June 25 Sermon

 

June 25, 2017

1 Kings 17: 8-24 (C0mmon English Bible)

Through the summer we are cycling through three patterns: a psalm and using the labyrinth; a new testament story about call and discernment; and the stories of the prophet Elijah. This morning is the first of those Elijah stories, so I thought it would be helpful to add some background information as we hear this story.

Elijah lived about a hundred years after King David. By that time, David’s kingdom had split into two nations: Judah in the south and Israel in the North. Elijah lives in the northern kingdom during the time of King Ahab. Ahab was married to Jezebel, who is a Phoenician, not an Israelite. She worships the Phoenician gods. The main god is Baal, a god of thunder and lightning and thus also rain Baal’s followers claim that he and his bride credit make the crops grow. This religion is called Baalism.

Jezebel is using her political power to increase Baalism in the nation of Israel, even suggesting the two religions can be blended together. The prophet Elijah preaches against this blending and calls Baal a false God. But then King Ahab builds a temple to Baal for his wife, and she brings an entourage of Baal’s priests and prophets into the capital city of Israel. King Ahab worships at both the temple to Israel’s God and the temple of Baal.

And so Elijah accuses Ahab of being a sinful king, abandoning the promises of Israel’s God. Elijah was particularly angry that King Ahab would encourage faithlessness against God in order to ensure political success. And Elijah announces that as long as this unfaithfulness continues, there will be no rain or dew in the country. A terrible drought overtakes the land. With the drought comes famine. Here begins our story.

The Lord’s word came to Elijah:

Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there.

I have ordered a widow there to take care of you.

10 Elijah left and went to Zarephath.

As he came to the town gate, he saw a widow collecting sticks.

He called out to her, “Please get a little water for me in this cup so I can drink.”

Consider the foolishness of the prophet. During a drought, he asks for water. He asks this from a widow, one of the poorest people in society. He asks this outside a city known for its temple to Baal.

11 She went to get some water.

{Elijah}then said to her, “Please get me a piece of bread.”

Again, consider either the foolishness and brashness of the prophet.

12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,”

she replied, “I don’t have any food;

only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle.

Look at me.

I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son.

We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.”

13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid!

Remember that angels always say this too. Don’t be afraid! God is in charge! Things are about to change. This affects you. God is in charge!

Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me.

You can make something for yourself and your son after that.

14 This is what Israel’s God, the Lord, says:

The jar of flour won’t decrease

and the bottle of oil won’t run out

until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

So imagine you are living through a drought, and a famine. A stranger meets you just outside of town – a stranger who you know is from another religion, a stranger who you know has criticized your religion. And this stranger asks you for water, then food, then says if you share your food with him then his God –   not yours! – will take care of you during this drought. Do you trust him? Do you believe what he says? Are you willing to take the risk and feed this stranger – knowing if his promises of his God’s actions do not come true that your own family will starve?

15 The widow went and did what Elijah said.

So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days.

16 The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out,

just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.

OK, so Elijah has proven to this widow and her son that he does indeed speak on behalf of Israel’s God. What he has promised has been fulfilled. The land is still in drought, and the people are still famished – but, for their generosity, this household is safe.

17 After these things, the son of the widow, who was the matriarch of the household, became ill.

His sickness got steadily worse until he wasn’t breathing anymore.

18 She said to Elijah, “What’s gone wrong between us, man of God?

Have you come to me to call attention to my sin and kill my son?”

Remember that at this time illness and disease were thought to be the consequence of sin. Getting sick was a divine punishment –the anger of someone’s God. This widow believes Elijah’s God is more powerful than her own, because her God could not protect her son from becoming sick.

19 Elijah replied, “Give your son to me.”

He took her son from her and carried him to the upper room where he was staying.

Elijah laid him on his bed.

20 Elijah cried out to the Lord,

“Lord my God,

why is it that you have brought such evil upon the widow that I am staying with

by killing her son?”

21 Then he stretched himself over the boy three times and cried out to the Lord,

“Lord my God, please give this boy’s life back to him.”

22 The Lord listened to Elijah’s voice and gave the boy his life back. And he lived.

23 Elijah brought the boy down from the upper room of the house and gave him to his mother.

Elijah said, “Look, your son is alive!”

24 “Now I know that you really are a man of God,”

the woman said to Elijah,

“and that the Lord’s word is truly in your mouth.”

Here ends the reading. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Do you remember Hee Haw?

Gloom, despair, and agony on me

Deep, dark depression, excessive misery

If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all

Gloom, despair, and agony on me

It seems to me that Elijah’s story, especially the part we heard this morning, would make a really good country song. He’s got no food, so he accepts the scraps from birds. When he’s finally had enough of that, he heads to a city for food, but the city in in a famine. He begs for some food, but it turns out the woman he is begging from is a widow – poorest of the poor. And even though God promises to protect that household, the widow’s son dies.

               Gloom, despair, and agony on me

Elijah is on a Labyrinth walk. He used the wilderness to walk closer to God: entering. In the wilderness God speaks to Elijah: presence of God at the center. We pick up the story as God sends Elijah to the widow who lives in Zarephath: exiting the labyrinth.

Elijah’s journey has unexpected twists – unanticipated suffering – but that is not evidence of being abandoned by God. In fact, being opened to accompany others in suffering may be the surest sign of seeking to be in God’s presence.

The journey of faith outside the labyrinth is not easy. Even though God calls us and promises to be with us, the journey is full of twists and uncertainty. That is why discernment is so essential: as we’re turned, how are we certain that we are following God? As we encounter difficulty how do we identify the ways God is calling us? Drought and famine, laws that permit persecution and discrimination, limited financial resources, diminished people resources – how do we know we are still following God?

Faithfulness does not assure us of easy-going. I am uncomfortable with those who claim suffering in the world is the opportunity for God to show God’s goodness. There’s a number of places in the bible where that idea is advanced; that makes it even more uncomfortable for me. I prefer the idea that suffering in the world is our opportunity to act in God’s name – to show those who suffer that they are not abandoned. And that means the pursuit of faithfulness will lead us into troubles, because our faith requires that we address the suffering of the world:

Homelessness.

Hunger.

Physical pain.

Unjust laws.

Economic systems that are rigged to benefit those who begin with more money.

Elections that are manipulated and rigged.

Racism & other

Prejudices.

These are problems we are called to address, because they are displays of brokenness and suffering. These go alongside consoling those who mourn, supporting those whose family members are fighting diseases, accompanying those who are enduring stress.

Faith presents us with this strange paradox: it consoles us and comforts us but then it makes us restless, driving us out to places where we are uncomfortable asking us to provide consolation and comfort.

So this labyrinth prepares us well: just when we think we know what direction we are heading, we are going to be twisted in a new direction because God calls us to look at the world in new ways, all so that we may see God in new ways.

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