Last week, if you were listening closely to the story of Elijah . . . how he challenges Ahab into a contest between his prophets of Baal and himself . . . how he ridicules the prophets of Baal when they cannot stir him from his slumber to light the sacrificial fire . . . how he rubs their noses in it by dousing his sacrifice with water—not once, but three times, and then proceeds to have his God light the fire . . . if you were listening closely to that story, you should have gotten some sort of an image of who Elijah is. Elijah is one bad dude.
Elijah, as the messenger for God, does not bring “good news” to the people . . . no, he brings a warning: “Shape up, or else!” With drama, gloom, and doom pronouncements he brings the fear of God straight to the people. Elijah is a crusty sort of a fella who states it like it is, and tells the people to come back to God or else. He tells the people that they should “be afraid! Be very afraid!” Elijah lets the people know that Yahweh, their God, does not mess around. Elijah is one bad guy. King Ahab calls him a trouble maker.
You kind of get that sort of an image about Elijah . . . but, then, you hear the story from this morning’s reading. The big, bad dude goes off and tells some poor old widow, “Do not be afraid.” Now, this story is actually a prequel to our story last week. Our story this morning happens before the big contest we heard about last week. God likes to grab peoples’ attention, thus a drought is put upon the land in hopes that the people will listen to what Elijah has to say. Things dry up pretty well, and Elijah has to come out of hiding to find food and water in order to survive. Thus God sends him to Zarephath in Sidon—the land from which Ahab’s wife, and the real culprit in this story, comes from. God sends him to a widow to find food and water.
Drought has a funny effect upon the land . . . with no water, the plants cannot grow . . . when the plants do not grow, there is no food to eat. The widow that Elijah is directed to go to for food and water knows the full effects of drought—she is down to the last of her flour and oil—she only has enough for her son and herself. Like Elijah, she is in pretty dire straits too; but, Elijah does as he is told. He finds the widow and asks for food.
The woman balks at the request . . . she is desperate and knows that what she has left could be the last meal that she and her son eat before dying. She balks because it is a foreigner—a stranger in her land—seeking that which she needs to survive, even if it is only for a little while. She balks because this guy has the gall to ask her to help him when she has nothing really to offer. It would be safe to say that she is reluctant, and Elijah tells her, “Do not be afraid!” I imagine she probably thought to herself, “That is easy for you to say . . . my son and I are the ones going to die!” She just wants to do what it takes to eat and live a little while longer.
She does as Elijah tells her. She goes and prepares bread for Elijah . . . she feeds him. Surprisingly the flour never runs out . . . the oil never disappears . . . there is always just enough for all of them to eat. Just as Elijah said there would be . . . just as God had promised. In the little, there is enough so that all may eat.
One of the big topics making its way through the ranks of the faithful is the call to hospitality . . . the call to be hospitable to the stranger . . . to be welcoming to others. That is the theme our partnership ministry is focusing on for the next year . . . that is a topic that our congregation has been talking about for quite a while now. It is a “hot” topic and it deserves our attention. As such, I find this reading to be about the topic of hospitality. Some of you may disagree, but I think that it has a lot to say to us about hospitality . . . about welcoming the stranger . . . about welcoming others and drawing the circle ever bigger to include all of God’s children.
So, let’s talk about hospitality. For over 30 years, there is one thing that still amazes about ministry, and that is the church potluck. And, what amazes me is that I have witnessed countless potluck dinners, in countless churches, in many different states, in which there was always more than enough food to feed everyone with leftovers to take home. Every time! The reason that this amazes me is that every time I witness the offerings brought to a potluck dinner, size up the crowd, my doubting Thomas kicks in and I start to worry about whether or not there will be enough to feed everyone. After all of these years of witnessing the miracle of potlucks, you would think that I would relax and not worry. There is always an abundance, always more than enough. That is what Elijah tells the worrisome widow: There is enough, more than enough.
What happens when we think that there is not enough, we don’t practice hospitality . . . we don’t invite the stranger . . . we don’t put the extra plate at the table . . . we don’t encourage others to join us. Instead we either discourage them, tell them there is a pancake feed at the Lutheran church, or we say nothing. It should be no surprise then that in this day and age of tough times that for some of us, we are not the most hospitable people . . . we are not hospitable because we are worried that there is not enough for ourselves, and surely not for anyone else. Thus it is a little scary to invite others to join us . . . so we defer or we remain quiet. Neither one is very hospitable.
In our story, the woman does not have enough . . . barely enough to feed herself and son a last meal . . . but, she follows the words of Elijah . . . there is plenty for all those who are gathered. The woman feeds a stranger who is far from home . . . she welcomes him in, begrudgingly . . . and, there is enough, more than enough so that all may eat. So, it is with us.
The church . . . the body of Christ in this time and place . . . should always be a buffet to the world in which it exists. It should be one huge potluck for those who need to be fed . . . for those who need to be included . . . for those who need a place to be safe, cared for, and loved . . . for those no one else wants. It is not a private party, it is a virtual smorgasbord. A smorgasbord that never runs out of food . . . that never runs dry . . . that has an abundance and much, much more. Through hospitality the miracle of abundance appears . . . whether it is actual food or the love of God . . . there is always enough, more than enough.
So, why then are we . . . God’s children . . . scared to be hospitable? Is it because we are scared there won’t be enough for ourselves let alone anyone else? If that is the case, then we do not have faith . . . we do not believe. Is it because we want to keep it for ourselves . . . throw it into our collections of everything else we can hoard? If so, then again, we do not have faith . . . we do not live out the words we proclaim to believe. Elijah says, “Do not be afraid. God will provide. There is enough. There is more than enough.” But, you will never know until you take the risk, invite another in, and be hospitable. That is the word of the Lord . . . not mine, not Elijah’s, but the Lord’s.
Out of the crusty words of Elijah . . . that tough dude . . . comes the gentle words of assurance from God: Do not be afraid. All shall eat . . . there is more than enough . . . invite another and find out for yourselves. Amen.