Last Wednesday morning I was enjoying an excellent conference of ordained Episcopal women, when I received a text from my son Sam. “Shooter on UCLA campus now. I’m OK in a locked room.”
I shared the terrifying message with our conference leaders, and 60 women stopped what they were doing to pray for all involved. Two anxious hours later the all clear was sounded, but two young men were dead in a murder-suicide, and later the body of a young woman, the estranged wife of the gunman, was also discovered.
Every day some 80 Americans lose their lives to gun violence. Two of those, every day, are children. One of the women attending last week’s conference with me is the rector of the Episcopal Church in Newtown, CT. Her church lost two of their children in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. I read recently of a woman in Oakland who lost both of her sons, ages 13 and 19, in separate shootings less than three weeks apart. And it goes on and on. There are a lot of grieving parents out there. Something is deeply broken in our society when the nation we like to call the greatest on earth has ten times the number of gun deaths in other developed countries.
In Biblical times, the perils were different but equally acute, as they are today in countries where malaria, cholera and dysentery take children’s lives every day. In the days of Jesus and Elijah, a parent could and likely would lose several children before they reached adulthood. And adding to the natural grief and devastation of such a loss, there was a real economic impact, especially for mothers. Widows depended on their sons for food and shelter, for life, in a world without social security. A widow who lost her only son was in real danger of starving to death.
Elijah was on the run. He had prophesied to King Ahab that there would be a terrible drought and famine in the land, as Jahweh’s punishment for the king’s embrace of the Baal god, whose worship included the murder of children. Naturally the prophecy didn’t go down well with the king, so Elijah fled to a remote place. When his water supply dried up God sent Elijah to a land outside of Ahab’s kingdom, and here he encountered a widow who could barely keep herself and her son alive. Somehow Elijah convinced the widow to put her trust in the God of Israel and to share her tiny resources with him, trusting that there would be enough for all three.
The other half of this story, that we didn’t hear this morning, tells us that the son subsequently died, and in the face of the distraught mother’s anger – she naturally blamed the foreigner – Elijah called upon the power of God to restore the child to life. There’s a pretty obvious parallel in the Gospel reading, where Jesus likewise resuscitates the only son of a widow, this time in public, and the miracle cements Jesus’ reputation as a prophet, mighty in deed and word.
And we can look ahead from our privileged vantage point and know that the Gospel story ends with God’s beloved only son dying a violent and senseless death and then being raised to life again.
My new friend, the rector of Trinity, Newtown, told me of a recent infant baptism. The baby’s parents lost both of their children at Sandy Hook, and in due course they went to great lengths to have another child. This child represented new life not only for those parents but also for the entire community. She said without irony that there wasn’t a dry eye in the church at that baptism.
There is something we need to hear in all of these stories, whether contemporary news report or ancient parable: to live in this broken world is to risk losing what we love and cherish the most; it is devastating and death-dealing; and there can be the promise of resurrection and restoration.
On Thursday, at the closing Eucharist of our conference, Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves spoke about the sudden death of her husband two years ago and the journey she has been on since then. She spoke of giving back to God that which we have loved, of coming to a place where she understood that in healing from the loss she wasn’t letting go of something or someone that belonged to her: she was giving back to God that which had been lent to her and placed in her keeping for a while. When changes and loss come and we adjust and resume our lives, we aren’t letting go, we are giving back. And in return God offers us something else, a promise of new life, new beginnings, a promise of resurrection.
What is it that you cherish so deeply that it would devastate you to lose it? We get attached to all kinds of relationships: to people, of course, and also to animals, to homes, to heirlooms, to buildings, to ways of doing and being that are comfortable and safe. To live is to love, and to love is to risk the pain of loss. In the person of Jesus, we learn that our God, all-powerful and transcendent, is also willing to love and to suffer from that love, for the sake of transforming the creation and bringing about the Kingdom of heaven. And we learn that there is always resurrection, even from the most heartbreaking loss; there is always the promise of new life, because our God is the God of the living.
King Ahab clung to his lifeless idols and brought death on his people, while Elijah brought the widow a message of life from the living God. We can choose whether to cling to our old idols or to reach for the new life that God offers us. The Eucharist is the food of that new life, and we come together week after week to receive nourishment for the journey. Our mission, to love Christ, serve others, and welcome all, leads us out into the streets and parks, out into the wilderness of need and the places where death rules, out to the people who are crushed by loss, grief, and fear, carrying with us God’s promise of new life and hope. Like the prophets of old, we can help to restore life to the lifeless, because we know the end of the story: resurrection, restoration, renewal.
On the evening of orthodox Easter, May 1, the Serbian orthodox cathedral of St Sava in New York City burned down. The church building had originally belonged to Trinity Episcopal Church, and St Sava’s had worshiped there for over 70 years. This week the Episcopal General Theological Seminary announced that St Sava’s will worship in the seminary chapel for as long as they need to rebuild their church. The members of St Sava’s, rising from the ashes of loss, are finding glimpses of new life in this budding relationship with the seminary and the New York diocese. Where God is, there will always be new life, even if it takes an unexpected shape.
Death, change, loss, heartbreak: all these are ours to bear, in a world where instruments of death outnumber people and fear often trumps faith. But we can take comfort in knowing that God has borne all this with us, and we draw strength from the knowledge that our God is faithful. And so we may sing with the Psalmist: “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
June 5, 2016
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges