1 Kings 17:8-24
8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying,
9 "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."
(1Ki 17:8-24 NRS)
Depletion. Anxiety. Emotional exhaustion. Spiritual hunger. PTSD. Loneliness. Depression. Brokenness. Stressed and overworked. Burnt out. At one point or another in our lives, many of us have been there. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 28.8 percent of the US population will have suffered from one sort of anxiety disorder or another at some point during their lifetime. Whether PTSD, OCD, depression, or other kinds of depletion or anxiety disorders, there’s a good chance that one in three folks here in worship today has experienced or will experience some form of extreme discomfort and disorder due to anxiety. We and our families know what it is to live with such stresses and anxieties, the emotional discomfort, folks sometimes self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, the fights, the exhaustion, the trauma. It is all very real stuff. When you compound the emotional stress and discomfort with economic misfortune, the picture looks even worse. Then, one finds oneself not only in extreme pain, but also trapped, lost, with seemingly no way out.
This is the setting for the story of Elijah and the widow in 1 Kings 17. Elijah is on a long journey here. He starts out, prior to the verses we read, at a small Wadi, or creek, East of the Jordan river. He is being sustained in a time of famine by drinking from the creek and having ravens bring him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat again in the evening. He’s on the verge of hunger. And ravens, well, we all know what kinds of meat they’re into. So the LORD is sustaining Elijah, but with road kill and morsels of bread that the ravens bring. And then the Wadi dries up and the Lord tells Elijah to move on and travel to a widow at Zeraphath, whom the Lord tells Elijah he has commanded to feed him. It is quite some distance, probably several days journey by foot. And what does Elijah find when he gets there? A poor widow who is out gathering some sticks so she can go home and make up a small cake from her last handful of meal and last little bit of oil—and then basically die. This is the perfect picture of depletion, isn’t it? If you’ve been there, you know how this feels. You want to give; you want to serve, but there’s nothing left inside. All of your emotional energy has been taken from you and you have no reserves. You have only enough maybe for the rest of the day—and you don’t know how you’ll go on without any more.
But with all the confidence of a man fed by ravens, Elijah tells the widow to knead her dough and make her bread and bring it to him. And, alas, a miracle occurs. She is able to make not only a small cake for Elijah, but enough for her, and her son, enough that they can all eat for several days. The jar of meal never empties and the jug of oil never empties, until, someday, rain will fall again on the earth.
But then, again, as is so often true in our lives, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son dies. In biblical times, even more so than in ours, this is a double tragedy. Not only does this woman not have a man to care for her, to stake her claim in court, to provide financially, something she would have struggled to do as a woman in ancient society, she also now has no son to fend for her. The emotional and spiritual loss she experiences is now doubled by her increased economic and social marginalization. Her situation is hopeless--in spite of the ever-filling jars of meal and oil. And she has this strange man, the prophet Elijah, whom she isn’t entirely sure about, either. So she does what any of us would do. She screams. She takes her anger out on the closest person.
"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!"
This is a scream of accusation. As so many of us do, she is searching for answers to her pain, an explanation for her loss. And the answer she comes up with is one that too many of us may share. She feels like she must have done something wrong in her past and now God has sent this strange man of God to bring about the death of her son as punishment. As a minister I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard words like these come out of the mouths of people who are undergoing extreme loss and pain. So many times I’ve heard the words, “what have I done that God has punished me? What have I done that God has taken my child away from me? What have we done that God has prevented us from having children? What have I done that God has given me this disability, or placed me in this hardship or another? We scream at God. We scream at God’s prophets. We scream at one another. Hell, we may even howl at the moon! But look at what happens in the story. Elijah, he takes the child, and carries him up to his bedroom and places him on his own bed, and now Elijah himself screams at God. “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Elijah too joins in the scream and, worse even, he makes it all about himself. Maybe it is his fault as a man of God. Maybe there is something flawed about him as a prophet. Elijah may believe that is the case, that he has failed as a prophet and the God has it out for him. What he can’t understand is why God would choose to take it out on the poor widow. Why cause her additional unnecessary pain, if it is something he has done? Or maybe he is just so self-absorbed…
Pain. Pain. Loneliness and despair. That is what it means to be human, at least partially, is it not? But screaming at God, that’s OK. Even if we get it wrong, even if we ascribe to God punishment and judgment that God did not intend or enact, God is there for us to listen to. There is nothing wrong with finding expression for our pain in such screams. In the past year during our chapel worship services at Pfeiffer on Wednesday morning, we have been joined by a large group of mentally disabled folks from Monarch and GHA in Albemarle. It has been a profound experience to worship with these folks week after week. One of the most powerful parts of the service is when we do prayers for the people and the microphone ends up in the hands of one of the mentally disabled persons, a woman who cannot speak, at least not in the way that one would normally understand as articulate speech. She gets the microphone and her prayer is basically inarticulate, heartfelt brokenness, wailing, really, just wailing and sobbing. Her prayer is so deep and real. What’s profound and powerful is that she is so willing to make herself vulnerable. This woman who knows so little, at least on a cognitive level, is teaching me a great deal about prayer. True deep prayer is trusting, in your heart, as inarticulate and broken as it may be, that God will listen. I know God hears such prayers.
And God hears the prayers of Elijah and the widow as well. Her son is miraculously revived. You see, there is hope for us when we are depleted. We simply need to cooperate, to work with God, and God will be with us. God will provide us never-depleted jars of meal and jugs of oil. God will heal us when we face times of loss and brokenness.
One of the amazing things this text teaches us is about the participatory nature of God’s grace. Even before she knows that the jar of meal will be replenished, the widow does knead that dough with water and oil and makes a cake. In spite of her worries and concerns that there is nothing left, she physically uses her hands to engage in the practice of hospitality towards this strange man of God. You see, sometimes, when it seems there is nothing left, that is the best thing to do, just to engage in the practices with which you are familiar. I’m reminded of a story a pastor told me about an elderly couple in his church. One morning, very early in the morning, the man woke up with terrible chest pains, and flush, sweaty, all the symptoms of a heart attack. But before going to the hospital, the wife insisted that she make him a full breakfast of ham, eggs, toast, and coffee, like she did every morning. She couldn’t conceive of her husband going to the hospital for a full day of procedures without first getting a solid breakfast. Now, don’t worry, he made it there on time to receive proper treatment and survive. The point of this story, of course, is not that it is OK to delay seeking treatment when you are having a heart attack---no, go immediately. The point is that she had to engage at least in the physical practice of meal preparation in response to this crisis. Sometimes that’s all we can do, right? In times of stress and chaos, we attend to basic practices and needs.
Jean Vanier points out that one important practice of love is communication. Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, an international movement that has established dozens of communities in which more abled people share a spiritual and everyday life with people who have severe mental and physical disabilities. In many cases, such homes are places for children who, because of their disabilities, have been discarded by society or their families. Communication for Vanier is at the heart of love. He says, “Children who are quite disturbed need to have someone help them name where their disturbance is coming from. When nothing is named, confusion grows and with it comes anguish. To name something is to bring it out of chaos, out of confusion, and to render it understandable.” Thinking about the disabled person who prays in our chapel service at Pfeiffer, her prayers may be inarticulate, but she is naming her pain, she is bringing it out of chaos. In a very deep way, she is rendering it understandable. One deep thing that Vanier shares is that the process of teaching and communication “involves movement, back and forth: the one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly change places.” So when working with the disabled in his communities, Vanier claims that the communication goes back and forth. Just as I the university professor have much to say about the Bible, when I listen to the inarticulate mourning of the deeply disabled girl in chapel, I learn something, something quite deep about my own vulnerabilities. Another profound truth that Vanier shares is that such learning comes not only from the intellect, but also from the body, that we need to listen to our bodies, our own intuition, our own hearts. This is what I think Elijah was doing when he lay upon the widow’s son three times. He was connecting deeply with something physical, something profoundly vulnerable, a broken child. He was learning much about love—and that learning yielded resuscitation and renewal. For some of you who have been caregivers, helping for example your parents when they were most physically helpless, when they needed someone to bathe them or change their diapers… I suspect that is something deeply profound, where you encountered not only their vulnerabilities, but your own, moments when you may have learned what it means to be truly human. This I think is what Elijah is doing. Yes, we do face emotional exhaustion. Depletion--yes, there may be times when we see that all is lost. But we can participate in God’s grace through our own physicality, maybe by providing love through a physical act of touch to one who is most helpless, maybe by providing a meal for someone who is in great distress. These are all practices in which we can not only share God’s grace to one who is broken, but through participation in them, experience God’s grace, when we ourselves are feeling most depleted. Are you ready to make a meal today? Do you know someone who is broken and needs a hug? Be not only agents of God’s grace, let us experience God’s renewal by engaging in practices of hospitality and love.