I Kings 17:8-24
Last Sunday we started the lectionary journey of hearing some of the stories of the prophet Elijah. Today’s story actually precedes last Sunday’s. I’m not sure exactly why the lectionary crafters decided to put the two stories in reverse order. It may be on account of the gospel lesson, since it, too, tells of the raising of the son of a widow.
Remember, Elijah had declared God’s anger at the practices that King Ahab had allowed, particularly the acceptance and promotion of the worship of Baal. God’s anger was manifest in the severe drought that came upon the land. Because of the drought, God told Elijah to go to the wilderness and live by the wadi where he was fed by the ravens. “The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi.” Yet, not even the wadi to which God had sent him survived the drought. So, God sent him to Zarephath, telling him that there was a widow there who would provide for him.
Now, imagine Elijah’s surprise – and, perhaps doubt of God’s plan – when he met the widow, gathering sticks so that she could prepare the last of her meager supplies for herself and her son – and then wait to die. The wadi had dried up. Now, he was sent to a woman on the verge of death. Imagine, as well, her sense of despair. She was facing death – she and her son. And this foreign, strange man came in from the wilderness and demanded hospitality.
We’re accustomed to the idea of hospitality as something we offer out of our abundance. Middle Eastern hospitality is different. It was in Elijah’s day, in Jesus’ day – and in many places, in our own day. Hospitality was not an option. She couldn’t turn away from him and ignore a request – that wasn’t much different from begging! Yet, how unfair it must have seemed! She had lived on the edges of society since her husband died. Her only hope for a future had been through her son who would have had a right to her husband’s property. Now, however, the drought had taken what little she had.
Scholars note that both this woman and the woman in the gospel lesson for today remain unnamed. They had little status. They had no power. Society had been charged with their welfare – but society often failed in its responsibility to care for widows and orphans. Society often failed in its responsibility to be aware of the most vulnerable.
Elijah might have hoped that God would send him to someone of means. But, perhaps it was the most vulnerable who was able, ultimately, to welcome this strange, wild man. She understood desperation.
Professor Carolyn Sharp notes that many cultures have stories about wild men that don’t fit easily into their culture. In the Bible there are several wild men: Elijah, Samson, and John the Baptist are three. We might think of those characters in our own popular media that don’t fit our molds. As I was reading Sharp’s reflections, I thought of Tarzan. (I turned the page, and she wrote of Tarzan!) When my daughter was young, ET was one of her favorite movies. She watched it over and over again. In that story, the adults are threatened by the idea of an “out of this world,” “out of our culture” being. So, our modern Tarzans are probably aliens! And, for many, the aliens are not necessarily extra-terrestrial. They are merely those who are different – those who speak a different language, have a different skin color, have a different sexual orientation, believe in God differently. There are many aliens in our world – that threaten our carefully constructed and orderly lives.
Elijah demanded hospitality. He demanded water and food. I have to admit, this story, if I look at it from the woman’s point of view, touches all my feminist buttons! Why should she respond to his demands? What right does he have to demand anything of this stranger? Of course, I’m putting my 21st century bias into the reading and hearing of this story. He had every right. Hospitality was a sacred responsibility in that culture. Now, on the other hand, asking for hospitality from a woman facing death seems harsh and unrealistic.
I wondered how often we view ourselves as the widow on the verge of death – gathering a few sticks and waiting for our demise. I think that sense is especially prevalent in struggling churches – of many sizes, but particularly smaller congregations that have known a more vibrant past. Some churches choose to die. I met the pastor of one who said, “We’ve agreed. Last one out, turns off the lights!” Some churches die unwillingly, refusing to see that they are starving.
As individuals in a society that focuses on abundance, it’s hard to think about being asked for hospitality when we feel vulnerable. Hospitality is portrayed as something glamorous, sleek, shiny – happening in houses that could grace the pages of magazines. I had a friend, years ago, who would not host the church’s women’s group because she didn’t think her house would be considered adequate. She forgot that the group valued her and that they weren’t looking for glamour – just for genuine hospitality.
Elijah came, the wild man, and asked something of this vulnerable woman. God was confident that she could provide what was needed. (Remember, God had said to Elijah that God had commanded this woman to provide hospitality. Apparently, that command was not direct. She had no knowledge of it. Elijah, truly, spoke God’s word to her.) And when she welcomed Elijah into her home, God helped her provide.
Carolyn Sharp says, “Those who dare to host the wild divine word in their midst are saved from disaster.” “Those who dare to host the wild divine word in their midst are saved from disaster.”
What a fascinating phrase – the wild divine. I was reminded of the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia. The God character is a lion named Aslan. This lion tells the children who have been transported to Narnia that he is good – but he is not a tame lion. Aslan is the wild divine.
We want a world that makes good sense. In this morning’s story, the widow responded to Elijah’s demands for hospitality. At first, it seemed she was saved from disaster. The jar of meal was not emptied. The jug of oil did not fail. Then, her son died. She had done what society demanded. She had offered hospitality. Yet, calamity still came.
A professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts says that we assume that the world is ultimately benevolent and meaningful. Some people speak of it as karma. Good brings good and bad brings bad. Professor Jan Holton says that even if we declare that we know that life is not always fair, it is tempting to live with this assumption of a benevolent world, a world that is fully fair in its rewards and judgments. In fact, we often teach that in the church. “If you’re good, God will reward you. If you’re bad, God will punish you.” What happens, then, when tragedy strikes? What happens when there’s no good answer to the question, “Why?”
We want a tame world. We want a tame God who fits into our assumptions and expectations. With a tamed world, it becomes easier to dismiss the messiness that is evident in the lives of those who are faceless and nameless. We hear that dismissive attitude! Think of the ways the suffering are blamed for their lot.
There is a Presbyterian catchphrase, “decently and in order.” It truly can be a way of silencing the Wild Divine when decently and in order means living within a tradition and structures in ways that never change. Sometimes the phrase is used to silence those who might see things differently, to silence those who might want to challenge the way things are. The intent of the phrase is different. Its intent is to allow discussion that welcomes the Wild Divine Word. I heard a woman speak of her father, a Presbyterian Minister, who was elected to go to the General Assembly in 1956. That assembly would be voting on whether women could be ordained as ministers. He was adamant. Women should not be ministers. The Assembly, however, as a body, voted to allow women ministers. He came home and said, “I didn’t believe women should be ministers. Apparently, the Holy Spirit believed otherwise.” He became a supporter. A reasoned discussion, done decently and in order, allowed the Wild Divine Word to stir up the denomination, to challenge and alter its structures and beliefs.
The Wild Divine shakes up who we are. It challenges the systems and we create for ourselves and calls us to service in God’s world. I was listening to a newscast that was looking back at Muhammed Ali’s life. Someone wondered how it was that someone who was vilified because of his faith and his unwillingness to serve during the Vietnam War could become a respected and beloved public figure. Someone else responded, “He raised our consciousness about the flaws in our society. It was difficult to hear. But as time went on, people began to see the truth in his words and respect that truth.” He was, in some ways, the wild man – a gentle giant of a wild man.
Recently, I heard someone speak about a different approach to church, an approach that does not see church as the place we come to escape or to encounter a predictable, unchallenging God. “We should be handing out hard hats,” the speaker said, citing someone else’s words. I read something similar years ago in a reflection on baptism. We come together not to tame God, but to encounter the Wild Divine – the God whom the Bible describes as being like wind or like flame – with power to upend and power to consume and purify.
And this Wild Divine tells us that if we respond we will have what we need to be involved in God’s work and mission in the world. Even a widow facing death found that she had the resources to serve God in the wild man. And when her son died, she saw, Sharp says, “God’s compassion to those who dare to host the prophetic word.”
Sharp concludes, “When we dare to host the prophetic word, we are transformed. For we encounter a God who delivers the powerless, a God whose word yields inexhaustible abundance, a God whose compassion is stronger than death. Elijah’s prophetic word points to the One who is the way the truth, and the life. Host that word, know the truth, and live.”