This sermon, based off of 1 Kings 17, utilizes part of a blog post written in December. I know, I know. LAZY. Truth be told, it’s be a busy month and a half–and this week, it was just the right fit. And it’s not plagiarism if it’s your own writing, right?
Last December, while Greg was visiting for the holidays, he and I were eating a late supper. In the middle of our meal, we noticed a police car pull into the driveway across the street from my house. A moment later, one pulled into mine. We met the officer at the door, invited him in, and listened to him tell us that there had been two burglaries earlier in the day just up the road from where I live. He told us that the doors had been kicked off their hinges and that it would help if we just kept an eye out for any suspicious activity. We thanked the officer for letting us know (and for making such a visible patrol of the area that night), and sat back to our meal.
Now, I should tell you that one of the biggest differences between where I live now–in a rural area–and where I moved from–a city– is the general lack of outdoor lighting at night. In the city, light equals safety.
We’re generally wary of dark areas–of the danger that might be lurking there. When I moved to Northeastern Connecticut, I found a region with a different understanding of light at night. People here value the stars in a dark night sky. When I first arrived, I was shown a satellite map of the region at night by Donna Bronwell–I don’t know if she remembers this. She eagerly pointed to the map. “See this dark strip here,” she said, “that’s where we are!” We call it “The Last Green Valley.” And, since it’s relatively safe, most people don’t think twice about it. But for someone who lived the last half-decade in a city, it’s dark. Really dark. My-alarm-clock-seems-so-bright-from-the-lack-of-other-light-that-it’s-sometimes-hard-to-fall-asleep dark.
Another big difference is the way houses are heated here. In Georgia, we use what’s referred to here as “forced air heating.” It kicks on just like the AC in the summertime. All you really notice is the blower starting and that’s that. Well, my house here in the fair North has baseboard heating that creaks and groans and taps in the night. You can hear something loud kick on and the water drain out of the system. Put plainly–it’s loud. And paired with dark in the middle of the night, a little more than intimidating.
About a month ago, I was a having a marathon laundry day. The washing machine here is a little smaller than I’m used to, so it takes more loads to do laundry when I finally decide it’s time to do my chores. More loads means, more folding stints, and more times putting away freshly dried clothes in my chest of drawers. When I moved here, late, late in September, I decided to artistically caddy-corner my mirror on top of the bureau. It looked nice, and had been there for upwards of three months. I really hadn’t thought about it for since then.
Imagine my surprise at 4:30 that morning when the mirror toppled over the trendy silver, 2′ tall Christmas tree sitting on top of the drawers, crashing to the floor and shattering–sending shards of cheap mirror all over. It was terrifying. What was even MORE terrifying was the fact that I’m not convinced that the shattering mirror itself was the thing that woke me up that morning. What did the trick, if my memory serves, were the three, distinct, deep-bellied, falsetto-ridden, schoolgirl screams that fairly accurately expressed my terror in the midst of the situation. Heart racing, I finally figured out what had occurred, settled back down in the security of heated blanket.
All that to say that a couple of weeks later, my top-notch landlord came by to tell me again how much he enjoyed our Victorian Christmases and how he’s been hearing good things around about it and me. Now, my landlord loves a good conversation and is a town selectman; so I thought I’d check with him to see whether there was an update about burglaries from a couple of weeks back. Well that was a mistake. While he didn’t have any new information, our conversation got the topic in my mind. And that is just where it stayed. All night. ALL night.
I had gone to bed at my normal time, but knew I was feeling antsy–and since I had to wake up at 4:30 (on purpose this time), I thought I would be kind to myself and picked one of my favorite songs to wake me–a live recording of Ray Charles’ Georgia on My Mind.
I spent most the night tossing and turning, wondering if every time the furnace started up I was being burgled, if every time the cat jumped off a counter what I had really heard was a muffled crowbar prying the door open. I woke up, wide-awake, at 2:30 only to spend the next thirty minutes trying to drift back to sleep. Finally, the calm of sleep took over.
When I set my alarm, I had neglected to note that this particular live recording is a live recording that begins with the audience clapping which meant that when the alarm went off that audience clapped right beside my head. LOUD.
And once again, I find myself making this confession to you: I’m not sure what woke me up Ray Charles or my horror-house shriek.
I wish this was the end of this story. But; unfortunately–for me, at least–it isn’t.
After starting my morning with a…start…I was lying in bed in the middle-of-nowhere dark (which is different from the city-still-a-little-light-from-the street-lamp-dark) waiting for my heart rate to climb out of the stratosphere, when my door slowly began to open. My mind starting racing. In a matter of seconds, the following things ran through my mind, the first of which I can’t share from the pulpit. The second was: Where’s my baseball bat?; (3) I really love Greg and my job; (4) I will NOT.DIE.HERE. and finally, (5) It’s probably just the cat.
After praying the most I had this week since Sunday service, that last one, number 5, gave me pause. She’s done that before. My cat, like cats generally, is curious. She doesn’t like closed doors and restricted areas. I slowly glanced over at the bottom of the newly-created gap in the doorway. Nothing. And Nothing. Should I grab that bat? Should I turn into a Banshee…again? Should I grab that bat, break my way out the window, and leave my sweet cat to her tiger-like survival instincts? Just when I decided sinking deeper under the covers was the ONLY reasonable solution, I saw that sweet face peak around the corner.
I don’t speak cat, but the look on her face was pretty obvious. “Quit shrieking and feed me!” Or, if I was to put it in language messengers of God like to use: “Don’t be afraid.”
This past December, during our Victorian Christmas services, I read the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke to you each week. Reading scripture is one of my favorite parts of this job. Well, there’s lots of favorite parts of my job. But reading scripture is right up there. I think it’s an honor to read the stories of our faith to you and to our children.
Anyway, each week as I would read that second chapter I would come across the phrase “Fear not,” or in our more modern translations “Don’t be afraid.” The phrase is used over 120 times in the Bible–clearly there’s something God’s trying to let us know–and today’s passage from 1 Kings is no different.
But before we get to the “don’t be afraid” part it seems like it might be important to know exactly what we shouldn’t be afraid of!
The book of 1 Kings recounts the story of Elijah, a crusty messenger of God. The story of Elijah is pretty extensive, but suffice it to say that Israel had lost its way. King Ahab and his questionable wife, Jezebel, had lead their people astray. The two had done lots of horrible things, worst among them, we discover in the chapters leading up to our lesson today, is that they’ve replaced the worship of the one, true God with the worship of Ba’al–a false god!
Now, Ba’al was notable to his followers for his gift of rain to nurture crops. So, adding insult to injury after the confrontation between Elijah and Ba’al’s followers, Elijah proclaims a drought to Ahab. Now, droughts are serious stuff for any region. But they’re particularly serious for a people who don’t have the technology to water from any other place! This wasn’t news that Ahab wanted to hear. And, in true kill-the-messenger style, Ahab wants to take his anger on Elijah. And Elijah flees into the wilderness where, we’re told, he is fed by ravens and relies on the local water. Until it dries up.
And that’s where our story today begins. Elijah ends up in Zarephath at God’s command. And when he came into the town, there was, at the gates of the town, a widow gathering sticks.
This is a pretty significant detail. The first part of our time with Elijah in Kings is spent with him defending God’s greatness. So the question has to be asked: How great is a God who sends you to someone considered among the most helpless of society–a woman so broke and on her own that she is collecting sticks for her fire?
So Elijah approaches this widow–the text doesn’t give us her name– and calls to her: “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink” followed quickly by “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” (Elijah’s a little needy).
We’re told she was going to the bring the water, but the second request stopped her in her tracks. “As the Lord your God lives, 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.”
Geez. Things just got REAL serious, didn’t they?
And here’s where we finally get to our “Don’t be afraid.” “Don’t be afraid,” Elijah tells 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. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
And sure enough, that’s exactly what comes to pass. The story is quickly followed with another story about Elijah’s greatness. The widow’s son is close to death and God through Elijah brings him back to life.
There are lots of things to be afraid of–shattering mirrors, cats sneaking into rooms in the middle of the night. And, of course, bigger things: uncertain futures, violence, money.
Of course, fear is one of our many human emotions, and I think you’d agree with me that it’s much easier to say “don’t be afraid” than it is to actually not be afraid. It’s just not that easy. Maybe that’s why we hear the message over and over again.
I think the implied second part of that phrase is this: trust God. Throughout the Bible a whole collection of characters show up and on behalf of God tell the person or people they’re dealing with: “Don’t be afraid.” Essentially, they’re saying: Don’t be afraid. God’s got this. It’s a two part equation. Take one part “Don’t be afraid” and combine with one part “Trust God” and you get…all sorts of things. In some stories from our scriptures, we hear of folks gaining new life–literally, those two things together brought others healing, plenty in a land of scarcity. The list goes one an culminates with the life-giving birth of a baby so long ago that would carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. “Don’t be afraid,” the angels sang. “Trust God.”
And here’s the thing about that equation. Even if it’s hard to do the first part, even if it’s hard for us not to be afraid, we can still trust God. And when we put our trust in God, wonderful things can happen, things like nearly empty jars of flour and oil lasting for many, many days despite being used.
Today’s our annual meeting for programming, my first with you, and since I don’t have a time to share a verbal report, I wanted to take a minute right now to commend you. I want to commend you on not being afraid, and on trusting God. There were many times over the last seven when it was easy to be afraid, and maybe, truth be told, you were a little. But instead of giving in to that fear, you put your trust in God and it is God that has brought you through. God has inspired your work here these last years–God has inspired your leaders, both clergy and lay, to help you, to help us become a church that doesn’t have to be afraid. And friends, let me tell you how proud I am to be your pastor and to be another voice added to the chorus: “Don’t be afraid. Trust God.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.