I may have already told you the story of my time at the Pasadena YMCA. It wasn’t the most pleasant of times, and it was the one time in my life when I wasn’t always sure where my next meal would come from. I did lose weight on my "one-meal-a-day" diet, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Still there never was a point in my life where I thought I was really in danger of starving to death, and my experience was nothing compared to what so many in the world go through every day.
Back when I was a kid, moms and dads would prod us to eat our spinach or lima beans, or maybe the brussels sprouts, by telling us that starving children living in China or Africa who’d love to eat that wonderful vegetable sitting untouched on our plates and growing ever colder by the minute. Like most children, I would say: "Then let them have it!" I mean, if they wanted it, they could have it. I might feel sorry for them, but that wasn’t going to get me to eat the benighted vegetable.
The idea that we could be facing our last supper, after which death is likely, is simply beyond comprehension for most of us.
Each Sunday we pray to God: "Give us this day our daily bread." It’s a nice prayer, really, but do we really take it all that seriously? I know where my bread comes from – the grocery store – and yet I pray that prayer faithfully.
When the Widow of Zarephath went to town to gather sticks so she could bake a bit of bread, she did so knowing that this would likely be her last trip. There simply wasn’t anything left beyond the morsel of flower and oil that would provide one last supper, and then she and her son would face a lingering death from starvation. It might take a few days, but that’s what would happen next. She really had no other option. She was a widow in an age before Social Security, and without family she didn’t have a safety net to depend on. Of course every day around the world, women and children and the elderly, die, simply because there’s nothing more to eat.
A Gift of Hospitality
Have you every walked past a person with a sign saying? "I’m hungry, please help me!" Like me you probably pass by and you’ve done it hundreds of times. You may feel guilty, but you don’t give anything to them. Now there are reasons why it’s often not a good idea to give money to panhandlers, but there are other ways to help.
As the widow gathered her sticks, Elijah wandered into town. Zarephath was a village near Sidon, and its people didn’t worship Yahweh. But, for some reason Elijah heard God saying: "Go to Zarephath and stay there." He went up to the woman and asked for some water, and then he asked her for a meal. That wouldn’t be easy, since she didn’t have enough to eat herself, but Elijah told her not to worry, God would provide. What would you do if someone said that to you?
Now there’s a back story to this, because there’s another woman from Sidon in Elijah’s life. Her name is Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, the king of Israel. Jezebel and Elijah don’t like each other and she tries to make his life miserable, even to the point of death. The problem started when Elijah told the people that this drought they were experiencing was a sign of God’s displeasure at Jezebel’s introduction of Ba’al worship to Israel.
So we have two women, in our story, but only one shows hospitality to Elijah. And she, unlike Jezebel, is virtuous, even though she’s poor. For some reason, even though she doesn’t worship Elijah’s God, she believes him and she invites him home and gives him a meal, even if it might be their last supper. The widow understands hospitality, and in this story she’s rewarded – not with a new refrigerator full of succulent delights, but with a jar of flour and a jar of oil that never seem to run dry.
Sharing the Blessings
Hospitality is a virtue of this congregation. You’re always generous in your giving, and food is always being brought her to give to others. You make lunches every month for homeless families, and every holiday you bring in boxes of food and gifts for those who are in need. So I feel like I’m preaching to the choir, but there’s more to be done. Despite your generosity there are 25 million Americans, more than 36% of whom are under the age of eighteen, who require the assistance of the nation’s food banks. When we think of hunger, we think of Africa or Asia, but hunger is here in America as well. And hunger is especially devastating to a young child.
So, what does this story have to say to us? We might think, how rude of Elijah to barge in and ask the widow to share her last meal with him. You might even think Elijah was a bit of a chauvinist for asking her to get him a cup of water. We could celebrate an apparent miracle.
Or we could hear this as a call to being part of God’s miracle. This widow acted on faith and provided a meal for someone who wasn’t part of her family, her community, her nation, or even of her religion. She was and is an exemplar of hospitality. One way we can follow her example is to take up the cause of hunger and poverty in our nation and in the world at large. Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, is calling on the world to cut poverty in half by 2050. It’s doable, but it will take courage on the part of our political leaders to get this accomplished.
At least one presidential candidate is talking a lot about poverty and he’s suggested a number of solutions. Others are also talking about it, but they need our support. They need to hear from us. That’s why Jim Wallis of Sojourners has launched a campaign to "Vote Out Poverty." If you go to their website or write a letter you can send a message to all the candidates, of both parties, tell them you want them to make poverty a priority. I did it the other day, and I’ve gotten responses back from several of the candidates.
Martin Luther King said:
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
Each of us has the opportunity to hold our nation accountable for the most vulnerable of our people. And the widow of Zarephath, by her example, calls us to be part of the solution, through our gifts to the Food Bank and by calling on our leaders to attend to the needs of the poor among us.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 10, 2007