Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Widow of Zerephath (I Kings 17:8-16)

Manuscript for the sermon preached at Trinity Church in Ware, Massachusetts on Sunday, June 9 - the Third Sunday after Pentecost 

Imagine for a moment that you are a filmmaker. And forget for just a moment that the Book of First Kings is in the Bible. Think of it as a screenplay that someone has brought to you to read and your job is to convert it for the big screen. As in all films, the opening scene is crucial for the entire story that is about to be told and it holds within it all kinds of possibilities.

I’d start with a wide-angle that allows the audience to see an old man shivering. Well, an old man by Old Testament standards, anyway. The man in question is about seventy according to the narrator. And he can’t get warm. His circulation just isn’t what it once was. As the camera comes in closer on his face we recognize him. Because this is a sequel of sorts and because everybody knows this face—the same way you’d know the face of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington in an instant. It’s King David.

Young women are sent to keep the old king warm. I suppose a prayer shawl would have worked just fine, but this is King David after all. The narrator whispers to us that this isn’t sexual, however. He needs to tell us that because…well, because everybody knows the king’s reputation, because everyone remembers “Bathsheba-gate.”

The world is about to change and it isn’t at all clear who will be the next king. Remember that David is the second king and his succession to Saul’s throne was messy. They are living in a time of transition and even uncertainty about the future and all of the emotions that that brings with it. 

Spoiler alert: the son of Bathsheba and David, Solomon, will succeed his father. We’ll watch in a relatively short span of time, however, how power corrupts him and the nation begins to unravel. And then a whole bunch of kings come after him. It turns out that as imperfect as he was, David was one of a kind and that power corrupts (and absolute power corrupts absolutely) those who follow in his footsteps. 

And so in First and Second Kings we see a whole bunch of monarchs, but none of them are very good, and most of them are pretty awful. By the time you get to the twelfth chapter of First Kings the kingdom has split in two: Judah to the south and Israel to the north.

But I think if you did it right, you could see all of that in David’s eyes in that very first scene. These are not glory days for God’s people. That first scene puts us on alert to all of these things. So that by the time you get to the sixteenth chapter of the story, the king of the northern kingdom is a man named Ahab. And you don’t even have to be a Biblical scholar to remember the name of Ahab’s wife: Jezebel. Now even if you know nothing about who Jezebel actually was (she was a Canaanite worshiper of Baal) her name echoes down through the centuries. It’s not a name you give serious thought to when you find out you are going to have a little girl. Not many people choose to name their daughters Jezebel, which would be a little bit like naming your son Adolf.

The historical Jezebel was no doubt demonized and scape-goated by the men who told and remembered this story. It’s always the woman’s fault, right? If behind every good king is a good woman, then behind every bad king like Ahab there must be an evil woman. The thing is this: we have no way of knowing what the historical Jezebel was like. In truth her character may tell us more about the narrator than it does about her, as an historical figure. What we know in the story we get is that she is blamed for just about everything that has gone wrong since the days of King David. She embodies people’s worst nightmares and fears and anxieties.

Jezebel and the Canaanites who worshiped Baal believed that Baal was the god who brought the rains: in a desert climate, rain equals life. That is important to understand as we are introduced in chapter seventeen to a new character, one of the most important figures in the Old Testament: Elijah the Tishbite. When we meet Elijah, he makes the claim that life is from YHWH alone. It is impossible to overstate just how counter-cultural that claim is. He is laying down the gauntlet: Yahweh, not Baal, is LORD. The Hebrew word for life is used over and over again in these next few chapters and I think that what the narrator wants us to see: that Elijah is willing to stand up in defiance of those who worship Baal by bearing witness to the God of Israel.

So a drought has come over the land to show that Baal has no power. That brings famine and death and poverty, however. The most vulnerable members of that society (and maybe any society) are the widows and orphans. In a time of drought, when even the rich are suffering those at the bottom are in the greatest danger. In such times it makes sense to “take care of yourself first.” Charity begins at home, right?

So that is the background for today's reading, when Elijah shows up at this widow’s home. She is not a Jew, and that is important because this is a time when it is hard to find faithfulness and here as in so many other places in the Bible faith is defined not as right belief but as right practice. That is, it’s about how you treat your neighbor. Elijah shows up and says he’s staying for dinner. And for breakfast the next day, and lunch after that, and dinner…indefinitely. That is a frightening prospect for a poor widow with a child to care for. And in fact she expresses that concern. But in the end she chooses hospitality and generosity and trust. And there is enough bread, and there is enough water.

It’s an old story, rooted in the older story of the Exodus, where there was water and manna one day at a time. It’s a new story, told in the New Testament as the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the water into wine at Cana in Galilee. That is good news. The widow opens up her home to a stranger, and discovers that there is enough. And as the story continues, it is clear when Elijah raises the widow's son from the dead that YHWH, not Baal, is the one who brings life even from death, the one who makes full and abundant life possible. 

What might this story mean for us? I think there is a temptation to make it too magical. Now don’t misunderstand me; I am not saying that there isn’t a miraculous dimension to this story of never-ending flour and oil. I’m enough of a mystic that I don’t need to try to “explain” it away. On the other end of the spectrum, however, there is this temptation to turn it into a magic trick. And when we do that we are tempted to see it as something that happens in Bible-land but has little to do with our own lives. And I think this story has everything to do with our lives, and how we choose to live them.

I think the point is to develop eyes that can see the miracles that are happening all around us.  The first step in that process is to notice with the narrator of First Kings that the national media doesn’t cover this stuff. It doesn’t make it into the headlines in an anxious world led by Ahab and Jezebel. The national media is too concerned with the news that sells, rather than good news that brings life. They run, breathlessly, from Arora to Newtown, to Boston and Santa Monica. 

So you have to know where to look for good news and very often it’s on the edges, on the fringes, in the small places.

The birth of a child is a miracle, for example. It’s not a magic trick but it inspires awe and wonder. The amazing advances in modern medicine are miracles that bring life out of death. How many of you have had cataract surgery? Whenever the blind see, do we praise God—however it comes to pass?  

And so, too, when we choose generosity in a dog-eat-dog world or hospitality in a world of fear—these are miracles as well. Finding another place at the dinner table when you know the cupboard is bare; that’s a real miracle. That’s biblical faith in action.

Anxiety over money is one of the great stresses in too many homes. Maybe yours is one of them. I’ve found in pastoral ministry that the stress people feel over money has very little to do with the dollar amount that gets reported on their tax returns. People who make high six figure incomes sometimes have first homes and second homes and drive the kind of cars that mean more is going out than coming in. That’s a recipe for high levels of anxiety.

Conversely, people with very modest incomes and homes are sometimes able to manage their money in ways that allow them to give thanks for what they have and still live generous lives. I bet you have examples of both choices right in this parish. I suspect that most of us vacillate somewhere in between: we know that even the poorest among us have way more than most people who live on the planet. Yet even the wealthiest among us can feel impoverished when we compare our lives to those of the "rich and famous."

So how do we choose to see ourselves? Some of the poorest people I’ve ever met have been the most generous. I remember spending time in Nicaragua in the 1980s, living with a family that didn’t have indoor plumbing and mostly lived off of rice and beans. But when I was their guest they insisted on a little extra, including some cervasa. There was enough.

Hospitality to the stranger and generosity take us to the very core of Biblical faith—old and new testaments alike. By choosing life in the face of death and hope in the face of despair, this widow bears witness to the power of God at work in the world and to the many ways that the love of God makes all things possible.

Who are the people in your life—your models, who help you to live more like that? Maybe it’s someone in your biological family. But if not, then look to this your baptismal community, the household of God. Find people who choose to relate to money as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Find people who keep things in perspective and give thanks every day—regardless of whether that day brings feast or famine. Find people who live with glad and generous hearts and then try to live like them.

There are two ways to be rich. One is to grasp for it all. The problem with that way is that it will never be enough and no matter how much you accumulate you’ll always be able to find someone who has more. The other path is to begin each day by saying thanks for what you do have and then make the most of it. That choice, I think, is to live a bit more like this widow: counting your blessings, and sharing your daily bread, and trusting that there really will be enough. 

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