Monday, October 31, 2016

God Comes Through

          Visitors attended our church today. They were the parents of a guest musician playing in worship. They were nice folks; members of another denomination and I knew that they were not accustomed to our style of worship or seeing a woman minister. After worship the gentleman pulled me to the side and told me that I gave a fine "presentation." I smiled, nodded and thanked him, but inside I was seething. You might wonder why the man's use of this word was a problem for me. It isn't like he swore at me or insulted my sermon. He gave me a compliment, and I know he meant it sincerely. But here's the thing; I have given presentations. I have lectured in classrooms. I have offered informal talks, and I have led groups in discussions. But when I'm in the pulpit, I am a preacher. I preach. I did not give a presentation today, I preached. I proclaimed the gospel to the best of my ability. Sometimes my sermons are spot on and sometimes they are not, but good or bad they are not presentations, they are sermons. When I am in the pulpit, I preach.

          While the man's words were not meant unkindly, they were still frustrating because behind those words is the assumption that the gospel in the hands of a woman is a defilement. There is still the belief that someone of my gender interpreting scripture is an offense to God. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result, than I must be certifiable, because I feel as though I have been beating my head against this same wall of disapproval and closed-mindedness for 21 years. Quite frankly, I'm exhausted. Yet maybe when it comes to changing people's minds and hearts you need to be driven by a persistence that borders on the insane. The prophets we read about in scripture, including Elijah who is one of the subjects of the following sermon, must have been more than a little odd. After all they were the bearers of the Word of the Lord, and the Word of the Lord tends to upend and overturn all human expectations of justice and righteousness. They were flies in the faces of those who refused justice and mercy to others, and they were thorns in the sides of those who would not turn back to the ways of God. I'm not a prophet, but I am a preacher. And I'm just going to keep preaching, persistently pushing against that wall of prejudice until it cracks. Now for the sermon...

I Kings 17:1-24
October 30, 2016

            The word “cliffhanger” is attributed to a novel, “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” by Thomas Hardy. In the novel, one of Hardy’s characters, Thomas Knight, is left literally hanging by a cliff, hoping for rescue. Knight is not left on that cliff indefinitely. From what I understand, he was rescued eventually. But Hardy, like other authors of the time, released their novels chapter by chapter as serials in magazines. Readers of the London magazine that “A Pair of Blue Eyes” was published in must have read up to this moment in the story, this moment when Knight was hanging on to a cliff for dear life, and then had to wait for the next installment to find out what happened next.
            Whether Hardy was the first to employ such a dramatic plot technique, a technique designed to increase suspense concerning the possible outcome of a situation, I do not know. But I do know that cliffhangers are used on a regular basis in television shows. Usually they happen at the end of a season. Remember the television show, “Dallas?” Who shot J.R.? That was a cliffhanger of epic proportions. I was in high school when that television show was popular, and that cliffhanger kept us going all summer long; a summer that included a writer’s strike. People wore t-shirts proclaiming the question, “Who Shot J.R.?” It was not until the fourth episode of the next season that we finally found out who the shooter was. When the episode revealing the identity of the shooter was to premier, I watched it with friends and a whole lot of other people at Mr. Gatty’s – that was a local pizza parlor in Nashville. I’ll never forget the crowd’s audible response of shock and awe when we finally found out who shot J.R.  By the way, it was Kristen, his sister-in-law and girlfriend, who was supposedly carrying his child which is why J.R. did not press charges against her. I digress.
            The point is that cliffhangers keep us in suspense. They keep us waiting eagerly for the next episode, or next chapter, or the next movie. What will happen next? How will this dilemma resolve itself? Who shot J.R.?
            If Hollywood were to get hold this seventeenth chapter in I Kings, some wily scriptwriter or producer might be tempted to turn this into a series of cliffhangers. There are three significant events in this chapter that concern the prophet Elijah, King Ahab, and a widow and her son.
            At the end of chapter 16, we read that King Ahab married Jezebel and together they worshipped Baal. According to commentators, historical resources record that Ahab was one of the most successful kings as far as wealth and power were concerned. However, scripture records that he was one of the most wicked kings to reign over Israel.
            At the beginning of our chapter, Elijah the Tishbite, a prophet of God, confronted King Ahab for his apostasy, his worship of a false god. Elijah said to Ahab,
            “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
            You don’t generally speak words like to this to a king and then get invited to dinner. I imagine that Elijah was not only unwelcome in Ahab’s presence, but he was most likely scared for his life. After he spoke the word of the Lord to Ahab, God spoke to him again. God told Elijah to go east, and hide himself by the Wadi Cherith. God promised Elijah that he would be able to drink from the wadi and that ravens would bring him food.
            Elijah obeyed. He hid at the wadi, and he drank from the wadi. Ravens brought him food: bread in the morning and meat in the evening. But the land was in a drought, so the wadi dried up. Cliffhanger number 1; what will happen next?
            God spoke to Elijah again, telling him to go to a widow in Zarephath. God has commanded the widow to feed Elijah. Elijah obeyed. He journeyed to Zarephath, and he found this widow gathering sticks. He told her to bring him some water. As she was bringing him the water, he also told her to give him the morsel of bread in her hand. God told Elijah that the widow would feed him, but it doesn’t seem that the widow has gotten the same message.
            She told Elijah that she had no bread baked. She only had a handful of meal in a jar at home, and just a small bit of oil in a jug. She told Elijah that she was going home to prepare this last bit of food for her and her son; a last meal as they prepared to die.
            Elijah said to the widow,
            “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. 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 the Lord sends rain on the earth.’”
            Just as Elijah obeyed God’s word, so did the woman obey the word of God she received through the prophet. As God came through for Elijah with the water from the wadi and the ravens, so did God come through for the widow and her son. The jar of meal did not empty. The jug of oil did not run dry. All seemed well. In literary terms this could have been the happy ending. But here is the second cliffhanger. The widow’s son died.
            Surely the widow was angry. She was heartbroken. She and her son were living in the shadow of death when they faced starvation. But with the coming of God’s prophet, that shadow was lifted. Yet here she was, living in that shadow again. Not only would the widow have been keening for her child, her only child, she would have been terrified at her future prospects. Without a husband, without a son, she had no protection. There was no one who would claim her or care for her. As Elijah confronted Ahab, she confronted Elijah. What have you got against me, you man of God? Why did you come to me? So any sin I had would be brought up? So my son would die?
            Elijah took her son and went upstairs to his own room. He put the widow’s son on the bed and he cried out to God.
            “O Lord, my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”
            Elijah stretched his own body across the boy’s lifeless one three times. He prayed for God to let the boy live again. God heard Elijah and God answered Elijah’s pleas. The boy lived again. Elijah gave him back to his mother.
            God came through. If this were a movie, this would be the happy ending. All the cliffhangers would have been resolved. All the characters were in better circumstances than when they started. However, while cliffhangers are great in television shows and books and movies, real life doesn’t work that way. The truth is that Elijah and this widow and her child were not characters in someone else’s story. They were people trying to be faithful. They were people living difficult lives in difficult circumstances. In other words, they were like us. They suffered and they struggled just as we do. We wonder and worry about the unknown; what will come next; how we will get through whatever challenge we are facing. The widow must have experienced this anxiety, this worry. Perhaps Elijah did as well. One scholar wrote that Elijah lived on the edge of trust. He trusted God even when it seemed that God’s promised help ran as dry as the wadi he drank from. Yet Elijah trusted God more than he worried. He trusted and God came through. The widow also trusted. She trusted the word of God she received from Elijah, and God came through. Even in her grief and anger over her son’s death, her turning to Elijah was a sign of her trust. She called him a man of God. Although she was accusing him, there is still a sense that she trusted that Elijah was a man of God indeed. Her trust in Elijah was also trust in God. God came through.
            I realize that oversimplifying these stories is problematic. The drought was attributed to God. The widow’s potential starvation was a result of that drought. Did God cause suffering so God could come through? Does God cause suffering? This widow got her son back; what about those parents who do not? What about the thousands of people in our world who will die from hunger by the time our worship is finished? Does that mean that God did not come through for them?
            These questions are bigger than I can answer – in this sermon and maybe ever. Yet I am not one who believes that God causes suffering. I am one who believes that God comes through. However, reading this chapter again makes me wonder if I really do believe that God will come through. It makes me question how much I trust. I also realized that I approach my daily life from the standpoint of scarcity. Will there be enough? Enough money? Enough food? Enough resources? Enough time?
            Perhaps trusting God is also about trusting in God’s abundance. God’s love for God’s creation is not just abundant but overflowing. God’s grace and mercy is not just abundant, but extravagant. God’s willingness to be in relationship with us is not just abundant, but overwhelming to the point of being one of us. God approaches us with abundance. Yet too often, I approach God with a scarcity of trust and love and hope and faith. Still God comes through – in small ways and in large. God comes through abundantly, and perhaps as we trust more and more in God coming through, we will do more to come through for others – abundantly.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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