I preached the following sermon for our Golden Scots, who were on campus celebrating their 45th, 50th, 55th, and 60th class reunions this past week. I thoroughly enjoy spending time with our “golden” alumni. They are always full of joy and enthusiasm. It was a privilege to lead them in worship. This particular service includes a time of memorial during which we remember alumni who have passed away.
“Now I Know”
Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott
June 9th, 2013 – Golden Scots Chapel Service
As I read this passage I found myself feeling grateful that I could preach today for a congregation predominantly older than 18-21 years. I love working with college students. I really do. But there are things that they don’t understand yet because they simply haven’t lived long enough. The widow of Zarephath from today’s text would qualify as one of those things. To understand her and her story, it helps to have some life experience because here is a woman who is surrounded by death. There has been death in her family. She is a widow. There has been death in her community and her nation because of a severe drought and severe famine. As we come to her in today’s passage she is preparing for her own and her son’s death. Death is a reality that the widow of Zarephath must live with every day.
When I was a pastor of a church my conversations with older members frequently turned to the death that surrounded them. They had started attending more services like these, with the names of the deceased printed on the back. Friends and loved ones were passing away. They were saying goodbye more often. Death was becoming a reality they were living with every day too. Perhaps some of you can relate. If so, it can be a difficult season of life. After the death of several good friends and family members one of my aging church members spoke to me about how it felt like her community was growing smaller and smaller. She said to me, “It’s hard to know anymore to whom I belong.” I imagine the widow of Zarephath could have said these same words.
So I was attracted to the widow in today’s passage, I was drawn to her story, but I was irritated by the prophet Elijah. He assumed the widow was afraid. Commentators assume this too. They say Elijah needed to assure the widow that she could trust him. I don’t read it this way. The widow doesn’t feel afraid to me. She feels done. She tried to tell Elijah this.
“As the Lord your God lives,” she said, “I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” (1 Kings 17:12)
She’d been living on the edge of death for so long—a widow, a deadly drought, ravens circling over her son’s head. The ravens were feeding Elijah. What did he know of death? He’d spent the worst days of the drought kickin’ back by the Wadi Cherith, drinking and eating to his heart’s content! So I was irritated with Elijah’s assumption that the widow was afraid. How dare he name her emotional state! As if he knows!
“Do not be afraid,” Elijah says to her, “go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Kings 17:13)
If the widow had not been done, I imagine she would have fought this ridiculous request—this request to make something out of nothing. She was a fighter. I know she was a fighter because she made it this far. (Mothers are fighters, in case you didn’t know.) She didn’t fight the request, though, because death was about to win and she was done.
If you are having trouble imagining what it is like to be done think back, perhaps to that job you had once. The one you fought for. You were excited to get the job, perhaps you and your family even made some big sacrifices to get you there. But then things just didn’t click. Your boss didn’t turn out to be who you thought she was. Your co-workers didn’t seem to get you and never really welcomed you. Things got kind of tense. Conflicts arose. Personalities clashed. You tried your best. You worked hard to make it work. But eventually you came to that place where you were done and it was time to move on.
Or if it the job illustration doesn’t fit just think back to that relationship you worked so hard to preserve. Everyone’s had one of these. You know, the relationship that was doomed from the start but you didn’t realize it. So you fought for it, and fought for it….you worked so hard on that relationship….until one day you woke up and realized there was no saving it. There was nothing more to do, nothing more to work on. It was over and you were done.
Remember what it felt like to be done…done with that relationship….done with that job….done with whatever it was. Now imagine what it must have been like to be done with life. Can you imagine? What a God-awful place to be.
So after Elijah makes his ridiculous request the widow doesn’t balk, she doesn’t protest, she doesn’t even crack a sarcastic smile. She is done. Whatever happens now doesn’t really matter. So she obliges Elijah’s request. She goes through the motions, feigning obedience, taking a handful of meal, mixing it with a little oil, making the meal into a cake. She bakes the cake and then they eat…all of them…for many days. And all of a sudden she isn’t done anymore.
Can you imagine what that felt like? If you’ve known Good News then you can begin to imagine it. If you’ve known Good News then you know it feels like hope.
I work hard to convey the Good News to our college students, but sometimes (not all the time) they haven’t lived long enough to really get it. They haven’t fallen hard enough. They haven’t realized yet how much they need it. And it’s hard for me. It’s difficult because I care about them and I want them to leave this place with a deep well that will quench their thirst for a lifetime. I want them to leave this place with a deep well because you know and I know that everyone eventually wanders into a place of death. And when we do, when we wander into that place of death, we need to know how to feed ourselves. We need to know where to turn for water and for bread.
The first time I truly wandered into a place of death I was in my late twenties. I was fresh out of seminary and had started serving my first church as an Associate Pastor. When I started the position I jumped into a pastoral situation with which the congregation was already struggling. A beloved church member named Frank was dying. He and his wife Dody were wonderful, amazing people. They were givers and they had touched the lives of everyone in that church. Frank had diabetes. It was really severe and by the time I arrived he was already losing the battle. I got to know Frank some through my visits, but I never knew him while he was healthy. I got to know his wife Dody, though, real well. She was, and still is, a very special person to me. We still keep in touch.
When word reached the church that Frank had died, all three of his pastors (myself, our other Associate Pastor and our Senior Pastor) went immediately to the hospital. We drove there in silence. I was scared. When we arrived Frank was still in his room, lying in the bed. Dody was there too. We all gave her a hug and then gathered in a circle around Frank. We held hands and our Senior Pastor started to pray. I was so glad he didn’t ask me to pray. I wouldn’t have had the words then. I think he knew I wasn’t ready. So he prayed and I was able to simply be present and take it all in. And it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I tell you, God’s presence was so thick in the air there around Frank, it took everything I had not to kick off my shoes and fall to my knees, because I was obviously on holy ground. It was a powerful, powerful experience.
Afterwards, I spent quite a bit of time visiting and talking to Dody. She and I became very close and she taught me about death. I would ask her questions about her grief, dumb, naïve, sometimes even inappropriate questions, and Dody carefully and patiently tried to answer as best she could. I remember, when I asked a question that pushed too far, or asked a little too much, her face would twitch a little, like a quick flinch, and I’d hold my breath because I realized in that moment that I’d probably gone too far. But she would just take a breath, regain her composure and then answer my question. What an amazing woman! I learned so much from Dody.
So there are two messages I’d like you to take away from this sermon. First, that God is powerfully present in the place of death. Food and water are available. Good News abounds. And secondly, share what you know. One of the biggest reasons I work so hard to encourage college students towards the church is because people like you are there. People like you who know things that they do not. Now, I know it’s hard. I know it can be painful for you to talk about some of the things you know. I know it was hard for Dody. But the gift she gave me in doing so, in sharing what she knew about death, and loss, and grief, and life, was priceless. The wisdom Dody shared with me…deepened me…and it has helped me help so many others who have found themselves or will find themselves in the place of death. So please, don’t keep it to yourself. Share what you know.
In the last verse of our passage today the widow of Zarephath says, “Now I know.” She was done. By the grace of God, she’s not done any more. And now she knows. She has become a very wise woman with some very wise gifts to share.
Now, to the giver of all good gifts, to God be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.