Benediction Online

Sunday, June 17, 2007

What of the widow whose food ran out?

The first reading and the Gospel reading this morning are exciting, inspiring stories of God at work in our world. Not only did the widow’s jug of oil and jar of meal continue to be filled, but her son was healed when he seemed to be dead, and in the Gospel, Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead.

But what of the widows whose food ran out? What of the widows whose sons died? What of those who are not healed? What of the children who will die unnecessary deaths as a result of hunger and illness even during the hour that we spend worshipping together this morning? Does God not care for them?

Why does God not answer our prayers and keep those we love from pain and from death? Does God not care for us?

These are relatively new questions. It was not until the period known as the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, that we began to think exclusively in terms of cause and effect. Since then we have come to expect that whatever happens has a cause. We find meaning for our lives in thinking that for everything there is a logical explanation, if we can only work out what it is. If something happens there must be a reason. Since things happen which we would not choose and which we would not allow if we were God, we assume that there is a greater reason. Life, we often tell ourselves, is a learning experience and we are given lessons, sometimes painful, in order for us to grow.

I am not sure that there is a firm Biblical basis for this way of thinking. We certainly have images of God as a parent who disciplines and teaches; we also hear Paul talking about the need to grow up and become mature in our faith. But not that we are here primarily to learn. Instead our tradition tells us that we are here to worship and serve God and to co-create with the Creator.

So if we are not here to learn. If everything that happens is not in some divine lesson plan, what then?

Perhaps God is absent. There’s a wonderful scene in the next chapter of 1 Kings. Elijah has challenged the priests of Baal to a contest. They are each to build an altar and implore their god to light the fire for the sacrifice. Whichever god can do that, wins. As the priests of Baal are begging and begging for fire, Elijah jeers at them saying, ‘Call louder –perhaps your god is in the bathroom, or perhaps he’s away on a trip.’

Some people think that God is essentially away on a trip. Having set up the universe with certain immutable laws, such as the one which makes apples fall, and the one which says that all creatures die, God is standing back watching things unfold, unable to intervene in the situation because it would get in the way of our free will.

I want to suggest that we are trying to answer the problem within a certain way of thinking which doesn’t allow us to find an answer. You have all heard the story about the tourist in England who stopped to ask a farm laborer the way to Devizes. After thinking for a long time he said, “Well if I were goin’ to Devizes, I wouldn’t start from ‘ere.”

We are caught up in a way of thinking that just seems like common sense. If something happens there must be a cause. If there is no human cause then it must be the result of divine action. How can we love, worship and serve a God who does such rotten things? or even a God who allows such things to happen?

Postmodern philosophers have pointed out that we are caught in a particular way of thinking; a way of thinking which creates ‘grand narratives’ that tie everything together. When we are thinking inside such a grand narrative it is nigh impossible to think outside the box.

But let’s try anyway.

Despite the terrible tragedies that happened in the Old Testament in God’s name – and still happen today – the New Testament, and especially John’s gospel assure us that God is love and cares about us. So when tragedy hits us we think that either God is teaching us something or is in someway powerless to stop it happening.

What if neither of these things is true? What if there are no definite rules, no divine intention unfolding? What if God is just making it up as God goes along?

Many of you are artists, and I don’t presume to understand the process you each go through when you create a work of art, so forgive me if I have this wrong, but it seems that most creative processes have an element of trial and error. You start out with one idea but along the way something else starts to develop, and when that happens you realize that something no longer fits somewhere else. Or you put down on the canvas or paper or in the clay, whatever medium you are using, something that seemed really good in your mind’s eye but, once you get it out there, is obviously a Huge Mistake. Which is where creativity really comes in, because now you have this Huge Mistake and you have to decide what to do about it.

Could that be a picture of the way God works and co-creates with us? Except that he’s not putting paint on canvas or words on a page which stay where they’re put, but working with us – people who have free will, people who make decisions which have impacts we can’t even imagine, people who are motivated by strange and curious things to do the unexpected and surprising.

Is it possible that God uses the intention and even the intensity of our prayer as well as our thoughts and actions as part of this creative process? Is it possible that God hasn’t yet made his mind up about how it will all turn out?

The philosophers among us will be quick to point out that this metaphor tends in the direction of creating yet another grand narrative that explains everything. That is a valid criticism, but it helps me to think of a God who is still in the process of creating, a God who hears our prayers and doesn’t choose to answer this one but not that one for some unexplainable capricious reason but rather uses them in the mysterious creative process which is the unfolding of the universe.

So what can we say to the widow whose son is not restored to life? To the mother whose son comes back from the war in a box, or her daughter in a wheelchair? To the one whose child is this moment dying from malnutrition and disease?

Metaphors of God’s creative process don’t save lives or put food on the table. We can say that God’s providence underlies all things and all experiences and that God in Jesus knows and has experienced extreme human pain. We can say that where there is suffering God is close. But the child still dies.

That is why we are working with other churches to address social justice issues. That is why the Episcopal Church has declared the fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals to be its Number One mission priority. Because God co-creates with us; God expects us to do all we can to help create a world where suffering is reduced, where the hungry are fed, the widow is comforted, and no-one dies alone. New life will come as we work in cooperation with the divine to create the world which today we can only imagine.


Post a Comment

<< Home