A Sermon preached for Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church at College of Idaho, in Caldwell, Idaho.
June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:8-24
(This is a different sermon I preached today in Caldwell. Same texts, different message. The Boone Church has been locked out of their building by their former pastor and part of the congregation. It is still a situation in progress. It was my honor to be able to go out and worship with them this morning in their temporary space.)
This morning we heard two stories about widows. And I won’t pretend I know the difficulty and pain involved with being widowed. Many of you could speak to that pain and loss from your own life. But as difficult as it might be today, it was a horrible predicament in biblical times. Because women left their family of origin and were the responsibility of the husband when they married. So if the husband died, you had to hope there were relatives of his who were willing to take care of you.
Hear this injunction from 1st Timothy about caring for family members: “And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Of course, you don’t have to instruct people to care for their relatives, unless they aren’t caring for their relatives….
Widows couldn’t just go out and get a nice secretarial job. Or apply for social security or medicare. They were the most vulnerable people in a society full of vulnerable people.
Biblical commands to care for the widows are woven through the Books of Moses, the writings of the prophets, and in the letters of the New Testament.
While there is much disagreement in Scripture over many different topics, there is universal agreement that caring for the widows is how God wants us to behave.
Here is just one illustration. From Deut 24:17-21
You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
So I want you to have that context as you hear these two stories. The only hope widows would have had is if they had sons who could grow up to inherit their father’s property. No sons? The land went to another male relative in the family. See where this is going? These women were at risk and seemed beyond hope of a future.
Our Old Testament passage takes place in a famine. There is a new king in Israel, Ahab. And we’re told in the previous chapter that “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him”, which is saying something. The kings of Israel were not an illustrious bunch.
Ahab was bad news. And he married a woman who was even worse news. Jezebel, in addition to having the misfortune of being named Jezebel, was a foreigner, from Sidon. And she worshipped a false god and convinced Ahab to join her in that idolatry.
Elijah announces a drought in response to this evil king. But a drought affects the good and the evil. And droughts disproportionately affect the poor, who don’t have the resources of the rich.
I’d like to suggest to Elijah he find a better way to prove his point about evil King Ahab. But I think even Elijah figured that out, because after the drought takes hold, he doesn’t have anything to eat either.
And then as our passage begins today, Elijah is sent to a widow who is from Sidon, the same place as Jezebel. God tells Elijah the foreign widow has been commanded to feed and care for Elijah.
Our widow doesn’t seem to have gotten this command. When Elijah finds her, gathering sticks, she says, “take care of you too? That’s rich. If you were a better prophet, you’d know I don’t even have enough to keep myself and my son alive. I’m about to make our final meal right now.”
But Elijah tells her not to fear. And he tells her she can go ahead with her plan. But first he says…
‘make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’
The widow may not have heard God’s command the first time, but she gets it now. And she obeys.
And this is why I think it matters that God sent Elijah to a foreign widow who had nothing, who was down to her last ounce of oil and last crumbs of grain. Because it seems it is only when we are at the end that we see how to rely on God.
If God would have sent Elijah to a nice Jewish family in a Tel Aviv suburb, he could have lived in their guest room and waited out the drought in the comfort of their abundance.
But the widow had just barely enough. So if Elijah, the widow, and her son were to make it through the drought, it wasn’t going to be because of their own boot-strap-pulling or savvy investing or wise planning.
They were only going to make it to tomorrow because of God’s provision.
Have you been in droughts like that?
I’ve not known physical hunger or scarcity as the Sidonian widow knew, but I’ve been in a place where I had just enough to get through that day.
My faith may have been nurtured during my life of comfort and abundance, but my faith was forged during those times of emptiness.
In a particularly difficult time in college, I remember going to bed at night, thinking, “I don’t have the strength to face people tomorrow. God, give me the strength.” And I’d go to bed empty and wake up the next morning with just enough for that day. Just enough. I had no reserves, but the well never ran dry. I was so thankful for that provision in my life. At each moment when I thought I wouldn’t make it through, someone would offer me kindness and grace.
God’s daily provision, however, doesn’t mean prosperity or guarantee a life of ease. As soon as they get through the drought, the widow’s son dies. As horrible as the loss of her child is, her one hope for economic stability in the future is also dead.
And Elijah intercedes on her behalf and God listens. Her son is brought back to life and her hope in a future is restored.
I read this text and I thought of you. Because I know there have been moments where there seemed to be no hope. As you no longer felt at home in your home church, I suspect you could relate to the widow, feeling all hope was lost.
Since you are still locked out of your building, I suspect hope can be difficult to locate some days. But, like the widow, we demand, call out, and work for new life when all we see is death and the loss of the future.
And here you are today. An overflowing crowd, raising praise and thanks to God, worshiping in abundance, love, and joy. I suspect there were days you didn’t see this happening so soon. Recognizing it didn’t happen soon enough. I give thanks for this sign of new life in your midst.
In our New Testament passage, Jesus and his followers come across a funeral procession at the gates of a city. This story would certainly have reminded the original hearers of Elijah and the Sidonian widow.
But in this story, the widow doesn’t even cry out for help. She just cries out in grief and loss. I can only imagine the depth of that cry.
But whether we are the Sidonian widow, crying out to Elijah for justice, or the widow of Nain, crying out in despair, God responds and hears our cry. Even when we don’t know what new life might look like or that it might even be a possibility, our cries our heard.
There’s no indication the widow even knew Jesus was heading to her town. So she wasn’t even asking for help. What could she have asked for anyway? We’ve all seen the finality of death.
But that’s what happens when Jesus shows up. What we thought was final, turns out to be the place where our story takes the unexpected turn.
We celebrate Easter in the Spring, but in fact, we are Easter people each and every day. By proclaiming not just the death, but also the resurrection of Jesus, we proclaim that when we experience death, it is not the end of the story.
Most of the time, we fight against death, but there are times we sink into its embrace too. There are times we give up the hope that new life is possible.
Wherever Jesus shows up, we have to be ready for him to touch things we thought were beyond our hope of repair.
As Emily Dickinson described it:
Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul
and sings the tunes without the words
and never stops at all.
If we are people who follow a risen, resurrected Lord, we are people of hope. It is our currency. We traffic in it. We help each other listen for that thing with feathers perched in our souls.
Hope is not empty optimism or Pollyannaism.
Hope is the confidence that just because things are beyond our abilities is no indication they are beyond God’s abilities.
There are times, of course, when resurrection hope is hard to see. There were two widows’ sons saved in our stories today. But we know of many other widows’ sons that Elijah and Jesus did not save.
Martin Luther King, Jr reminds us, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
The incompleteness of our work is not a reason to stop taking the risks. If anything, it should be a sign of encouragement for us to keep on being church. Because each moment of new life is a glimmer of the Kingdom of God. Like the Sidonian widow, we are given just enough to keep working for another moment of hope.
So may the provision of God be just enough to give us courage to respond in faith, trusting there is new life for you still, and bringing Divine hope to those people and places where hope seems lost.
May it be so. Amen.