God brought us in
June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146
I just returned late last night from a weeklong trip. Traveling has changed over time. In fifth grade at Mastersonville Elementary school I used to play Oregon trail on an old clunky computer. You would calculate the amount of flour, spare wheels, or medicine you would need to make it to the other side of the country in a covered wagon. Routinely this trip included capsized wagons while fording a river or near starvation. The trip I just returned from was not nearly so arduous but I am non-the-less happy to have made it home and did in-fact get hungry and sleepy on the way. This trip was to an orientation for the Youth Peace Travel Team. While I traveled for a week, this 3 person team will be traveling the whole summer. While driving from camp to camp to teach kids about peace they will certainly need to take breaks and stop for food.
In our passage, Elijah that prophet is traveling. While traveling he is in need of food. He was traveling, in need of food, and apparently there were fewer convenience stores and service plazas lining the road. He is on the road and meets a woman. He asks her to help him with food. Just stops—asks for sustenance.
My father used to do this sort of thing. Though a preacher I don’t know that he is a prophet in the way that Elijah was a prophet—and though he would ask for food it was not under precisely the same circumstance. He and his cousin did several long bike rides. The longest was when they took a train up into Canada and rode out through Nova Scotia and down through Maine. They would sleep along the road or in a barn or maybe at a church. They would at times buy food and at other times people would give them food. Our prophet for this morning also asked for food.
Elijah needed to ask for food in the face of a great food shortage. The shortage was caused by a famine. The famine was caused by Elijah—more precisely the famine was caused by God bringing judgment on the people’s disobedience through Elijah.
In the verses just before the ones we read earlier in the service, we learn that the famine had been going on a while. Later on we hear it continued for 3 years. During this time of hardship Elijah had been living by a Wadi Cherith and God had been sending meat and bread via ravens. When we start reading this wadi, which is a type of seasonal river in that region, just dried up.
The food and water dry up and disappear and God told him to go to the town Zarapheth where he would find a widow who would feed him. This seems nice enough of God. Elijah lacks food but is given instructions on where to find it. –“Just go to Zarapheth and find the widow.”
There are two elements in this command that should be highlighted—Zarapheth –and a widow. I will start with the second first—he was sent to a widow. Widows were vulnerable in that time and place. They were at risk to the extent that “widows and orphans” became a shorthand way of say “people who are at risk.” In the New Testament book of James 1:27 we read “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
The second aspect that should be noted is Zarapheth. Zarapheth is outside of Israel. In those days God spoke almost solely through Israelites to Israel about God’s relationship to Israel. Elijah is an Israelite prophet sent to call Israel back to a right relationship with God. God tells Elijah to go outside of Israel, the land of God’s chosen people, to receive assistance and then —-to provide valuable, absolutely critical, food in a time of famine.
This is a shocking development. In Luke 4:24-26 Jesus brings up this story and is almost thrown off a cliff by an angry crowd. [read passage]
Why is this such an explosive tale? Who is against widows and prophets getting enough food? The problem was not what happened but who it happened to and what this event symbolizes. In Israel and the Old Testament writings there was a strong assumptions that God’s blessing was restricted to their political/ethnic/religious group
They were upset because God was bringing others in. The flip side of this is that they assumed that they were “in.” They assumed they were set—that they had a privileged place in relationship to God.
Within the church, regardless of theological or political flavor the question of God’s bringing people in sparks interest and debate. Typically focus on this is whether God is or is not letting this group or person in. Or– what conditions are necessary for their inclusion. This is the case for both liberals and conservatives
Most discussions such as this work on the assumption that we are in. Is this arrogance—Is it assumed privilege? Is it that we presume that God’s work revolves around us in some way?
By seeking to insert a question mark into our discussions about our position in relation to God I am not trying to create anxiety about our relationship to the Kingdom of God, salvation, or our reconciliation with God. It is possible to both rest in God and not arrogantly assume we are privileged to talk about the inclusion or exclusion of others. To rest in God may mean that we do not need to be “certain” of our own being accepted anymore than we are concerned with someone else’s being accepted.
What does this leave us with? –Joy
If we have been brought in, our primary response should be joy—not whether or not we have been brought in or whether or not this or that person is in or out
Psalm 146 from which our call to worship was drawn from displays some of this joy [read]
When we have this joy and rest in God we can leave the habit of
Anxiety— asking will the church grow?
We can leave the habit of –border setting or boundary maintenance– asking who can join us?
There are several Implications we can draw from this.– While our primary response, if we properly understand, is joy, there are implications for our life together.
1st . Welcoming and growing—only when we recognize that God brought us in and that we have no birth-right—no privileged status can we truly welcome others. God owns the house. Only in God’s welcoming us can we even begin to imagine welcoming others. Often when we seek to welcome others whom we assume are on the outside while we are on the inside we are presuming a position of power. We imagine that they will be welcomed if we welcome them. Their welcome hangs in the balance of our benevolence.
Brothers and sisters they—whoever the they is –are welcomed by God despite us. Their welcome is not based on our good will. While they are already welcomed we can do a lot to mar or smear this welcome of God. We cannot create a welcome but we can obscure this welcome. By allowing us into this process God is taking a risk. I am that risk. You are that risk. God welcomes us and opens himself to the risk of including us in the mission of extending welcome.
How do we enact this welcome at Washington City COB?
2nd implication. Reaching out and serving—Elijah reached out beyond the community but the woman also reached out and helped him. The welcome and serving went both directions. A widow in a famine and a hungry prophet next to a dried up river—both are in need, both can serve—ultimately God works through both.
How do we enact this at Washington City COB?
We serve, are served, and serve alongside. A number of guests at BNP have stepped up to help. These are people that are coming to the BNP because they need help but have found ways to express their thanks through service. One young mother offered to buy hot sauce with her food stamps when the bottle was finished. Another man has been volunteering with clean up. Another man, who paints, offered to help with painting the exterior trim of the church.
I find this very exciting. Additionally, BNP has become a place for other congregations to serve. It is becoming a place that empowers and welcomes guests. People who are homeless, without jobs, or struggling to make due even when they have work are often looked down on as a drag on society. Seeing people step up to serve is an example of empowerment and a testament to a ministry that does not degrade those who need assistance.
3rd implication. Joy and curiosity (what is God doing?)
God is doing something. It is likely something new. It is likely something old. Joining in the welcoming serving mission of God is life–it is not a side add-on part of life. It is life. It is our vocation as disciples of Jesus.
We do not need to decide who to welcome, how to make a ministry work, or how to bring Washington City COB around. Resting in God is not the same as resting. Many people here have not been resting. Many people have been working hard to make it work because they think that this church should be here. The rest I am talking about is not necessarily a rest from work—at least not a continual rest from work—but a rest in God. It is a rest from the anxious question of how will we survive? What if we fail? Such an anxious lack of resting does not get us any closer to answering difficult questions or visioning new ministries.
In the book of Hebrews we see this rest.
What might rest look like for us at Washington City COB? What does it mean to live the joy and curiosity of finding what God is already doing? How God is already welcoming?
New ministry model? At WCCOB we are discussing a new way of doing ministry in which we have several non-salaried ministers. This type of ministry will allow us to move creatively into a new phase where all people are called to serve.
Young adult gathering? A group of young adults has been meeting at our house for almost a year. This has become a place of community and reflection on what it means to be the church.
Hill Havurah? We recently reached an agreement with a local Jewish group, Hill Havurah, so that they can use our building. This will be a valuable partner and a great potential for learning from one another.
What else? This is an exciting time. This church has been a place of ministry and gathering. We should not abandon this heritage. We are however moving forward. I was talking to Dana Cassel, a young adult minister at Manasas, about the ministry and dreams of this church. She is excited. She is excited to hear of the life of the church—our dreams and ministry. She is a minister at a strong church in northern Virginia whose pastor was just called to lead the denominational seminary—and she is excited.
“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees. And make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather healed.”
Elijah was called to go out. He was called to go out and enact God’s welcoming.
We are also called. Let us strengthen our weak knees. Let us lift our drooping hands. May we learn what it means to live God’s welcome that is already present.