I Kings 17:8-15
by Tom Van Laningham & Meghan Brown Saavedra
(Note: This sermon is a collaborative effort between Tom, co-sponsorship developer and Meghan, Columbia seminary intern, and it is designed as a dialogue. V1 is voice one and V2 is voice two. However, it can also be retooled as a solo event. You are welcome to use it, or any parts of it, in the context of your own congregation.)
V1 This story is the first of several Elijah appearances. The most famous is the big barbeque contest with 700 clergy from another denomination. They had their offering on a big pile of dry wood & they spent half a day invoking their god to bring down fire. No matter how much they prayed and danced, their god didn't show up. Exhausted, they gave up. Elijah doused his offering until the water pooled, then Yhweh rained down fire which devoured not only Elijah's offering but the opponent's pyre too. The crowd that came out to watch the contest immediately "got religion" and in a fit of revenge, Elijah had all the other priests killed on the spot.
Now Elijah was gaining some credibility with Ahab, the king of Israel, but he wasn't so appreciated by the King's wife who happened to like the 700 dead priests and vowed that she would do the same to Elijah before the sun set. Instead of standing his ground with Jezebel, Elijah ran for his life, which goes to show you what fear can do. So God is stuck with this guy & sends him out into the desert to think things over, kind of like sending a pitcher who's lost his stuff down to the minor leagues There's a powerful scene where God comes to Elijah at the mouth of a cave. There are storms, earthquakes and lots of rocks splitting. But God is in none of that. Finally there is sheer silence. And in the silence, in the silence, Elijah perceives God.
V2 That is the famous Elijah that we all know. Before that Elijah, there was a smaller story, a beginning story when Elijah was a nobody. He's a beginner, a "rookie prophet," beginning his work not in the middle of things, but on the edge of things. He is in Sidon, north of Israel. The first place where he will practice his craft is with a poor woman. A widowed woman.
Eventually he will be talking to kings and queens. Today he's talking to another "nobody," a helpless, widowed woman in a different country. She has nothing. This is one of the Bible's 'terrible stories," right up there with Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac. A woman alone in her culture has no place--no home, no supportive family, no means to care for herself. She has reached the end--the end of everything and she is preparing a fire to make some bread for her and her son. And then they will die. Death will take weeks, but death is certain.
V1 We don't see death on the streets in places like Sudan, Myanmar, North Korea. But we are feeling the 'fear of death' everywhere. Families lose jobs, lose housing, lose retirements, lose healthcare. Whole industries are massively declining. Really nice neighborhoods now have houses with all their contents piled in the front yard. We have tasted the edges of draught and what life is like with declining oil. There is fear in the air. Think about this:
Gun sales have increased by 33%. Nationwide people are buying weapons and ammunition. What drives this run? Fear.
Reporting about a new flu virus has reached epidemic proportions. Hundreds of people die annually from regular flu, but the possibility of a new strain has the whole world on the edge of a pandemic.
V2 Fear has also come to church. The parking lots don't hold as many cars as they used to. Even big places that once were the anchors of communities are looking a little lean. Sure there are the little country churches with their cemeteries and shade trees sitting in the middle of shopping centers or housing developments, bypassed by the community. But it's not just the little churches any more. A pastor across the street from a fine college here in town says that he sees some young people coming over for church, but they're not interested in becoming part of the fellowship (Marthame Sanders, Oglethorpe Presbyterian) They don't limit their identities to being just Christian. They are interested in Islam, Hinduism and other traditions. . . . But the creeping decline is not only "traditional churches," it's also the big places you see on TV. Yes there are thousands there on Sundays but here's the little secret: it's not the same thousands as last month. "There is a huge, wide-open back door at most churches," writes Dr. Michael Lindsay, author of a book on evangelical leaders. "Churches around the country may be able to attract people, but they can't keep them." (AJC, Tue, April 10, p. A2)
V1 This widowed woman, a single mother is gathering wood for a final fire, a final meal. Meet overwhelming hopelessness. Fear wins.
Then, Elijah shows up. "Bring me a cup of water . . . and bake me some bread," he says. "This is all I have," she says. . . "While you are preparing your last meal, share it with me. Don't be afraid. Share. There will be enough. The jar of meal will not be empty; the jar of oil will not run dry. The Lord says so." He doesn't say how, he just says it will be so.
V2 With nothing to lose, the widow does what Elijah tells her to do. Scripture does not tell us that she is a faithful person, or heroic. She doesn't say she will believe in spite of what she sees. She is not a saint. She just does what she is told. And what she has been told is different from what she has done before. It's unreasonable. It's crazy, maybe even stupid. . . But this woman who has no food, shares her food.
She steps into a different world. A world that is not controlled by fear. Instead of accepting certain death, she chooses differently.
In the midst of overwhelming hopelessness, this single parent decides to live hopefully.
V1 Most of the churches here in Atlanta don't know about refugee ministries. And if we do know about refugees, we prefer not to be around them for a number of reasons--they are poor, they usually don't speak much English, they are from places we consider inferior by our standards. They have too many needs. Some of this is true. But almost all of them have something we all want--to choose. Despite all odds, to choose differently.
Saw Jay is a widow from Burma who came last February with three young daughters. They literally had nothing but the clothes on their backs. Saw Jay is part of the Karen ("Car-in") a farming population who now live either in hiding or in camps because they would not support the Burmese government, the most repressive and brutal regime in the world. Burned out of her home, her parents killed, this young woman was raised by an aunt and uncle. For the last eight years she had lived in a Thai refugee camp with her husband. Camps are temporary. No jobs, no future, just a place to wait. Before she came here, the husband was killed and she was alone in the world. The day came to get on a plane & leave everything she knew. And she took the step into the unknown.
V2 A loving church prepared an apartment for her. For the first time in her life she had a safe place to live with electricity, plumbing, and not just one room--several rooms. In four months she was supposed to maintain her apartment, learn some English, find a job and become self-sufficient. Instead she discovered she was pregnant and simply could not keep up with all the changes. Her time ran out, her funds ran out and she was again helpless.
Jubilee Partners, a resettlement community in north Georgia heard her need and brought her to their farm in Comer, Georgia. The baby was born just before Christmas and welcomed into the family. In a short space of time her beloved aunt and uncle from Burma appeared and the families reunited at Jubilee. Her church brought the family in for a baptism. The bishop was visiting that Sunday and shared in the ritual. The next week and for weeks to come the pictures of Saw Jay, her infant son, daughters, and the Bishop appeared all over the diocese of Atlanta.
V1 A year ago another refugee family arrived--husband, wife and four children. They also were sponsored by an experienced and loving church community that set up an apartment and visited with the family weekly. Very soon the family found a supportive group from their homeland, Burundi, where there is a strong sense of community. The mother, Regina, worked on her English while keeping the small children. The husband, Fred, soon found a job and everything looked like a successful resettlement. Except Fred, with some money in his pocket, began to drink . . . and to abuse. After several rounds, the police were called, a court order was issued and decisions had to be made.
Bearing the weight of the family, Regina decided to press on alone. The resettlement agency worked on jobs and childcare and transportation. But each time all the pieces were in order, something fell apart. The transportation did not come. The childcare provider did not show up. Regina was stranded. What was wrong? Slowly the case worker discovered the problem. Built on patriarchy, the tribal community did not support Regina running a household without Fred. Sympathetic to Fred, the women who signed on to help Regina were sabotaging her struggle to live independently.
V2 Saw Jay is back in Atlanta now. This time with four children and her aunt and uncle. The aunt will keep the children. Saw Jay and her uncle will have to find jobs and support the family. The battle is just beginning.
Regina has moved into a smaller apartment with her children. Fred is still living away from the family but a portion of his paycheck provides most of the rent. Regina is getting by from day to day.
In the Elijah story, the jar of meal did not run out and the jar of oil did not run dry . . . while there was draught in the land. The implication is that the widow would one day have to find a way to provide her own food and shelter in Zarapeth. So will Saw Jay. So will Regina--maybe with and maybe without Fred.
Both of them, and all of us, have an opportunity to live differently. Free from fear, we can do crazy things like share. And step out into the unknown.
It is not an easy life, but it is a better life.
United Methodist Church:
(Liturgies, Hymn suggestions and Sermon Notes)
(Additional resources on refugees, including personal vignettes and articles from refugees and clergy)