Thanks Giving Stories
1 Kings 17:8-16
March 7, 2010
He couldn’t have come at a worse time. The widow walked near the city gates, near the boundaries of insider and outsider. She collected dry vegetation that she might make a fire, cook the remainder of her food and consume and wait as she and her children slowly died. The widespread drought made survival unlikely for this family at the lowest end of the spectrum. The man calling to her was not a neighbor. He was not even a beggar known within the city gates. He was an outsider. He had traveled far outside his comfort zone. Perhaps she had heard the reports of the prophet who went to the King of Israel and declared this drought. After all, the Queen in Israel, Jezebel, had come from her parts. Maybe this declarer of doom and destruction had encroached upon this land to taunt the queen on her home court.
“Give me something to drink.” He called to her. Didn’t he know that Baal had fallen asleep and there had been no rain. How did he have the audacity to believe she could spare something as valuable as water. She turned, though, without hesitation to bring him some water. As she he did, he called to her again. She must have flinched when he said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” Give a prophet a vessel of water and he’ll ask for a morsel of bread. Only a Hebrew prophet could be so intrusive.
She wheeled on him and said, “As the LORD your God lives.” A little technical note to explain here—look at your Bible. In the Old Testament, you will sometimes see the word “lord” in lowercase letters. That means that the word lord is being used like we use the word “sir.” Sometimes it is capitalized as a sign of a proper name of respect. But most of our modern translations will place the word LORD in all caps when the Hebrew Manuscript uses the name YHWH—the proper name for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Notice as you’re reading passages in the Old Testament the way LORD—YHWH–is used. Somehow she knew the name of the God of Israel. “As the LORD your God lives.” She could believe in a living God but one that took his side over hers. “As the Lord our God lives. I have nothing. I have nothing baked, a handful of meal in a jar, a little oil in a jug. It’s our last meal—mine and my son’s—I am about to go home, prepare it and then we will die.”
“Do not be afraid,” he said. “Go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me.” Wasn’t he listening? A little cake was all she would be able to make. How much “littler” cake did he think she could make with the handful of flour and small portion of oil. She had little reason to trust even the people she knows, for though she should have been at least partially provided for by her community she had been left vulnerable. He continued, “For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” There was a tremendous risk involved for the widow. This prophet had denounced her homeland’s princess. He had declared the word of a foreign God. He had come asking for water and food in the midst of a drought. He didn’t ask the wealthy members of the community. He called out the most vulnerable—the one closest to the city gates, the one on the margin of her community. He asked for the living of one who was dying.
Perhaps she believed that this promise could come true. After all, she was able to believe that his God lives.
But the risk was great—she risked her inclusion within the city gates, her life
and the life of her son. And yet, there is a painful beauty in the hospitality of dying souls. Victor Frankl, the Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” (quoted in What Color is Your Parachute, p. 33). And like others who take great risks with only the faintest hint of a possible reward, “She went and did as Elijah said. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that God spoke by Elijah”
There’s a story to preface this one—after Elijah pronounced the drought he lived near a spring and was fed by Ravens—unclean animals according to religious tradition but still used by God. On the other end of the chapter her story has a dramatic conclusion. After a few days of eating well on the miraculous meal and oil, the woman’s son still became quite ill. She feared he might die and became accusatory of Elijah. He came to the point where he had little breathe in him. And she lashed out against him and against herself, “You have come” she said, “to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Elijah too revealed his fear and vulnerability to God. “LORD,” he prayed, “this woman opened her house to me. Have you opened up calamity to her? O LORD, my God, let this child breathe life again.” And he did. When she received her living son back into her arms, she declared, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD is in your mouth is true.” Provide bread and oil and a person might put up with you in her house; bring life back to a mother’s only son and she’ll believe in your God.
The three stories in 1 Kings 17 belong together. Together they declare: The LORD God and no other god is the one who controls the winds, commands the ravens, enables the widow, revives the dead. The first move in this text is to declare that it is the LORD God and no other God who is the one true God. The LORD God demonstrates tremendous freedom in acting by using animals regarded as unclean, people regarded as incapable, and even sons who have passed away.
The second move is to acknowledge that God’s grace does not respect political, cultural, or even religious boundaries. Jesus interprets this text in Luke 4:25-26 to show that God is not limited in God’s favor to any particular group of people. We live in a world of increasing pluralism and in response to the “outsiders” who want to come into our city gates, drink our water and have the audacity to ask for bread, we are tempted to respond with insulation, boundary-fortification, and distance. We live in a world of perceived scarcity which tempts us to hoard and withdraw. By recounting the terrifying headlines and failing to declare the abundance of God, we place limits on the hopes we have. The woman took a risk to speak to an outsider. She risked sharing what little she had. And in return she encountered the living presence of the God of all creation.
There’s a part of us—or at least a part of me—that wants a third and concluding move in this story: thanksgiving. Only, the woman never reaches that point. She only goes as far as to acknowledge that Elijah speaks the word of the Lord. She no longer identifies the LORD as “your” God but expresses simple faith that Elijah is a man of God and speaks truth from the LORD. That’s great, but where’s the gratitude? Where’s the thanksgiving song? After all, she survived the drought and her son was revived all through God’s gracious act. Yet, when stories end like this they are left open for our response. She is neither openly grateful nor openly ungrateful. She goes as far as acknowledging truth and then is silent. Perhaps the word of thanksgiving can be on our lips.
We too have received the gracious gift of God: we have received the Son of God—the bread of life, the water from the well that will never run dry. I resonate with this woman collecting sticks to boil and eat so that she can feel full until she dies. No, I’ve never faced that kind of hunger. Not even close. But I have known that sort of futility and frustration. And in the face of that—life is what you do while you’re waiting to die—experience, God has touched my life with purpose. God has revealed to me these extraordinary moments of grace and beauty. The gift of Jesus Christ is that in the midst of scarcity we can know the abundance of God’s grace and in the face of strangers we can see a neighbor: a Samaritan willing to help, a Melchizadek offering bread, a widow willing to give the hospitality of a dying soul. And yet, how often do we talk about that? How often do we express our thanksgiving?
Annette Simmons teaches people in a business setting to pay attention to the stories they tell. What she has to say about our career interactions makes a lot of sense in the context of worship. She begins with the belief that people understand who we are by the stories we tell. She is building on a forty year old movement known as “narrative theory” that says not only do other people know who we are based on the stories we tell but we know who we are by the stories we tell. She asks people to think about the stories they tell. Most of us must admit that we do not tell stories when we are “happy, productive, and at our best” we tell stories when we are “disappointed and frustrated.” “The times we seek attention,” she writes, “are the times when we think correction needs to be made.” She goes on to say, “If we were to judge by the stories most people tell on a daily basis we would conclude they are stressed-out, misunderstood victims here to survive red tape and stupid decisions. They pine for retirement or the firings of a certain individual, and they believe that the ‘haves’ couldn’t care less about the ‘have nots’. They unconsciously tell stories that ensure coworkers learn that no amount of effort is going to change things because they’ve already tried and failed” (Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins? p. 23). That’s what Simmons says in a workplace environment. What might she have said had she been in Sunday School? Or Committee Meeting? Or listened in on your phone calls?
Complaint and anxiety–the dribble of cable news commentators tell the stories that say in face of scarcity and migration our salvation comes from hoarding for ourselves and shielding ourselves from others. Thanksgiving intentionally tells another story—in face of the chaos of our experiences we have known a God’s grace. We have met prophets with true words, wells without dryness, dying souls with hospitality. People we thought couldn’t have come at a worse time; who asked for things we didn’t think we have; turn out to come at just the right time with just what we need in that moment. And even within ourselves we have found a strength we didn’t know we possess. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” Thanks be to God.
Andrew Sullivan’s Easter Week cover article was provocative and deserves a response. Here is part 1 of three responses.
I found Sandhya Jha’s recent post on gender really helpful, thoughtful and it sparked a flood of thoughts for me. It did not feel like “old news” to me. I wrote the following response directly to her. It got long, so I thought I’d post it here.
I chuckled with her reference to “Very progressive man.” My first thought was—oh, good—she’s not talking about me. Then I retreated where I usually do in these conversations to saying, “We’re not the ones you need to convince. Other women are the biggest obstacle. Convince them.” That was the first point of conviction for me. Because as soon as I thought that I though about often I let other men intimidate me. I’m not successful at persuading them. I’m often not courageous enough to try. So, I need to quit using that cop out line or else accept that if feminist women are responsible for the non-feminist women then I have to accept responsibility for persuading the unrepentant men (Oh Brother).
I think a lot of times “Progressive Men” try to appear feminist but don’t actually get there. I’ve been struck by a few of my strong feminist friends who married somewhat conservative almost red-neck men. The thought that occurred to me is that a lot of the most conservative, politically insensitive people I know are very respectful in one-on-one relationships with their wives and in fact everyone they meet. They don’t try to prove that they aren’t sexist they have an ethic of respect. It’s the weirdest thing that some of the nicest people, most willing to help folk around here are Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly fans. I simply don’t get it.
It shouldn’t surprise me, though. I know that there is a profound difference between what my “ideology” says and the feelings and motivations generated by synapses, hormones, and hardwiring. I am Romans 7 walking around in the 21st Century. That’s not an attempt to divert responsibility just a way of saying responsibility for actions means more than changing ideology. As you said, “Your desire for me to feel completely liberated . . . .” Right. There’s a long and arduous—not so straight but definitely narrow—road from good intentions to healthier interactions and systems.
Which leads me to say that part of what has to happen now is the development of simpler norms. You’re final point is where my anxiety kicks in—there are different kinds of feminism. As an aside, I’ll say, I have always been of the opinion that men cannot be truly feminist and the white middle-class cannot be liberationist. It has to do with my understanding of theological anthropology (or psychology). I believe that self-deception, which ideology often leads to, is one of the biggest barriers to wholeness. I believe that we must be constantly vigilant about our participation in injustice or to put the word simply—sin. I can be informed by feminism but to claim to be a feminist too easily drifts into self-deception that I have conquered all my sexist tendencies. So when I decline to claim my own feminism in the conversation, it’s not because I disagree. Aside over.
The challenge now is that with the diverse opinions about how gender should be thought about and lived out, it is much more difficult to know how to respond. If it’s dark outside and one of my women colleagues is still in the building. Do I offend her autonomy by waiting until she’s done to see that she makes it to the car safely (our zip code—76010–has problems to rival any inner-city neighborhood) OR is it just showing respect per your point #1 (BTW, I know my colleagues well enough to know to stay. They know me well enough to tell me if they think I’ve crossed a line and said or done something insensitive). Simple actions of “chivalry” become complicated internal dialogues for many men who are trying to be (or appear) non-sexist. That’s an isolated example of what happens all the time. Somewhere in the attempts to appear non-sexist we have stopped using language like the language one of your commenters posted. We don’t say to boys, “Be a gentlemen and treat ladies with respect.” It sounds patronizing and archaic. I heard a discussion a few weeks ago on NPR (can’t remember which show) where the women in the discussion said they didn’t like the term “ladies.” Really? Someone please explain how we’re supposed to keep this straight. Paradigm shifts create stages where old norms have fallen away but new norms have yet to emerge. Maybe that’s where we’re living but, in the absence of clear norms particularly as it relates to the education of boys the vacuum will be filled with the sort garbage we’ve heard recently.
Finally, and somewhat unrelated to the preceding, the Fluke controversy was tragic. Limbaugh’s rhetoric was some of the worst I’ve ever heard. Frankly, I think we need to have a conversation about religious liberty and to what extent the first amendment protects the policies of religious affiliated organizations. Personally, I think an insurance company should regard birth control as essential. I see it as preventative medicine and I think insurance companies would do well to be more aggressive with promoting preventative medicine. But, whether companies should be compelled by law to implement policies that are morally problematic for their shareholders is a lot more complicated than it appears. Fluke deserved a serious and nuanced response and serious scrutiny. What she got instead was a pundit willing to simplify it below the waist (where a man’s brain is a lot of the time) and drive it straight to the gutter. In doing so, he severely crippled people like myself who think that Fluke’s arguments deserve some heavy counter-argument and dialogue. Not on moralistic grounds about sex but on constitutional grounds about the extent of religious freedom and freedom of conscious in our complex interdependent context. Unfortunately, any male adversary to Fluke’s argument will now get coupled with Limbaugh’s rant and be dismissed out of hand as sexist.