Something out of nothing: A sermon from 6-6-10

1 Kings 17:17-24
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.”

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Luke 7:11-17
Soon afterwards [Jesus] 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.

Children’s Time: An empty bowl, a Bible, name plaques: “COOL” “DUMB” “PRAYER” “WORSHIP” Here’s a bowl I brought from home… what can we fill it with? Once it’s full, can anyone else put something in there? Not until we empty it. The same is true of God. We receive all we need from God. Food for each day, money to buy things, water to drink. God made everything in this big, beautiful world, for us to enjoy… and to receive. But sometimes we let other people put stuff in our bowl and think it’s from God (cool things, dumb things, nice things, hurtful things)… Let’s put worship in our bowl instead each week… and the Bible, and prayer… These are all ways we let God fill us up, because no one else can give us the life God does.

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Today we have two widows – two only sons, dead way before their time – and two miracles of life rising up from disaster.

In the gospel lesson, we find Jesus, interrupting a funeral procession on their way to the graveyard. He just stops everyone, cold in their tracks, and touches the casket. “Young man, I say to you: Rise!” And they’re dumbfounded when he actually gets up. Here, they’ve long since said their goodbyes… and God has something else in store for them.

In the first lesson, we find Elijah, staying with the widow at Zarephath (the land of that wicked Queen Jezebel)… she has just shared with him the last of her meal of cakes – all that she and her only son had to live on – and God provided for them, so that that jar of meal wouldn’t run out. After thus saving their lives, how then could God allow her only son to die (leaving her unprotected as a childless widow with no one to care for her in her old age)?

It’s a common theme in scripture: God bringing something out of nothing (ex nihilo is the Latin term). In both Elijah’s and Jesus’ ministry the dead are raised by the power of God – not by any action on their part – but by the power of God.

We live in a culture that relies heavily on our own power to “make a living” and “be successful.” With this also being Graduate Recognition Sunday, there are sure to be plenty of speeches filling your heads about “working hard” to “attain your dreams.” There’s nothing wrong with going for one’s dreams. And there’s certainly nothing easy about bearing one’s cross in mission. However, we RECEIVE our calling as gift, rather than create it ourselves. There is no such thing as a self-made Christian. Whenever we stop letting God create us… we allow those around us to.

Finding our identity in God, through our baptism into Christ, as a named and claimed child of God… helps us to face death and disaster head on, by faith in the Risen One.

A disaster is anything that makes us feel as is the stars themselves were falling from the sky. That is why it’s called a dis-aster. That word shares the same root word as “astronaut” or “astronomy.” Where are the disasters in our world today? In Oakdale? At Holy Cross? And how is new life rising through it all?

Gulf Coast: Imagine all that’s dying on the Gulf Coast since the oil spill has spread. Yes, there is the tragedy of the 11 families who lost loved ones when the oil rig exploded. But that’s just the beginning of this tragedy. Yes, thousands of fisheries and tourist industries along the coast will be devastated because of this. Again, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The ocean itself is teeming with life! Tiny organisms and plankton that contribute to the whole food chain – and the water cycle of rain, evaporation, and the production of oxygen.

They had some experts on the radio talking about this the other day. The host asked one of them: “So, what’s the worst-case-scenario in all this?” And her response was direct and to the point: “That we don’t learn from it. That we go back to business-as-usual in all this and don’t learn from our mistakes.

I mean, it is a technological marvel that we can invent ways to probe to the depths of the ocean floor and drill miles further into the crust of the earth to harvest fossil fuels. It’s unbelievable the human enterprise that enables that kind of operation. But what’s even more unbelievable is how we had no contingency plan for this kind of accident. If your only backup plan is detonating a nuclear bomb underwater, in hopes to seal the leak then we truly are grasping for straws – in need of a savior, quite literally.

I hope we learn humility in all of this – and take responsibility for our actions. I was taught as a kid that if you make a mess you clean up after yourself. No one else is going to do it. Well, we can do our best… but even moreso, we must trust in God to help us in our unbelief… to make right all that we have woefully made wrong. This is the prayer of the man who went to synagogue with the Pharisee that day beating his breast, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner.”

Trends in the ELCA: We may look at membership trends in our denomination, the ELCA, and worry about the future of this church. What will it mean if membership continues to decline nation-wide, following the trends of other mainline denominations?
Well, if you care about your church, there are ways to get involved. There is a new way the national church is receiving information from local congregations. It’s called the “LIFT initiative” with the ELCA. It’s all about finding ways to lift up the Lutheran church for the future. And they need your input. Just what should this church be about – just what should it look like for the times in which we live? You can take the online survey and learn more at: www.liftelca.org.

Preschool – Head start: Here in Oakdale, we’ve had a decline in enrollment in the school district over the past several years. The number of incoming kindergarteners is unable to keep up with the number of graduating high school seniors. That means fewer dollars into our classrooms and tough decisions for administrators come budget time. If you look at the front page of today’s Star Tribune paper, you’ll see headlines announcing 20 school closures in the coming year. We have felt this same effect at Holy Cross. For the first time in 40 years we closed the doors to our preschool, due to low enrollment and concerns about the economy.

But there are signs of rising here as well. Just the other day, at a volunteer appreciation breakfast at Oakdale Elementary School, the principal noted that while budgets have faced reductions almost every year recently, volunteerism has remained strong. Parents and seniors are getting involved in the lives of children. And, here at church, this summer, we are in negotiations with Head Start to rent our facility to them and re-open a preschool at Holy Cross that will serve children at or below the poverty line in our community. Once again, the sounds of laughter and learning will fill the halls of this building as young minds explore and discover what their place is in this great big world.

What are the signs of rising in your life? It was the Wednesday before Memorial Day that I got a call from a church member: “You’d better get down here.” I arrived at the hospital just in time to hear the doctor say that his mother had just a matter of hours to live. She was on life support and death seemed imminent. We prayed and committed her into God’s everlasting arms… and waited. They have another pastor who’s been working with them, so I left for vacation. Came back. Called the family the next day, expecting to hear how the funeral went. But God had other things in store for them. A week later she has rallied and is off life support, sitting up, conversing with her family and her health is improving.

Now I realize that’s not always the case. And, to be sure, this woman will eventually die some day, as will we all. But this is her rising story – her little miracle. There are many ways to rise, even in the midst of times when we have that sinking feeling. Even when everyone else (including the pastor) has given up and said goodbye.

I want to close with a few words for our graduates, as you rise up to new heights in the days and years to come; because God intends to rise up in you as well in the coming years:
1) First off, be proud of who you are. Sit up straight. Carry yourself with dignity. Psalm 139 says, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb, O Lord… before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely.” God made you – in the image of God, you were created. Receive your identity from God. Don’t let it go to your head, because we’re all sinners who make poor choices sometimes… but don’t ever, ever let a sinner define you.

2) Remember that you’re the only one who can provide a service to others in the unique way that you were made to. And that’s special. Lot’s of people can do “a job.” But you’re the only one who can do it with your particular style. Find out about your style – that’s the way God made you. Be honest about what you do and don’t do well. Then claim who you are.

3) Make serving others a part of who you are… not just what you do. This means living with the mindset that while you may not have all the answers you’re willing to learn. Make service of others a part of who you are. The greatest commandment is: “To love the Lord, your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

4) Practice hospitality – Go beyond greeting people warmly and serving them food (things we normally associate with hospitality) to opening your arms to the stranger in your midst. Unless you’re a bit uncomfortable with someone, you’re not fully practicing biblical hospitality (Jesus said,” When I was naked you clothed me; when I was in prison you visited me; when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink.”) Practice hospitality. When you’re in a crowded room and everything falls silent, talk to the children in the room. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a child such as this, welcomes me.” Talk to babies – not for political gain or a photo op, but because it’s good hospitality. Welcome the stranger; look for Christ in the people you meet.

These are just some of the ways God is lifting us up and making us the kind of people we were meant to be. What about you? How is God lifting you up today?

O God, you breathe new life into your people – sometimes against our will – sometimes by our fervent prayer. Show us the signs of life all around us, that we may be defined by you, the author of life, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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