July 19, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

I Kings 17:1-16

But We Could Lose Everything!

We love to tell the stories of a little that becomes a lot. Having a little of something important is dicey. Having nothing is one problem; having enough or more than enough hardly seems like a problem until it is. But having just a little, that’s the tricky part. No wonder we love the stories of growth.

There are those magic beans Jack bought when he sold the cow; just a handful of magic becomes a beanstalk that grows through the clouds to the fee-fie-fo-fum. There are stories of the American Dream —a person who came here with just a little more than nothing, then he started a business, or found a job, or caught a break, and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. We love to tell the stories of a little that becomes a lot.

Good thing, because this leitmotif runs through many stories in the Bible. Little David knocks down the giant Goliath. A few loaves and fishes feed the crowd of thousands with baskets left over. The widow who gives two copper coins gives more than the others. The teeny tiny mustard seed grows and keeps growing like those magic beans, like the kingdom of heaven.

In the Bible, gardens hold the promise of fertility and abundance; they teach us the truth of growth. They teach us the creative potential of having just a little. Again and again, gardens proclaim the promise: do not underestimate what God can do with a little.

This is the truth. In the story we hear today, the miracle is the oil in the jar does not run out. The widow, her son and her household, and Elijah, they were set to run out of food, and they do not. Because it really does happen that a little can become a lot.

Except, of course, when it doesn’t. The other side to this is the chilling reminder. Sometimes it really does happen that the little we have left runs out. The Gospel gives us this strange prophecy: To the one who has plenty more shall be given. And to the one with nothing, even the little she has will be taken away, even her boots with those promising bootstraps. So then what?

The worry of things running out is one kind of problem. This is why it’s dangerous to have just a little; why having a little can make us stay awake all night running through scenarios in our mind in response to the threat that keeps poking us: But we could lose everything!

This worry is one kind of problem. The other kind of problem is the moment after it actually happens. It’s the difference between wondering whether there will be food for dinner and finding out no, there is no more food. It’s the difference between worrying what might happen and finding out: the claim has been denied; there’s no appeal. Your position has been eliminated. The time of death is announced and recorded on the chart. You hit bottom. Shut it down. That’s it.

Then what?

In this moment, what if what’s at stake is not death? Anybody can risk dying. What if this is the moment when what we’re called to risk is more extreme than dying. What if we’re called to risk the possibility that we might live…

Today our scripture tells the story of the widow of Zarephath. To begin with, Elijah stands up to the king who worships Baal. The followers of Baal believed the storm god controlled the rain, but Elijah speaks the word of the LORD our God. And the LORD has issued a drought. God sent Elijah to hide in the land east of the Jordan. Elijah can find water to drink from the river bed, and Elijah can find food from the leavings of the ravens. And this sustains him. Until it doesn’t.

After a while the river bed dries up, and Elijah has no food to eat, no water to drink. He doesn’t have a little bit that could become a lot. This is not the moment when he’s worried about what he will eat or drink tomorrow. He doesn’t have anything for today. I have never had this experience, myself, a day when all the food is gone and all the water is dried up. Maybe some of you have lived through this day. Maybe you know the prayer that goes, Come on God, what’s the plan here?

This is when the LORD sends Elijah to Zarephath to find a widow who will give him food. (I’m not sure God happened to mention that to the widow.) Indeed, when Elijah walks through the gate, he sees a widow and calls out to her asking for a drink of water. I assume she nods and turns on her heel to go get the water, but before she’s out of earshot, he pushes his luck. “Hey, can I also get some bread to go with that water?” Well that does it.

She stops in her tracks, wheels around, and looks right at him. Listen to what this woman says to the prophet: “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked. I only have a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I’m here getting sticks so I may go home and prepare this for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” Because that’s it. Is there anything more dangerous than having just a little…

Now this doesn’t stop Elijah. He has the nerve to say to her, “Do not be afraid. Go ahead with your plan to bake the rest of your food, then eat it, and die. But first make a little cake for me” Are you serious right now?! Maybe this woman did not say anything back to Elijah or maybe she said something that the scripture writer wisely left out. Elijah promises her the meal will last and the oil will not run out. She brings him to her home and makes him that cake he ordered.

It was all over for Elijah, then the LORD called him to go and find this woman.

It was all over for this woman, then Elijah asked her for something to eat, then she put her own death at risk, and made him a little cake. Her household had enough to eat, and everybody lives. Until everybody doesn’t.

See the next thing that happens is her child gets very sick and dies. The Bible says, there was no breath left in him. What kind of God rescues a boy from starvation only to let him die a little while later? How could God rescue a woman from starvation only to make her watch her son die? Come on God, what’s the plan? Please! You have got to bring him back to life!

This is what Elijah prays, and you hear his patience has run out. This time, it’s not God speaking to Elijah; it’s Elijah speaking to God in the terrible chilling place where the time of death is pronounced and written on the chart.[1] And that’s it.

Except what happens in the story is that God listens to Elijah, and like the woman who obliged and made him a little cake, the LORD our God gives Elijah what he demands. The child took a breath and came back to life.

It’s all over for Elijah until the LORD called him to go find this woman.

It’s all over for the woman until Elijah persuaded her to share her food.

It’s all over for this son until Elijah prayed and the LORD returned the breath to his body.

So if you are starting to lose confidence in the permanence of “It’s all over…” me too! It really does happen that a little becomes a lot. Sometimes. It really does happen that the little we have runs out. Then God does a new thing. So do not be afraid.

Almost exactly two years ago, I sat in the courtroom in Rock Island, and I heard the judge pronounce the sentence. I felt like our testimony had failed. My prayers failed. There was no hope for an appeal. The worst possibility happened. That’s it. It’s all over…

But not for much longer, am I right? Ed is coming home, and God is still speaking.

What a different faith we would have if the Gospels ended with Jesus being gravely ill. What a different faith we would have if the angels had come in the last few seconds and performed a heroic rescue saving Jesus from the cross. Instead, Jesus died. Then God did a new thing. So what are we afraid of? That we’ll lose it all? That we’ll die? Then what…

Maybe the real risk for us is that we might live. Maybe we might lose our hope in getting rescued, but God doesn’t promise a heroic rescue. God promises resurrection.

These days, I know there is worry wafting around the church. It seems like we have just a little, and is there anything more dangerous than having just a little… You have heard the worry that goes: Church of Peace might run out of money. We might close our doors, or lose our pastor, or lose new members, or dishonor our heritage. But we could lose everything! We could.

It might seem like this is the worst time to take a big risk —to launch a new program that’ll take start up costs from the sustaining fund, to change our worship style or space, to get the reputation of the church that welcomes gay and lesbian and trans teenagers, because there are gay, and lesbian, and transgender teenagers who don’t know there is a church where they will be safe.

If we weren’t afraid of dying, what could you imagine? Because we have everything to give up! You know one day, we might die. But the real risk we face right now, is that we might live. God calls us to live. Do not be afraid. This summer our church planted a garden.

Sometimes it really does happen that the little we have runs out. Then God does a new thing. Nothing becomes everything, and everything becomes more than we ever imagined. Even when it’s all over and the moment for rescue has come and gone, that’s when to get ready. There’s about to be a resurrection. Amen.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness. Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 1996. pages 43-44.

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