Sunday, November 1, 2020

Phil Kniss: Food for the grieving journey

“Life in the face of death”
All Saints Day
Exodus 32:1-14

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On All Saints Day we face head-on
something we’d rather turn away from—death itself.

Yes, All Saints Day has different meanings
in different Christian traditions.
But in most Western Protestant churches, it’s a remembrance day.
We don’t parse out the differences between
All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and All Hallows Eve.
We kind of lump them all together on November 1
(or the closest Sunday),
and use the day to remember, honor, and grieve,
those of our faith communities who have died,
who are now in the “great cloud of witnesses.”
We choose to revisit our loss and ponder our mortality.

Some of us might wish for a more pleasant theme—
seeing we’re in the middle of multiple deadly pandemics,
and our nation is on the midst of one of the most anxious,
and potentially even violent presidential elections
in our memory (Lord, have mercy).

Nevertheless, today we choose to enter into the shadows.
Yes, there is resurrection (thank God!!)—but this isn’t Easter.
Today we need to remember, and feel, the pain of death.

So, even though the Narrative Lectionary stays on track today,
we are given a story that will help us in this regard.

Elijah the Tishbite, prophet of God.

I mentioned last Sunday,
that once Israel chose to be ruled by Kings,
God had to grab another tool out of the heavenly toolbox—
the prophet of God, to keep the kings in line.

When we were still back in Genesis, I made the comment,
that the whole biblical narrative is
God running interference on God’s people.
The people veer off this way or that,
since God gave them free will.
And every time they drift into danger
of losing themselves or destroying themselves,
God runs interference, to steer them back on track.

Now that Israel is a monarchy,
and their Kings by and large,
are more power-hungry and narcissistic,
than they are humble servants of God,
God stays very busy running interference.
God calls prophets into duty again and again,
to bring evil kings back in line.

Some prophets had a harder job than others.
I would not have wanted the job of Elijah the Tishbite,
sent to be a moral compass for the likes of King Ahab.

Read the books of 1 and 2 Kings. You see a pattern.
Every king keeps getting worse.
Our story is from 1 Kings 17.
But in the chapter right before it says King Omri
did evil in the eyes of the Lord
and sinned more than all those before him.
Well, King Ahab was Omri’s son.
It says about Ahab,
“He not only considered it trivial
to commit the sins of the previous kings,
he began to serve Baal and worship him.
Ahab . . . did more to arouse the anger of the Lord,
the God of Israel,
than did all the kings of Israel before him.”

What does an angry God do? Send in Elijah the Tishbite!
The King received Elijah, who delivered this message—
not the greatest motivational speech ever—
“As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve,
there will be neither dew nor rain
in the next few years except at my word.”
And he turned and walked out of the palace.

And then . . . take a look!
I never cease to be amazed
at some of the crucial details that get preserved in scripture.

When Elijah walks out on Ahab,
God tells him where to go hide from the King.
“Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine
east of the Jordan.
You will drink from the brook,
and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.”

Kerith Ravine is a name that is doubled, for emphasis.
Kerith means a cutting, or gorge, or torrent-bed.
And a Ravine is the same thing, a rainwater gully.
In Hebrew, the word is wadi.
Wadis are not spring-fed rivers,
they are channels in the desert.
They have water in them only in rainy season.
Most of time . . . they’re dry.
So Kerith Ravine is not just a ditch. It’s a ditch-y ditch.

So . . . God the great provider,
as soon as Elijah proclaims, “There will NOT be rain, for years,”
sends Elijah to a ditch!
A wadi!
Go there, God says, and drink from the brook.
And to add to the unlikely story, ravens—
birds that normally scavenge, and take food from others—
are going to be Elijah’s food givers.

Well, that arrangement, as scripture notes,
didn’t last real long.
The wadi dried up. Surprise, surprise!

So here is God’s back-up plan to provide for Elijah.
Go to a widow in Zarephath,
and she will supply you with food.
A widow was like a human wadi, economically speaking.
She only had resources when it rained, as it were.
When good fortune, or good people, would send it her way.
Without property or inheritance to leverage,
it was just her own ingenuity and luck and good weather,
that she could feed her family.

So . . . weeks or months into a drought,
God sends Elijah to a widow, with a dependant son,
and Elijah asks her to feed him.
And even though she had only the dregs of the barrel remaining,
she fed him.
And, we’re told, her jars kept auto-refilling, with flour and oil.
She kept feeding him, and never ran out.

This is more than just another miracle story.
It’s not written to prove to modern rationalists
that God can conjure up flour and oil on the spot.
No, this is about God’s invitation to us,
to step into the shadows,
that we might know the grace and mercy of God;
to put ourselves in places of need, and dependence,
and grief, and despair, and to face even threat of death;
to go where we are called,
and obey God’s commands as if our lives depended on it.

The story goes on.
The widow must do precisely what Elijah does—
keep walking toward death, toward grief, toward need,
and trust that God’s impulse toward life will show up.
Her only son died.
Her emotional, social, and economic security, died.
But then, as we heard, life showed up.
One of a handful of resurrection stories in scripture,
again, this is not here to prove, or even suggest,
that God can, or will, raise the dead when needed.
This story, and others like it,
do not deny the pain and agony and inevitability of death
that we all face, in one way or another.
No, they are invitations to go where God is going—
toward life.
This is the trajectory of God’s activity in the world: toward life.

Death remains with us.
The finality, and unfairness, and raw pain of death remains.
But God’s love transcends all that.
God love and provision puts it all in perspective,
if we trust God enough to let ourselves sit in that state of need.

In a few moments, we will hear the names read aloud,
and see the faces,
of those at Park View who died in the last 12 months.
And we are all going to be hit, once again,
with a wide range of emotions—
from gratitude and love,
to deep sorrow and grief, and very possibly, anger.

This is hard stuff, there is no denying it.
Grieving is hard . . .
Living is hard . . . . . .
Being an American right now, is hard.
There is so much death all around us.

The invitation from God today
is to not lose ourselves in that,
but to name our hope in the God who is pointing us toward life,
the God who is leading us toward life,
and provides the food we need for this journey—
for the grieving journey, for
This. Grievous. Journey.
We are not alone.
Even beside a wadi, or at the mercy of ravens.
Even in a house of the poor and destitute.
We are not alone.

God is pointing toward life.

You remember some of the phrases we just sang moments ago,
in “Give thanks for life”?

“Mortal, we pass through beauty that decays . . .
thanks for the love by which our life is fed,
a love not changed by time or death or dread . . .
for hope, that like the grain
lying in darkness does its life retain,
in resurrection to grow green again, Alleluia!”

I invite us all now to a time of reflection,
of feeling, of sitting in the shadows,
and reaching for the light,
as we first listen to the reading of the names
of the 10 persons at Park View who have died
since our last All Saints Day.
I will read the names, and after each one a bell will toll,
and Pastor Paula will read a verse of scripture.

After all the names are read,
you are invited to light the candle or candles
you have prepared at home.

Light them, and allow yourself to feel the loss you are naming,
and to feel the hope you are enacting by lighting that candle.
While you light the candles,
the quartet will be singing “Go, silent friend.”
You may just listen, and meditate.
Or if you wish to sing along, the song in your bulletin.

And now, we remember with thanksgiving,
sisters and brothers from this congregation,
whom we have entrusted to God and who now rest from their labors.

—Phil Kniss, November 1, 2020

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