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When Elijah Comes to Stay

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jun 05

Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-24 and Luke 7:11-17

It’s likely that no one here this morning remembers the stock market crash of 1929. You would have to be well into your nineties! But some of you may remember growing up during the Great Depression, and many of us have parents or grandparents with stories to tell. News journalist Tom Brokaw popularized the phrase “the greatest generation” to describe those who came of age during those years of deprivation.

I’ve heard tell of the ethos of community, care, and hospitality that was characteristic of the era. Of rampant unemployment and job loss, of hungry families who would not turn away a stranger who came to the door looking for a meal.

Now, I will not idealize an era, or extol an entire generation, or valorize hardship.
I do believe, however, that there is wisdom in the stories of the “greatest generation.” An experiential wisdom—born of suffering—that tore down ordinary social barriers and opened up home and hearth. A hard-won compassion, even, for the plight of so many.

This morning we hear three remarkable stories from our scriptures. Stories that seem—on the face of things—to be about simple, “ordinary” miracles. In 1 Kings, the grain does not run out—even in a time of famine. A widow’s son is restored to health. Likewise in Luke, a widow’s son is restored to life.

Did these things really happen? I do not know. But I do know that there is a deep channel of prophetic word and wisdom that runs through our tradition—from the first verses of the Hebrew Scriptures to the last chapter of the New Testament. A wellspring of compassion, a word that provides nourishment, calls for justice, and unites the most unlikely people.

It is no accident that the lectionary pairs these two texts with each other—First Kings and the gospel of Luke. Although they were written centuries apart, both proclaim a God who gives victory over death. Both give voice to this wild, untamable, prophetic word—a stream that changes lives and alters the course of events.
First Kings was written in the sixth century BCE, during the Babylonian exile. Luke’s gospel was recorded sometime late in the first century, a few decades after Jesus’ death. Different eras, different contexts, yet the texts share some key themes. Human vulnerability—in the face of famine, drought, hardship, sickness and death. Our frailty in the face of the mortality we all share. God’s abundance and providence. The power of the prophetic voice and touch and presence to breathe new life.

I admit to having a great love for the prophet Elijah, who shows up in the midst of poverty and suffering, and who acts with deeds of power. He’s an odd guy—wild and untamable. Elsewhere in Kings he is described as “Elijah the Tishbite, a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.”1 (That’s a direct quote.)

Elijah is approachably human. In one story, we see him all courageous, going mano a mano with the priests of Baal, in defense of Yahweh—the one true God. In the next story, we see him hiding out in the desert, cowering under a broom tree and wishing to die. In Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the transfiguration, Elijah appears on the mountain, talking to Jesus, along with Moses. At Seder tables all around the world, a chair is left empty and a door is opened, to welcome the prophet Elijah.

In today’s reading, God sends Elijah out of the desert to the home of the widow of Zarephath, to ask for food. Now Zarephath is in Sidon, which is—for Elijah—enemy territory. It’s under the jurisdiction of Queen Jezebel, who is after Elijah to kill him. So this is going to be a little awkward.

Nonetheless, he goes. When Elijah arrives, he sees the widow gathering sticks for a fire and realizes she has been hit hard by the famine that has fallen across the land. She is poor, vulnerable, and hungry. About to prepare a “last supper” for herself and her son. All she has is a small jar of meal and a few drops of oil. Both of Elijah and the widow are desperate. Elijah, fleeing for his life. The widow hanging onto her last hope.

When she hears Elijah’s request for fresh water to drink and a little bit of bread to eat, the woman is hard-pressed. She is faced with the cultural necessity of offering hospitality, while her own resources are nil. What should she do?
This moment is the turning point of the story. She decides to open her home to Elijah, to prepare a meal, and to take him in as a guest. The gesture unlocks something in her. No longer fearful and isolated in her suffering, she enlarges the circle of her care. And something magnificent occurs. The dwindling reserves are not used up, but replenished day by day!

Henri Nouwen wrote a small book on prayer called, “With Open Hands” in which he reflects on the palpable difference between a tight-fisted prayer and a prayer said with open hands. It’s as if the open hands unlock the heart as well. The difference between a way-of-being that wants to hold onto what one has and a way-of-being that is open and vulnerable. So different! (Try it now. Clench and unclench your fists. Notice the shift in your whole body.)

In times of crisis and conflict, in our urgent need, we thirst for miracles. We want something that will make it all better. Simple answers that speak to us in our fear and anxiety. These are anxious times in our world and we are looking for answers even now! Perhaps this is why a political candidate who makes bold (even grandiose) statements can be so well-received, while candidates with nuanced, complicated policy proposals are a much harder sell!

I’ve spent a lot of time on the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath today. But this longing for clear, simple answers comes through in our two healing stories from scripture as well.

For the widow, just when it seems that all is well—just when there is enough grain to make daily bread—suddenly her son up and dies. Desperate for answers, she flies into a rage and blames Elijah. “What do you have against me, O man of God? Have you come to cause the death of my son?”2 Surely his illness must have a cause, she thinks (and a remedy!) So she blames Elijah.

How often do we, too, look for simple answers to our deep pain? How often do we wonder, why me? Or agonize over questions like: Why was this person spared—or cured, or healed—but not that person? Why was she taken from me? We need to ask these questions in our search for meaning, but our faith tradition may not give us the easy answers we want.

But God does answer and God’s answer is compassion. When Jesus sees the widow’s deceased son being carried out through the gates of the city; when he feels the widow’s grief wash over him like a tidal wave (Have you ever felt that kind of grief—a grief that knocks you off your feet?) When Jesus feels that kind of grief, he responds with compassion.

So, too, with Elijah. One author writes, “Most striking in this story [of Elijah and the widow], is not the resurrection of the boy but the intimacy of the prophetic presence. The Israelite wild man dwells with the Sidonian widow in abject poverty, not just briefly, but for years.” 3

Elijah never answers the question “Why?” He just moves into the spare room at the back of the house. His response is his constant presence. Jesus never answers the question “Why?” Why did the widow’s son die?
Jesus answers with compassion. A love that has the power to heal and restore life.

Perhaps God is like that. Not one to provide simplistic answers to our really big questions. God is subtler than that. More mysterious, harder to grasp. Not fond of our multiple choice questions. God is fan of narrative and story. A provoker of relationships.

God answers by an open door, an extra place at the table, a morsel of bread. When answers are not enough, when the flour runs low, when there is not enough oil for the next loaf of bread, perhaps this is enough—God’s presence and compassion and grace. Always right here.

1) 2 Kings 1:8
2) I Kings 17:18
3) Carolyn J. Sharp, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 102.

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