Widows and Orphans and Strangers O’ My!

a sermon based on 1 Kings 17:8-24
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 5, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
When I first walked into this worship space about three years ago it was during the interview process to serve as the minister here. The Pastoral Search Committee showed me this beautiful space and made sure to point out the two stained glass windows in the back. It’s not that I did not see them (how can you miss them?), it’s that there were some things about them that the Committee wanted to make sure I noticed. One is that they are not just portraying Biblical characters, but that they are portrayed as people of color. Another is that the windows are dedicated to the founding members and their friends in the anti-slavery movement. I was duly impressed. Here in a small town that had no slaves and relatively few people of color– over a hundred years ago– a church here (THIS CHURCH!) made one of its most prominent features about both slaves and Blacks and dedicated them to what was for decades the very unpopular anti-slavery movement. And they made sure that since 1895 those lofty Bible characters, as people of color, looked down on main street and every worship service.

All of that kinda took my breath away. I am very justice oriented in my make-up and theology and ministry and those windows, coupled with this church’s activist history right up to modern times, resonated with me quite deeply. Those windows sing a song to me of siding with God and Jesus for justice, and very much against oppression. It’s not necessarily a popular song to everyone . . . or even Christians or clergy for that matter, but it is for me– and clearly to this church community.
I was honored with a call to be the pastor here. And now I get to look at those windows probably more than anyone else in this church. I face them up here on Sundays, and many other days that I come in to this space.

I’ve tried to find out as much of the windows as I can and have spent a bit of my time since I arrived looking for information on them. But, I have not been able to find much in town from that period beyond what we can see here in the sanctuary.

This sanctuary was first occupied 1868 and apparently the windows were plain glass at the beginning probably like the glass in the fellowship hall and other old sections of the building on the 1st floor. As I understand it stained glass was very expensive until later in the 1800s when it became less expensive and more available, and it was then that the church put in all these wonderful windows. The records show they went up in 1895.

But church records we have from that time and even those I’ve looked at in the county library have yet to reveal to me which characters from the Bible are on those windows. The oral history and legend as I understand it is that the one on my right in blue is a young image of David in his shepherd and lute playing days. (Go ahead and look at it, it’s beautiful). The extended finger on his right points north purportedly as a reminder of the underground railroad which this church proudly supported helping shepherd slaves to safety in the north. It is easy to see him as a young David.

The figure on the window on my left I originally thought was a female figure. But the oral history and legend has it that it’s the prophet Elijah. (You can look at it too. It is beautiful). I think it is the long hair and the pink that mostly threw me. But that’s very late 20th century thinking of me. It is hard for our generation to imagine, but red and its variations – including pink– were considered very masculine colors up until the 1930s and 40s.

And actually if you look at all the windows in this space there’ not much red except for a few red glass marbles around the room and some small portions of red trim on the big windows. It is very scarce. Red window glass required the use of gold. So my hunch is that that made pink the least expensive option for the 1890s masculine red on Elijah’s mantle.

And if you look up art work on Elijah, he does often have on a red mantle maybe not always for masculine reasons – perhaps to represent the flames he is famous for calling down from heaven and later ascending to heaven on a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire. And he IS also famous for passing on his prophet mantle to his successor Elisha. As well as for the long hair of a prophet and a penchant for prayer. Those things do seem to be purposefully represented on the window which makes me think the oral history and legend may very well be true, that that’s Elijah portrayed up there.

Elijah is of course in our story today. I’ve waited for him to come around in the Lectionary for sometime now so I could discuss him and the window. Elijah is famous for seeking justice and tending to the stranger and the oppressed. His name makes it clear he’s doing God’s work. The “El” in Elijah represents “Elohim” a name for God. The “Jah” represents “Yahweh” so Elijah means “Yahweh is God,” which some authorities also translate as “Yahweh is my God.”

In Greek Elijah is written as Elias, which I am quite proud to say is where the name Elliott comes from. (Honest!) Elliott means Elias which means Elijah which means “Yahweh IS God” and “Yahweh is my God.” How cool is that? So it turns our Elliott is a very good last name for me. So see, me and Elijah we are tight, we got a connection and there he is on the window every time I walk in here.

Now truth be told I look at the stained glass window figure, and other than the handsome face and thick hair and a pro-justice for people of color stance, that dude does not really look too much like me. He’s just way too calm and serene. Which actually is a fair representation of the Elijah-of-lore in Jewish tradition where he is understood as a “beloved grandfather figure and miracle worker of Jewish legends” who visits “saints, scholars and Jews in distress” and reconciles disputes. 1 That Elijah is the one for whom a chair is left empty for his attendance at each Seder and Bris.

Elijah is the one person in the Old Testament who does not die. Which may be why there are stories of him being around to visit and help. 2. However, in the Bible story Elijah is taken up into heaven in a chariot as his mantle is dropped from the sky for Elisha to take up and carry on the work as a prophet. And Elijah in the Bible, the prophet, is nothing like the Elijah of lore that comes after his chariot ride into the sky. He is not a pleasant looking fellow, well dressed and coifed and calm and serene like window depicts him. In the Bible he’s not the grampa-like guy later legends imagine.

One modern Jewish writer, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, notes this about Elijah:

There is no biblical prophet more furious, impassioned, and uncompromising. Hiking through the hills of Israel, dressed in his loincloth and carrying a stick, Elijah declares war on idolatry and on the Phoenician queen Jezebel. 3

The Bible also tells us that Elijah challenged hundreds of pagan priests to a ritual duel to see whose “god” would bring down fire to consume a sacrifice. The priests lose in that dramatic showdown where Elijah has his altar repeatedly soaked in water before he prays the prayer that God answers with fire. Elijah is also wild enough to challenge Queen Jezebel and King Ahab.

Before he does these things he first shows up and declares a drought and famine and is sent by God to Jezebel’s homeland of Zarepath to survive. He starts off in wilderness, with the drought and famine in full swing. He is camped by a creek and God sends a raven with food each morning and night. To use a pun that only works in modern English we can picture Elijah as looking like a stereotype “raven-”mad-to-the-world prophet hanging out in the wild.

After awhile the creek dries up and, as we heard, our story today picks up with God telling Elijah to go the Zarepath and the widow there for food. It is this hungry, thirsty, wilderness man of God that Yahweh sends to the widow in our story. And we need to consider how very ironic it is that God sends Elijah into foreign enemy territory to get food in a famine from a widow who it turns out had just enough left for her and her son to have one more bite to eat before dying of starvation.

God does not do as we might expect and send his prophet to some well stocked Jewish safe house. God sends his prophet to the very least likely savior and the seemingly least safe place of all. And actually it is ironical for both the widow and the prophet. The widow needs help– and gets from God a starving stranger “raven” mad prophet. The prophet needs help– and gets from God a starving stranger widow strapped with a starving stranger child, who since he has no father to care for him is culturally considered an orphan. These are the last in the culture and so are the very last humans men in the culture would want to encounter as they journey, especially to help them obtain food and shelter.

The widow, the orphan and the stranger are what the culture taught each of them and the listeners to loath and fear, and it is also exactly who they are. The widow, the orphan and the stranger are whom the culture imagines God is most unlikely to work through, but through whom God does work.
In a very real way this story can be heard echoing in last week’s story about the centurion who humbles himself to Jesus and hosts faith in Jesus – and therefore God– so that together they save a slave. God’s love and care working in those who host faith is again the theme this morning. Both stories have God’s care go out through God’s follower to and through people of different faiths, the Roman centurion and the Zarepath widow– their faith (those foreigners’ faith!) leads to miracles, Gods work on earth. They are not Jewish and God still helps them and helps them help others. These are stories of God’s love not being conditioned on religious belief or social status. These are stories of God’s chosen, Elijah and Jesus, not asking anyone to believe particular dogma or religious doctrine, but to trust in God’s way, to host faith and therefore God.

And the results of that trust and hosting, from the highest in power (a centurion) to the lowest in power (a widow) is the same. Through people of any religious background or birth, trust in God can be so powerful people get saved, people the culture looks down on: a slaves; orphans; strangers; and enemies. And in today’s story Elijah’s body covering the non-Jewish, enemy, orphan child “symbolizes God’s care for the whole person– and hope and life return to the widow and child.” 4.

If we think about it, we can hear that echo in our Last Supper ritual at the communion table. Where Jesus’ whole body, flesh and blood were first symbolically given to us at the Last Supper and actually given to us at the crucifixion. Jesus gave his life for the cause of God’s love, he hosted God.

And ever since Christians have symbolically reenacted the giving of his whole self in the manner Jesus did with his disciples at their last meal together. So we hold up the cup and the host and we take it all in to help us host God ourselves.

God’s cares for us as a total person, whether we are, or think we are, a social outcast. And note in Bible story after Bible story how God meets folks at the bottom, both in the lowest to the culture people and the lowest places we can be found in sickness, poverty, drought and famine. God’s right there! No one is too great or too small or too “not this” or too “not that” or in any situation they cannot hosts or receive God’s action and love. All it takes is human faith and action.

We don’t have to be serene and calm like Elijah in the window, it makes for a good picture looking down on Main Street and into this wonderful worship space– that is fine. But neither Elijah or Jesus (or even David in the other window) got God’s work done without being in the low places and lowly people, in the cultural rejects and bottom dwellers, in the valleys of death and despair.
Jesus, David and Elijah took action and chose to have passion and faith in God. And while those windows have calm images they were in fact put up by this church 131 years ago as action, passion and faith to literally hold up high the very people the culture treated as low and does so still in many respects. The windows are very clever powerful statements meant to remember to honor and hold up those who are oppressed, and to continue to cause ripples and waves of change and transformation.

On July 10th we are holding a racial justice ministry meeting to discuss how we can continue the work our activist founders began, and that those windows remind us of, and are dedicated to.
Following Yahweh acting with God’s love creates ripples of change and transformation, and everlasting love. Our story about Elijah remembers this. So do our windows. Jesus story remembers this too. Our Communion table open to absolutely anyone who wishes to partake remembers it. Especially the story of Jesus’ flesh and blood given for us, not as a sacrifice to appease Yahweh, but as a sacrifice that caused, and continues to cause, everlasting ripples that transform the world though everlasting love.

May we mindfully partake at the Lord’s Table today and go into the world bearing love . . . transformative love. AMEN!

ENDNOTES:
1. Telushkin, Joseph, Jewish Literacy, p 87
2 Ibid at
3. Ibid at
4 Feasting on the Word, Commentary, Year C, Vol 3, p102

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