311 Third Avenue NE, Hickory NC, 28601 (828) 322-6058

Bread and Water

  • Sermon Details
  • Pastor Name: Wil Posey
  • Date & Time: June 5, 2016
  • Location: First Church, Hickory, NC

Whenever I meet someone new, like when we greet each other, I often ask, “So where are you from?” It seems like a nice, easy ice-breaker. Everyone’s from somewhere, unless you’re from Nowhere, OK. Then you just have an even more interesting ice-breaker!

But I ask people where they’re from, and they oblige my curiosity and me tell right where they’re from. Sometimes I have to just nod my head as if I have a clue, but what I’m really wondering is, “How can you be from Denver and only have grown up 30 miles from here? We’ve got to have a geography lesson.” Then I pull out a map and realize I happen to live just up the road from Denver and Dallas.

We invest a lot in where we’re from and how we got here. It has to do with job relocations, school, being new family, or you’ve grown up here your whole life and can’t imagine leaving. The hometown stories are your stories, and dots on a map are markers for our memory. Denver isn’t just your hometown; it’s the place your grandfather taught you to fish. Valdese isn’t just an intersection of roads where people pass through; it’s the city where you met your first love. Hickory isn’t just your place of residence from then until now and for who-knows-how-long; the soil under our feet is a meeting ground between you and God.

Today and the next 4 weeks we’re going to talk about Elijah.

Elijah's stompin groundsAs we do that I think it’s helpful to get our geography right before getting too far, so I’ve got a map that I want to show you on the screen. Now we’re just studying the map for a minute before we get in the car and go down the road. In the story we’re going to read this morning, you’ll meet Elijah, who is “the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead.” Elijah’s sudden appearance is as mysterious as the place he came from. The only trace the Tishbites left behind for the history books was this enigmatic prophet who emerged from east of the Jordan to speak truth to power.

The Jordan River is an important part of the biblical landscape. If you read enough of the Bible you know crossing over the Jordan River is never just about crossing a river. The Jordan is the gateway from slavery to freedom, from disease to healing, from the old way to the new way, from your past to God’s future.

So Elijah comes over the Jordan and confronts king Ahab of Israel, probably in Samaria, the capital of Israel. From there he heads back to the Wadi Cherith. Do you see it there…just below where it says “Tishbe”? From there Elijah will go north, north-west to a port-city called Zarephath. From there, he heads south to Mt. Carmel where sit in the stands of one of the most famous show downs in history, but that’ll have to wait for next week.

I mentioned King Ahab just a minute ago. He’s not directly in the story. But you have to know who he is because Ahab is to Elijah as Captain Hook is to Peter Pan. He’s the story’s most antagonizing antagonist; he’s the villain; the corrupt king; he’s violent, vindictive, totally clueless, and has no regard God. A dangerous combination that will not bode well for him or his country. He became king about 850 years before Jesus was born. This was during a period of time when Israel was divided into 2 kingdoms, the north called Israel and the south called Judah. You can see a chart of kings on the wall.

prophets and kingsBy the time Ahab took the throne in Israel, he and the whole people had traded worshipping the God who brought them out of slavery and gave them the Ten Commandments for bowing down to statues of animals who were less impressive and also less demanding. When they hung up with God, they also retired their care for the poor, the widow, and the orphans.

For that reason, Elijah came from Tishbe to Samaria to warn Ahab that he and his country were headed over a cliff and at the bottom is a 3-year drought. Elijah makes his speech, drops the mic and retreats to the Wadi Cherith, near where he grew up in Tishbe. While he’s there God provides for him by sending ravens to bring him food every morning and evening, until one day the food stops coming and the water dries up because of the drought… And that’s where we pick up today:

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, 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.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” 19 But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20 He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22 The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” 24 So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

1 Kings 17:8-24 (NRSV)

God says, “Go to Zarephath, where there is a widow I’ve commanded to feed you.” If I’m Elijah, I’m wondering what God was thinking. A widow in Zarephath is the last place I’d go to find relief during a drought. That old water hole in Cherith, that was a pretty good idea. And food delivery by ravens was a nice touch. But eventually the water ran dry, and the birds stopped coming back. Even Elijah isn’t immune the effects of the drought. In the Bible prophets aren’t outside agitators who come in for a weekend of demonstrations, chant some protest songs and then go back to the suburbs. The prophet is part of the community. He had some skin in the game, which means even as he’s calling out the king and the people, he also shares in the suffering. For Elijah, the water dried up and the food ran out, but God has a plan, just maybe not the plan Elijah was looking for: a widow in Zarephath.

She had 3 strikes against her: 1) she’s in Zarephath which belongs to Sidon…Sidon is the land of heathen idol-worshippers, worse even than Franklin Street. This is the homeland of Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife. Now if Ahab’s Captain Hook, Jezebel’s Cruella Devil. Meanness is in her nature. You’ll hear more about her in the weeks to come. When Ahab married her, he also got into bed with her people’s popular false-god named Ba’al and even built temple in Israel for his new god-in-law. A move which promptly ensured that he’d forever be remembered in the Bible as the king who “did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” So Sidon: Land of Ba’al, the Corruptor of Israel. That’s strike 1.

2) she’s a widow…This is a person who’s slipped off the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder and depends almost entirely on the charity of others. People take care of her, not the other way around.

When Elijah makes it to the city gate at Zarephath, he meets the widow he presumed God said would feed him, and he finds her gathering sticks so she can cook a last meal for herself and her son, so they can eat it and die.

Looks like Elijah had struck out.

A god-less, hopeless place like that isn’t where a prophet goes to get fed; that’s where he goes to work, right? The house of widow in Zarephath…that’s the kind of place you’re supposed take a summer mission trip. You load up the van, pack the tools, bring your Bible, maybe some second-hand clothes and enough groceries to stock the pantry. This lady needs help, and these people need God! And by golly we can bring both.

Anyone with any sense would know this widow wasn’t going to be able to feed him, but Elijah never balks. He sticks to the plan. He asks for water, and as she goes to bring it, he asks for bread too. If this was the widow God had commanded to feed Elijah, no one seems to have let her in on it. With not much else to lose, she baked some bread for Elijah, then for herself and her son. And the next day she was able to do the same. And the next day, and the next day. What looked like a last meal turned into the first of many.

One way to look at this story is to see Elijah as the hero prophet who comes to town and saves the day. But that’s not quite how it happens. God makes this woman the hero in her own story, and Elijah’s too.

See, sometimes we look at people in poverty—like the widow of Zarephath—and imagine them as problems to be solved. And we are the ones to solve them. We believe poverty lack of things—money, food, clothing, shelter— and we’re able to give them the things they need to be completed. That’s a narrow view of poverty, and it’s dangerous too because it turns people into problems to be solved and gives those who do the solving a paternalistic god-complex.

But poverty is about more than a lack of stuff.[i] For instance, at the gate of the city, we quickly see that the widow does lack some basic resources. She also lacked a system of social support—that is, people who cared for her and whom she could care for in return. She lacked knowledge and a relationship with God. And her sense of self-dignity had been lost to despair.

Here’s what’s important: at the gate of the city, we see that Elijah is in poverty too. Like the widow he lacked the food and water needed to live…she at least had something; he had nothing. He also lacked a community of support. He was completely alone, a fugitive even from his own people.

At the gate of Zarephath we find that both Elijah and the widow are in poverty and are in need of saving. Their salvation comes from God for each other.

God uses what each of them brings to the table. The widow brings her determination, working all the way to and through her last bit of meal and oil; she brings her love for her child; a home to shelter her family and Elijah; resourcefulness and ability to cook; and willingness to sacrificially serve another person. Elijah brings his daring faith and confidence in God; his concern that the woman and her son be able to eat too; and he shows a confidence in the woman and God’s ability to work through her that she didn’t see in herself. And when they bring all that to the table, God works a miracle.

We’re all in poverty. Not just the people without homes, or the persons who’ve lost a spouse, or families who are struggling to make ends meet. All of us experience poverty—whether as a lack of resources, life-giving relationships, self-worth, or lack of connection with God. Overcoming poverty, like what happened with Elijah and the widow at Zarephath, is about embracing mutual brokenness, and understanding that people in poverty are not problems to be solved, but people to be with.  And together we are then able to say, “You are not ok; I am not ok. God can save us both.”

For Elijah, in the midst of a drought, during matters of life or death, the question is not “What does God want me to do?” but “Where does God want me to be?” And “Who does God want me to be with?”

Throughout the Bible, and especially in this story, we’re reminded that God wants God’s people to be with widows, orphans, and the poor—with the most vulnerable in our communities. When we first go to the people and places God sends us, and listen and learn to be with one another, what to do becomes increasingly clear.

3 years ago our church answered God’s calling to be with the students and families and teachers of Southwest Elementary School, a school with a high rate of poverty in the full sense of the word—lack of resources, very little social support for families and family support for students, and too many students lacking a sense of self-worth. Here’s a small story of people coming to the table—with whatever they have, and also what they lack. Jenny White, the principal of Southwest Elementary, told us this story about a mother and her two children coming to the school office. She overheard the mother tell her children that this year they had to choose between either having a yearbook, or participating in the school’s Color Run. They couldn’t afford both.

Our church had just given money to the school to sponsor families for the run, so Jenny asked the mom, saying: “If I come up with $25 for you, can you come up with the $15 for your children?” The mother said she could, so here’s what happened: We, the church, brought to the table what we had—a love for children, the desire to support families, and financial assistance. The mother brought what she had—love for her children, resourcefulness, and what little money she had. And we also each brought what we lacked—whether that was money, a community, a sense of self-worth. Because of all that, this family was able to participate in the Color Run, which meant a lot more than just jogging around a track. It was about creating a community for families who didn’t have one; it was about empowering parents; it was about opening a window for fun to enter the stuffy room where poverty once held sway; and it was about all of us—church, school, kids, parents—getting a taste, together, of the fullness of life that we couldn’t have had apart from one another.

Where does God want you to be? Who does God want you to be with? A good place to begin is with the widows, orphans, and the poor…where together we embrace our mutual poverty and find salvation from God.

 

 

 

[i] Poverty alleviation is about “moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.” Alleviating material poverty—i.e., a lack of stuff—is about healing those four relationships so a person can glorify God “by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.”[i] Poverty alleviation is about “embracing our mutual brokenness.” “The goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness.” The god-complexes of the materially wealthy lead us to go on short-term mission trips where we can fix poor people by building them buildings, giving them stuff, teaching them things, and giving them Jesus—all things they lacked before we brought them. This turns the poor into objects that we use to meet our need for fulfillment. Middle-to-upper class North Americans are a group characterized by high rates of divorce, substance abuse, sexual addiction, and mental illness. (Corbett and Finkert, When Helping Hurts, 61, 74).

 

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