“City Gates and Thin Spaces”
1 KIngs 17:8-24 Luke 7:11-17
Chilmark Community Church June 5, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
It doesn’t take a degree in Biblical Studies to see how freely the author of the gospel of Luke has drawn upon the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The similarities are striking. When this happens so obviously in scripture, we need to ask what is the common underlying truth to which the stories draw our attention?
Some of the commonalities are fairly obvious. Both stories are stories of widows. Both of them lose their sons. Both have their sons restored to them. Both widows encounter the power of God in unexpected ways. A pastor, Rev. Andrew Prior commented: I can imagine one of my friends saying “but this story of the widow of Nain is ridiculous. These things don’t happen. People don’t get raised from the dead. Neither did the son of the widow of Zarephath. These things are superstitious. How can you claim the presence of the reality of God in the gates of the city with tall tales like these?
Suzanne Guthrie experienced the death of two grandchildren, twins who died at birth. She writes from her perspective about how we are caught in life’s struggles, and she says stories like this one about Jesus raising the widow’s son “offers scant comfort to the parents of the children Jesus doesn’t bring back from the dead.” She’s not even sure resurrection faith gives her comfort, believing her grandbabies are in heaven just waiting for some big family reunion. (Edge of Enclosure edgeofenclosure.org) She is brutally honest with her questions and doubts. Stories of miracle healings and resurrections sometimes leave us with more questions than answers when we are trying to understand how God works.
But maybe if we look a little closer at these two stories we can find something that works for us. The stories begin with encounters at the gates of the cities. The starving widow of Zarephath meets Elijah just outside the city gates as she gathers fuel for a fire. The widow of Nain meets Jesus at the city gates as she follows her only son’s body being carried to his burial.
The cities of Zarephath and Nain are walled cities. The walls were built for protection. The gates of the city were places where, during the day, people came and went – doing business, seeking healing, seeking resolutions for their problems. Beggars would seek a space at the gate to beg for alms from travelers. Often people who were very ill would be brought to the gate of the city on the chance that a healer would bring the relief they needed. Judges often sat at the city gates to adjudicate complaints brought to them by the townspeople. Farmers would tend their crops or their flocks outside of the gates and return to the town at the end of the day. The gates were closed at night to keep out predators and enemies.
Kenneth Locke points out that the city gate was a place where one might move from danger to safety. . . or conversely from safety to danger. The gate is the place where you move from being in control to having no control. Both widows encounter the mystery of God, not behind closed walls in a place of safety but rather in a place of passage and transition and threat and loss in their lives.
The widow of Zarephath is in desperate straits. There has been a three year drought in the land. In that part of the world there was no naturally flowing water supply like the Nile or the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. There was total dependence on enough rain and no rainfall had come for three years. The widow left the safety within the walls of the city to find a few sticks to build a fire. She and her son are preparing to die.
The widow of Nain has already lost her son. A young man, not a child, he was his mother’s sole source of well being. To be a widow with no husband and no son to protect and care for her meant that she was about to plummet into the worst kind of poverty. There were no safety nets for widows beyond the charity of neighbors and that could be dicey at best. With her only son’s death she was doomed to something akin to being a homeless person without an ID card on the streets of Boston.
Both women encounter the power of the Holy One at the city gates – – the place of passage between safety and danger, known and unknown – – between being in control of one’s life and losing control.
In ancient Celtic spirituality, there is the notion of “thin places” – those places and times where the veil between the invisible and unknown realm of God and the physical world is the thinnest and the Holy is most immediately accessible. In the biblical stories, occasionally we find the “thin places” at the gates of the city – at the boundary between life as it has been and life as it may become.
Gates -city gates – gateways nearly always symbolize a passage way from one way of being to another. Our sacred texts tell us that Jesus suffered crucifixion “outside the gates of the city” . He carried his cross from the familiar precincts of Jerusalem out through the city gates to Golgotha – a passage from one way of being into another as he moved from life through death to life in the resurrection.
So we might know that these stories of endangered and threatened widows are stories of transition and transformation – of life and death and resurrection. When we begin to understand that, then we might be able to let the stories work for us in a way that is not magical, but rather in a way that strengthens our faith. The stories may guide us toward understanding that indeed, the gateways of stress and transition and pain and suffering may , indeed, be “thin places” – – places where we may encounter The Holy in a way that we have not known before.
In the Elijah story, the widow is at the end of her rope, so to speak. And just when she thinks she is stretched to her uttermost, along comes this stranger, Elijah, who asks her to stretch even more. It is safe to say that we have all reached this place of stretching somewhere in our lives. My own response might have been – “ look – I can’t even take care of myself – I am so depleted – so tired – so over-taxed – and you expect me to take care of you?” The widow points out: “We’re dying of starvation and you want me to feed you?”
The word of hope that Elijah speaks is “Do not be afraid. First give me something to eat and then go and feed your son – – your jar of meal and your jug of oil will not run out until God sends rain again.” The story says the widow and her household ate for many days and their grain and oil did not run out.
So the message to the widow of Zarephath at the city gate seems to be a challenge to trust in the power of God when there is absolutely no reason to trust – – no reason to hope. This is a primary characteristic of the city gates – those places where we are not in control – where the line may be very thin between safety and control and danger and no control. Encountering God in the city gates is never comfortable – often frightening – always unpredictable. But the possibility of those times of greatest discomfort is that they may be the boundary of a “thin space” – – a point in time when God is more accessible and present than we ever thought.
The stories became real for me this week. For some time I have been dealing with a very cranky shoulder as the result of an old fracture from a fall about 15 years ago. A more recent fall has resulted in a lot of pain and loss of joint mobility. Basically, I am a coward and It took me a good two months to get up the courage to seek medical attention. Making that first call to get an appointment with the doctor always represents, for me, moving through a city gate from safety and control into a scary and largely unknown realm. Long story short, after an x-ray and a diagnosis of arthritis I ended up in physical therapy on Friday. As the therapist worked on my shoulder she began to discover that the joint is “frozen” – a major contributing facto to the pain of the arthritis in my shoulder. She began to work in the joint to loosen the tissue. I could barely stay on the table the pain was so intense. And the “thin place?” The place where I encountered the Holy? The place where God finally seemed accessible? The place where God was most present???
Right in the midst of the pain – – in Armen’s steady presence right next to me – – In the gallows humor about “Oh this is what it must be like to be tortured on the rack!” – – In the presence of the therapist. Fortunately, perhaps like God, she is accustomed to people screaming and yelling at her – and she did not lose her sense of humor -and she did not give up on me. While I couldn’t wait to get home to the safety and comfort of my sofa and a heating pad, I left the hospital with greater hope for a more functional shoulder in the future – even though there are still many passages through the gates to be endured. God and hope are there in the “thin places” in the midst of the discomfort of the city gates.
I’d like go back to Barbara Guthrie’s faith reflections during her profound grief as she came to terms with the loss of her twin grandchildren. Sitting in the city gates – in the thin space, as it were, she wrote : “I do believe that something is happening now: the reign of righteousness, of peace, healing, justice, transcendence – is at hand. Something undermines the hopelessness of the human condition, and here are signs that something new lies just beneath the surface of what appears to be reality.” She says, “Here’s my favorite line in the story of the widow of Nain: “and the bearers stood still” (vs 14) My heart stands still. In the great darkness I make room for the Holy to pass through…This is where I perceive a new thing, here , in this empty space. And the bearers stood still. In prayer, I stand still. I give myself to that secret newly emerging from the darkness.” ( Edge of Enclosure edgeofenclosure.org)
Realistically speaking, this kind of encounter doesn’t necessarily mean that everything will be rosy. Indeed, the widow of Zarephath shared all that she had with Elijah – and her son died anyway. She held Elijah accountable.
If we are truthful, I think we would share in common the fact that we spend a lot of time in the city gates – – our lives are always in process. All is well one day and the news of the death of a dear one death comes. We hear the cool voice of the doctor’s receptionist calling to tell us we need to make an appointment to talk about the results of diagnostic tests. A dissatisfied partner wants to end the relationship. A grandchild is caught in addiction. We are momentarily plunged into drought and hunger and loss of hope. We find ourselves at the city gates.
Here we are confronted with challenging choices. Rev. John Moses puts it “The poor widow, that poor misguided widow, took a chance on the prophet’s promise that if she shared her last crumbs with him her jar of meal would never be empty, maybe she even came to believe it. She took the risk. But her son died anyway – -maybe not from hunger, admittedly, but he died.”
He continues: “Again, an old man’s shadow falls across her doorway. He does not come this time to beg for food. He comes to plead with God whom he serves for the boy’s life ; “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” (1 Kings 17:21). John Moses calls this second story more dangerous than the first. If it is true, then all bets are off. We do not know what we thought we knew.”
An encounter in the thin place happens.
Young man, I say to you arise,” (Luke 7:14) The bearer’s stand still. Life is restored. The widow’s hope is renewed. Another encounter in the thin place.
The stories are unbelievable – – but the stories are true. They persist and nurture us precisely because they are true – not in any way that we can measure or define, but in a way that reaches into the tender places where we sit at the city gates – on the way from what has been to what will be.
As Rev. Moses concludes, “these stories proclaim the tradition of ‘life – giving,’ old as time, new as the present moment, God’s power and God’s love – undiscouraged and undiminished” (sometimes even made known in the pain of physical therapy!).
In the hard times, the dry times, the famine times, the times of loss and fear – – at all times – – the city gates are the place of meeting the Holy. Life in the resurrection comes in all shapes and sizes. It is our spiritual work to remember the stories. It is our job to let the stories work for us. Sometimes the stories themselves become the “thin place” where we encounter the life-giving power of God. As we join in the celebration of communion, may it be a time of remembering the story – may it be, perhaps, even a very simple and mundane “thin place” where we meet God as we feast together.