My dad preached a sermon several years ago about what love was. He said that love was a relationship that must include God. We say we “loved” a movie or “love” that jersey/sweater, but that love involves people and our interaction with God in that situation. That’s quite a switch from what popular culture tells us about love, about relationships between people, and about what it means for us to hold things dear in our world.
So, take a moment and consider what it is that you love? Do you love your spouse, your parents, your children, your friends, your job, your hobby? Do those people or situations matter to you in a way that you would be lost without them, or struggling to focus?
I’ll admit that when it comes to preaching, the stories involving children are the toughest ones for me. Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son on the altar; Mary stands beneath the cross on which her son hangs dying. But then there’s this stranger one, strange because it involves death and resurrection in the Old Testament, and strange because it doesn’t often make it into our sermon series.
In II Kings, the prophet Elisha is on his own, having assumed the mantle of the nation’s prophet from his mentor, Elijah. In his travels, he finds himself in a relationship with a Shunammite woman and her family. It’s sort of like being in your grandma’s town: every time you’re passing through, you have stop by for a bite to eat!
This woman is a stranger but she believes so fiercely in the hospitality codes of her culture, and the respect she should pay the prophet, that she tells her husband, “we’re giving him the spare bedroom, whenever he wants.” It would be expected that she’d feed anyone who came to her door in need of food, but to house them? That’s extraordinary. [Sidebar with me for a moment: who would you be so moved to offer up your guest room for whenever they wanted? It’s a short list, right? Are there any absolute strangers on there?]
Elisha decides one day, during his visit, that the Shunammite woman has been so faithful to her beliefs, so hospitable, that he should do something for her. He first offers her protection from the government, but she resists accepting that favor. So Gehazi, Elisha’s personal assistant, suggests that maybe Elisha could give her a son.
Political protection is one thing, but a son? I mean, it says her husband is old… so she’s probably not any spring chicken herself!
Elisha tells her that she’s going to have a baby in a year; she tells him not to tease her. But she becomes pregnant like we knew she would, and eagerly welcomes a son into her family. She was hospitable to a prophet of God, she was obedient to the teachings of the Torah, and she was rewarded for it.
Beautiful story, right? Wonderful, everything-ends-well kind of “work hard and prosper” story. But it doesn’t end there, unfortunately or not.
One day, when the boy is old enough to visit his father in the field, he complains of a headache and subsequently dies. We don’t know if he had a seizure or an aneurysm, but this great gift that the prophet has given the Shunnamite woman is dead. In her arms.
As I read through the Scripture over the course of the week, I thought of the way that the peoples of Narnia had been awaiting Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and how at the seminal moment, he allows himself to be taken to the stone table and killed. It’s a wonderful, horrible, dreadful image of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, but it’s also so telling in the way that Lucy mourns the death of this dream she shares with the Narnians. She knows that so much has been lost as the dream dies with Aslan, she doesn’t know that there’s a resurrection coming.
In our story today, the Shunnamite doesn’t know it’s coming either, but she believes in its possibility. While Elisha is the means by which blessing came to the Shunnamite woman, this story is way more about her faith than it is about the prophet. Because her response to the death of her son is not to fall into a depression, it is not to curse God, it is not to succumb to the natural feelings of a mother who has just lost a son.
No, instead, she saddles a donkey and heads off for the place that Elisha is. Elisha sees her coming and sends Gehazi to ask if everything is okay, and she desists from telling him. She will only speak to God’s representative, like she is telling God himself.
Again, the Shunnamite woman doesn’t waste time stopping to tell eight people along the way, she doesn’t even bother telling Gehazi, the prophet’s right hand man. And all she does is ask two questions: “Did I ask you for a son? Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes?'”
The Shunnamite woman isn’t pointing fingers, but she is challenging Elisha. She’s wondering why she’d have this dream, and then have it taken away. She’s wondering what many of us have wondered along the way, “why did it work out this way?”
But in this situation, whether it’s a response to her initial hospitality or the boldness of her approach, Elisha doesn’t verbally respond. He simply tells Gehazi to take his staff and lay it across the boy. He knows that God can raise the dead. He knows that there is real power in the situation.
And the woman refuses to take sloppy seconds. She doesn’t want Elisha’s right hand man. She wants Elisha himself. She wants the representative of the Almighty God on Earth to show up at the deathbed of her son and to make good on the dream. Still, Gehazi went ahead and laid the staff there, and nothing happened.
Now, we have plenty of examples where a mere touch or a representative object caused a miracle to occur. I would argue that the staff could have raised the boy from the dead if that is in fact what God had wanted. But I believe that God wanted the widow and Elisha to witness the miracle. In the same way that Lazarus was allowed to die, be buried, and begin to decompose before Jesus raised him from the dead, so that there was no doubt about the powerful resurrection (not just a “waking up”), the Shunammite woman’s son was dead as a doornail.
Still, the Shunnamite woman’s insistence means that Elisha is on the way. Remember, she said she wouldn’t leave him. He had to go, because she was not ready to let go of the dream. She wouldn’t give up what God had given her without a fight.
Langston Hughes wrote this about “Dreams,”
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Langston Hughes knew what it was like to have a dream that was necessary to life as a black man growing up in a segregated nation. But without the dream, life wasn’t much. It was like the barren field during the winter or like Narnia during the reign of the White Witch, full of untapped, forgotten possibilities.
It’s a reality that the Shunnamite woman understood: her son had been her dream-made-reality, and she was not going to give it up easily.
So Elisha arrives, goes in, and prays for the woman’s son. He laid out over him, interceding to God on the woman and her child’s behalf. I imagine him entreating, begging even, that God would show up as Elisha knew he could, to bring this boy back from the dead.
And the boy came back. His life returned. The woman’s dream was resurrected.
In his book, Me, Myself, & Bob, Phil Vischer lays out the way that Veggietales was his dream, one given to him by God. He talks about the way his desire to tell the stories of God in a way that children would receive and understand was coupled with his sense of humor and his drawing ability. He shows the company’s success… and he explains how the dream came crashing down.
Left without the dream, bankrupt and out of work, Vischer talks about going into his office, closing the door, and reading the Bible and praying all morning. He says that he didn’t know what else to do, and that nothing else seemed important. Stripped of a dream that he knew that God had given him, he didn’t know what else he should do with his life.
Slowly, over the next three years, he started to tell stories again, for God, not for the company. He realized a new dream, a resurrected version of the old one. He began to draw his characters again. He realized that doing for God had replaced being with God, and he rediscovered his focus to follow what God willed regardless of how it was received by others. He currently works on Veggietales and on a new venture, JellyTelly, sharing God’s stories with his audience.
But Vischer still says that the dream had to die first, so that he could recognize the emphasis was on the wrong syll-abus: he had put the dream ahead of the dream giver.
Both situations seem pretty harsh, don’t they? In both situations, someone had something given to them by God and then it was taken away. Both of them had to wrestle with the fallout. And both of them got their dreams back, one way or another. I’m aware that we don’t always receive the things we’ve dreamed of, and that sometimes they’re stripped away, and we don’t ever see them return.
Life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to…. but that doesn’t mean that God is absent from us, does it?
I sometimes marvel at people I know who don’t believe in God, and that they can even function when the dream dies. What are they leaning on? Are they really making it, or just faking it? Can they recognize that there’s a plan or do they just muddle through from one day to the next, hoping it’ll work itself out?
For me personally, I’ve seen dreams die. By twenty-nine, I had achieved the impossible, I had my dream job as the associate chaplain at my alma mater. By thirty, my time there was over, thanks to my ordination status and some other factors. But now, looking back, I recognize that my dream was too small. I never thought I could/would pastor a church; I never thought God would see fit to use me that way.
I still dream about working with college students. I still dream about planting a church from scratch. But I am recognizing that God is in the dream, that God is in the passions, the things we love and are called to do. And the truth is, God’s dream for our lives is bigger and better than we could ever imagine.
And I hold onto hope. Not the kind of hope that is unanchored and flailing in a sea of storms and unseen dangers, but the kind of hope that is forever planted in the love of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’m convinced that the same God who loved me enough to sacrifice his son on the cross for our sins cares too much about us to leave us abandoned and alone.
Does it hurt to see a dream die? Of course. But the beauty of resurrection, the power of God’s grace, those things are enough to bring me hope and faith and love.
“And love, sweet love, is the only thing there’s just too little of.”
This sermon is for September 15 at the 9 a.m. Stand worship service at Blandford United Methodist Church in Prince George, VA.