Gathering: The Blessing

 

READ: 1 Kings 17:8-16

When I was 28, one late winter day, I packed everything I had in the back of my Camaro and drove straight to St. Pete Beach in Florida.
I knew a guy in the construction business who could give me a very low-paying job working in his outfit.
I stayed with a friend for a couple of weeks, then put a deposit down on a tiny garage apartment in Old St. Pete.
I made friends with a couple of the guys in my crew.
They were very helpful.
One in particular was Danny Santiago.

He, his wife and three young children lived in probably the worst, infested, rusty and old run-down trailer in a trailer park that looked like a scrapyard.
When my brakes went out on my Camaro, Danny said he’d meet me at my little apartment after work and help me put new brake pads on the car.
He showed up with his entire family in tow…
And we sat there in the driveway bleeding the brakes, turning the rotors and installing the new pads in 90-degree heat until the sun went down.
We finished, and we met his kids and wife upstairs in the apartment.
As we washed up, they asked if I wanted to grab dinner with them.
I told them no, I couldn’t; I didn’t have any money.
Things were tight, I just spent my money on the brake pads and I haven’t gotten paid from my first week on the job yet.
Danny — in his typical fashion — asked “Well, what are you gonna do for dinner?”
I told him I had a couple of eggs in the fridge I’d fry up.
He quickly opened my pantry. Empty except for some fig newtons…
Then my fridge. Empty, except for the eggs…
I told him it was OK, and I offered him a glass of water  and some fig newtons.
He smiled, hugged me, and he and his family left.
About a half-hour later, there was a knock at my door.
It was Danny, Brenda and the kids.
Each of them were holding large paper grocery bags filled with food…
I’ve seen where Danny lived.
I’ve seen the cheese sandwiches or leftover burritos he’d eat for lunch.
I know Danny had to feed his family.
Yet, there he was with grocery bags filled with food — real food: Chicken, hamburger, pasta, bread, fruit and vegetables…
I asked Danny, “How can you afford this?”
He said, “We get food stamps.”
Danny, who didn’t have two pennies to rub together, used his food stamps to buy me food so that I could eat.
I almost couldn’t accept the food.
But they insisted.

Elijah’s blessing
If I told you all the times that God provided for me throughout my life, we would be here until next week.
Each time, when God provides, it’s not just a hot dog or a slice of pizza for one night;
it’s a pantry full.
That’s God’s blessing for us — exponentially greater than anything we can do with human hands.
In our reading in 1 Kings this evening, we see that kind of exponential blessing come in an unlikely way and with unlikely results.
Who is being blessed here?
Elijah is a prophet of God, sent to restore Yahweh in the hearts of the Israelites, who have moved away from God and began worshipping other gods.
He’s way outside of the realm of Israel in Sidon — about 50 miles north of the Northern Kingdom at the time of Elijah.
Here, the people worship Ba’al, they make blood sacrifices, and they do all sorts of horrific things.
And here is where we find Elijah, who is doing his best to stay alive and do God’s work of being a prophet.
He’s hungry, he’s tired, and he’s weary.
And the Lord tells him to go to Zarephath, which is in Sidon, where he is to meet a widow who will feed him.
We hear often that God works in mysterious ways.
It’s really an empty cliche, most of the time.
But here, I wonder what Elijah’s thinking.
First, Elijah is probably thinking, “Sidon. Really, God?”
“Israel has enough of its own problems following you. Why would you bring me waaaaaaaaaay up here to address a whole lot of people who don’t even know you and who are NOT the chosen people!?!?”
So there’s one strike, right?
And the second comes as this: God tells Elijah to go find a widow…
Now, it’s important to know that on the ladder of society in the ancient middle eastern world, way down at the bottom — beneath slaves — were women.
But there was one rung on that ladder that’s lower, and that space is reserved for widows.
If there was no husband, you had nothing, no voice, no source of income, no one to help.
She was completely marginalized.
It’s a bit of a death sentence in that culture.
Knowing the widow probably has nothing, he goes to her anyway.
And now, we know, there are always three strikes and you’re out, right?
Here’s the pitch:
He does what God asks faithfully, and asks this foreigner who probably doesn’t know God or is an enemy of the Jews,
AND who probably has little or close to nothing because there has been a severe famine and drought in all the land,
he asks her, in verse 10 and 11: Bring me something to drink and a cake to eat.”
It doesn’t sound like much, but strike three comes when she replies that she was just gathering some sticks to make a fire to bake the last of the food she had, and then feed herself and her son one last time before they died of starvation.
Verse 12:
“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.”
It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it?

Out of ALL the people Elijah could have gone to for help, God choses not just someone who is living on the last rung in society,
and not only who is suffering herself,
but is just maybe another day away from starving to death along with her son.
If I’m Elijah, isn’t this the very last person you want to ask for food?
But Elijah stays faithful to God’s prompting, and he tells her to feed himself — a foreigner and stranger — first and to have faith in the God she doesn’t believe in while she and her son are about to die of starvation.
And for whatever reason, she doesn’t tell him to get lost;
instead, she brings him a cake and some water.
Then the miracle happens as Elijah pronounced:
Her food and water would not run out until the famine ended in all the land.

God provides
God provided, and God provides, again and again.
Who was blessed in this story?
Well, Elijah was blessed because he was hungry.
But Elijah had already seen God’s blessings and provision in his life.
If we were to read the chapter prior to this one, we would have seen Elijah fed by ravens from the sky.
Elijah has no reason to not trust that God would provide.
And, truth be told, he really didn’t have much choice in the deal either…
He knew the woman and her son would be blessed, too.
Why?
Well, Elijah could have just said, “Let me tell you about MY God.”
But he didn’t do that.
Instead, Elijah said, “Let me show you about my God.”
It took faith — desperate and doubtful as it might have been —
the widow had to give just a speck of faith, and then she was able to see and experience the blessing herself.
###
Isn’t it funny that up until this time, Elijah was a prophet of the God of Israel?
Caring for the spiritual well-being of God’s Chosen People?
And yet, here is the God of Israel caring for … the other.
Elijah learns — as does the widow — that God’s authority and love isn’t relegated to just one geographic area or one group of people;
but to anyone who believes.
Elijah was blessed with food — physical sustenance;
but Elijah was also blessed with a new understanding of just how BIG God is
— and he received spiritual sustenance.
After all, being a prophet wasn’t easy work.
And the widow received the blessing of food, too — physical sustenance.
And she and her son would live through the famine, and the when the crops in her fields returned, she would be sustained;
But she also was blessed with seeing, experiencing and knowing the God not just of the Jews, but of everyone.
God didn’t just provide a meal.
And God didn’t just provide another day of life.
God provided meals forever.
And God provided eternal life.

Today
So what do we learn from this about the way we are called to live today?
Well, is there anyone outside of the realm of God’s love?
No.
Just because they live in a different place or look different from us or believe in something else, should we ignore them?
No.
Just because they are on the lowest rung — or any rung, really — of society, is it OK when we marginalize them?
Certainly not.
Breaking bread with one another is one of the most profound gifts you can give a person, do you know that?
It doesn’t seem like it, but it really is.
Look at how we act in our world today:
We tend to sit and eat with those we know.
And it’s uncomfortable sometimes to sit and eat with those we don’t know.
There’s something maybe oddly sacred about the table, isn’t there?
In sharing food, in particular.
Think about it…
In our school days, who do we sit with?
 Or maybe we should ask: Who DON’T we sit with?
The outcast, the oddball, the different ones, right?
We do that as adults, too, don’t we?
See the table is a very social place.
But it can also be a very lonely place for those on the margins —
— whether those margins are high school cliques, societal norms or institutionalized structures kept in place to keep us apart.
Just something to chew on there…
Food for thought….
But when we break those barriers, beliefs, structures and cliques,
and when we let go of our preconceived notions, biases and prejudices,
well, that’s when God gets busy exponentially blessing us and those around us.

Acceptance
What I didn’t tell you about my construction crew in Florida — the four of us — was that three of them were Puerto Rican,
and the were really big, tough guys.
To this white guy from Upstate New York, they looked like gang members:
Bandanas, ripped shirts, lowrider cars, loud-talking, tattoos, and always speaking in Spanish, which I only understood marginally…
I was way outside of my element, to say the least.
I was the outsider, and let me tell you about working construction:
It’s not just that you’re a nice guy; you have to prove your worth and toughness.
And that’s how you fit in.
It’s a game of respect.
And it ain’t easy.
I was humble, I gave them a ton of respect, and I asked them for their help.
It took just one full work day, and the next day, they asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with them.
In the lowrider Datsun station wagon with these teeny-tiny wheels that stuck out 10 inches from the fenders.
Latin music blaring, windows down, monkey fur on the dashboard…
We hit up a taco truck.
And then we prayed before eating.
Sign of the cross and all.
Those guys were some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
And I was extremely blessed to be taken in as a part of their family.
They had very little, each of them.
Danny had a big family, and would later go through an incredibly painful divorce;
Able was HIV positive before AIDS drugs were available.
Carl was far, far away from home and his baby girl.
But what they had, they blessed me with.
Their food, and their faith.
And their acceptance.

Elijah goes on to live with the widow for some time.
And, in the very next chapter, he saves the life of her son, who contracts an illness.
He actually raises him from the dead, but that’s a story for another day.
They strengthen one another through God’s Spirit to not simply live another day,
but to live out their lives in faith,
and then living into eternity in the presence of God.
When we follow God’s will, we are allowing God to provide exponentially blessings in our lives, and the lives of others.
Let’s pray


 

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