Sermon: “Gifts of the Prophet; Gifts to the Prophet”

June 5, 2016: Third Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke 7:11-17

Give me a moment or two to set the scene:

Fifty years after the death of King Solomon, things were not going well in Israel.

First of all, the nation had divided in two after Solomon died. Solomon’s heirs ruled in Judah, the smaller nation in the south, with its capital in Jerusalem. The larger, more populous country was called Israel, and its capital was in Samaria.

Israel was particularly stressed. Since Solomon’s kingdom divided, two of Israel’s kings had been assassinated and their heirs murdered by their successors. A third assassination sparked a six-year civil war. King Ahab came to the throne just six years after that war’s end.

Into this fragile situation burst Elijah the prophet, loudly condemning the royal family’s worship of the Canaanite god Baal. Truthfully, the most consistent behavior displayed by monarchs of Israel since Solomon had been their willingness to worship someone, even anyone, other than Israel’s God.

For Ahab, still uncertain about his power and authority, I doubt any criticism would have been welcome. When Elijah announced that the judgement of God has fallen on Israel in the form of a drought, he must have been livid. Particularly when it did, in fact, stop raining. Elijah promptly left town.

Which brings us to today’s reading, where the Man of God has come to a foreign country – the home of Ahab’s Queen Jezebel, in fact – asking hospitality of a window and mother who is one meal away from starvation.

Elijah’s demands sound harsh and rude to our ears, thanks to a mixture of ancient sexism and the obligations of the hospitality code of the day. Commentator Lia Scholl, in fact, thinks he sounds like a jerk, or at least, someone struggling to recover from trauma.

What struck me, though, is the way that Elijah and the widow keep exchanging generosity, one with the other. She brings him water. He announces the miracle of the jars of oil and flour. She feeds him and houses him. He raises her son. She declares him a true man of God, the first to say this about Elijah. The people of Israel will eventually come to agree with this foreigner, and Elijah, the man on the run from the king, will be remembered as one of the greatest Hebrew prophets.

The prophet gave; the widow gave.

Gifts of the prophet; gifts to the prophet.

Gifts of the widow; gifts to the widow.

Each gave the other hope. Each gave the other life. Each gave the other an honored place in their lives.

This kind of role shift is not unique to Elijah and the widow. It’s not new to us. We see the giver become the recipient become the giver all the time. It happens every day. The baby you’ve just fed and washed and changed smiles at you, and your heart melts. The student returns to thank the teacher and both of them rejoice. The grandparent shares the benefit of a lifetime of wisdom, and the grandchild help them find things on the Internet.

As the Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Speaking of the Internet, there’s a guy named Matt out there in cyberspace. A few years ago, he had time and money on his hands, and he took a trip around the world. He started to dance, what his friend called his stupid dance, at various grand sites: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, and so on. They spliced the video of these little dances together and put it on YouTube.

A sponsor came along and got Matt to do it again ten years ago, and that’s when everything changed. He was dancing in front of a shack in Rwanda when a group of kids jumped in and joined the dance. That was the moment when one goofy guy dancing badly became an entire human family dancing joyfully.

Matt went back to his sponsor and said, “We’ve got to do this again and get it right.”

Since then, he’s been dancing with people around the world, making the planet a more joyful place. And he’s been doing it because a group of Rwandan kids wanted to join in the fun.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews, dean of Amistad Chapel in Cleveland, says, “That’s what ‘otherwise’ is about: the new, unimaginable, and very different way for things to turn out, instead of the worn-out, despair-producing, cynicism-provoking ways of thinking and acting that we believe to be the way the world has to work.”

Elijah dedicated his life to demonstrating that however the world was working, it didn’t have to work that way.

And the widow demonstrated back that, sure enough, it could be another way.

Sometimes we’re in the place to give. Sometimes we’re in the place to receive. One of humanity’s great truths is that we may shift from one to the other with little notice; little warning. In hard times, we may wonder if we’ll ever be able to give again, and suddenly, we do. At other times, we may wonder if we’ll ever do anything but give, and suddenly, we do.

In either circumstance, we might listen to Elijah’s word to the widow: “Do not be afraid.” As Kathryn Schiffendecker notes, that’s not Elijah’s usual style. He’s more likely to say, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

She writes: “Elijah, that harbinger of doom, speaks a word of promise a word of abundance: There is enough, more than enough.”

She goes on: “Will we be not only messengers, but also the means by which God shares that abundance with our neighbors, those on the other side of town and those on the other side of the world? Will we be the ones who hear and take to heart this word of God? Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. No need to hoard. No need to fear the neighbor, to close the borders, to circle the wagons. There is enough. There is more than enough. Will we allow the word of God to free us from our fear and enable us to be the recipients of all the abundance (of faith, of experience) that our global neighbors have to share?”

Elijah gave and he received. The widow gave and she received. In the midst of drought and upheaval, of real need and real danger, they both found the courage to give and receive and to give again.

May it be so for us. Amen.

The photo of the Widow of Zarephath sculpture in Vienna, Austria, is by Invisigoth67 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Here’s Matt’s most recent video, from 2012. He’s come a long way.

These videos always make me cry for sheer joy. May they bless you in turn.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on June 5, 2016

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