June 5, 2016
1 Kings 17:8-16
Anthem: Zion's WallsSenior Choir, with John Christenson and Ramona Kime on Piano
If you don’t mind, I’m going to put today’s reading from the prophets in context by bookending it. Leading up to this reading, Elijah prophesied to King Ahab that there would be a drought. He said: “As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.” Why? Because Ahab and his people believe that the Canaanite god Baal was responsible for rain and water. This precedes the epic show-down between Elijah and the prophets of Baal that we talked about last week.
And in today’s reading, the Lord called Elijah to go to Zaraphath. This is no small trek that he’s called to take. It’s approximately an 80 mile journey, on foot, through drought-stricken land. Even though Zaraphath is located along the Mediterranean coast, they are experiencing severe drought conditions too. That is why the poor widow and her son in this story are down to their last morsel of food. She is ready to prepare that last meal for her and her son, before they die. She has lost all hope.
Then along comes Elijah. Now, just how did Elijah recognize her? I mean, God didn’t provide a name or an address for the woman. There’s no reliable way to distinguish one widow from another, most were poor and dressed very much alike. So, how did he know that this was the correct widow? According to Rabbinic commentary, Elijah’s request for water was the test used to identify her – much like Abraham’s servant requested a sip of water to identify Rebekah as the one chosen to be Isaac’s wife.
So, Elijah asked for water and a bite to eat and successfully identified the correct poor widow. Can you imagine what went through this woman’s mind and the look on her face, when this strange guy comes along unexpectedly and requests some of her last, precious food and water? “Are you kidding me? You want what? Of all the people in this town and you show up at my door?” Bad enough to have an unexpected house guest – but when the cupboard is bare, panic sets in. No, we are not all Chris Reists – able to feed an army at the drop of a hat.
But Elijah was quick to respond to the woman. He said: “Don’t be afraid. For thus says the Lord” … wait for it. Biblically, really big stuff always follows that phrase. And it’s pretty impressive what Elijah tells her, basically: ‘Lady, don’t worry; you have an endless supply of flour and oil.’ And the Lord kept that promise – her flour and oil never ran out. But wait, there’s more!
And it’s surprising to me, given today’s Gospel reading that the lectionary left out this next part. The widow’s son became ill, critically ill, near death ill … “until he had no breath left in him.” This poor widow was beside herself. She had already lost her husband, and now her only son? Bereft she asked Elijah: “What harm have I done to you, man of God, that you caused the death of my son?” Elijah, part prophet and now part paramedic, swiftly took the boy, draped himself over the boy and prayed: “O Lord my God, let this child’s life return to his body!” Ruah, the breath of life, was restored to the boy. Elijah returned him to his mother. The widow responded by saying: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord is truly in your mouth.” He proved himself as legitimate and trustworthy, by rescuing her only son from the brink of death. Elijah’s call put him in the right place at the right time, despite any inconvenience or struggle to get there.
In our Gospel story, we find Jesus in just the right time and place to restore another widow’s only son to his mother. “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” Why? Because of her sadness? Perhaps. Because she’s a widow? Maybe. You see, widows in Jesus’ and Elijah’s time had no means to support themselves without family, especially without sons. There are many reasons for Jesus to be moved by this woman. And he is moved to action … touching the bier and commanding the young man to arise and his life is restored.
But I am confused by the crowd’s response. In this translation it states that “fear seized all of them; and they glorified God.” Really? I don’t know about you, but when I’m gripped with fear may be praying, but it’s not praise on my lips. Other translations state that the crowd is filled with “awe”. And I think awe and wonder are more fitting descriptors for these people who immediately glorify and praise God. And this is certainly a praise-worthy circumstance. Jesus raised this nameless young man from the dead, just as he did Lazarus – miracles indeed.
Today, other than miracles from life-saving measures of medical professionals in emergency rooms, the raising of the dead just doesn’t happen. So, for me, I have to wonder: What are we to do with these two narratives? How do we make use of them and apply them to our lives today? After all, isn’t that the point? I think we need to look beyond the amazing miracles themselves. We can’t be blinded by them. I don’t know about you, but I’m no miracle-worker. What did Mother Theresa say? – “I can do no great things, only many things with great love.” I can do that. So, let’s look beyond the miracles to see where and how we might fit in as disciples of the risen Christ.
Notice, with the widow in Nain “a large crowd from the town” was with her. The community gathered around her. They too had compassion for this poor widow … to console, to comfort and to provide food for her … as if to say: ‘Fear not, God is with you and so are we. We’ve got you. We’ll take care of you.’ Is that not what we do when we lose someone from our community? We take meals to them in their homes. And, thanks to Rachel and her amazing team, we provide wonderful funeral luncheons.
In fact, even when someone is ill or recovering from surgery, we gather around to take care of them. We feed them. We transport them to doctor’s appointments. We’ve got their backs, to make sure they recover and recover well. Yes, we do many things with great love to take care of those in our community of faith. Okay. Disclaimer – it is my intent with this next part to challenge you, perhaps even to make you uncomfortable and make you squirm a little.
What about the stranger and the homeless? What about those marginalized and oppressed by society, or by our political and criminal justice systems? I saw a video online recently. It was a social experiment set up by a film-maker. He parked his shiny, new black car along the curb of a questionable neighborhood, with the passenger window near the curb rolled down. And he left $100 cash on the passenger seat. Then he and his camera crew drew back at a distance to see what happened.
A big, burly, scruffy man was walking by the car when he saw the money on the seat. He stopped, looked around and then leaned into the car. After a couple of minutes he backed out and continued on his way. The film-maker, convinced that he had taken the money, ran after him and asked him to return the money. This tough-looking guy, with a black leather vest and tattoos covering his massive arms, stopped and bristled and said: “Man, I didn’t take your money.” The film-maker pressed him, saying: “Look, I know you took it. I’m not going to do anything to you, just give back the money.” The man really bristled now and said: “Look, man, I didn’t take your money. I put it in the glove box where it would be safe. You shouldn’t be so careless.” The film-maker went to the car, looked in the glove box and found the $100.
As the film-maker continued to talk with the man, he discovered that not only is the man homeless, but he is a veteran living in a homeless shelter just up the street. So the film-maker gave the vet the $100. He had to insist that the vet take it. “Look man, you need it. Take it, please.” Later, he took the vet to lunch and dropped him off at the shelter.
I commend this film-maker for his generosity with this homeless vet. And I wonder: what more could be done to help him (and others like him) to get back on his feet? How do we facilitate getting him and others like him the help they need to deal with PTSD, so that he can get and hold a job and contribute once again to society? (as if serving our country in the military wasn’t a great enough contribution to society) How many homeless vets, poor widows and orphans go unnoticed in the Charlotte area and surrounding communities? What, if anything, is our call to minister to them? Elijah and Jesus freely gave of themselves to perfect strangers. Who are we called to minister to? This is what we need to discern.
Cooper, Miranda, Andrew, Jennifer and the rest of the graduates – with your graduation, you are at a turning point in your life … a time to figure out who you are, who you are to become and how you are called by God. But you’re not alone. All of us, as individuals and as a community of faith, need to do the same. That is what the Revision program is all about … to help us prayerfully discern who we are, who we are to become and how we are called by God. What is our purpose? How are we called to share the love of God? How are we called to minister to those who are impoverished financially, or in body, mind or spirit? What justice work might we be called to do? How are we to experience and share the Grace given to us through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Who are we to be? May God guide each of us and this community to discern our call, to respond and to become who God calls us to be. Fear not – God doesn’t call the able; God enables the called. And we’ve got each other and God to see us through. Thanks be to God. Amen.