Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 8, 2015
Listen to this sermon (mp3)
“Be afraid! Be very afraid!” That’s been the prophet Elijah’s gloom and doom message, more or less, to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel as well as to the misguided leaders of Israel. He’s been warning them over and over what will happen if they don’t turn from their evil ways, but they won’t listen. Finally he curses the land and calls for a drought that will not be lifted until God commands it. And then he promptly goes into hiding in the wilderness. That’s where we meet him today. He’s on the run from the law, living bits of bread the ravens bring him to eat, when suddenly God speaks, sending Elijah on a trip to the land of Sidon.
It is worth noticing that not only is Sidon Gentile territory, but that it is specifically the homeland of his enemy, Queen Jezebel. God sends this feisty prophet right into the land where he is on all the Most Wanted posters. Who’s afraid now? And yet, God assures him that he will be ok, that he will meet a widow who will take care of him. And having experienced God’s faithfulness in the past, Elijah risks it.
Interestingly, God seems to have forgotten to tell the widow of Zaraphath about this plan. She is a desperate single mother on the verge of death because of the drought Elijah himself called down from heaven. Not only that, but she is beside herself with grief because she is sure soon her child will die of malnutrition. Famine and poverty are always harshest on the children, aren’t they? But there is Elijah, leaning against her gate, begging her for some water and a bite to eat. And what does he have the audacity to tell her? “Don’t be afraid.” Yeah, easy for you to say, she must think.
This woman has felt the gnawing, aching pain of am empty belly and the parched dry throat of one who has little access to water. She’s exhausted all the food pantries and all the community kitchen programs. Death is at the door. She expects that the next meal she fixes will be their Last Supper.
And yet, her response to the strange man who practices a different religion, who speaks a different language, and generally doesn’t belong to her community, is a gracious one. “I’m sorry, Sir. I can’t help you. My God is dead. Or at least dead to me. And soon my son and I will be dead too.” So Elijah tells her what messengers of God always tell people: don’t be afraid. God is a living God and will provide. “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that YHWH sends rain on the earth.” Do not be afraid. God will provide. There is enough. There is more than enough.
Most people read this story and think of the miracle of what comes next: her flour and oil really don’t run out until the rains come again. And that is remarkable, to be sure. But I wonder if the real miracle isn’t this moment right here, when this struggling woman—eyes filled with the horrifying image of her starving son’s distended belly and sunken eyes— invites company over for dinner.
Statistically, poor people are the most generous givers. Maybe their own experiences of living on the edge translates into greater compassion toward others who are there. Maybe it’s just that they are attuned to seeing need, where those who are middle class or wealthy might just not notice. Maybe it’s that they themselves have benefitted from the generosity of others, so are quick to offer similar gifts as a response of gratitude. I don’t know. But I know that, though it’s common to speak of the poor as those who are “less fortunate,” the fact is that they are frequently blessed with a lighter attachment to material security. Oh that we would all be blessed with fearless and gracious generosity!
Somehow this widow trusts the God of Israel who sent this strange messenger to her. Somehow she acts on a key Biblical principle: when there is bread to share, please share it. That’s a theme that runs through all of both the Old and New Testaments. This widow exemplifies God’s economy–share what you have, even if you don’t think it’s much. It is not yours. It is God’s, and it is for all of God’s creation–friends, strangers, people of other faiths, people of no faith. Everyone should have a bite to eat. Every one of God’s promises is about abundance, and God never fails to send prophets to remind us that this is God’s intention.
Often scholars pair this story from Kings with the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes in the Gospels. The theme is the same–you may not think there’s enough to go around, but when God takes it, blesses it, and passes it around, there is more than enough. We ask God weekly, “Give us this day” not our weekly groceries, or our supplies for the winter, but “our daily bread.” God knows what we need, and will provide. Don’t be afraid to feed the hungry, care for the widows and orphans, and offer hope to the hopeless. There is enough.
On his deathbed Martin Luther is said to have murmured, “We are all beggars it is true.” We are all beggars before the cross of Christ, no matter what our bank accounts say. All of us come to the throne of grace with nothing to recommend us but God’s love for us. When we remember this and humbly acknowledge that everything we are and everything we have comes from God, then we become free of the idolatry that money can present. The widow of Zaraphath demonstrates this liberation for us. Word of God’s abundance frees her from her fear and enables her to step out in faith.
And what about us? We who live in the United States, awash in material abundance, who have more than we need—so much more that our houses and the waistlines of our pants have to grow to accommodate it all—what message do we hear? What message do we proclaim?
Here on the 8th of November, on Trinity’s Commitment Sunday, let me share with you the message God has asked me to announce: Don’t be afraid. There is enough. There is enough for all. There is more than enough. God is faithful, and will provide. God will care for us by raven or by stranger, and will not let us let us be swallowed up by our own panic or pride. No need to hoard. No need to fear strangers or our neighbors, no need to close the borders, to circle the wagons. The is no need for fear. There is enough. There is more than enough.
Let us allow that word of God to free us from our fear of sharing and enable us to be the recipients of all the abundance God pours out on this globe. Let us open our ears, our hearts, our hands to welcome the stories, the faith, the ideas and opportunities that are brought to us from all kinds of people from all kinds of places. Our God is the living God—the God of life and abundance and hospitality and community. Our God orders creation to feed a starving prophet, turns the heart of a Gentile woman toward a Hebrew prophet, and can make something out of nothing and call it good. Why wouldn’t God be able to shape the trepidatious hearts of some people in this room into the hearts of committed and joyful givers?
Great is God’s faithfulness to us. And great is the gift and calling we have to share our gifts with others. God quenches our thirst and feeds our hunger with justice and mercy and acceptance and hope. Whenever we see no way through the drought of our lives, God provides that way. It is almost never what we expect, but it is always full to overflowing with blessing. Let us trust our eternally faithful God with the future of this congregation and the future of our loved ones and ourselves. Do not be afraid. There is enough. In God’s abundant mercy, there is more than enough.
Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider