Sunday’s sermon: Gritty Hope

Text used – 1 Kings 17:1-16

  • The classic 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem called “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”[1] You’ve probably heard it, or at least are familiar with the first line of it:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

  • I’ve always loved this poem because it paints such a beautiful, delicate picture of hope. Hope, the tender little bird perched in the soul. Hope, the light, uplifting melody echoing in the dark. Hope, the warm and welcoming fire that keeps out the chill. That’s the kind of hope that I picture with Emily Dickinson’s poem, and I think a lot of the time, that’s the way that we think about hope in general.
    • Hope that comes with a new phase of life → new home, new job, new relationship, new baby, etc.
      • Hope of endless possibilities and open doors
      • Hope that is effervescent and brilliantly bright
      • Hope that bubbles and sparkles with excitement and joy overflowing
      • Hope that anticipates all good things
  • But that’s not the kind of hope we find in our Scripture reading this morning. In this story, we encounter the grittier, grungier side of hope. → see the same gritty, urgent, audacious hope in both of the main characters this morning: Elijah, the prophet and the widow of Zarephath
    • First, Elijah → prophet sent by God to deliver words of condemnation and a call to repentance to King Ahab
      • Ahab = king of the northern kingdom of Israel in late-to-mid-800s BCE
        • Evil king
        • Married to Jezebel → leads Ahab to abandon worshiping God and instead establish the Canaanite religion of Ba’al in Israel
        • So not only has Ahab himself turned away from God, but he’s led the entire nation of Israel to turn away from God as well.
      • Hence Elijah’s call to be God’s prophet – to declare the word of God in the face of such widespread and state-led idolatry. And so we open with Elijah’s words for Ahab in our passage today: this threat of a national drought so severe that “there will be neither dew nor rain these years until I say so.”[2] Not surprisingly, this declaration infuriates Ahab and Jezebel so much that Elijah is forced to flee.
      • Today’s reading = Elijah running for his life → God instructs Elijah to run and hide himself by the Cherith Brook, reassuring him that the ravens will bring him food → And so Elijah heads into the wilderness. And since he’s relying on the brook for his water and the ravens for his food, I think we can assume he fled with little to nothing. The clothes on his back, and God in his heart. Imagine the desperate hope Elijah must have been clinging to throughout this ordeal.
        • Hope that the birds will come the next day … and the next … and the next
        • Hope that God will not forget him
        • Hope that Ahab and Jezebel’s agents won’t find him
        • Hope tinged with the fearful knowledge and reality that the brook providing the water that’s keeping him alive will certainly dry up because of God’s words from Elijah’s own mouth: “there will be neither dew nor rain these years until I say so.”
      • And in fact, that’s exactly what happens: After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land. The Lord’s word came to Elijah: Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon, and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. Elijah left and went to Zarephath.[3]
    • And so we are introduced to the other character in desperate need of hope in today’s story: the widow of Zarephath. The woman with literally nothing left. Nothing but a tenacious and tattered scrap of hope.
      • Elijah encounters the widow collecting sticks outside the town gate → asks her for water → when she brings him water, Elijah goes a step further (giant step!) and asks for some bread as well
      • Widow’s own description of her circumstances is chillingly bleak: “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 at the last of the food and then die.”[4]
        • A couple of interesting things to notice about this enigmatic widow
          • FIRST: as a woman from Zarephath, she was surely not an Israelite (Zarephath = modern-day Lebanon on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, roughly 100 mi north of the border between Israel and Sidon) → see this “otherness” when she says to Elijah, “the Lord your God”
          • BUT: she is clearly someone that God has interacted with in some way
            • Yes, she says, “The Lord your God,” but when she says that, uses the sacred Hebrew name for God. She calls God “Yahweh,” a name that was only used between God and the people of Israel.
            • Remember God’s word to Elijah on the dried-up banks of Cherith Brook: Get up and go to Zarephath … I have ordered a widow there to take care of you.[5]
              • Heb. in this phrase is fraught with layers and meanings to wrestle with: “take care of” carries connotations of a task that needs to be endured, but at the same time “ordered” carries connotations of a direct command but also a blessing → It’s a complicated and complex statement. It seems that God knows this particular command is not going to be easy for this foreign widow, but God also ensures that there will be blessing in the midst of this challenge. There will be goodness. There will be hope.
      • And indeed, Elijah brings a miracle and brings this nameless, Gentile widow hope. – text: Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. This is what Israel’s God the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t fun out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. The jar of flour didn’t decrease, nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.[6]
  • Confession: I find this to be a really, really uncomfortable Biblical story because of what Elijah does here. This widow is at the bottom of the social ladder. She’s just told Elijah that she literally has nothing left. And yet Elijah asks of her. “Before you make your last bit of food for yourself and your son, make some for me. Feed me first, then take care of yourselves.” Yes, I know that it works out alright in the end. Yes, I know that Elijah was acting on God’s behalf. But it still sits prickly and troublesome in my soul, especially in the face of the poverty and injustice suffered by so many across this country and around the world today.
    • Scholar put pointed and powerful words to this discomfort: Too many around us are that widow or that child, literally or figuratively. Too many around us feel lost, hopeless, hungry, and thirsty for something beyond the tangibles of daily living, for more than meager leftovers, scraps of food, love, and justice. Many feel there is simply no one willing to empower them with healing and grace.[7] → Too many feel that loss of hope. Too many feel that hope is beyond their reach. Or at best, too many are only acquainted with the grittier side of hope – the desperate, slogging-through-the-mud, last chance kind of hope.
      • Hope that is more like molasses than the effervescent bubbles of champagne
      • Hope that is more frayed and tattered than gleaming and brilliant
      • Hope that is more like a quickened pulse than an outright, joy-filled laugh
      • Hope that has been tempered and knocked down and stripped nearly away so many times that it is a mere shred
  • Friends, we are still in the throes of a global pandemic. The numbers around us are rising rapidly. Our healthcare workers are exhausted and overwhelmed. Our teachers are frantically doing everything they can to teach while keeping a classroom full of masked kids safe. And we have been apart from each other for so long … with no sure end in sight. Friends, we are facing Election Day this week at a time, as Rev. Dr. Nishioka said last week, when our country is more politically divided and hostile than it has been since the Civil War. The constant political rhetoric is ruining relationships left and right: between neighbors, between friends, between families. Friends, our black, indigenous, people of color neighbors are crying out for justice and paying for those cries with the blood of their bodies and with their very lives while white supremacist groups march openly through the streets armed to the teeth. I don’t know about you, but my hope feels fragile. It feels brittle. It feels more like Elijah’s hope along the bed of that dried up creek. It feels more like the hope of the widow gathering the last sticks to make her last meal. It’s not that bubbly, effusive, joy-overflowing kind of hope. It’s the kind of hope that you fiercely cling to by your fingertips, not the kind of hope that you gently shelter in the palm of your hand. But it is still hope.
    • Scripture this morning is so important because it reminds us that God still makes space for that darker, dingier side of hope as well as the sparkling, pie-in-the-sky kind
    • Recently read a book called Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang (director of International Justice Mission’s Institute for Biblical Justice): God is so greatly concerned with injustice that [God] continually invites [God’s] children to face darkness for the purpose of sending us in to scatter it. As we choose to face grave darkness in our broken world, one of the best ways to combat our own pendulum swinging between apathy on the one hand and despair on the other is to also intentionally choose hope. Hope can be impotently naïve and moorless when pursued as nothing more than a sentimental wish. But when hope in grounded in the reality of who God is and the reality of how God works in our world, it becomes a source of great power in the face of even the darkest circumstances.[8] → “Intentionally choose hope.” It doesn’t have to be perfect hope. It doesn’t have to be pretty hope. It doesn’t have to be big hope. It can be the smallest, most tattered scrap of hope you have left. But for God, that is enough. Amen.

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42889/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-314.

[2] 1 Kgs 17:1.

[3] 1 Kgs 17:7-10a.

[4] 1 Kgs 17:12.

[5] 1 Kgs 17:9.

[6] 1 Kgs 17:13-16.

[7] Gláucia Vasconcelos Wilkey. “Proper 5 (Sunday between June 5 and June 11 inclusive) – 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24): Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 100.

[8] Bethany H. Hoang. Deepening the Soul for Justice. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 26.

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