a sermon on 1 Kings 17:8-16 for the 10th Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached on June 9, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Hospitality has always been one of the great marks of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone. When I first came here eight years ago, I quickly learned how you make outsiders feel welcome. We have spent some time together over the years working to improve the welcome we offer to one another and our community, and by all the reports I hear, even adjusted for the inherent bias in many of them and the work we still have to do, we are still quite a welcoming church! Yet we can still be challenged by scripture readings like this one this morning that give us a glimpse into the power of hospitality.
In the midst of a drought, God had commanded Elijah to travel from Israel to a neighboring land and promised that a widow would feed him and take care of him. When Elijah arrived there, he saw a widow on the outskirts of town, collecting sticks for a fire, so he asked her for some water to quench his thirst at the end of a long journey. Before she could get completely out of earshot, he called out to her again: “I’m hungry too, so bring me some bread while you’re at it.” It was the kind of request that would seem somewhat normal under most circumstances—I’ve done it before, and I suspect you have too!—but here it was anything but normal.
Elijah’s request stopped her in her tracks. She clearly wanted to help him—she was willing to get him some water, after all—but this was more than she could offer. The breadbox was empty. The cupboard was bare. Her oil was almost gone. Water was hard enough to come by in the drought, but bread was just too much even for her, let alone a guest. She turned to him and explained her predicament: “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.” Not only had Elijah asked for a gift out of her poverty—he had asked her to give him what would be her very last meal!
It was a strange moment of hospitality. Even though she couldn’t give him the bread he wanted, she offered her guest a strange bit of honesty about her situation and explained why she could not deepen her generosity. So Elijah shifted from being a demanding and exhausted traveler to a gentle and kind prophet. He directed her to set aside her fears and share a bit of meal with him, for God would provide for all of them: “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.” If she would join him in a show of confidence for God’s presence, together they would witness a miracle.
Somehow, some way, they pulled it off—they, of course, being mostly God. Beginning with this simple act of a widow’s welcome, first offering the prophet a drink of water, then granting him her confidence and finally a place to stay, as she turned from her fear of not having enough to a new confidence that God would provide, they received everything that they needed to get through the challenges of the drought. And in the end, God offered this widow a lot more: when her son later became sick and died, God revived him amidst Elijah’s prayers, and she was all the more grateful for the prophet’s presence and gift to her amidst her hospitality.
Hospitality like what this widow showed to Elijah can be truly transformative even now. We don’t ever know when a simple act like offering someone a glass of water will bring us more than a simple thank you. We don’t know who might show up and what might happen when we throw open the doors of the church and invite everyone in. And we don’t know what God has in store for us when we reach out in unexpected ways to the world around us. But ultimately this hospitality requires something of us. It certainly requires a little bit of work to get everything in place, to make sure that we can offer an extra measure of what we have to all who come our way, and to prepare a warm and welcoming space for those who will join us.
But it also requires us to listen to Elijah’s first words to the widow: “Do not be afraid.” True hospitality requires us to step outside of our comfort zone, to set aside our hopes and our fears about the other and the new, and to open ourselves to the change that inevitably comes when we stop being only who we have been. Most of all, it requires us to trust that God will provide—not so much that God will magically make things happen if we don’t try or extend our resources beyond what is reasonable but rather that God will turn what we think is nothing into something far beyond our imagination.
As the widow at Zarephath demonstrated when she offered Elijah a cup of water, God’s welcome is bound to surprise us. It will look different in every time and place, yet it extends to all people in unexpected ways, not because we expect something unusual to happen but because we trust that God works beyond our means and our understanding to extend our welcome beyond these walls. We make this welcome real every Sunday as we open our doors and give space for anyone and everyone to join us here, but the ultimate sign and seal of God’s welcome to us comes whenever we gather at this font. As we make our way here today to celebrate this sacrament and officially welcome Drew to the family of faith, we get the best possible glimpse of the strange and wonderful things that God can do in us and through us when we embody God’s grace and show God’s love.
So may the witness of this faithful widow inspire us as we extend God’s welcome to all who look for a stop on their spiritual journey, whether just for water or for something far more, as we walk together on the road of new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.