A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 21, 2012
1 Kings 17:8-16 GNT
She was destitute, as were most widows in those days. Hers was a difficult, desperate life. She lived from “hand to mouth,” as the saying goes. In the ancient world, when women lost their husbands they were disenfranchised. The loss of a husband often meant the loss of community status and the loss of their livelihood. Often the result was widows were driven to begging, sometimes homelessness, perhaps even prostitution just to stay alive. Such is the way it could have been with the widow of Zarephath, who was living a destitute, difficult, desperate life.
Curiously, it is such a desperate woman that the Hebrew prophet Elijah felt moved to visit during a time of severe drought. This woman in 1 Kings 17 is described as a Phoenician; in other words, a non-Jew pagan who was probably a worshipper of Baal, the Canaanite fertility god. In fact, by going to Phoenicia, Elijah had entered the heart of Baal worship. Perhaps one of the points of this story is “God’s universal love reaches beyond the boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, and even religious affiliation.”1 Because this widow of Zarephath proved to be providential in caring for the prophet—providing him food, drink and shelter.
But when Elijah entered the village, the widow was gathering firewood to build a fire to cook the last handful of flour she had in a cake for herself and her son. They had planned to eat the cake, and then after that they expected to die of starvation. And then comes the shocking request. “First make a small loaf of bread for me,” the prophet demands. What a hard request he had uttered. How difficult the decision she had to make: Do I bake the cake for my starving son, or do I first feed this unknown stranger as he has requested?
What would we have done? Feed our child with what little bit of food we have left to give, or feed this total stranger off the street who comes claiming to be sent by God? If a cake needed to be baked, who would we feed first?
The widow chose to step out on faith. The prophet had promised that if she gave out of, in spite of, her want—from her place of need—she would be blessed. “The bowl will not run out of flour or the jar run out of oil” until the drought comes to an end and there is food again, he promised (17:14 GNT). And as the story goes, that is how it happened. All three—the widow, her son, and the prophet—continued to have flour and oil for baking cakes until there was food in the land again. “Where there was scarcity, there is suddenly sufficiency.”2 Desperation is turned into celebration. Now, don’t ask me to explain how this blessing came about. Did it literally happen as the writer says it did? Was there indeed a miracle? Or is there some other explanation for the flour and oil not running out for many days? But how the abundance came about is not really the point anyway.
The point is the widow gave from a place of need. There is a metaphor at work in this story, a metaphor having to do with cakes that need to be baked. Cakes needing to be baked can be a metaphor for those opportunities in our lives to give from our place of need in such a way that we will be blessed. Questions that arise from this story are many:
What cakes are needing to be baked in our own lives?
What things might we need to give up in order to make way for something better?
What sacrifices might we be called to make so as to bless the lives of others, just as the widow made a tremendous sacrifice in order to bless the life of the prophet?
What might these metaphoric cakes be?
The answers to these questions are personal and deep, and different for each of us. In reflecting on this passage, someone has said, “God may provide the flour, but we’ve got to do the baking.”3 Our job is to turn what meager bit of flour we have into cakesof blessing.
I was reminded this week of that beautiful and touching O Henry story about a young, poor, married couple named Jim and Della. This young couple scraped to barely get by. The only two possessions the young couple owned in which both of them took great pride was Della’s beautiful long hair that reached down to her knees, and Jim’s gold watch that had belonged to his father and grandfather.
Well, Christmas Eve rolled around, and Della wanted so badly to buy her Jim a nice present for Christmas. But all she had been able to save for months was $1.87. What could she buy with $1.87? She threw herself down on the couch and cried.
But then, a while later, Della had an idea. She put on her old brown jacket and her old brown hat and set off down the street. In no time at all, Della had $20 in her pocket, plus the $1.87 she had managed to save. She began ransacking the stores for the perfect Christmas present for her Jim. Finally she found it—a beautiful chain for his gold watch. The chain looked like Jim. It was made for her Jim and his gold watch. They took $21 from Della for the chain, so she hurried home gripping the chain in her hand and with only 87 cents left in her pocket.
Once home, Della excitedly waited for Jim to come home for supper. He was later than usual. Finally when Jim stepped in the door and fixed his eyes upon Della, immediately a peculiar expression came over his face. “You’ve cut off your hair?” Jim asked.
“Cut if off and sold it,” replied Della. You see, she had sold her hair to a salon that made and sold wigs.
“Your hair is gone?” Jim asked again, as though he couldn’t believe she had done it. Della explained she did it because it was Christmas Eve.
Jim pulled a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table. With nimble fingers Della tore at the string and paper. And when she saw what it was, there was a brief ecstatic scream of joy; and then a change to hysterical tears and wails. For in the box were The Combs—a set of beautiful, pure tortoise shell, jeweled combs. They were expensive combs. She had seen them, craved them, yearned over them, but without the least hope of ever possessing them. And now they were hers, but the beautiful hair that should have adorned the combs was gone. Her hair was nothing but short curls which almost made her look like a schoolboy.
As of yet, Jim had not seen his present. Della opened her palm and held out the beautiful watch chain. “Give me your watch,” Della said. “I want to see how it looks on it.” Instead of handing Della the watch, Jim fell down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head. “Della,” Jim said, “I sold the gold watch to get money to buy your combs.”
What a beautiful story of love and sacrifice. What a marvelous example of giving from a place of need. Giving when it is a sacrifice to give is the greatest giving of all.
The good news is what we might give from our own place of need, when pooled with what everyone else in our church gives, can go a long way to bless the lives of others. Most of you know that in the four and one-half years I have been at the United Church I have said very little about giving. But as our Board begins drafting a budget for 2013 and thinks about the programs we would like to continue and even expand in some cases, today I want to ask each of us to consider our level of giving, as well as where we stand on this current year’s pledges. In the past few years we have lost through death some of our long-time members who were generous in giving to our church’s programs. Since we are no longer receiving the financial gifts they regularly gave, it is showing in our monthly financial reports. As a church we do not want to move backward in our programs and ministries. We want to move forward. But it takes each of us giving regularly, consistently, and maybe a little sacrificially.
Thus, we are called to look at our own lives, and the life of our congregation, in search of un-thought-of blessings ready to break forth because we are willing to step out on faith in generosity and compassion. The thought for us to leave with this morning to mull over during the coming weeks is this: “In our own lives and in the life of our church, what cakes are needing to be baked—metaphorically speaking?” Can we, too, give from a place of need, so that we can be blessed, as was the poor widow of Zarephath? Amen.
1New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. III, p. 130.
3Homelitics June 2007, p. 54.