Go now to Zarephath

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

Where was Elijah when God told him to go to Zarephath?  I looked it up.  Elijah was out in the desert east of the Jordan River. Zarephath was a long way west of there on the Mediterranean coast. Elijah was hiding in a wadi. That is a kind of a creek bed that you get in the desert, which usually has dug down into the ground in sort of a canyon or ravine. A lot of times the creek is dried up, sometimes water is only in the wadi when a rainstorm causes a flash flood. Other times there is a creek at the bottom that flows, but might dry up in a drought.  Desert dwellers know that water gathers in these wadis, and even when there is no flowing water, sometimes you can dig down and discover some water in the moist underground soil. Elijah had predicted a three year drought when he confronted King Ahab, and he had been on the run from him ever since.  The thing is, the drought was real, so real that the wadi that gave him shelter and water dried up completely. So, though he had been guided to that wadi by God, Elijah had to listen to a new word from God, adapt, and move to the new place, even though it was outside the Kingdom of Israel, among the pagans, the worshippers of Baal.

When he arrives at that village, there is that widow, gathering a little fuel for a meager cooking fire.  “Bring me water, and while you’re up, a little cake of bread too.” The woman didn’t question the appropriateness of his demands. Giving water to a traveller was basic hospitality, something that anyone in the region would do. But when he asked for bread, her response was to explain that she had nothing. Or rather, how she had nothing to give him. It is very important to listen to this conversation: “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal and a little oil in a jug. I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

“Eat it, and die. “ This woman had been driven to the point that every alternative for her, even nourishing food, led toward death. She could not see any way to life.  Elijah said to her, “Do not fear.” Remember, Elijah came to this village because he was out of water and food. The Lord sent him to another place, but that place had run out, even of water. Elijah, and the Lord take privation seriously. But our God and Elijah’s God is the God of life. When we eat, we eat for the sake of life, not for the sake of death.

Now, we should respect this woman. She had suffered much and she had lost much. We can’t say she should have known what to do. But the worst thing that she had lost, living there in Zarephath, a town right in the middle of the land of Baal, the rain god, living there in the midst of a long drought, the thing that she had lost was the path to life. Even the meal that was supposed to nourish her had become a way station on the way to death. But the man of God, who knew about privation, and who knew that you need food and water to live, also knew the word of life for her. “Do not be afraid. Do as you have said, but first…”  But first, extend hospitality; welcome your guest; give away your fear and accept life.

The miracle is not just some random magic act. The flour and the oil lasted as a token of God’s presence, of the gift of life in the real world. The widow had been wrapped in fear, and it’s not that there was nothing to fear but the God of life was with her and brought her through. It was not then easy street, she was still impoverished, she still had barely enough to get by, but she got by, because the God of life was with her and gave her hope.

It is the same with that other widow this morning. Jesus didn’t do anything but watch her and explain. Most people, when they experience a lack of something they need, get worried, and then they decide to hold on—“I’ve got to take care of myself first, and not do anything for others until I’m taken care of.” How many times have you heard that said, or thought it yourself? That’s fear, and it cuts off our connections with others, and it lessens our life, our vitality. The widow put her two cents into the treasury. Jesus didn’t feel sorry for her. He said she gave all she had, all she had to live. And in giving that she gave away her fear, and gained life. So what do we do with this?  We could all double our tithes; that would help the church. You can check with our warden, I’m sure you can still update your pledge. But I think more to the point is to give away our fear and rejoice in the life that God has given us.

Jesus starts the Gospel reading by warning about those ecclesiastical types who look for honor and attention, with their long robes who say long prayers. Seeking comfort for themselves they devour widows’ houses. Jesus is saying, don’t follow that way of self-concern, it is wrapped in death. The real abundance is in the life of that nameless widow who gave away her fear and received the Kingdom of God in return.

Elijah stayed with that widow in Zarephath. They ate together, they were with one another when her son became sick and died, and the prophet prayed with all of his being to God, and the child was restored to life. They had enough, barely enough, throughout that drought, and then God called Elijah to return to Israel. To preach the truth, and God brought rain and restored life to the earth.

Let us pray:

O god, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life; Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he his pure; that , when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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