Three years ago, I traveled from Israel to an amazingly beautiful desert area beyond the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. It is called Wadi Rum. A “wadi” is a creek bed that is often dry but runs deep with water after a rain storm. The prophet Elijah was told by God in 1 Kings to go east of the Jordan during a time of drought to a wadi named “Cherith” so that he would in the right place when the rain came. In Wadi Rum, Leroy and I had engaged the services of a tour guide from the local Bedouin tribe to show us the region that is remarkably like Moab with rock arches and red rocks and red sand. The movie “Lawrence of Arabia” starring Peter O’Toole was filmed there in 1962. Our guide’s father had been proudly cast as an extra. We had done our research, and we were not surprised by the beautiful terrain we saw on our tour. What did surprise us was an invitation to attend the engagement party of our tour guide’s son. We were given head scarves called “kafiyahs” and we hoped that we would blend in with the locals – ha! We witnessed the blessing of the engagement by the families and sat on the floor and drank a lot of tea. That is how hospitality works in the deserts of the Middle East. If you are there, for whatever reason, you are an honored guest and nothing is withheld from you.
Elijah’s providential hiding place in the wadi worked out well until the last rain fell and the last bits of water dried up. The famine went on for years. The text says that the “word of the Lord” then came to Elijah. He was familiar with that word, and had previously delivered a message to the pagan king Ahab whose worship of the god Baal angered YHWH so much that a famine was announced. Now the famine had caught up with even Elijah, God’s servant and God’s mouthpiece. Elijah was hungry, and this time the word of the Lord told him to go beyond the boundaries of Israel to the home of a widow. Hospitality rules being what they were, the widow would be expected to provide a meal for her famished guest.
The problem was that the widow was no better off than Elijah. Not only was she hungry, but she had a son who was barely alive from lack of nourishment. Their situation was so desperate that the widow did not immediately welcome Elijah, despite the norms of hospitality. The text implies that she was expecting him because God had already spoken to her. Despite that, the guest linens were not spread on the table, and she blurted out that she had nothing to offer. All she had was a little flour and a few drops of oil, certainly not enough to share. She was about to prepare a final, meager meal for her son and herself before they died of starvation.
What would you do if you were her? Would you open up your arms to a stranger and say, “Sure, make yourself at home while I prepare a lovely dinner? Thank you for coming!” That’s what Elijah was expecting. I don’t blame the woman for her reluctance, even if God had told her to welcome Elijah. The fact that on meeting her he immediately demanded water and bread probably didn’t help the situation. He doesn’t come across as someone you would want as a guest in your home. But maybe he wasn’t as much of an oaf as he seems on paper.
A few years ago, an environment justice group called Oxfam produced a film titled “Sisters on the Planet.” It detailed the lives of five women in different parts of the world. One of them was Martina in Uganda. Increasingly unreliable weather has meant that Martina and other women have had to work even harder to provide water and food for their families. Floods and droughts are destroying their crops, and they have to walk long distances to collect water and firewood. Martina and her community have successfully campaigned for a well closer to their village, shortening their daily walk from 7 hours to 30 minutes. The opening segment of the film shows Martina gathering sticks to make a fire to cook whatever meager food she can find. It is eerily like the encounter between Elijah and the widow as the widow picked up sticks at the gate of her town to build a fire for her last meal.
Our study this past winter of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment emphasized the disproportionate affect that climate change has on the poor of our planet. The kind of drought and resulting famine reported in 1 Kings is a daily reality for many people throughout our world. The story of the widow and her son is therefore very current and will likely become more common with the passing of time. It makes me wonder if we are prepared to both change our patterns of consumption and assist those who are most vulnerable in the common plight we face on this planet?
The widow had very little left. Elijah persuaded her to look past her scarcity and fear and make a small cake with the flour and oil. It wasn’t the kind of cake we’ll enjoy during coffee hour. It certainly wasn’t two layers with buttercream frosting. It was probably just a little lump of fried dough. She offered it to Elijah. The promise that came with the widow’s action is that she would be able to keep cooking and the flour would never run out and the remaining drops of oil would keep pouring from the jar as long as there was famine. Little became much.
How can our little become much? How can we move in our thinking from scarcity to abundance?
The CUCC Pine Ridge Service and Learning Team left Boulder about two hours ago. I will be scurrying out after worship today to catch up with them in South Dakota, hopefully in time for dinner. We met on Wednesday evening to talk about final arrangement for our week away. One of our discussion topics was what we might anticipate as we encounter poverty that is more severe than we may have seen before. The counties that make up the Pine Ridge Reservation are often rated as the poorest in the United States. 97% of the 40,000 residents live below the poverty level. Unemployment varies between 85% and 95%. The median income is $2,600. Large extended families crowd into tiny homes and trailers. Many live without running water or sanitary means of removing sewage. The infant mortality rate is the highest on our continent, and teen suicide is at frightening levels. The reservation is the size of Connecticut, which means that many are geographically isolated and are far from the public services that most Americans take for granted.
Our Pine Ridge Team will be directed by elders on the reservation. We will work on home repairs or build a community garden or help with construction of an environment-friendly housing unit called the “earth ship,” and we will visit Wounded Knee and sit in a sweat lodge and visit with youth and older adults to hear their stories. We expect to be overwhelmed at times by the harsh realities of poverty. And we expect to be enriched by the culture and spirituality and art and folklore of those who in their material poverty extend hospitality and receive us as their guests. While residents of Pine Ridge have little in terms of material resources, they have much to teach us and we have been preparing ourselves to go with open minds and receptive hearts.
I think it’s interesting that God is credited with the drought and resulting famine reported in 1 Kings. YHWH is described as angry, and the stated way of punishing King Ahab is to withhold rain and therefore food and water from the residents of the land regardless of whether they are bad or good. Some people today like to make a connection between natural disasters and what they see as the moral actions of human beings. A popular TV preacher blamed Hurricane Katrina on a Pride parade scheduled for the next week in New Orleans. A few years ago, a political candidate said “Everyone knows that God controls the weather, and God is super angry.” After the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, a self-proclaimed prophet said, “We have displeased the Lord, and the earth is going to answer for it.” I don’t think there is any truth to that in the twenty-first century, so I tend to believe that God’s punishment through famine in scripture is as much human perception or wishfulness as anything else. There is no doubt, though, that our sins against the earth have a serious impact on the created world. Blaming God for our own irresponsibility would be unconscionable.
The widow in the story is an example for us. Frightened, fiercely protective of her son, unsure that anyone, even God, was looking out for her own best interests, but ultimately willing to release the little she had in the hope that it would be used for good. Her generosity meant that a hungry man was fed, and she found out that there was more than enough for her son and herself as well.
Little can become much when we think beyond scarcity to the abundance of this universe. What limits us right now in our response to those who are hungry and long to simply have enough? May God give us soft and faithful hearts in response to all who share our planet. And may we be enriched by the gifts of those who may appear to have little, but have much to share with us. Amen.