I Kings 17:8-24
Please pray with me: Gracious God, put into my mouth the words you would have me to speak, and put into our hearts the words you would have us to hear. In your holy name we pray, Amen
In our Old Testament Lesson today, God continues to test Elijah by telling him to go and stay in Zarephath, where God had commanded a widow to feed him! Times were really hard in Zaraphath; in fact throughout the land of Israel times were really tough. They had a horrible king, Ahab, who had an equally horrible wife, Queen Jezebel, both incredibly evil and who worshipped a pagan god. They both wanted to kill Elijah for what he had done. In reality, it was because of their evil ways that everyone, everywhere was starving.
We know Elijah to be a man of great faith but he thought God had “the wrong man,” as Moses and many other great prophets did before him. Elijah was skeptical, not only because he didn’t think he had anything to offer, but because this whole plan seemed strange or problematic.
- Zarephath was a Gentile nation – Jews did not associate with Gentiles – why would God send him to this foreign people? (Of interest, Elijah became the first prophet to the Gentiles!)
- Second, this nation belonged to Ahab and Jezebel who wanted to kill Elijah as they were convinced the famine was his fault, when Elijah was only the messenger.
- And, God was sending him to a widow for food and drink! Everyone knew widows had nothing! In fact, the Bible commanded that widows and orphans be cared for by others rather than the other way around. Besides that, it was the overall responsibility of men to take care of women!
When you step back and think about all of this, this is actually pretty normal for a God who shows special favor to the poor and downtrodden.
When Elijah arrived in Zaraphath, after traveling about 100 miles, he saw a widow gathering sticks for a fire. He told her to bring him a drink of water! First, how did he know she was a widow and how did he know she was the right widow and, who does he think he is, demanding she bring him water?! This seems a bit rude and presumptuous! But, actually, in those times, according to the laws of hospitality, a stranger anywhere was entitled to food and drink. Back to the story – Elijah, living confidently on the “edge”, also asked for a bit of bread.
The widow’s response to Elijah conveyed her desperation, for she had only a handful of flour and a bit of oil, and was gathering sticks to be able to make one last meal for herself and for her son. With no food, it was logical to assume they would soon die. But, she also said something really significant – “As the Lord your God lives…” – She, a foreigner, acknowledged Elijah’s God! Elijah said to the widow, “do not be afraid” …. How many times have we heard that in Bible stories!? That, in and of itself, would make the widow anxious! But Elijah told the widow the Lord God of Israel would provide – the flour and oil would last through the drought and famine, and it did.
So how does this ancient story of survival relate to us today? I have been here only since January of this year but I have certainly watched God at work here at St. Joseph’s, and I have seen the face of God more times than I can count.
St. Joseph’s is a mission church, with 1 part-time Vicar, 1 part-time Deacon, 39 communicants, and not a lot of money. This Vicar, Deacon and 39 people do incredible things! In addition to people acolyting, preparing the music, preparing the altar area, preparing the bulletins, reading the lessons, ushering, and all of the other functions required for a smooth service on Sundays, Morning and Evening Prayer are offered each weekday, as is a fresh homemade breakfast for anyone who wants or needs to eat. On Wednesday evenings there is a healing and Holy Eucharist service. Most often there is also some form of adult education, preceded by a potluck meal together on Wednesday nights. As if that weren’t enough, the grounds are used for gathering and for sleeping and places have been found to store the precious few possessions of our neighbors. This is also a white flag destination so that, literally, no one freezes to death. Let us be reminded that the very events that test us, are the same events that allow God to minister to others.
I often tell friends in other places about the bulletin boards in the parish hall with calendar pages and sign up sheets all over them, where people walk by, see something that needs to be done and they “just do it”! How in the world does everything get done? I think there is no doubt that God is alive and in our midst. God makes all of this happen, through us, as the hands and feet and heart of God.
In this place a powerful theme emerges about hospitality to the stranger. Probably the most notable, St. Joseph’s welcomes the homeless – people who have challenges they may not be able to overcome – some who have difficulty finding a job, some who are hungry, and some who are addicted, but ALL feel welcome and safe here. One day when I was here, a police car drove up so that a policeman could deliver sandwiches and bottles of water to those in the yard. A stranger stopped and brought fresh fruit and sandwiches to a homeless man sitting at the top of the steps, wrapped in a blanket. As she bent over to offer him food, she realized it was Jesus. So, she delivered the food to someone around the corner who had a cardboard sign asking for help. Relationships are being built because of St. Joseph’s commitment to our neighbors.
It may not just be about helping the stranger but this may be about our own survival. God is a God of life; a God who provides food to widows and orphans – the flour and the oil will not run out! Elijah and the widow are connected. By helping Elijah, the widow is helping herself and her son. By helping the homeless, we are enriching our own lives.
I have a beautiful Michael Podesta print hanging in my dining room. It is a sketch of a man sitting alone on a bench and on the print is written ”Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”. Even as we took down the church sign, which had been spray-painted with black paint, our homeless Jesus statue had mysteriously been adorned with beautiful, very colorful, fresh flowers! I think that says it all!
Remembering that behind every human face is the face of God, we just need to be receptive to seeing Him. In addition, we are connected to each other and to these neighbors because our God loves all of us desperately.
God has a history of choosing to use the poor and the weak in our lives to make His point — to get our attention — St. Joseph’s is a living, breathing testimony to having been called to be the hands and feet and heart of God in this community. Rather than chase people away, St. Joe’s welcomes everyone with open arms. St. Joseph’s opens our doors and our hearts to ALL – the broken, the lost, those looking for a home, and those whom our culture rejects or dismisses. St. Joseph’s gets it!!! These ARE the people of God. And, we are much closer to God because of the relationships we form with all of God’s children, even though we may feel ill equipped or don’t understand.
So the lessons that God is teaching Elijah are the same He is teaching us – lessons of simple faith, simple trust and simple obedience, understanding that God uses unconventional ways and peoples.
Glory to God who can do more than we can ask or imagine! AMEN