Alone Again—Unnaturally

Sermon delivered at St. Matthew’s, Westerville, OH, on June 10, 2007. If you would like to listen to the whole thing, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 17: 17-24; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7: 11-17

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning, St. Matthew’s! Before I begin, I am reminded of the story about a priest whose sermons were very long and boring. He announced in the church one Sunday that he had been transferred to another church and that it was Jesus’ wish that he leave that week. The faithful in the church got up and sang: “What a Friend we have in Jesus!” I hope that will not be your reaction to my sermon after I complete it!

What’s the Human Condition?

In today’s OT and gospel lessons we are confronted with two stark reminders of the human condition: (1) the deep-seated fear that when tragedy strikes us, it is because God is punishing us for our sins; and (2) our profound sense of being alone when death strikes those we love. We see the first fear stated explicitly by the widow of Zarephath when she asked Elijah if he had come to remind her of her sin and kill her son. We see the fear of facing death alone poignantly illustrated in both stories by the fact that the women involved were both widows who had lost their only sons, a fact that would have left both women desperately vulnerable and helpless in their respective cultures.

Nor does our loss have to be as severe as death to make us feel this way. It might be the loss of a job or divorce. Our sense of loss might come from moving away from the community we’ve known and settling in a place where we are strangers. Physical illness may rob us of our precious independence or someone whom we thought was a friend betrays us. Whatever the loss, we are tempted to think that we are being punished and certainly that we must face it by ourselves.

Perhaps you are one of those people this morning who are feeling all alone as you struggle with your loss. Or perhaps you are someone who thinks you are being punished and made to suffer loss because of your sins. If you are, it is to you especially that I want to speak a message of hope this morning. But if I try to address both of these problems in one sermon, I know Fr. Ron will immediately be on my case afterwards about trying to preach two sermons in one and I fear I might also start hearing spontaneous choruses of “What A Friend We Have in Jesus!” erupt. And so this morning I want to concentrate on speaking a word of hope about having to face loss alone.

Where’s God’s Grace?

The story of the widow of Zarephath, when read in its broader context, is a story about not only life in God but also a story about trusting God during times of deprivation. It is about the widow’s newfound faith in God—a faith this pagan woman had begun to develop through her association with the prophet Elijah—being tested to help bring it to maturity. In resuscitating her son, Elijah demonstrated in a powerful and profound way that faith will ultimately be rewarded and that in God there is life, not death. In answering Elijah’s prayer of faith, God also reminded the widow—and through her, us—that not only is he the God of life but that she did not have to face her son’s death alone. In this case, God used Elijah in a most dramatic way to teach her this truth.

We see these truths also illustrated in today’s NT and Gospel lessons. Did you notice that in Luke’s account, it is Jesus who initiates the resuscitation of the widow of Nain’s son? He did so because he saw her grief and had compassion. Likewise, Jesus sees your grief and aloneness and has compassion. Furthermore, in raising her son, Jesus not only addressed the heart of her grief but also made sure that the widow would not be alone physically—she would have her son to take care of her as was the custom of her culture.

And as we read in today’s NT lesson, this same Lord, who after he arose from the dead, also claimed the life of the Apostle Paul through a deep, intimate, and immediate relationship with him, and prepared Paul for a lifetime of suffering and hardship as he proclaimed the Gospel and caused people to glorify God because of his radically transformed life. The same risen Lord who claimed and transformed Paul can transform you too, if only you will accept his gracious invitation and nurture your relationship, in part, through daily Bible reading and prayer.

Finally, we are reminded in these stories that life is more than just the living of our days here on earth. Life, real life, is about having a deep and intimate relationship with the Living Lord. While it starts now, it also transcends our mortal life and lasts for an eternity. We are promised new resurrected bodies to live in a new creation (1 Corinthians 15:35ff; Romans 8:19-21). We are promised that our tears and sorrows will be wiped away forever (Revelation 7:17). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us that if this is not true, we Christians are the most to be pitied. Why? Because the life we are called to lead in this world requires self-denial and surrender to the Lord, humility, suffering, and bearing our cross every day. If there is nothing beyond the grave, then we would indeed be fools to embark on such a life because we are dead in our sins and without hope, hardly great motivations to live that way! However, the Christian hope promises real life, life that transcends our mortal lives, and we can thank God that the promise is trustworthy and true!

But oftentimes in the midst of our grief and loss, we need more than a promise of some future glory, even when we are convinced the promise is true. When well-meaning people try to comfort us in our grief and loss—and in our aloneness—we sometimes hear these truths as platitudes and fail to find comfort in them; in fact, they can make us quite angry. After all we are finite, broken, and mortal creatures, and sometimes we require more than being reminded of our eternal heritage; we need tangible support and evidence that Christ has not abandoned us and is with us right now. Thanks be to God that he has given us the means of grace to meet this very human need of ours!

The first and most powerful of these means of grace is the Body and Blood of our Lord. When you come to the Table each week, do you feed on Jesus in your heart by faith with thanksgiving? When you consume his Body and Blood do you expect to be strengthened and nurtured by him who loved you and gave himself for you? If not, you are sadly missing out on a wonderful opportunity to allow Jesus to look on your hurts, fears, and brokenness and begin to heal them. In a few minutes when we come to the Table, I encourage you to listen to the wondrous and gracious words Fr. Ron pronounces as he celebrates the Eucharist and watch as others take the bread and wine. As you do, allow yourself to become one with Christ and one with his Body, the folks around you who come to the Table the with same hurts and fears as you have, and then feed on Christ with your heart by faith with thanksgiving. I promise you that you will not be disappointed.

The second and last means of grace I want to talk about this morning is the Body of Christ, the Church. In this individualistic culture of ours, a culture that encourages and praises “self-made individuals,” we are often tempted to lose sight of the fact that we are called to live the Christian life as members of Christ’s Body, i.e., we are to live the Christian life corporately as well as individually. And being good rugged individualists, when we suffer loss, our culture reminds us that we must face our loss alone. So when we read Jesus’ gracious promise never to abandon or leave us (John 14:18ff; Matthew 28:20), it sometimes leaves us feeling empty because we have trouble connecting to someone whose presence is not tangible; we like to touch and feel and see. But we must not give in to this temptation. It’s just not true that we are alone in our suffering because we ARE the Body of Christ and we DO have a tangible connection with him through other believers. However, in a large church it is often hard to make connections with people, the kind of connection that helps remind us Christ is always present with us, the kind of connection that reminds us that we are not in this life alone.

So how does that work? In a church our size, it is critical that you get plugged into a small group so that you can develop the kinds of intimate connections that are so important to relationships, both with Jesus and with other people. Without that intimate connection, it will be very difficult for you to remain connected to Christ through his Body. Look around at your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, the other “body parts” if you will, of his Body. Do you know their names? What kind of connection do you have with them? Would you be willing to share your deepest hopes and fears with them right now if given the chance? It is that kind of deep, intimate connection that Jesus uses to help make his presence known to us and to demonstrate his compassion for us. It is that kind of relationship that will keep us as branches well grafted to Jesus the Vine.

We were talking about this very idea in our small group a couple of weeks ago and two of our members, Jean and John, remarked that they had been attending St. Matthew’s for years but hardly knew anyone. Then they joined a small group and now they seem to know more people; their small group connections have enabled them to become better connected to the larger Body of Christ, and through us to Christ himself! I made the observation that it was a testimony to them (and to St. Matthew’s) that they continued to come and worship without having that essential human connection that we all need and can develop in small group discipleship. And then just the other night as we were discussing a deeply troubling problem confronting a couple of our members, John mused that he wished he and Jean had had a small group when they dealt with a similar problem years earlier. Our risen Lord truly is among two or three of us who gather together in his Name to remind us we do not have to face our loss and hurts alone and can have immediate and tangible support.

Where’s the Application?

In closing I would like to share how our small group and St. Matthew’s has helped me deal with my own significant loss—the delay of my ordination [personal testimony].

So if you are one who is feeling alone as you deal with your loss, take heart and hope. The one who loved you and gave himself for you that you might have life with him forever is available to you now, and in real and tangible ways. Embrace the gift that is yours by virtue of being part of his Body, the Church. And if you have not yet joined a small group, I encourage you to get connected with the other saints of this congregation so that you too may know the joy, peace, and power that comes from having the kind of intimate relationship with the other members of his Body—and through them with the Living Christ. If you don’t know where to start, talk to Judy or me and we will help get you connected. In getting connected with the Lord through his Body, will your hurts, fears, and problems go away? No, because we live in a broken and fallen world full of sin and suffering. But take heart; through the ordinary means of grace—through daily Bible reading and prayer, through his Body and Blood, and by being a connected member of his Body, the Church—our Lord helps us overcome all that can go wrong in our hearts and in this broken world in which we live. That’s good news, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.