I’ll admit it: sometimes I’m dead tired when I return to the church for our 5pm service. I may have just risen from my hasty nap, not eaten, chugging down a cup of coffee in the car on the way over. But do you know what revives me most? More than the music, or the lovely light through our windows: the bread. Elizabeth bakes this yummy, yeasty, grainy circle of bread, and the smell of it, the feel of it, immediately revives my senses.
When I was in Alaska, some of my friends kept, nurtured and shared sourdough “starters”. Also called a “chief, head or mother”, these “starters” are made from flour and water and a live yeast mixture. This first method of leavening bread is many thousands of years old and is found all over the world throughout history. The “starters” are passed on, and must be refreshed with new fuel or else they will die. They are signs of tradition and of hope.
The context of today’s Hebrew Scripture reading is a time of drought, of poverty, of hopelessness. We find the widow in Zarephath – a center for Canaanite worship – just as she is giving up, ready to bake her last cake of bread and to die. No doubt she, and her mother, and her mother’s mother had baked many of what were referred to in the Book of Jeremiah as “cakes for the queen of heaven”. As part of their ancient religious practice, women would bake bread and offer it with wine to the goddesses whom I mentioned last week, Astarte, and Ashera.
During the history of Israel, and its northern state of Judah, the people had their hope destroyed, over and over again. Conquered first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, the Book of Kings is not so much recording this 400-year history, but searching for the reason why? The writers of this theological narrative are looking at the people’s return to their “old ways” – worshiping of Ba’al and Ashera – as the reason for all of their calamity. And so the prophet Elijah – who served during the time of King Ahab in the 9th century, but whose story is written at around the time of Jeremiah 300 years later – enters the home of a poor widow and intervenes at her lowest moment. These stories of a widow’s son being restored to life – in Elijah, in his successor Elisha, and in the story of Jesus, whose mother, Mary, is now referred to as “the queen of heaven” – are stories of not only reviving one life, but also of refreshing the hope of a people, of a nation.
First, Elijah feeds the widow and her son. He does not preach at her or ask for any conversion before he gives her what she needs to survive. And yet, that is not quite enough, is it? When we are in the habit of hopelessness, we require a change of perspective in order to go from surviving to thriving. This is important to keep in mind as we grow our social justice programs: first, we are called to feed those who come to us, but for sustainable change to happen, there must be deeper transformation, for all of us. When the widow’s son becomes ill and dies, she is devastated: she blames herself, and blames God. What does Elijah do next?
In today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus encounters just such a woman in poverty, doesn’t he? For this woman, as for the Canaanite woman, her hope and her son have died. We are told that this was the woman’s “only son”; in that society, if a woman had no husband or son, she was completely impoverished, dependent upon the charity of others. Jesus had “compassion” for her; he felt with her. I wonder if he thought of his own mother, and what would happen to Mary if and when he died? So Jesus brought the son back to life, and “gave him to his mother” – gave her back not only her son’s life, but her own. Notice how the people around them react: they were seized with fear! Yes: I suppose seeing someone rise from the dead would freak a person out, but I also think it says something more.
When we are in the habit of hopelessness, in the mindset of scarcity and poverty, being suddenly shown what is possible can be quite a shock! It can – and often does – start a revolution, and revolutions are scary. Any change begins with a shift in perspective: from scarcity to abundance, from death to new life. And what happened then, in all of these stories? For the woman with Elijah, she experienced a conversion; she recognized Elijah as a true prophet, as a true man of God. For the widow who met Jesus, as for all who were present for that miracle, the transformation seems to go deeper. What did they do next? They glorified God! I believe that everyone there received new life: a change of perspective.
I like to imagine that they went forth with greater generosity, greater optimism, more openness to faith. And what else did they do? They spread the word! The incredible, amazing Good News of New Life – the good news of possibility and hope. The news of abundance. Cakes for the queen of heaven!
Believe me when I tell you: those who come to our red doors seeking help, they also spread the news. The news that there is a little church on the hill who not only gives out food, and gas vouchers, and helps with PSE bills — they give hope as well, and they are willing to be transformed themselves, through compassion, and to walk with each person into a place of abundance and life. And so today, I ask you, and me, and all of us: what will we do next? Are we willing to believe in possibility, in new life for our Church and our neighborhood?