Monday, November 5, 2012

Around the Edges (All Saints Sermon)

1 Kings 17:1-16

            A famous theologian once said, “You should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” That can be tough, because then in one hand I have stories of droughts and floods, wars and struggles between ruling parties, unexpected deaths, people struggling to make ends meet, and people longing for justice… and is that the hand that holds the newspaper or the Bible? Sometimes, it can be hard to tell one from the other without looking carefully and remembering what each one is supposed to do. The newspaper shows us a world that longs for God’s kingdom to come or has forgotten its promise. The Bible reminds us of the promise and shows us God’s actions through history, so that we have a foundation on which to base our hope in and expectation of God’s future actions.

            If the Bible were like other history books, today’s reading would be about Ahab’s reaction to the prophet Elijah. We would have a detailed account of the king’s comings and goings and how other, sycophantic “prophets” would have advised him, and (almost certainly) what Jezebel had to say about the matter. Yet, Israel’s history does not chronicle the kings as much as the people affected by the king and the king’s decisions. Remember that when Israel called for a king, the people were reminded that the Lord was to be their one leader and a king would come with some serious consequences for their national wellbeing.

            Thus, instead of learning more about Ahab, we get a story of Elijah fleeing for his life and a widow with a child, someone who is directly affected by the policies of the king. The first situation that is facing the widow is that she is a widow. Her source of income is gone. Her husband’s family, if still living, hasn’t taken her in to be with them. Her own family, if still living, would not be expected to do so. So she depends on the generosity of others, toward her and toward her son, so that they may live. She may be able to do little tasks in exchange for food or coin to make ends meet, but she certainly lives with very little extra and, consequently, very little participation in societal life.

            The second situation facing the widow (and her neighbors) is the drought. The writer of 1 Kings is careful to point out that the Lord says through Elijah that it will not rain for several years. The significance of this is not that the Lord wants people to suffer in a drought, but that the Lord wants them to remember who makes the rain. The Canaanite god, Baal, was thought to be the giver of rain. If it was dry, Baal was dead. If it rained, he was alive. But Elijah’s prophesy points out that it is the Lord God who is the giver of life. So now we have a situation where people are going to be tightening their belts and have less to give to the widow, whom God has commanded them to remember. We have a prophet who has angered a king who is clearly refusing to acknowledge the Lord as God (and the only God).

            Finally, the widow has a plan for how she and her son will die and here comes a prophet of the Lord, distinguished in some way that lets her know that he’s a holy man, who wants some of her last bits of food. Now, the widow is from the same region (Sidon) as Jezebel, so she is likely to be a worshiper of Baal. Yet she speaks to Elijah with the words he spoke to Ahab, “As the Lord your God lives…” Her circumstances are overwhelming and horrifying. If we were reading to this point in a newspaper article, woman struggling to make ends meet in bad times is confronted by a man who claims to speak for God who tells her to feed him… Who would root for her? Who would blame her if she closed the door on him? Who would say she should absolutely make him some food? Who would say, “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle” and expect her to bake that bread?

            Elijah promises her that she and her son will have enough food, throughout the drought, if she helps him. And so she did. Hooray! Faithful action pays off! It’s a heart-warming page 2 story!

            But not so fast, remember earlier in the story when the ravens feed Elijah? We’re all familiar with ravens- eating out of dumpsters and what’s been hit in the street. Who here would eat meat and bread brought to them by a raven? Even more so, in ancient Israel, ravens are nasty, unclean birds. You don’t eat scavengers, yet they are what God sends to keep Elijah alive. The unexpected birds are how God provides for the prophet.

Similarly, the widow, with all of the circumstances piled against her, should not be expected to provide for a prophet. There are better-favored people to do that, yet God’s provision for her allows her to have an expected role as a sustainer, as a provider, as a person whom God has not forgotten. The God she does not worship has not failed to provide for her and, furthermore, has not forgotten use her to the hope of others and for the hope of creation.

This is what it means to be a saint. It’s not about having great stories written about you or having powerful visions or heroic actions. It’s about faithful action, in spite of what else is happening, and it is about being the hope in God of the people around us. The people whose lives we remember today and the lives that the Spirit is shaping today are exactly this… lives that remember the people around them, lives that are structured by small, unseen remembrances, gifts, and help.

Sometimes we do have more than we can handle on our own. Sometimes life does pile up. It is not merely by our own determination that we survive, but by the help and support of others- who bring us bread, words of hope, silent companionship, refills of oil for our jars. This is what sainthood looks like… un-haloed, but still hallowed, unsung, but still a song, unremarked, but still remarkable.

It is work that happens through family and friends AND through outsiders and rejects (in this story, widows and ravens). This is how the Spirit moves-from all directions, expected and unexpected. This is how God reminds us who is in charge. This is how saints are made, how creation is renewed, and how Christ continues to make resurrection happen out of death in this life.

A famous theologian once said, “You should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” In one hand, I have stories of droughts and floods, wars and struggles between ruling parties, unexpected deaths, people struggling to make ends meet, and people longing for justice… and is that the newspaper or the Bible?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Either way, the Holy Spirit is in these stories, breathing from the edges and from the middle, encouraging people (and sometimes animals) to actions that save and preserve life. It’s not the headline news, but it must be remembered. God is in charge, no matter what else happens, and, with that eternal truth, comes this corollary: the Spirit is still making saints. 

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