The prophet Elijah is known as one of the great prophets of the people of Israel, called
by God to speak God’s words to the people. He lived in the 9th century BCE at the time
the nation of Israel was divided between the northern kingdom of Israel, whose capital
was Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah, whose capital was Jerusalem.
Kingdom of Judah.
First Kings tells us that the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel were
consistently evil. Forsaking their fidelity to Yahweh for their own selfish interests and the
worship of foreign gods, they were idolaters through and through. King Ahab, Israel’s
king at the time of today’s passage (1 Kings 17), was the most evil of them all, doing
more to anger the Lord God of Israel than any Israelite king before him. He married a
Sidonian woman, Jezebel, and began worshiping her god Baal, the god of rain and
God sent Elijah to Ahab to deliver this message (1 Kings 17:1), “As surely as the
God of Israel lives, the one I serve, neither dew nor rain will fall here, unless I say so.” In
announcing this drought, directly challenging Ahab and his god Baal, Elijah endangered
his life. So, God sends him into hiding, leading him far from Samaria, east of Jordan
River. Elijah is sustained there by water from a brook and by ravens that God sent to
bring him food every morning and evening.
But in time the drought dried up Elijah’s water supply, so God tells Elijah to get up
and go to Zarephath, a city far to the west, on the Mediterranean coast. In this city, God
explains, Elijah will encounter a widow whom God ordered to take care of him. Now
widows at this time were the most vulnerable persons, and the most socially and
economically marginalized. In that patriarchal society, women were completely
dependent upon men for their protection and sustenance. With no husband, she would
“have been barely able to survive in times of plenty” and clearly at risk in times of
drought (Women in Scripture, Meyers/Frick, p. 272).
Imagine this unlikely scenario, this unlikely match of two people: God sends
Israel’s prophet Elijah to a foreigner – a non-Israelite to a land outside the kingdom of
Israel – to a destitute, marginalized woman living, as the whole region was, at the height
of a drought. There was no water, no crops, and few resources. Yet, God says this
widow is the one who will feed and sustain Elijah. What is God up to?
* * *
Isn’t it true that most of us wake up each day having some sort of action plan for
our day? Some days our calendars are filled every hour with chores and errands,
appointments, work, play, commitments with family or friends, or some planned
down-time to read or take a nap.
The widow of Zarephath had a plan. She had little choice of what that plan could
be, given her state of affairs, but she had one: To eke out one more meager meal for
her and her son of the little grain meal and olive oil she had left in her house, accepting
that after that last supper, starvation would eventually claim their lives. We meet her as
she is carrying out this plan. She was out gathering firewood; a couple of sticks would
suffice for the tiny fire needed to cook her meager supper. As she searches for sticks,
her plan is suddenly interrupted.
Elijah has arrived at the city gate. He sees the woman and calls out to her,
“Please get me a little water to drink.” She looks up, and without question, turns to do
so, as Elijah adds, “And some food too, please.”
She stops in her tracks, turns to Elijah and, holding up her two sticks, replies,
“Sir, I have no food prepared to give you. I have hardly any flour or oil left – not even
enough to make a full loaf of bread. I was planning to prepare it for my son and I – to
have one last bite of food before this drought takes our lives.”
Elijah, undeterred, exclaims, “”Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you planned, but
first make me some bread, and bring it. Then make some for you and your son. You’ll
see what the one true God can do. The flour won’t run out and the oil won’t’ run dry until
God sends rain (Connor, A., Fierce, p. 98). In faith and in doubt, the widow carried out
Elijah’s request, and Elijah stayed with the woman and her son for many days, and they
broke bread together every day until the drought ended. For the jar of flour did not run
out and the jug of oil never ran dry.
* * *
Understanding that a sermon is a conversation between God, the preacher and
the congregation, I routinely invite conversation partners to join me in reflecting upon
the sermon scripture passage. It’s helpful to hear how others are experiencing God and
God’s good news through the passage. Susan is one person I emailed the passage to
and I share with you how God met her, and others through her, in unexpected ways.
It was Memorial Day morning. Susan had a plan to play golf and enjoy some
other day-off/holiday activities. As she started her day, she checked her email as was
usual for her and saw a message that came during the night from her long-time friend,
Rose. Susan knew that Rose’s mom was in the last stages of her life so she was
anxious to read the email. Rose had recently become the sole caretaker of her mom,
who’s adamant, pleading wish was to die at home. Some weeks ago, Rose had
dropped almost everything else in her life to take care of her mom, desiring to honor her
mom’s wishes. But as Rose’s mom’s health steadily deteriorated, so did Rose’s overall
well-being. Rose was exhausted, her work and social life were suffering, she was not
eating well, not taking good care of herself. She wondered if she could call hospice, but
kept thinking of her mom’s desire to die at home. Rose felt like she was drowning and in
her desperation, she finally reached out to her friend Susan, who is also a physician,
and asked for help.
Susan was shocked and relieved to receive Rose’s message, since though
Susan had offered many times to help, Rose never accepted. The situation with Rose
and her mom sounded dire. It was still early in the morning and Susan wondered if she
should get in the car and go to Rose’s right away, should she wait a while, call first, etc.
A “Holy nudge” informed Susan to get up and just go, now. She cancelled her golf and
other plans and jumped in the car. Her new plan was to get to Rose and her mom as
soon as possible to offer help and comfort.
Susan’s sense of urgency to get there increased as she drove. Approaching
some railroad tracks, she saw the red lights begin to flash, the big red and white arms
come down and finally a train – a very long train that went on and on, while Susan grew
more and more anxious. Once she accepted there was nothing she could do to hurry
the train, Susan settled a bit, and decided to check her email for any messages from
Rose. There was none, but there was one from me, with the sermon scripture I had
emailed her. While waiting for the train to pass, Susan read the story of the widow of
Zarephath and Elijah, and the widow’s sudden change of plans due to the unexpected
encounter with Elijah, and the life-changing events that ensued.
Susan took a deep breath. The train finally ended and she proceeded to Rose’s
mom’s home. Once there, she assured Rose that calling hospice was the next best step
both for her and her mother. Susan helped Rose navigate securing the hospice room,
transportation for her mom and all the other details. It was now midafternoon and Susan
was famished, having not eaten since the night before. She knew that Rose must be
hungry too and needed sustenance. Susan asked Rose if she had any food and Rose
offered her a Coke and, sheepishly, because she’s admittedly not the best cook, she
also offered Susan a very humble casserole she had made the day before. Together
they shared that simple meal, with Rose’s dying mother nearby, the flurry of stress
beginning to settle, as they waited for hospice to arrive.
As the Coke and casserole curbed their depletion, Susan thought of the widow of
Zarephath with her meager flour and oil, and the unexpected stranger, Elijah, who
appeared and asked for bread; how the widow heard God’s promise through Elijah that
the bit of flour and oil she had would be enough, and in fact would not run out; how she
courageously stepped out in doubt-filled faith to prepare a would became a miracle
Hospice finally arrived to transport Rose’s mom. Susan and Rose followed
behind. When they arrived at the hospice facility, Susan was overcome with awe at the
abundance before them. The combination of the environment of the home of Rose’s
dying mom, the despair of Rose, the meager resources physically and emotionally that
Rose possessed to offer to her dying mother, the symbolic meager meal Susan and
Rose had just eaten could not compare to this shiny hospice facility, with its top-notch,
high tech equipment, the medical resources and abundance of caring staff members.
Nothing meager about any of it. As God had supplied the widow, her son and their
unlikely companion Elijah sustenance for their journey, Susan experienced God
supplying Rose and her mom more than enough of what they needed, more than they
could have imagined, more than Rose ever could have offered on her own. The jar of
flour and the jug of oil did not run out.
* * *
Consider these parallel stories of meager provisions becoming more than
enough, of the unexpected change in plans, the unlikely companionship formed
between the widow and Elijah, all which leads to more knowledge of God’s grace and
love. Can you think of a time when your plans were interrupted by the unexpected?
What did you feel? Annoyed? Relieved? Fearful? Hopeful? Whether the interruption led
to something welcomed and desirable or tragic and lamented, how did you experience
God? Did God seem near or absent?
When did your life seem meager, empty, lifeless, hopeless? What happened that
caused a change in your circumstances or a shift in your state of mind and outlook?
Where was God in that for and with you?
Can you think of a time you formed a companionship with someone with whom
you normally would not associate with, someone very unlikely? What are some of the
blessings? The challenges? The surprises?
* * *
The literal meaning of companion is “one who eats bread with us” (Fr. Richard
Rohr, cac.org). The widow, her son and Elijah ate bread together. Susan and Rose ate
their meager meal together. And today, at God’s Table of Holy Communion we come as
companions on our journey of faith to eat this bread and drink from this cup, together.
We share this meager meal that is far from meager. It is the meal of Jesus, who while
knowingly facing his death for the sake of going to any lengths to love God’s people and
world, shared a final supper of bread and drink with his disciples, his close companions,
on the night before he died. He drew near to them in compassion, breaking bread for
and with them, nourishing them with his presence, his divine light, God’s power and
Jesus, born in Bethlehem, literally “the house of bread,” who called himself the
“the bread of life,” who was a true companion with everyone he met – breaking bread
with them in their homes, on hillsides, on the Way, everywhere, everyday – invites us
into companionship with himself, with one another, with God. Jesus invites us to expect
the unlikely, to look for miracles of abundance, to feast on this bread of life and cup of
salvation, and then, nourished for the journey, to go out into the world bearing witness to
God’s grace and love that never run out.
Thanks be to God. Amen.