Sermon preached at Salem Presbyterian Church on the second Sunday of Pentecost.
1 Kings 17:8-24
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
Luke 7:11-17 11
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
When I first read the scripture passages for this week, of Elijah and Jesus raising people from the dead, my first flippant response was “Oh good! I get to preach on zombie Sunday!”
Now, before you try to throw me off a cliff like the people of Nazareth intended to do with Jesus—I’ve been reminded several times this week that a prophet is never accepted in his—or her—hometown—let me explain myself a little.
America has zombies on the brain. Emerging from their B-movie lairs, zombies—those slow-moving monsters who rise from the dead to cause terror and mayhem—have experienced quite a popularity surge in the last few years. You might have seen the “updated” literary classic Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or maybe you’ve stumbled across AMC’s hugely popular zombie-themed drama The Walking Dead. The Center for Disease Control has even jumped on the trend, maintaining a page on Zombie Preparedness on its website that shares helpful tips for surviving a zombie apocalypse… which, luckily enough, happen to be the same tips for surviving a real natural disaster.
In fact, zombies are so much a part of our cultural consciousness right now, that at the first potluck I attended at Union Presbyterian Seminary, the dinner conversation was about—you guessed it—the zombie apocalypse, as the second-years determined which of the first-years would be useful in such an event, and which would be left behind. (If you’re wondering, my perpetual stash of Hershey’s chocolate was enough to secure my place amongst the survivors.)
All of this is to explain why zombies were the first thing that came to my mind when thinking about people coming back from the dead. Of course, I realized immediately how inappropriate it would ever be to talk about zombies in a sermon—oops—but the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how plain wrong the image is. The thing that makes zombies so scary is that they’re not really alive at all. In our scriptures today, however, both young men return to full and glorious life—not just undead, but abundantly alive. And even more importantly, this renewed life can’t be contained in just the young men, but spreads to those around them as well. As we just heard in Luke, when Jesus raises the widow’s son from the dead, great numbers of people are stirred to action, praising God and spreading the good news that a divine prophet has come to the people of Israel. Imagine what it must have been like to hear that news! Against the daily grind of drudgery and disease, fear and worry, poverty and oppression, such a word of hope must have injected new faith and new energy into those who heard it. To put it another way, the gospel message urged its hearers from death to life.
The story from our Old Testament reading is, perhaps appropriately, a bit more intimate. Instead of a great crowd of mourners, this time it’s just a young boy and his mother, with whom the prophet Elijah is staying. The boy falls ill and is on the brink of death, but Elijah calls on God and God restores the boy to life. This act alone would be enough to bring joy to the parent of any sick child, but there is something deeper going on here as well. When the boy first becomes ill, the mother suggests it is a consequence of her own sin. “What have you against me, man of God?” she rails. “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Her faith in God has been twisted into a fear of God’s judgment, a belief that God would kill her son to punish her for her sins. Such faith has more to do with death than with life—a zombie faith, one might even say, stumbling on in fear. Elijah’s actions bring the life back into the sick child, but they also bring life back into the mother’s faith. “Now I know that you are a man of God,” she says, “and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” She recognizes that Elijah is the agent of a God of healing and compassion, not suffering and punishment. Her faith lives.
And just like the new life spread beyond those who had literally died, so does it spread beyond the confines of these old stories. Through the grace of God, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit, this new life is available to us each and every day.
And yet, despite this promise of new life, and often despite our best intentions, we seem to spend most of our time stumbling wearily from task to task, weighed down with grief or fear, apathetic to anything but our own stress and exhaustion. Basically, we behave more like zombies than like the heirs of Easter and Pentecost.
When we plow through the earth’s resources without a thought to the renewal of God’s creation, we’re acting like zombies.
When our ears are better attuned to the explosions of the latest summer blockbuster than to the children suffering from hunger, want, and violence in our neighborhoods and across the world, we’re acting like zombies.
When we hold grudges and harden our hearts against those we think have wronged us, we’re acting like zombies.
When we refuse to acknowledge the humanity of those who don’t look like us, act like us, or think like us, we’re acting like zombies.
When we move through the rituals of worship as perfunctorily as possible, when we confine our Christianity to the hours of eleven to noon on Sunday mornings, and when we view faith as a checklist rather than a calling, we’re acting like zombies.
When we’ve given up on the chance that God might be working in our lives, we’re acting like zombies.
Fortunately for us, though, the God who raised the widows’ sons from the dead is still working to raise us from the dead each and every day.
You may have noticed that the paraments in the sanctuary are red and not green. That’s because we’re celebrating a whole season of Pentecost right now, giving due praise to the Spirit’s presence in the church and in our lives. As Presbyterians, we sometimes give the Spirit short shrift, and yet it is the Spirit who, as the Brief Affirmation of Faith proclaims, is “everywhere the giver and renewer of life, [who] justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church.” Theologian Elizabeth Johnson speaks of the Spirit as empowering, renewing, and vivifying. When I first read her text for theology class this past year, I got stuck on that last one, vivifying. It’s not a word we use terribly often. Vivifying. Life-ing. The Spirit puts life into us. What does that even mean?
I hope we’ve all had moments when we felt really, truly, fully alive, moments where our breathing is deeper, our thinking is clearer, and our awareness of our place in the world is keener. Such moments pulse with joy and excitement and serenity, and they are surely gifts of the Spirit. But the work of the Spirit—and here’s the miracle—is that it aids us in sharing that life with others. Imagine how diminished our gospel story today would have been if no one had been bold enough to share the story of what they had seen Jesus do—for one, it probably never would have made it into Luke’s account! It is the Spirit who compels us to share the new life of Jesus with others, using the very same methods he used—compassion and courage.
Through God, Christ, and Holy Spirit, we have been given the gift of new and abundant life. However, we all know that gifts can be ignored—who hasn’t gotten that sweater at Christmas that goes straight to the bottom drawer, never to be seen again—so how do we model the gift of new life? After all, you might object, we aren’t likely to be raising people from the dead anytime soon.
A hint comes in the first story we read today. If you can remember, before Elijah raises the widow’s son from the dead, before the widow’s son even gets sick, he feeds them. Zarephath, where they live, has been hit by drought, and the mother is getting ready to prepare a last insufficient meal for herself and her son. Elijah, empowered by the Lord, causes her meager food supply to abound, so that she and her son and all the members of her household have plenty to eat.
The miracle of the never-ending jar of meal may be beyond us, but the miracles of compassion and generosity are not. Through our words and our actions, we have the opportunity daily to spread life.
When we give to the Food Pantry or to Two-Cents-a-Meal, that’s spreading life.
When we tend a garden, reduce our comsumption, or enjoy our mountains, that’s spreading life.
When we forgive those who have hurt us and forge new relationships with those outside our comfort zone, that’s spreading life.
When we come to worship with joyful hearts and leave it excited to do God’s work the following week, that’s spreading life.
When we choose kindness over selfishness, compassion over irritation, and faith over fear, that’s spreading life.
To bring things full circle, I have one more story to tell you about spreading life—and about zombies. Three summers ago, a friend and I were in Dublin, Ireland, when our bus driver warned us about a protest happening in city center. Not wanting to get stuck in the crowds, we headed out to some of Dublin’s excellent museums for the afternoon. When we returned to the city center for dinner, however, we discovered that the protest had actually been a fundraising event, called a “zombie walk.” You may have heard of similar events here in the US. Over 8,000 people had dressed up as zombies in order to raise money for cancer research. They had given their time and money to be a part of the work of healing and compassion. The participants may have been dressed to look like the undead, but they were spreading life.
The God who raised the widows’ sons from the dead, the Christ who himself rose from the dead, and the Spirit who calls us each day to rise from the dead anew is challenging us to live life abundantly, and to spread abundant life. This God, as Elizabeth Johnson puts it, is “sheer, exuberant, relational aliveness in the midst of the history of suffering, [an] inexhaustible source of new being in situations of death and destruction, [a] ground of hope for the whole created universe.”
How can you be the image of that God this coming week? How can you share the gift of new life?
To quote Jesus Christ, “I say to you, rise!” Rise and live abundantly.
Amen and amen.
 Brief Affirmation of Faith.
 SHE WHO IS pp 133-137.
 Johnson 243.