Sunday, June 5, 2016

Phil Kniss: Love at the end of the road

Summer 2016: This is a story full of love...
1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

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It’s really tempting to approach this story from 1 Kings
    as a lesson in how not to treat destitute widows
        and their dependent children.

Read from our cultural vantage point,
    Elijah was behaving . . . to put it mildly . . .
        in an unseemingly way for a man of God.

    Elijah, a Jew, was in Sidon, Gentile territory,
        and calling on the good graces of this widow,
        for food and lodging.
    Just from the sight of her—
        her kind of clothing,
        her act of gathering sticks at the city gate—
        Elijah would have known she was a widow living in poverty.
    Knowing that, he asked her not only for a drink,
        but to bake him some bread and bring it to him.
    We might forgive him,
        because he didn’t know her truly desperate story,
            until she told him,
        “As Yahweh your God lives,
            I have nothing baked,
                only the last handful of flour in my jar,
                and the last spoonful of oil in a jug.
            I am gathering a couple sticks, to go home,
                and bake the last piece of bread for me and my son,
                    so we can eat it, and die.”

I’m sure I’m not the first one who
    had the question cross my mind—
    Wouldn’t this be a good time for a man of God to say,
        “I’m so sorry. Feed yourself and your son.
            I’ll find my bread somewhere else.
            You eat first.
            Then I’ll get you some help.”

    That’s not what Elijah said, of course.
    He said, “Go ahead and bake some bread,
        but bring me the first loaf.
        After that, bake something for yourself and your son.
        Trust me. You’ll have enough.
            My God says so.”

    He’s talking to a Gentile, a foreigner to the house of Israel,
        who explicitly does not have any allegiance to Elijah’s God.
        In fact, the story underscores that point,
            when it has her saying,
                “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing.”
            Not my God . . . your God, she says.
            And Elijah replies,
                “Don’t worry. It’s taken care of.
                    My God has your back.”

Which raises a second question—
    Wouldn’t this be a good time in the story,
        for the woman to calmly walk away
        from this brash prophet from another land,
            muttering under her breath, “Yeah, right!”?
    But the story has her doing the opposite.
        She listens to the prophet, does exactly what he asked.

    And we heard how that part of the story ended.
        She, and Elijah, and all her household,
            ate for many days.
        The jar of flour and jug of oil “did not fail,”
            to use the story’s own words.

There’s more to the story,
    but let’s ponder what this first part is telling us.

On the one hand, this is a fairly typical
    Old Testament miracle story involving a prophet.
    There are many like it throughout the Hebrew scriptures,
        prophets calling fire from heaven to burn up water,
        turning sticks into snakes,
        raising the dead . . . and many more.
    They all serve the purpose of demonstrating to the people
        the power and authority of their God, Yahweh,
        in contrast to the dark arts of sorcery and witchcraft
            of other nations’ priests and prophets.
    So we could just put this in that broad class of biblical literature,
        and file it away.
            God is powerful, and can do mighty deeds.
            Lesson learned.

But when we look closer,
    we see more than a miracle tale
        that reveals the power of God in the deeds of a prophet.
    We see a deeper, more complex glimpse into the nature of faith.
    We see a woman who amazes us
        with her raw and honest trust in a God she barely knows.

See, Elijah the prophet was actually not acting like a pompous fool,
    when he asked a poor widow to feed him first.
    In that culture, at that time,
        there were deeply embedded values about hospitality
        that we don’t really get.
    It was entirely normal
        for prophets and sages and solitary figures like that
        to move about from town to town
            in full expectation of having house and food provided for.
        It was an honor to house a traveling prophet.
    Prophets had a well-established and valued role
        in that communal society.
    This was not an individualistic and independent culture, like ours.

    And it wasn’t just prophets who had the right to expect
        an available home and table of food.
        It was common practice to welcome strangers,
            to feed and house them,
            and send them on their way, when they were ready.
        It would have been a social insult,
            if you had a home,
            and refused to share it with those needing food and a bed.

    So Elijah was not being insensitive to a poor widow.
    No, he was responding to two specific impulses.
        First, God had told him in advance to move to Sidon,
            because God had ordained it
            that a widow there would feed him, and care for him.
            So Elijah was just following God’s direction.
        Second, Elijah was following his vocational calling as a prophet.
            He was acting in ways consistent with his vocation.
            His vocation was to call forth faith in God,
                from all people, paupers to princes.
            So he was only doing what he normally did.
            Seen in context,
                this wasn’t exploitation of . . . it was ministry to.
            He was ministering to this foreign, Gentile woman,
                by calling forth faith from her.

        She who was vulnerable in just about every way,
            without resources,
            without rights,
            without communal support—
            it was she whom Elijah was nudging toward faith,
                pointing her toward trust in a greater resource
                than what she had access to as a poor widow in Sidon.

    Knowing full well that her flour and oil were scarce,
        to the point of being life-threatening,
        Elijah essentially was inviting her to live as if there were more.
            “Don’t let these limits define you.
                Live like you normally do.
                Live as if there will be enough.
                Our God provides.
            Yes, by all indicators,
                you’re at the end of your road.
                But live as if the road goes on.”

    What is amazing,
        is this Gentile woman’s capacity to do that,
            in her desperate state,
            without any history with Israel’s God Yahweh.

So, this summer worship series draws on many lectionary readings,
    Old and New Testament.
    The only unifying theme is scripture itself—
        this grand, sweeping story of God pursuing us in love.
    Our summer title is taken from the hymn we just sang,
        “This is a story full of love.”
    There are all kinds of stories in the scripture—
        from many and differing periods and cultures and contexts,
        and they each can be engaged in their own right,
            as we are doing with this story today.

        But together, they form a overarching narrative,
            a super-story about God reaching toward us in love,
            to redeem and reconcile and restore all things.
        So this book is a story full of love.
            In it we see love expressed in different modes,
                from different angles,
                exhibiting different characteristics.
        Today, we see love revealed at the end of the road.
        When we can see no other way forward,
            what does love reveal?
            what does God reveal?

This story of love at the end of the road
    is a good example of a principle at work
    that renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann
        calls two competing ideologies—
        the liturgy of abundance and the myth of scarcity.

    The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance,
        the story of a good and bountiful creation,
        upon which God pronounces,
            “it is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.”
        God’s creative Spirit overflows in goodness.

    But even in the early chapters of Genesis,
        we see the human tendency toward anxiety.
        We’re not quite sure it’s enough.
        We’re not content unless we can be sure of getting our share,
            of not missing out on something.
        That’s why Eve and Adam reached for the forbidden fruit.
        They were anxious about
            whether God would provide all they needed.
        They were afraid God was holding back something from them,
            so instead of receiving gratefully,
                they took.

    That’s the whole continuing human story, in a nutshell.
        Instead of receiving, and thanking,
            we take, and grasp, and anxiety takes root.
        We worry we’re still missing something.
        So we work a little harder and a little longer.

As Brueggemann writes (and I quote)
    The “ideology of scarcity says no, there’s not enough,
        so hold onto what you have.
    In fact, don’t just hold onto it, hoard it.
        Put aside more than you need, so that if you do need it,
            it will be there, even if others must do without.
[he continues]
    The fundamental human condition continues to be anxiety,
        fueled by an ideology that keeps pounding on us to take more,
            to not think about our neighbor,
            to be fearful, shortsighted, and grudging.” (unquote)

    So the myth of scarcity isolates us,
        while the liturgy of abundance strengthens community,
        by prompting generosity and sharing.

And I would add,
    this ideology of scarcity is universal and pervasive.
        It’s not just about material resources.
    It’s a life posture for many of us.
    It’s the mode of operation for a whole culture.
        And it’s the guiding principle for political campaigns.

In this crazy presidential campaign,
    it’s all too easy to blame a few crazy people with dangerous ideas.
    But seems to me,
        this myth of scarcity is driving the whole political bus right now.
    And sometimes, it seems to me,
        the more people have,
        the more likely they are to live by the ideology of scarcity.
    No matter how much we have, an ideology of scarcity
        leads us to grasp and hoard and be self-protective,
        which leads us to anxiety,
        which leads us to fear and defensiveness,
        which leads us to violence.

    Everyone acts out of fear.
        We’re all afraid . . . that what we think we need,
            is going to slip out of our hands,
            if we don’t reach out and grab it now.

    The Gospel word for today, coming out of this ancient prophet story,
        is do not be afraid.
        Do not be afraid.
            We don’t need to stockpile.
            We don’t need to fear the other.
            We don’t need to build walls at the border.
            We don’t need to circle the wagons—
                as a nation, as a political party, as a church.
            We don’t need to fight to the death
                to preserve everything we’ve come to think of as ours.
        God . . . will . . . provide.
            For me.
            For our family.
            For our church.
            For our human community.

        There is enough.
        Even when the oil is running low,
            even when it looks like we’re at the end of the road,
            we can choose to live like there’s more road left.
                If there’s anything we learn from the Easter story,
                    it should be that!

        We can live with an open generosity of spirit to everyone,
            regardless of their political or theological persuasion.
        We can even be generous of heart with those around us
            gripped by fear that the end is at hand,
                who are gathering their metaphorical sticks,
                to build a fire, and bake their last bread, and die.
        We can live openly, hospitably, vulnerably
            as if our jug is full,
            and the road lies open before us.

    Now, I do need to add a caution here.
        Let me say clearly, there are limits to vulnerability.
            I’m not saying we lay down our lives casually
                to whomever might ask us to do so.
            We need discernment.
            We must pay attention to, and honor,
                the boundaries that preserve our own well-being,
                and the well-being of the most vulnerable among us.
            I’m not talking about ignoring good boundaries.

    But I am calling us to live our lives with
        more openness and receptivity,
        more hopefulness and joy,
            than those who are not living in light of the resurrection.
    Because when we get to the end of the road,
        love will meet us there.
    God is there, extending love, extending grace,
        able to do more than we imagine.
    We need not be driven by anxiety and fear
        and all the ugliness that leads to.

In this story full of love—our sacred scriptures—
    from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between,
        time after time, God’s people arrive
            at what looks like the end of the road,
            and surprising things happen.

That is the case with pretty much every text we read this morning.
    I was most intrigued by part one of the Elijah story,
        so that’s what I focused on.
    But the story went on.
    In the very next verse,
        we see this same son,
        whose life was saved by the miracle oil and flour,
            suddenly die of another cause.
        The woman blames Elijah, Elijah blames God,
            everyone is crying out in desperation,
            at the end of their road.
        But then, a resurrection story.
        Even death is not the end,
            but an opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed.

    And likewise the Gospel reading from Luke 7.
        A Jesus story that parallels the Elijah story.
            A widow’s only son, her only hope for a future,
                dies and leaves her grief-stricken and desperate.
            But resurrection happens.
            Love shows up, at the end of the road.

    And in Galatians 1,
        Paul gives his testimony of his earlier life
            when, zealous for his faith,
            he became of violent killer of Christians.
                As far gone, from the grace of God,
                    as a person could be.
            But another kind of resurrection happened.
            Love showed up, at the end of his road,
                literally on the road to Damascus.

    And as we affirmed in Psalm 146, in our call to worship,
        we cannot put our trust in princes, or human beings,
            whose plans come to nothing
            the day their breath leaves them.
        But blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
            whose hope is in the Lord their God.
            Because at the end of the road,
                love is waiting for them.
            They don’t know, we don’t know,
                what form this love will take.
            It may not be rescue,
                like what the widow experienced.
            It may not be the kind of resurrection we would prefer.
            But at the end of the road, there is love.
                And there is plenty.
                Enough to share.

Turn to HWB 576 . . .
    If you but trust in God to guide you,
    and place your confidence in him,
    you’ll find God always there beside you,
    to give you hope and strength within . . .
(and in v. 3 . . .)
    doubt not your inmost wants are known
    to God who chose you for his own.

—Phil Kniss, June 5, 2016

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