St John’s Episcopal Church, Kirkland
Proper 5C – 1st Kings 17:17-24, Luke 7:11-17
Perhaps the most famous sermon of all time is titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God!” Which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about it’s author’s theology. And yet, time and again our scriptures, and our mystics paint a very different picture of what it means to “fear God.”
Sinners in the hands of an angry God makes logical sense to a human being. It’s satisfying. Human logic is simple: if you do something “bad” (however that is defined in your time and place) then you deserve to be punished for it. Actions have consequences. You made your bed, now you have to lay in it. If something bad happens to you it’s because you are a bad person, or at least did something bad. The opposite works for us logically as well. Those whose life is trucking along on a pretty smooth road can feel secure that we are good people who are getting what we deserve for our hard work and piety. It’s a horribly over simplified way of viewing the world, but it’s been around since humans started rubbing sticks together.
The widow of Zarephath thought this way. She’d been living with a prophet of God for a very long time at the point of our story. She’d shown him hospitality, she’d seen the generosity and compassion of God first hand, and she still went to sin and punishment at the first sign of trouble. It’s a well worn groove, an easy trap. The mourners following the widow of Nain as she mourned her only son probably went to the same place, shaking their heads and wondering what she’d done to deserve to be left totally alone, bereft.
God walks in on all those scenes of recrimination and logic making, and promptly tramples our neat formulas. Instead of punishment God reaches out and connects. It’s a rather different picture than the angry abusive father who would chuck his supposedly beloved children into giant pits of fire, but I think it’s often far more scary for us. This tendency of God to reach out, to connect is what leaves the prophets and holy story tellers trembling with fear. It’s the reason that every divine messenger starts out by saying: “fear not.”
When the Overwhelming Divine reaches out and touches you trembling speechless awe is an appropriate response. But that touch, that connection isn’t for judgement or vengeance. It’s not the logical punishment for all our human mistakes and screw ups. When God reaches out to the widows in today’s stories it is to brush away their tears, it is the fierce prophet’s gentle “do not weep.”
Compassion. It is the heart of God moved by our hardship, moved by our suffering. It is the words of the Incarnate God saying gently to the inconsolable: “do not weep.” It is the whole of creation moving off it’s tracks to hand joy back to the one who knew only despair. It’s a fearsome thing. More so perhaps because it defies logic. It doesn’t fit the quid pro quo formulas we’ve set down.
There’s a part of us that likes the idea that people who suffer do so because they are somehow worse than us. That when we do well it’s something we earned. And I get it, in a world that is often chaotic and out of control the quid pro quo formula gives us a feeling of control. It doesn’t make the bad stuff less bad, but if the bad stuff that’s happening is punishment for something you did at least there’s logic to the world, even if there isn’t mercy or love.
But what does it mean if the author of 1st Kings and the author of the Luke were actually right? What does it mean for us if God is in our lives for life and compassion and connection: not judgement.
Nothing, our sacred stories tell us, is stronger than God’s compassion. We use lots of fancy words for that, we tell countless stories to try to get it to sink in but in the end the thing that can change our life is simply that: nothing beats God’s compassion for us. Not even anything else of God’s: not anger, not judgement, (and when dealing with me) not even just straight up exasperation. What if the most famous sermon in the world was titled: Sinners in the hands of a Compassionate God? What if that was the story our culture had taught us from the time we were tiny?
Imagine a world full of people who never assumed that the ugliness of life was some sort of punishment for a hidden ugliness they were sure they carried in their souls? But instead were certain that nothing life threw at them could ever overcome the overflowing love that God had for them, the deep compassion God felt when they hurt. What if a whole world full of people grew up knowing right down to their marrow that God said two things first and always: Do not be afraid, and do not weep; because I am with you.
The world shifts when God ceases to be the angry tyrant out for our blood, and is revealed instead as the compassionate one, as the one who feels our pain, fear, and hurt deeply and moves to heal our wounds. The God of Elijah kept the oil and flour full though long years of famine for a widow and her child who weren’t even Israelites. The God of Elijah brought healing and wholeness for a woman and her child abandoned by the rest of the world. Jesus reached out in love and compassion to the heartbroken widow and gave her back life and joy with his own hands. It is indeed a fearsome thing to allow the God of the prophets into our lives. But when we dare to be host to the God who says “do not be afraid” our lives are transformed.
In the end fear lies at the root of most human evil. And it’s no mistake God has been trying to convince us to not be afraid for so long. When we have met the God who wipes away our tears, who promises to be with us always, who tells us there’s no need to be afraid. When we have really met that God in the hands of the prophet, or Jesus himself then our work is simple: just to share what it is like to know that we are sinners in the hands of a compassionate God. That’s evangelism folks. That simple.
And that’s the Kingdom of God: a whole world full of people who know they are loved above all else. A whole people of God. Because someone somewhere was the hands of the prophet handing them back their child and saying: “do not weep; God is with you.”