1 Kings 17:17-24 17 After (the miracle multiplying the meal and the oil) the child of the woman, the owner of the house, became ill; and his illness was so overwhelming that there was no breath left in him. 18 And she said to Elijah, “What is between me and thee, man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to kill my child!” 19 Then he said to her, “Give me your child.” And he took the child from her bosom and carried the child up into the room upstairs where he, Elijah, was staying, and laid the child on his own bed. 20 Then he cried out to the Holy One of Old, “Holy One my God, have you actually wrought upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her child?” 21 And Elijah stretched himself upon the child three times and cried out to the Most High, “Holy One my God, let this child’s soul come into him again.” 22 And the Most High God listened to the voice of Elijah; the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 Then Elijah took and brought the child, brought him down from the house’s upstairs room, and gave the child to his mother; then Elijah said, “Look, your child lives.” 24 So the woman said to Elijah, “Now this I know, you are a man of God and that the word of the Holy One of Old in your mouth is truth.”
1 I love that the Fount of Life has heard my cry and my supplications.
2 Because she inclined her ear to me, I will continue to call all my days.
3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol found me; I found distress and anguish.
4 Then I called on the name of She Who Is Life, “Fount of Life, pray, save my life!”
5 Gracious is the Saving God and righteous; our God mother-loves deeply.
6 She Who Is Wisdom protects those without guile; I was brought low, and she saved me.
7 Return, O my soul, to your rest, for She Who Is Faithful has rewarded you abundantly.
8 For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
9 I walk before the Living God in the land of the living.
Acts 9:36-42 36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which translated into Greek is Dorcas; [a] she was abundant in good works and benevolent giving. 37 And it happened at that time she became ill and died and they washed her and laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Now Lydda was near Joppa, so the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two people to him urging, “Without delay, come to us.” 39 Then Peter got up and went with them; when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. And standing beside him, were all the widows, weeping and displaying tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Then Peter put all of them outside, and got on his knees and prayed, and he turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, lambkin, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 Then he gave her his hand and raised her up, and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 Now this became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Messiah.
Luke 7:11-17 11 The day after (healing a centurion’s slave) Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 He had just approached the gate of the town, and suddenly, being carried out was a man who had died, his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Messiah saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then Jesus came forward and touched the coffin, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus[b] gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has visited God’s people!” 17 This word about him spread throughout the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.
Good morning, St. Matthew!
We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray, using the words of Henri Nouwen: As long as “being the Beloved” is little more than a beautiful thought or a lofty idea that hangs above my life to keep me from becoming depressed, nothing really changes. What is required is to become the Beloved in the commonplaces of my daily existence, and bit by bit to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless realities of everyday life. Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to me from above down into the ordinariness of what I am thinking of, talking about, and doing from hour to hour.
In the land of liturgical calendars, the Candlemas feast that we celebrate today is the official end of the Christmas season. After the birth of a child, but particularly a first born child, the laws of Judaism specified a length of time for a woman’s body to recover. During that time, she was considered to be in the patriarchy’s eyes unclean, but the deeper tradition was this was a time for healing and community care for the body of a woman that had created and fed a new life for nine months. It might be easy to forget for some of us, but childbirth was for centuries the most dangerous thing a woman could do. Even today, in certain communities of colour, childbirth is still a deeply dangerous activity. According to the findings of a study by the US Government Accountability Office, issued in October or 2022, Black or African-American women experienced maternal death at a rate 2.5 times higher than White women in 2018 and 2019. And that is in the modern age! Imagine the fears of women in the past!
Now the Jewish faith is centred on rituals and laws that mark the faithful as people of God. All Protestants, and Lutheran in particular, are not quite so keen on demanding the rituals be done as a God connector. So it is perhaps a journey for us to make to understand that the law of Judaism is not focused on the ritual per se, as they are on the caretaking of that God connection. The faithful body of a woman who had survived and recovered from childbirth was to be cherished and blessed. Ceremonies and prayers were said in thankfulness for her recovery; and part of that was the offering of animals in the fire of the altar. Two animals are to be given – one in thankfulness of health and one in recognition that, as sinners, we had no right to expect that a righteous God would consider us in our unrighteousness. Over time, the sacrifice of animals on a fiery altar fell by the wayside, but the flames remained, a candle now symbolising that long ago barbecue. And thus the candles that bear that flame have become central to ideas of ritual and God connection. As Jewish traditions were brought into the emerging Christian faith, the candles came too, bringing that idea of Divine connection, especially in the early church. And the blessing of those candles at the commemoration of Mary’s maternal ceremony echoed that rhythm of the end of the cycle of Christmas.
So while this Candlemas has largely fallen out of our Protestant commemorations, as we have placed less value on the performance of ritual to sustain the Divine relationship, in its observance was the blessings of the candles that would be used throughout the coming year. Again, in Jewish thinking, everything that we do as believers is to preserve that God connection. Up until very recently in human history, candles were central to illumination as well as ritual. So in the blessing of what was ordinary and every day, the faithful were to carry some idea of presence of God in that ordinary and every day existence.
I have spent time on this because I want us to hold in our hearts how God is present all the time in our lives – in the all moments that swirl around us and define us. There is a play called Our Town by Thornton Wilder that when I was in school, high schools used to love to perform, partly because its set was largely conjured by words, and almost no backdrops and props, just two ladders – so it was easy to stage. Central to Wilder’s plot, is the death a young girl who is given the chance to go back and relive one day of her life. The other dead folks tell her choose an ordinary day; she won’t be able to bear a special one. So she chooses an ordinary day, and throughout the rest of the show, she is continually overwhelmed by a sense of how each moment is so very precious, and how so many around her are missing it. Hugs are given, love declared, longings named – as she tries to convey how very wonderful this “ordinary’ all is. The poignant ending affirms that we none of us cherish this gift of existence the way that we should, but there are moments that break through and in those moments, we glimpse the Divine light that infuses all things.
In the lessons that we are given for today, that Divine crack between our ordinary lives and God’s presence is the focus – how in each of our ordinary lives, filled with all the trials and tribulations that we can imagine, there is also the Holy Spirit. Death is not a shock – we all know death will show up. What we don’t expect is that God will too. Now it is true that sometimes we would almost rather that God didn’t – because we would rather just get on with that every day; to do all the little things that fill our days without having to be aware of how precious those little things truly are. What would it take to walk through our lives as if everything in it is a sacrifice, a sacrament, a sacred encounter? To live in that kind of Divine mindfulness? I for one would be exhausted – how slowly and deliberately would that awareness call me to live? Perhaps that was the goal of sacrifices offered for our sinfulness and purification; a recognition that we have lost that connection and the ritual calls us back to recognise it again.
But as Lutheran Christians, we no longer place our faith in the rituals to reclaim connection; rather we place our faith in Christ, as the last and final sacrifice, who switches the direction of the action and reclaims us in his death and resurrection. Luther said that we are to fashion our lives in light of that sacrifice as little Christs – each of us called to live as Jesus did, living our faith in God through our love and care of our neighbour. And in each of the lessons today, God shows up and brings life. Where death is expected and anticipated – even as its breaks our hears – we do not look for life, much less for ways that we can help bring that life into being.
Now I want to be oh so careful here. When I talk about God showing up in the midst of death, I mean that. There is nothing that happens outside of God and so each end is a wound within God. That’s real. We will in fact die. That’s been true since Eden. But the death of the body is not the death of a soul. We are not lost to God. Holding that knowledge is hard, but it is affirmed for us by Christ’s teaching and in the promise of that, our ending is not the end of our story. That’s the good news. But because we often lose sight of how to live in the light of that promise, we do terrible things that have terrible consequences. Instead of living our lives as believers who honour life, we can fall into becoming faithless and more concerned with personal power and political agendas than in living love filled lives. When that happens, when we lose track of the life-giving Divine, we ourselves become the bringers of death. And we fall into that through a thousand little choices, a thousand moments of refusing to see God right in front of us in the everyday, ordinary moments of our life.
Seeing that Divine in the everyday allowed Elijah, Peter and Jesus to claim it. And that choice to see and claim is so powerful that it brings life. But the tragedy of our existence is that often – far too often – we don’t love as little Christs who are aware of God’s forever present presence. I can’t give you an explanation for why we close our eyes to life – I can only weep to report that we do. The news is filled with the choices so many make for death – but they are the broken jagged end result of all those little choices each one of us makes every day when we refuse to acknowledge the Divine that lives in all things. The ordinary lunch break, the soup that awaited an ordinary man on an ordinary day- broke into a million death dealing pieces because law enforcement didn’t see the Divine life that flowed in and through him. His mom had no one who was there to claim Tyre Nichol’s life. And that is not simply a failure of the ones who killed him, it is also our failure that we have allowed such systems to flourish. All of us bear responsibility for the thousand everyday choices to close our eyes, to refuse to see how we are to walk love.
Last Sunday, we commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we stood in repentance, knowing that the voice of Micah prophesies to us still:
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?7 dWill the LORD be pleased with1 thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?eShall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Today, this morning as we lift the little flames of our candles, may their light remind us of the Holy Spirit’s fire and call to love our neighbours as ourselves. As we bless the candles for the year, let us see and acknowledge God’s love, and carry that fire with us into the care for our family, our neighbour, our town and our world.