The Adventurous Lectionary – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 5, 2016
I Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)
In today’s readings, God is portrayed as the source of amazing things: food in a drought, reviving the dead, and transforming our lives. When we see a dead end, God sees an open future. When we see scarcity, God dreams of abundance. God brings new life, feeds the hungry, and transforms spirits, sometimes when we least expect it or feel least deserving of the grace that heals our lives.
The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, perhaps even a non-Jew, is a study in the contrast between abundance and scarcity thinking. When Elijah comes seeking a meal, the widow realistically denies his request. She factually states that she has just a few morsels left and, then, in this time of drought, and that she expects her son and herself to starve to death. Elijah persists, affirming God’s providential care for those who trust God. The widow relents and God provides food enough, one day at a time, to survive – and possibly thrive – in a time of economic scarcity. Faith opens the door to abundant life, God’s intention for all creation.
This passage can easily be misused as a proof text for the prosperity gospel or an individualistic acts-consequences understanding of wealth and poverty. There is nothing automatic, individualistic, or materialistic here; this is about acting on trust that opens to dimensions of reality for us and those we love. It is about hospitality and generosity that takes us from fear to love and scarcity to abundance. As such, this passage has political as spiritual applications. In fact, we can’t separate the spiritual or political in this passage or in any holistic spirituality. Abundant living comes from looking beyond the limits of our narrow realism to trust that God cares for us and all creation. In going beyond a narrow vision, we discover new resources and in opening our hands to God’s bounty, we also open to sharing with our neighbors.
Our current politics are often motivated by fear and scarcity. The wealthy horde and in their greed and self-interest, fail to see their responsibility to the commons. Economics are seen in terms of short-term and immediate profit rather than in terms for care for the earth and its peoples. Everyday citizens are told to be fearful of ISIS while neglecting the more pervasive dangers of global climate change. All this is motivates by fear, greed, and isolationism, when the gospel calls us to generosity, wise longitudinal stewardship, and world loyalty. Facts are important, whether in science, economics, or climate, but facts find their meaning in creative actions to use our resources wisely. The limits, whether in congregational budgets or personal lives, are the womb of possibility, the concrete space in which holy artistry emerges.
The words of I Kings 17:17-24 are theologically complex and can detract from the message of abundance and scarcity, at first glance. The woman’s son becomes ill and both Elijah and the boy’s mother begin to doubt God’s providential care. In fact, both are tempted to believe that God has abandoned them and may even have “killed” the boy. Nothing is further from the truth of God’s intent: God does not kill. While the righteous and unrighteous alike experience the slings and arrows of fate, God’s intent is creation, not destruction. In a very unorthodox healing, Elijah stretches himself on top of the body – something our boundary training would advise against! – and then calls upon God to cure the lad. God hears and the boy is restored to life, thus proving God’s fidelity.
For all its literary creativity, this passage is theologically challenging. Faith does make a difference, but does it always secure life’s obvious blessings? Moreover, does God single out this woman, while neglecting scores of widows lose their sons to incurable illness? Like many other lectionary readings, the entire passage requires several weeks to address its theological nuances. We don’t want to encourage individualistic, parochial, and supernaturalistic understandings of divine-human relationships that may emerge from superficial preaching of the text. Providence moves through all things, and with it the quest for abundant life, but providence occurs in a multi-factorial context in which the faithful are blessed even as they face life’s insecurities.
Psalm 146 invites us to be part of a world of praise. God cares for us and delivers us from our foes. God’s deliverance is for the faithful, but also for the foreigner and vulnerable. Divine power deserves our praise because it is inherently moral in its quest for justice in our world. Imitating divine power in human affairs inspires us to seek justice and practice kindness and hospitality.
Paul’s words in Galatians are intended to affirm the veracity of his message. His message is from God and not from mortals, and God’s work in his life, transforming him from persecutor to proclaimer, is the best evidence to his veracity. While theology is important, as it will be in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, theology is undergirded by experience. We must ask ourselves, “How has our encounter with God changed our lives? In what ways does our faith bring about significant changes in our own values and behaviors?”
As a sidelight, Paul’s affirmation of the purity and God-inspired nature of his message is not without problems. Paul is concerned about establishing his authority to interpret the gospel and stand against other, most exclusivist and conservative, Christian viewpoints. Yet, is it a good practice to develop our theology in isolation from other Christian witnesses? The wisdom of tradition and other viewpoints can deepen our theology and prevent us from idiosyncratic and isolating interpretations. Paul’s theology won the day – after all Galatians made it into the canon! – but were those he called opponents entirely wrong? My suspicion is that the more conservative Christian faction and the middle of the road Peter, also critiqued in Galatians, were also acting on good faith, and not motivated by malevolence. In the privacy of the pastor’s study or in a bible study, one might ask, “What good news did those Paul opposed have to share? Why was Paul theologically dangerous to them?” Seldom are theological disputes one sided. Even our opponents may have wisdom that we need to hear. . (For more on Galatians, see Bruce Epperly, Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, Energion Publications.)
The gospel passage mirrors Elijah’s raising of the widow of Zarephath’s son. In this case, the body of another widow’s son is being transported to burial. Jesus stops the procession, boldly touches the bier, and brings the boy back to life. This is an amazing story and begs a variety of questions: Should we expect such dramatic healings in our time? If not, has God decided to go underground, withholding from us what was freely given to an earlier generation? Is this simply an anomalous event, in some way scandalous in its privilege of one widow while countless others mourn? Still, we cannot abandon our care or prayers for those who are sick. If God is moving through our world, seeking abundant life, our prayers still have value. They may be the tipping point in certain diseases. Our prayers, in an intricately connected universe, may create a field of force, enabling God’s vision to be more fully realized in the lives of those for whom we pray. For the adventurous preacher, this passage opens the door to an even more reflective conversation, based on the experiences of virtually every person of prayer: Does there come a time in an illness when even God cannot bring about a cure? How shall we pray for persons with incurable illnesses or persons whose illness has taken a turn for the worse and appears to be heading toward death? Do we change our prayer language and intent from survival to pray solely for peace and wholeness? Do we move from praying for a cure to praying for spiritual healing? These are challenging questions emerging from the intersection of faith, prayer, and the power and intentionality of God.
Still, God is at work in our world, evoking faith and generosity, which enable us to transform mountains of facts into the launching point to creative actions in our personal lives, congregations, and national politics.