What follows is my sermon from the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Grace and peace, everyone.
“What does God provide?”
1 Kings 17: 1-16
Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott
September 19th, 2010
John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and the editor of the Christian Century wrote once that “every now and then I read a book for the simple reason that everyone else is reading it. After all, a faithful preacher needs to exegete the culture and the congregation as well as the lectionary texts.” Working on this theory, Buchanan picked up a copy of the popular TV evangelist Joel Osteen’s book called Your Best Life Now. Of Osteen’s book Buchanan writes, “I had trouble with the initial pages and had to put the book down after two chapters.” “Enlarge your vision,” Osteen urges in his book. “If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you…God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, creativity.” As Buchanan read these words he said he kept thinking about all the people he knows who face challenges that do not and will not respond to such an “enlarged vision”.
I too, have trouble with such simple, formulaic, and one-size-fits-all theology as Osteen’s. It may sound good, but it doesn’t hold up in the real world. I cannot stand up here and preach that if you have faith or if you “enlarge your vision” then God will provide you with health, happiness, and financial abundance. I cannot preach this because I know and you know that this simply isn’t true and it simply isn’t how life works. Osteen’s theology ignores the plight of good faithful people who have lost their jobs, of good faithful people who have suffered tragedy and loss, of good faithful people who are suffering with interminable health issues, of good faithful people who no matter what they do, or no matter how hard they work cannot escape the cycle of poverty. Bad things happen to good people. We do have to suffer through things that we can’t explain. And no one can easily explain away such sufferings through a simple formula of faith.
A commentary I recently read warned against preaching such a simple, formulaic sermon on today’s text from 1 Kings. An obvious sermon theme from this text is simply that “God provides.” When Elijah, the widow, and her son were in need in the midst of a terrible drought, God provided them with food and water. But, as this commentary warned, preaching the obvious point often reduces a text and runs the risk of making a wrong point. For instance, we cannot reduce this story of Elijah and the poor widow to the assurance of God’s provision. The text does not speak of God providing unconditionally, or in all cases. Here, God provides in one instance, to one prophet, a widow and her son. The ravages of drought are not abated beyond the provisions for these three. We can presume that many others suffer the full weight of the drought, and among them may well be widows and children.
After reflecting on this commentary’s warning, I decided to focus my sermon not on the simple assurance that “God provides”, but on the more practical question of “What does God provide?” With this question I believe we can return safely to our text without the risk of reducing it to a simple formula and take something away that we can all apply to our lives of faith.
So what does God provide? Well, let’s see what the text has to say. In the midst of a terrible drought, our story begins with God sending Elijah eastward to a brook named Cherith. God tells Elijah that he should stay there drinking from the brook and being fed from the ravens. But, after a while, the brook dries up and Elijah is once again threatened by the drought. So God sends him to a poor widow in Zarephath who will continue to provide him with food and water.
Today’s text, then, does not deny the difficulties or the struggles of life. We know there are times of drought in life. We know that the brooks by which we plant ourselves or on which we learn to rely sometimes suddenly dry up. But, according to our text, when these difficult times arrive, God does seem to provide ways to persevere. God provides ways to persevere through guidance and direction. God leads us to new sources of life or new resources for help. The trick is, though, that we need to be open to where God is leading us. Because sometimes God guides us to sources of life and help that are completely unexpected.
The widow to whom God guides Elijah would be completely unexpected. In the fight for survival during a time of drought, this widow would have been in worse shape than Elijah. In a time of national crisis, her needs (as a widow) would be considered last, especially under the regime of arrogant King Ahab. When Elijah shows up and asks this poor widow for a drink, she is in the process of gathering sticks to warm a last supper for herself and her son. The widow wants to be hospitable, but when Elijah asks for bread to go with the water, it’s too much. She tells him that she’s gathering wood to bake the handful of meal and bit of oil that’s left for herself and her son, and that they will eat this meal and await death.
This was who God expected to help Elijah? If we were Elijah, which one of us would have thought that this poor widow was the one to whom God was guiding us? But, as it turned out, she was the one with the resources. She was the one willing to take a risk, willing to trust in Elijah’s God, willing to try just about anything to get her through one more day. God provides us with guidance and direction, but we need to be open to the unexpected in order to follow where God is leading us.
This reminded me of a day when I was chased down by a cute little boy on roller blades as I was driving into our neighborhood. He was trying to raise money for his church’s mission trip. At the time, we were also in the midst of planning for a mission trip so I was very interested in hearing about what this boy and his church would be doing. I asked him where they were going and he said that they were going to a Native American reservation. Wonderful! I said. Then I asked him what they were going to do on the reservation. And the little boy responded, “We’re going to go teach the Indians about God.”
I admit at this point I had to bite my tongue because the preacher in me wanted to preach. I thought about all that I have learned and appreciate about Native American spirituality and I thought of the beautiful book of Native American prayers sitting on the shelf in my office and I wanted to ask this little boy, new in his own faith, how he knew that the Indians didn’t already know about God? But I didn’t. I held my tongue… until this sermon. Because it seemed pretty obvious that this boy was simply sharing what the adults in his life had taught him. I did give him some money, though, in the hopes that God might provide an unexpected moment through an unexpected person (such as a Native American) who might teach him something about God, and life, and faith.
The character of the widow in this text certainly is an unexpected provider for Elijah. She is also a woman of great faith. She is a woman of great faith who accepts God’s provision of a new vision. We need to recognize that this widow was resigned to her fate of death by starvation before Elijah came into the picture. But through Elijah God awoke her to a new vision for her future. God provided her with a new vision to see a hope for survival that she had not seen before. God provided her with the understanding that what she believed was inevitable, may not really be inevitable. God provided this widow with hope. And with this new hope kindled within her, she found a way to persevere, she found a way to carry on.
So God provides us with a way to persevere through hope and through a vision to see hope in situations and circumstances where there seems to be none. Such provisions enable us to carry on…to move ahead in life, day by day, and step by step, even under the most difficult of circumstances.
Heidi Neumark, the pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, writes that this poor widow of Zarephath bears witness to a death-defying hope. This widow’s story reminds her of the story of a woman in her congregation named Burnice.
Neumark writes, Burnice was a single mother who’d dropped out of school when her first baby came along. A series of men battered her, just as her alcoholic father had done. She sought relief in beer and crack, and ended up selling her body to get more. She moved to the Bronx to escape an abusive husband, but she couldn’t get away from drugs.
One day, after dropping off her children at school, Burnice came by Pastor Heidi’s office. She’d heard that they gave out Christmas gifts to children. Burnice’s plan was to pick up presents for her children and then sell the presents to buy enough drugs for an overdose. She told Heidi later that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired. On Christmas morning, she came to get the gifts and met the church intern named Janell. Janell saw something in Burnice’s face that made her stop and invite conversation, listening and prayer. When Heidi noticed them, they were sitting in a wordless, tearful embrace. Burnice later said Janell’s tears opened her heart.
Burnice came back for their women’s Bible study. They focused on women whose messed up lives had issued forth miracles. Hagar, Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and many others who are not prominent in our tradition, but whose stories resonate with marginalized women. She asked if she could detox by sleeping in the church and everyone agreed. She slept on the rug by the altar and made it through that first week clean. By Easter, she was baptized. Then Burnice began to help other women, reaching out to addicts as they hit bottom and listening and counseling them into detox and rehab programs.
Burnice’s story is a real one, so her struggles didn’t simply go away. Her own relationship problems continued. One man she’d been with broke her ribs. The next one was unfaithful. Hoping to hold him closer, Burnice became pregnant. Twice. The apartment they shared became infested with rats. When city officials didn’t respond to the situation, Burnice took her children to a shelter.
She went through training and found a part-time job as an HIV/AIDS outreach worker and met her future husband. But before long, he began using crack. Later she found that he’d infected her with the HIV virus.
Still, Burnice did not give up. She began working on a GED in preparation for a full-time job. And she serves as the president of Transfiguration Lutheran Church. “From crackhead to council president,” she likes to say, “Transfiguration has made a transformation in me.”
On Sunday, she stands before the altar of her church holding out bread to share with all who come to receive it from her hands. Just as Elijah received the bread of life from a widow who defied the certainty of death, the folks of Transfiguration Church come to take the bread of life from Burnice, a woman who carries on day by day, step by step, with a death-defying hope provided by her church, by her faith, and by her God.
Our God may not provide us ways to escape the pain or ways to avoid the tremendous challenges life brings, but, according to today’s text, God does seem to provide a way for us to persevere through that pain. God provides us with guidance and direction, often leading us through the unexpected. And God provides us with a death-defying hope, a hope that can lift our heads and lift our spirits when everything else in life is dragging us down.
To this God, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
 John M. Buchanan, The Christian Century, (Editorial, May 1, 2007), pg. 3.