Some lessons from a mother from Zarephath

ismail-al-rifai-motherA sermon preached at Box Hill Baptist Church, 13 November 2016
Text: 1 Kings 17.8–24

It is not for the first time, but what a dark world we have entered – a world where hate and xenophobia and misogyny and the rape of natural resources is given free reign; a world poisoned by self-interest, and where contempt for the rule of law grows louder. It is not for the first time, but we are living in a world where what is being violently compromised is any sense that if we are to flourish and not flounder as human community then we simply must find ways to befriend the stranger and to celebrate the dignity of our differences. This world has a name: fear.

Little wonder then that not a few parents are writing letters to their children apologising for our inability to protect them from the growing horrors, and to renew their own daring determination to fight the powers of death wherever such rear their heads in the desperate hope that while the arc of the moral universe is indeed long, it does finally bend towards justice. Such letters, it seems to me, are a profound act of desperation born of faith and, more importantly, of love. It also seems to me that those who stand on the side of life will need to get used to writing such letters, and will need to ask again and again ‘How then shall we live?’

So we gather to hear the living Word of God. Our text today is part of a pattern of the presentation of very many lives of mostly unnamed women in the Bible who are contending with forces that threaten life and trade in death. From the Hebrew mid-wives back in the days when Israel was enslaved to the foreign powers of Egypt and their resistance to Pharaoh’s call to slaughter their own children; to the tragic story of a young woman in Judges 11 who was victimized by the stupidity of her father Jephthah against whose violence she had to carve out for herself a space where she could affirm her dignity in the face of impending and unnecessary death; to Naomi and Ruth, two widows threatened by famine and who became vulnerable migrants who find a way, against all the odds, to preserve life and to endure; to a pregnant teenager desperate to find a safe place to give birth to a child whose name was given by angels but whose arrival was greeted with a mixture of unbridled joy, confusion, and as a threat to the ruling powers. The women in the Bible find themselves ensnared in a hostile world that is stalked by death and in which they are called to preserve life.[1]

This story from the Book of First Kings about a widow and her encounter with the prophet Elijah is not an altogether unplayed track. She is, it seems, a religious person, but her God goes by a different name than does Elijah’s. And she is living in Zarephath in Sidon, deep enemy terror for Elijah because it is the home of Jezebel and the land of Baal. This means that she represents something of a risk to this unkempt stranger, this ‘man of God’ (as she calls him) from the wilderness. Her vulnerability too speaks of risk, a risk that the word of God presents to those who confront it. Will he harm her? Will she tame him?

This unnamed woman who has already survived the death of a spouse is now grasping for hope in a time of literal and of emotional drought. In the economies of the ancient world, people like her had few choices – to carry the shame of returning to their parent’s house, or to become a beggar, or to find employment in the oldest profession in the world – whatever made survival a possibility.

And there is a child involved as well, a fatherless son. They are, together, Bible shorthand for the most vulnerable and at risk members of the human family. And there is a famine in the land. Certainly this woman and her son are up against it, their lives profoundly threatened in a world and a system that seems to conspire against them. For them there is no social security, no hardship funds that they can tap into, and no food.

Their lives are caught up in a conflict between the powers and the gods around them to which their lives mean nothing. That’s why there’s a drought – because Baal and his promoter Ahab, and Yahweh and his promoter Elijah, are embroiled in an arm wrestle over who’s god can control the weather. It is all very well for the gods to try and out-manoeuvre and out-muscle one another, but caught up in the conflict, implicated in the struggle, is this widow and her son, helpless victims of divine warfare. And as with previous stories of widows at risk there is a scene of great poignancy at the heart of the narrative, as in this case our nameless mother is pictured gathering sticks in order to make a fire to prepare a last meal after which she and her thin and listless son will lie down and die.[2]

What an image this story offers us for our world today – a vision of a reality in which life itself is at the mercy of social and political and economic and natural and spiritual forces and powers that threaten us and threaten a kind of death of creation itself. Here is an image of a world that makes victims of us all, and a world that mocks our grand pretensions while tempting us to look to our own idols of technological sophistication and to the allure of a neo-capitalist machinery for liberation.

Up against this tide of death and seemingly-unbridled violence, it is just so hard, isn’t it, to keep believing in life; indeed, to keep believing in anything at all. It seems impossible, or worse, to imagine a way out, a way that ends with anything other than the experience recorded here in vv. 17­–18, with the pitiful death of this widow and her son, and with the brute accusation that this prophet of God, this religious nutter, had in fact been complicit in the death of this boy.

Thank God that there is another word here; that there breaks into this pathetic scenario four words – four crucial words that reverberate throughout Scripture, four words that promise another possibility, another ending, another future; albeit one almost impossible to imagine from what we know of the history behind us and from what we can see now on the horizons in front of us. But let us be as fools and risk hearing them anyway, these words recorded in verse 13: ‘Do … not … be … afraid’. ‘Do not be afraid’, says Elijah. Just as Isaiah spoke to exiles languishing hopeless and helpless before the mighty powers of Babylon, so too does Elijah dare to speak such insanity to those diminishing under despair and the abuse of power. ‘Do not be afraid!’ – the same words echoed many years later by an angel to a teenage girl about to relinquish all control over her life in giving birth to a son.

‘Do not be afraid!’ – words spoken in the sure knowledge that there are indeed forces at work in the world that leave us helpless and impotent, and that would destroy us. And these words are also spoken out of the promise that there is an incommensurable power at work in the world, a power that works not against us but for us, a power that leads us not into destruction but into well-being and into the flourishing of life in all its infinite forms. There is indeed some good in this world, as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us; and it’s worth fighting for. It is the power of grace – grace that produces flour that does not give out, and oil that does not fail; grace that speaks life – strange and unexpected – in defiance of death.

Here is this widow on the brink of starvation with her last drops of water and her last handful of flour and her last dribbles of oil and Elijah asks her to give the first portion of it all to him, and she does. Why? Why the hell would someone do that? Such a selfless, generous act makes no sense at all. It’s a pattern played out again today in so many parts of our world, where the poorest among us – the Lebanese, for example, who have taken in over a million people from Syria, and the Turks who have welcomed 2.7 million Syrian refugees – extend hospitality while many of the richest and most powerful among us shut the door to the other – to those like the Syrian man Rabia and his family who were kidnapped and tortured by their own government, and then threatened by and forced to run and hide from various other terrorist organisations, and who had their business ransacked by gunmen, and who have been waiting and hiding in Lebanon for over two years after applying for an Australian refugee visa because our elected government told them that ‘If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door’.[3]

There are certainly no easy or painless answers here. The Lebanese, for their part, have certainly not forgotten the 29 years, between 1976–2005, when they lived and died under Syrian occupation. Here too the life-giving power of grace enters the world in ways that appear foolish and counter-productive and that require irrational amounts of trust.

The Bible has another word for all of this; it’s the word ‘love’ – love which perseveres, which believes all things, which hopes all things, which presses on in faith and hope towards the healing of all things, which looks up towards the horizon for the coming of the untameable promise of God.

The friends of Jesus see themselves in this widow, for like her we are called to lean into the counter-intuitive, apparently counter-productive and foolish ways of love. The friends of Jesus are summoned, like this widow, to demonstrate that love works its way into the world by strange but determined means. The friends of Jesus are called to witness to the world that violence will not defeat violence, that killing is not the way to overcome the forces that threaten life. The friends of Jesus are baptised to be peace-makers in ways that will never make sense to a world dominated by powers committed to work in other ways. The friends of Jesus are those who, in hope that what is promised is really coming, exemplify forgiveness, and reconciliation, and patience, and cheek turning; they model a pattern of life that in the amphitheatre of death appears as futile as a starving widow giving her last scraps to a foreigner. And the friends of Jesus are also a bit like Elijah as well – wild and untamed by circumstances, and committed to living a life that would make no sense where it not for the word of God itself. And when accused of bringing about the death of innocence, rather than defend themselves they do all that they can to try to find ways of bearing that death themselves, crying out to God, and then, as we read in v. 21, stretching themselves out upon the body of death, taking some responsibility for it, and waiting for the impossible – for life to emerge from the ruins. I am here reminded of words from the poet Arnold Kenneth:

The fuse as long as love, the burst a birth,
A second world after the blackout’s done:
And out of my debris you timber heights,
And into my despair you hammer grace.[4]

This was the kind of courageous vision that spurred the work of the great American priest, anti-war activist, and poet Daniel Berrigan who died earlier this year. It was his conviction that

One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.[5]

In her time of drought, a widow holding her lifeless son opened her life to an unwanted stranger. In doing so, she may well have discovered that where she was, was where God is found: in prolonged absence, and – inescapably – amidst the stench of death, broken and abandoned on the cross – not for God’s self but for God’s enemies. The cross is where God goes in order to enter into the madness, and pain, and shame, and confusion, and fear, and darkness, and hypocrisy, and terror … and every hell of the world. ‘Where we are and who we are is the furnace where the Son of God walks’.[6] And because the cross is not an event locked in the past but is the eternal present of God in the world, perhaps the faithful Creator has not abandoned this world after all, but is here – hidden in impossible possibilities, and with the determination to not leave creation orphaned. If this is indeed so, perhaps there could be nothing more important to do today than to go out and plant a tree. Amen.

–––––

[1] Here and elsewhere, I am indebted to some reflections on this passage from Lance Stone’s sermon ‘The Power of Grace’, preached at Emmanuel United Reformed Church, Cambridge, 11 November 2012.

[2] ‘Caught between the demands of ancient hospitality and the harsh reality of famine, she reacts with an oath and fatalistic resignation’. Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1987), 110.

[3] See Josh Butler, ‘Syrian Refugee Family Waits 27 Months For Australian Visa’.

[4] Arnold Kenseth, The Holy Merriment (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 61.

[5] Daniel Berrigan, Love, Love at the End: Parables, Prayers, and Meditations (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1971), 76.

[6] Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (Oxford: Lion Books, 2003), 98.

[Image: Ismail al-Rifai, ‘Mother’]

3 thoughts on “Some lessons from a mother from Zarephath

  1. Wow! Fantastically awesome Gospel! This is how a wise Gospel teacher brings out of the storehouse things both old and new, proclaiming the Good News of the God revealed in Jesus! Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  2. Grading sermons is an entirely mischievous exercise, but what the hell: on a scale of 1-10, this one gets a 12.

    PS: Glad to hear you know my URC colleague Lance Stone, with whom I have shared in quixotic attempts to do something (if even next to nothing) rather than nothing at all..

    Like

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