June 5, 2016
1 Kings 17:17-24
As we celebrated Memorial Day this week, I was reminded—as I am every year—of a memorial erected in Grant Park in Chicago by Veterans for Peace about 10 years ago. The exhibition was simple but powerful—kind of like the seemingly endless parade of white headstones along Monona Drive at this time of year. In Grant Park, the display was pair after pair boots belonging to soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 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 park, surrounded by all those boots, was a mountain of civilian shoes—sneakers, loafers, pumps, sandals—from 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 labels like “Deceased, Tikrit” and a date.
On that Memorial Day, a little boy of about 3 standing next to me. He wasn’t 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 to his mother, saying, “Those are just like daddy’s shoes.” He was most fascinated by the little tiny shoes, the baby shoes. I heard him ask 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 military boots and thousands of civilian shoes, I began to cry, and I couldn’t stop. I wanted to shout that prayer, “God, kids don’t die!” while all around me were signs that kids do, indeed, die. Lots and lots of kids.Kids from every state in the Union, and 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 life back 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, since touching death was thought to make a person unclean). Instead of contaminating Jesus, however, his touch brings the boy back to life.
The truth is, these aren’t just stories about new life for the kids in them. The mothers in these stories are also brought back to life. That is just as miraculous, as I know many of you could attest. Many of you know the pain, the overwhelming heartache, of grieving a child. Many of you have felt like every light in heaven has gone out because your loved one has died.
And it’s important to remember that for the women in these stories, the death of a son followed a previous loss. Both of these women are described as 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 the family providers, are also gone. To women with no means of supporting themselves, their sons’ deaths might be 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 problem persists, why doesn’t the remedy? Why isn’t God raising kids from the dead today? Where was God when those little kids in Newtown or at Sandy Hook were shot? Why doesn’t God resurrect the 100s of kids who are shot in Chicago and Baltimore and Gaza every day? 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 and Sandy Hook. God is always in Ferguson and Baltimore and Chicago. God is in ALL the places where there are empty boots or flip flops, and wherever they are not 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.
But if you can’t see that happening, how can we know it’s true? Because we trust that God is present in the world in the Body and Blood of Jesus. That means that wherever there is some bread and some wine and two or more Christians, God is present. It means 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 dare not deny that kids die. We have to face the grief head-on. In a culture that wants to hide from death, we openly mourn and lament, and we announce that resurrection is God’s desire and intention. We practice hospitality among those who grieve, 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 in Nain and with 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? When we don’t see it first hand, we sometimes forget that the Church is bigger than just us. It is the far-reaching family of God in the world and right here in our community too. There are many, many ways to take on Elijah’s mantle and breathe new life into dying children. We only have to open our hearts and let the Spirit direct us to where we are needed.
One example is that, when it was discovered that kids were dying from contaminated water in Flint, MI, the ELCA sent bottled water through Lutheran Disaster Relief for families to drink. Clean bottled water was provided from the offerings we and other congregations like us collect in worship, even when we are nowhere near Flint. That’s one way in which the Body of Christ brings hope and healing to people in distress.
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? 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 hold you close in the midst of the brokenness. Advocate for those who seem 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 new life, is at work in your boots or slippers or sandals, bringing hope and healing to all the hurting world.