At the risk of going too often to the well, I was reminded as I read the story of Elijah and the widow, of something that Kurt Vonnegut said when I saw him speak many years ago. He said that he liked to write about saints, and that by saints, what he meant was, ordinary people doing their best to get by in extraordinary circumstances. That is, I think, as fine a definition as you will get for a saint, at least for what Lutherans mean when they say that we are all of us saints. Ordinary people doing their best in extraordinary circumstances.
Elijah and the widow are certainly living in extraordinary times. It is about 100 years into the time of Kings. The work of David and Solomon has largely been undone. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, pushed the people into rebellion, so that eventually 10 of the tribes broke away and formed the Northern Kingdom, led by a member of Solomon’s court. Since this new Northern Kingdom did not include Jerusalem, sanctuaries were built at the northern and southern boundaries, so that the people would not have to travel outside the kingdom to worship in the Temple. Within a few generations, things began to deteriorate. A new dynasty was formed and consolidated when the king’s son Ahab married a Phonecian princess from Sidon. Ahab’s rule thus became one of the most successful of any monarch in the Northern Kingdom’s history. Under Ahab, the kingdom was prosperous, strong, and stable. Unfortunately, this came at a cost. Because that Phonecian princess that Ahab married, her name was Jezebel, and she was a priestess of Baal. When she married King Ahab, she brought worship of Baal and Ashera with her, and introduced these as acceptable, even encouraged, objects of worship in Israel.
You may remember something about our God being a jealous God, maybe you’ve heard a commandment about not having any other gods. Well, Ahab was ignoring this commandment. And his story makes it clear what this commandment is about. God is a jealous God. But what God is jealous of is not our attention. What God is jealous of, is the well-being of God’s children, the good of our neighbors. And when we start worshipping other things in place of God, when we place other things besides God as the greatest good in our lives, whether it is another ancient god or our less obvious gods, things like wealth, power, fame, security, comfort, we have a tendency to throw our neighbors under the bus. The needs of our neighbors, our planet, and our future, are so often sacrificed in the pursuit of these gods. God can take care of God’s self. The first commandment is more about taking care of God’s creation. And King Ahab is an extreme example, having sacrificed children to Baal in his pursuit of prosperity and power. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, Scripture tells us, than had all the kings of Israel who went before him.
And this is the extraordinary circumstance in which Elijah finds himself. We don’t know much about Elijah, just that one day, this guy from up in the hills around Gilead shows up and begins to scold Ahab. He promises Ahab that, because of Ahab’s behavior, because Ahab worships Baal and sacrifices children and places his own ambition and greed above the needs of his people, God is sending a drought on the land. Which is ironic if you think about it, because Baal is the god of rain and thunder and should be able to override God’s drought. But the drought comes, and it is bad. So bad that even the wadi, the oasis where Elijah is hiding, being fed by the birds at God’s command, even that wadi dries up, and there is nothing left.
And now God sends Elijah to find a saint. God sends Elijah to find this ordinary woman, a widow, the most vulnerable person in society. And not only is he going to find a widow, but he is going to Zeraphath in Sidon to find this widow. In other words, he is leaving Israel, traveling to the coast of the Mediterranean, into the land of the Phonecians, to the hometown of Jezebel herself, to find this widow. He is going to the most outside person in the society of the outsiders, right into the heart of the problem, the home of Jezebel. Not a likely place to find a saint, by our usual standards.
But our usual standards are not God’s standards. When we talk about saints, we are usually talking about someone else, probably not someone we know. Someone “special,” someone set apart by God to be a special repository of merit, a special dispensary of God’s love. We expect to find these people clothed in white, preferably with some soft lighting, maybe a halo, and a bit of Gregorian chant playing gently in the background. But we rarely find these kinds of people in the Bible. Instead, we find outsiders, widows, orphans, shepherds who become kings, like David, murderers who lead nations, like Moses, and cowards who preach salvation, like Jonah. In other words, we find ordinary people. Ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. And somehow, these ordinary people manage to follow the promise, and step out in faith, and live as if God were active in their lives. In other words, these people manage to act like saints.
Elijah finds one of these saints. A widow, the most vulnerable person in society, except perhaps her orphan son; no one to care for her, no one to provide for her, no one to relieve her misery. In the midst of a drought and famine, she is even more vulnerable, and when she speaks to Elijah, she speaks the language of scarcity, the language of despair. “I have nothing, only a handful, a little. Now I am gathering a couple sticks, so that we can eat, and die.” These are the words of a woman with nothing left, a woman who expects nothing but death. And Elijah answers her scarcity with the language of abundance, the language of hope: “Do not be afraid. The jar will not be emptied, the jug will not fail, and rain is coming.” And with this gift of hope, with this word of promise, she went.
We might be inclined to read this passage, and hear the miracle of the unfailing jug and the unemptied jar, and the coming rain, and think that the only miracle here is a supernatural one, a sort of foreshadowing of the loaves and fishes, where physical abundance replaces scarcity, and there is enough for everyone, plus leftovers. And that is certainly here. Because God is the One who answers scarcity with abundance, and overthrows death for life. But God is also the One who gives hope to despair, and gives faith to ordinary people when they are faced with extraordinary circumstances, so that a widow facing death can follow the promise, so that she can trust Elijah’s word and step into a new future that rests on that word. So that she can be a saint.
This is what it is to be a saint. To be an ordinary person, doing the best you can, in extraordinary circumstances. To be a person who has received the promise, and who lives as if that promise were trustworthy. You are probably not one of those cloistered saints, shrouded in white, surrounded by a halo, with some soft Gregorian chant echoing around you. But you are most certainly a saint. You are vulnerable, broken, grieving, in pain. You may be facing despair. And it is most certain that, sooner or later, death is a part of your story. And in the face of all of that, it is no wonder that we so often speak the language of scarcity; it is no wonder that we so often act as if despair were the only rational option; it is no wonder that we hoard and scrimp and throw our neighbors under the bus in the pursuit of something, anything, that will fill that void, that will help us feel some relief, that will trick us into thinking that we can control the uncontrollable. It is no wonder that we come to this table, with our hands empty, begging, saying, “I have nothing, only a handful, a little. I have gathered a few sticks, let me eat and die.”
And God responds. God responds with the language of abundance. God speaks hope into our despair. God speaks God’s Word into the world, God’s Word made flesh, God’s own Son become human, one of us, walking around in the world, not to make us fade into his shadow, not so that we can see how un-saintly we are when compared to him. God’s own Son become human, one of us, walking around in the world, giving us the courage and the strength and the hope to be the saints that we are made to be. God’s own self, overcoming death and the grave, to remind us that we have so much more than we believe, that you have so much more than your brokenness. You have a jar that will never be empty; you have a jug that will never fail; you come to this table, with your hands held open, and God fills them, fills you, with a promise, with new life; God says to you right here with the bread and the wine, “eat. And live. Live as you were created, live as a saint, live in the promise that you have been given. Live an ordinary life, but live it in an extraordinary way, because you are mine.”