A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:8-24
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 real 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.” And that’s saying something, because the kings of Israel were not a well behaved 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.
This isn’t just a tragic death of a child, but the death of her future.
And Elijah intercedes on her behalf and God listens. Her son is brought back to life and her hope in a future is restored.
Whether or not we have been called by God to be prophets like Elijah, I do think we are called to intercede on behalf of people like the widow who are not just at the end of their resources, but at the end of their hope.
Some days that intercession is on behalf of the actual widows and orphans of today, advocating for food and healthcare and housing.
Some days, we intercede for people who have lost other hope—people who can’t see where the next job will come from or people who are facing the death of loved ones or of relationships.
I think of the people from our sister congregation in Caldwell who lost their church. When they were no longer welcome in their church home, you welcomed many of them here. We hoped it would be for a short time, until they were able to return home. But for a while, it looked pretty bleak.
The situation isn’t fully solved even now, but this morning, after worship, I’ll be leaving from here to go preach to the Caldwell congregation. Their pastor has left the denomination and is trying to take the building. But the true church is still worshiping at College of Idaho, with different preachers each week. There is new life in that borrowed space where they can worship with joy and an appreciation of the hope of new life.
I suspect the members of Boone can relate to the fear of the widow when all hope seemed lost. And as they are still locked out of their building, I suspect hope can be difficult to locate some days. But we intercede, we support the work of the Presbytery on their behalf, and we pray for new life when all we see is death and the loss of the future.
Jesus does the same in our passage from Luke. Right after the story we heard last week about the healing of the Centurion’s slave, 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.
And for both Elijah and Jesus, to seek life for the widows’ sons, they had to be willing to get dirty. There are pretty clear Biblical injunctions against touching dead bodies. It would make you ritually unclean. It would interfere with your ability to go about your daily activities until you could go through ritual purification.
And sometimes interceding on behalf of people does call us to get dirty. We have to walk into situations where we’d rather not be. There are people who warn us away from death. They tell us it will just make us unclean so it is better we don’t get involved.
But Jesus doesn’t care about that.
He reaches out and touches the boy’s coffin as it goes by. This is one of many illustrations in Luke’s gospel where Jesus touches the unclean. And in each one of them, Jesus reminds us it is holiness and divine love that are contagious, not uncleanness. But this act causes fear in those who see it. It is risky.
We can sit here, safe in our sanctuary, and remain separated from the messy, dirty, unclean moments of life. Or, we can go out to the city gates where we hear a widow’s cries of death and be willing to touch death and bring life and hope to people who think their last hope is gone.
Many of you have been willing to touch death and have brought life. Your tutoring at the Step Up Education Center tells the people there is a better future there and if they are willing to work for their GED, you will accompany them and give them hope.
Your volunteering with kids at Grace Jordan reminds children that education matters and there are adults out there who will be there to help them and give them hope.
Your advocacy for equality for everyone has brought life when you invited to worship people who thought they had to be excluded from faith because of their sexual identity. You will give even more of them hope next week at the PRIDE festival.
In your ministry of presence with each other, your willingness to visit the homebound and sit in waiting rooms at hospitals while people undergo surgery, you offer life-giving hope.
Of course, as Brian mentioned last week, for every centurion’s slave who is healed, there are many who won’t be healed. For every widow’s son who is brought back to life, we all know of many sons and daughters who we have buried.
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, bringing Divine hope to those people and places where hope seems lost.
May it be so. Amen.