. This week I was privileged to witness the graduation awards given by the organization across the street from us–Operation Fresh Start. This program provides construction and conservation training to teenagers that everyone else has given up on. Many have had trouble at school or with the law. Usually both. But Operation Fresh Start touches the biers of these all-but-dead teens, and offers them new life. They offer an opportunity for the kids to learn skills, and arrange for them to earn high school diplomas or the equivalent. They give them respect and accountability, and many a life is saved. If you want to see a child and a family and whole community experience resurrection, take a little trip over to Fresh Start and offer to tutor or volunteer in other ways.
These are just examples. There are many, many other ways to take on Elijah’s mantle and breathe new life into dying children. You only have to open your heart and let the Spirit move you to where you are needed. I guarantee you, the things that break your heart or that make your heart soar are messages from God about how you are called to be an agent of grace. So, give it some thought. How are you being nudged to be God’s presence to a hurting family? What efforts of the Global Church make you glad you are a part of it? And who else needs us to live into our baptismal promise “to work for justice and peace in all the world”?
Children all around us die and in numbers too big to believe, but that is not the end of the story. God has always been, and continues to be, a God of Life, a God of YES, a God of Possibility. Weep, when you have to, and trust that Jesus will reach out into the brokenness. Advocate for those who feel paralyzed, lifeless and hopeless. Pray, because you must. Because the life of the world depends on it. And know that God, who is ceaselessly innovating and creating life, is at work in your boots or slippers or sandals (or whatever manner of footwear you prefer) to bring hope and healing to all the world.
~Pastor Susan Schneider