Jun 26th | The Reverend John Vanderzee | Luke 7:11-17
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Faez al Sharaa was sure he was going to die. He was walking to work in his hometown of Daraa, the southern Syrian city where the protests against President Bashar al-Assad first erupted. For young civilians like Faez, leaving the house in the spring of 2013 at the age of 25 had become a game of Russian roulette. Dozens were dying each day in the civil war between Assad’s forces and anti-government insurgents which now included ISIS fighters.
The ancient farming town of Daraa had become a grisly battlefield. Dissidents had disappeared. Children had been plucked off the streets for suspected anti-government activities, only to be tortured by authorities. On that Tuesday morning in late March, Faez was confronted by a group of Syrian army soldiers. They were looking for a man who had been spotted with a handgun. Faez and three others were detained and accused of being terrorists. Standing at gunpoint, his hands in the air, he recalls feeling furious with himself for risking the solo walk to work. “ We felt death upon us, and we accepted it,” he says now. “I can’t describe it in words.”
At that moment, an old woman barreled into the street, begging the gun-toting soldiers to spare these men. They were her son, her nephew, and her neighbors, the old woman pleaded.
The soldiers relented. This stranger who Faez had never seen had saved his life.
By the time Faez returned home that night from his job at a healthcare company, he had resolved to flee Syria. He talked it over with his wife, informed his mother, and then reached out online to an underground group known for smuggling Syrians into Jordan.
Again, Faez was fortunate: the smugglers had space in a private car to carry him and his wife to the border the next day. The couple packed their bags with clothing, photos from their wedding and a few keepsakes. The following morning, they walked out the door and left their life behind. (Cf, Time, Nov. 24, 2015)
In the end, Faez and his family are among the fortunate ones. An organization called the International Rescue Committee found a church in Dallas that was sponsoring Syrian refugees. Readjustment wasn’t easy, but Faez’s family found a new home. Thousands of refugee families could share similar stories, from those escaping bombed-out cities in Ukraine, to those facing economic and political chaos in Lebanon, to those trying to evade murderous gangs in El Salvador or Honduras.
We live in a world where desperate people find themselves in desperate situations every day. Not only refugees: there are people having to choose between food and medicine; families evicted from their homes and are on the street; women and men forced to seek shelter from an abusive spouse; a teen in the city feeling pressured to make a choice to find acceptance either in a local gang or a neighborhood church youth group; youth failing to find acceptance in social media outlets. At any moment we may find ourselves facing desperate times. Desperation can be as much a part of the Christian life as grace and joy and peace. Joyce Meyer wrote, “God wants you to be delivered from what you have done and from what has been done to you - both are equally important to God.”
Here we find Elijah in such a desperate situation. He had prophesied to King Ahab that because of Israel’s sin, famine would strike the land. Elijah was now fleeing for his life. God led him to a small, green oasis east of the Jordan called Wadi Cherith where the Lord supplied ravens to feed him as he drank from the river.
But eventually, Elijah became a victim of his own prophecy. The famine had finally come to pass. The Wadi dried up and there was no rain to replenish it. God then commanded Elijah to go to Zarephath where he would find a widow who would feed him.
Now Zarephath was in Sidon, which is the region where King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, came from. It was a land that did not know the God of Abraham but worshipped Baal instead. When Jezebel became queen of Israel, she brought the worship of Baal with her to Jerusalem. Obviously, this did not please God nor Elijah. So, imagine Elijah’s reaction when God told him to flee the wrath of the king and queen by going to Jezebel’s home territory. If we were in Elijah’s sandals at that moment we might be saying, “Wait, What?”
How often are we like those teenagers in that classic Geico commercial - desperate to be delivered from fear and dread but looking for rescue in all the wrong places: behind a curtain of chainsaws or in a shadowy, sinister cemetery. We don’t except the obvious gift of the abandoned running car or the well-lit house because it must be too good to be true. We, like Elijah, need to accept God’s offer of grace even when it doesn’t meet our standards of what deliverance should be.
I digress. By the time Elijah had reached the outskirts of the village, he looked like he had spent months in exile in the wilderness. He was worn and ragged. The famine had not let up and the widow’s food reserves had dwindled to a bare minimum.
Now put yourself in the widow’s shoes. She was minding her own business gathering sticks to prepare a fire to cook one last meal for her and her son, when a wild-looking man approaches her and asks for water and bread to eat. She informs Elijah that she was just now getting ready for their meager swan song meal and didn’t have enough to share. Of all the gall, Elijah!
But the prophet told her to trust him and the God who sent him, because God would not allow the flour or the oil needed for baking to run out until the famine was over. By now, the widow had figured out that this was the man that the God of Abraham had told her about in a dream. So, she prepared the meal for the three of them that day, and the day after that, and the day after that for as long as the famine lasted. God was true to God’s word, and the jar of meal did not become empty, and the oil did not run out.
Desperate times were relieved by divine action, and all was well again. . . for a while. Suddenly one night, the widow’s son became ill and on the brink of death. She saw this as an act of God, so she took it out on Elijah. “What have you against me, O man of God that you have come to me and brought my sin to remembrance and my son is now dead.” It was commonly felt by people back then that sickness came as a result of someone’s sin, and so the widow felt convicted.
I’m reminded of the story in the Gospel of John where Jesus and his disciples came upon a man born blind and the disciples asked him “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And here we are about to witness the same thing now only several hundred years earlier. Human sin, if it was a factor here at all, was no barrier to what was soon to happen.
First what does Elijah do? He takes the same complaint the widow made to him and takes it to God. “Why, O God, have you brought this calamity on the widow with whom I’m staying by killing her son?”
Then Elijah’s anger toward God turns to passionate intercession. “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come back to him again.” And Elijah does what might seem to modern ears like CPR. He stretches himself over the boy three times. The boy’s life is restored, and he gives him back to his mother. The widow responds in gratitude and faith, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord is true.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples with a large crowd in tow come to the edge of a Galilean town and we find a similar desperate situation. The son of a widow was being carried out of a home, and the widow was in obvious and understandable distress. Not only is her son dead, but her own future as a widowed, childless woman is in serious jeopardy. Jesus tenderly and compassionately looked upon the woman in her distress and comforts her. But he doesn’t stop there. He turns a desperate moment into hope once again when he tells the dead boy to get up and he does, and he begins to speak. The mother and all who witnessed it praised God.
Two stories, two widows in desperate straits, two acts of God, the same result. Lives are restored and God is glorified.
While widows and orphans are a major source of concern in Scripture, they are also metaphors for physical and emotional poverty. How many around us, maybe even some here, are that widow and that child, literally or figuratively? How many around us including ourselves at times feel lost, hopeless, grief stricken, hungry for something beside the tangibles of daily living? How many of us are desperate if not for the next meal, perhaps for a life drizzled with a little grace, a crumb of comfort, a particle of healing, a morsel of justice?
How many around us, including ourselves are poor in spirit if not poor in resources and long for a future of promise and hope? We don’t have to look far for a case in point. Aren’t we all poor before God? Aren’t we all widowed and orphaned in spirit?
Yes, more than we care to admit, we are that widow today, desperate for food that will satisfy and for life that conquers death of all sorts: the death of a beloved pastor and friend; the death of a parent, a spouse, a partner. The death of a person who we are not aware of their significance in our lives until their passing. The death of a long-held dream; and all those little deaths we endure that keep adding up. But God’s favor has always rested on the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, who are biblical symbols of all kinds of people with all kinds of needs in every generation. Yet our trust in God leads us to sing with Psalm 146:
Praise the Lord . . . who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. . . watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow.
But just as we are often in need of God’s deliverance, we are also called to be agents of liberation and healing. We are conduits of divine activity when we volunteer for the United Caring Services, or contribute to Little Lambs. We participate in God’s liberation when we repair bicycles, tutor teens, or help with the children’s summer program at Patchwork Central.
We engage in God’s comfort when we take time to listen to the stories of the bereaved who fear their loved one will be forgotten. We provide hospitality and acceptance when we welcome the ill-clad stranger into our worship or a refugee family into our community. We speak out against policies that drastically limit the many refugees from Syria, Ukraine, Lebanon, western Africa and elsewhere from coming into the United States. We contribute to God’s deliverance and justice when we walk alongside a woman into the clinic who feels she cannot bring a child into a world of poverty or violence or neglect.
Recall once again how the widow of Zarephath, who had barely a meal left for herself and her son, brought water and oil and bread to Elijah, and God rewarded her with a tin of meal and a flask of oil that did not run out until the crisis had passed.
Likewise, in God’s name, when we bring water, oil, and bread and other basics of living to the hungry and homeless and encouragement to the disheartened, we too may be touched in ways we cannot imagine from the very ones who receive our care.
Recall that the author of the Book of Hebrews challenges us: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Cf, Hebrews 13:2)
Abraham Lincoln was believed to have said this about people in desperate straits: “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” Jesus would say, when you reach the end of your rope, just let go. God is waiting with open arms. May we as Christ’s church reach out our arms of love to the representational widow and orphan in our midst. Who knows the blessing we may receive in return?
To God be all honor and praise and glory.