Lost in Zarephath – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B)

1 Kings 17: 8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9: 24-28
Mark 12: 38-44

Several years ago, in fact the summer of 1991, the whole community packed up, and we went on pilgrimage to Britain. Some of you might remember. It was the summer of our 125th anniversary, and we went to Britain to visit some of the places the community had been associated with. We went to, and stayed in, the old Mission House in Oxford. We met sisters at the Fairacres convent, a community we had helped to found in the early days of the twentieth century. We had our annual retreat at Bishop’s House on Iona, which had once been a house of the Society. It was a great time, and for the most part the weather was spectacular. Whenever I am in Britain, I am struck buy two things. I am struck by just how small the country is and how close everything is to everything else. And I am struck by the fact that I lose all sense of direction. I am struck by the fact that I have absolutely no sense of where things are in relation to one another. Now that’s fine if you are not driving, but if you are driving … and alone …without a map, that’s a recipe for disaster. I mean, how hard can it really be to get from Heathrow to Oxford, especially when you have just come from Oxford? It’s just over there. Or was it there. Or maybe it was that way. I guess I didn’t know after all. Boy did I get lost that day. I am surprised I ever made it back to Oxford because after a while it became really clear, I wasn’t anywhere near Oxford.

Having a sense of where things are is really important whether you are driving in a strange country, or reading the Bible. It helps to know where you have come from, and where you are going. It even helps to know why you are going there.

So what was Elijah doing in Zarephath, and who cares anyway?

Well the easy answer is that he was there because God told him to go: Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’[1] The more complicated answer is why? Why was he there? And the answer to that is complicated because of where it is.

Now imagine for a minute a map of Israel, which is basically a small rectangle at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Now look at the top of your map, and just above Israel is what would today be Lebanon. That’s where we are in today’s lesson from Kings. Right along the border between Israel and Lebanon. Zarephath would be a small village inside Lebanon. What is significant about Zarephath, and so what is significant about this story, is that the prophet of the God of Israel is sent to a foreign country, to a foreign widow, to be looked after. The story is significant, because Elijah shouldn’t be there. And that’s just the point. A point lost on us, if we don’t know where we are.

Elijah shouldn’t be there for a whole host of reasons. He shouldn’t be there because it is outside Israel. He shouldn’t be there because it is an unclean place. He shouldn’t be there, and he certainly shouldn’t be speaking with a foreigner, and a woman at that. Elijah simply shouldn’t be there. And why on earth is he busy making sure that she of all people has something to eat. Were there no widows in Israel to provide for in this midst of this famine?[2]

If we don’t know where we are, this story simply becomes a mildly interesting feeding story. It becomes a story about how that nice prophet Elijah helped out a poor widow in her distress. Once we know where we are, and know that we shouldn’t be here, this story should make us squirm.

This story should make us squirm because often we are the ones like the people of ancient Israel telling others where they should and should not go. We are often like the people of ancient Israel boxing God in, announcing to any who will listen that God is here, but not there; with us, but certainly not them; on our side, but not their side. This story should make us squirm because it is a reminder that the Spirit blows, not where we choose, but where God chooses. As we are reminded in John’s gospel: The [spirit] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’[3]

This story is a constant reminder, that unlike us, God is never lost. It’s not a failure on God’s part, breaking the rules and going where God shouldn’t. It is a failure on our part: failing to see God, not where we think God should be, but where God actually is. And sometimes God shows up in just those places where and when we least except: in a foreign village, in a smelly barn, on a cross.

God is not bound by the rules of etiquette, decorum, or nationalism. God is not even bound by the rules of cleanliness, holiness or sanctity. God is not bound by the rules of religion, ethics or gender. God is not bound by the rules of class, or race, or ability. The only rule that God is bound by, is the rule of love, for God is love.[4] And that’s a problem. At least that’s a problem, not for God, but for us.

We want God to love us, but not them; to be on our side, but not theirs; to come to our aide, but forget about those others. But that’s not the way God works, and it’s certainly not the way Jesus works. Just look at who Jesus spent his time with: sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes. Sure he consorted with the good and the descent, the wise and the holy, but he didn’t limit himself to them. He didn’t limit himself to people like himself. Like the host of the wedding banquet he went out of his way, into the highways and byways to compel all sorts and conditions of humanity to enter the kingdom for he was sent to call not the righteous but sinners.[5]

This story should make us squirm because it is a reminder that while God does love us, God loves the foreigner as well, and we should too. It’s a reminder that while God provides for us, God provides for the outcast as well, and we should too. It’s a reminder that while God forgives us, God forgives our enemy as well, and we should too.

This story should make us squirm, because like ancient Israel, sometimes our vision of God is far too small. Today we are challenged to lift our eyes and to see God at work, not only in our little worlds, but in the world beyond our vision and comfort and to know that even there, where we think God cannot or should not be, God is at work feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick and inviting us to go there too.

Today’s story should make us squirm, because sometimes our vision of God is just too small.

[1] 1 Kings 17:9

[2] Luke 4: 25

[3] John 3:8

[4] 1 John 4:8

[5] Mark 2: 17

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  1. Elizabeth Hardy on October 20, 2021 at 09:40

    So true. And it is such a struggle for us some times to ‘magnify’ the Lord! Well preached Br. James. Elizabeth Hardy+

  2. Susan J Zimmerman on October 3, 2020 at 15:34

    …if one ‘understands’ Absolutes one gains a very quick insight into our Infinite God and after studying w/the Jesuits for 7 years I found myself saying “…so what now I can identify these Absolutes when I see them…now what…”

    …later, while studying w/the Jews in Chicago/Spertus I came to ‘understand’ that within each Absolute there are complimentary polar opposites, which literally made me set up in my chair…these polarities are very important in Jewish and now my thinking! …Our Father does also seem to love natural laws, which secular and religious laws are ‘somewhat’ grounded…Our Father also ‘is’ picky about how one dresses on the Sabbath…the oral tradition, which was never to be written down but humans slipped again and recorded the same, state in the Mishnahs’ Seder Tehoret that cleanliness is very important…Da go figure!

  3. Bev Cone on October 3, 2020 at 07:43

    This is making me “squirm”, reading it in October, 2020, during the political crises we are experiencing in the U.S., and the pandemic changing everyones’ lives right now. God is not just with the people on one side of issues – He is with everyone and will walk with each of us.

  4. Sheri Anderson on October 3, 2020 at 06:42

    Some things need to be repeated … Our (my!) ability to remember how GOD wants us to behave is often short-lived, especially in these politically challenging times. Thank you, Brother James, for this sermon… it is as important today in October 2020 as it was when you first shared it. Bless you all…. Sheri

  5. Barbara Harris on November 29, 2015 at 09:40

    Thank you for the insight into this passage. Thank you for reminding us just how big our God is.

    • SusanMarie on October 3, 2020 at 08:11

      Yes, agreed and amen. I am squirming because I have realized that sometimes my vision of God is just too small. I really needed this message/reminder today. I probably need it every day. Lord, have mercy…

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