Other/Wise

Sermon: Other/Wise

Text: 1 Kings 17:8-24

Date: May 7, 2017

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

 

         To begin with, consider this poem by Lawrence Kushner titled “Jigsaw”:

 

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
For some there are more pieces.
For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.

Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle.
And so it goes.
Souls go this way and that.
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.

But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.

And when you present your piece
to another, whether you know it or not,
whether they know it or not,
you are a messenger from the Most High.[1]

 

         A messenger from the Most High.  1 Kings 17 contains the first stories about the prophet Elijah, who became enormously important as a messeger in Israel’s history and faith story.  He appears on the scene abruptly, with no introduction, no credentials.  Yahweh is teeing up a showdown between Yahweh and Baal, god of the neighboring country of Sidon.  Yahweh announces a drought—throwing down a challenge to Baal, who was thought by his worshipers to control the rain.  In a brief account just before the story we heard, Yahweh sends Elijah to Sidon, initially to camp out until the creek runs dry.  Demonstrating control over nature, Yahweh (whom we know by the shorter, easier-to spell-name “God”) sends ravens to bring food to the prophet so he won’t die of starvation.  Interestingly, ravens are regarded as unclean by the Torah.  Curious choice of servant bird—a creature already on the margins, according to traditions of clean and unclean.  Something’s up, something unexptected.   

         When the creek runs dry, God sends Elijah further on into foreign territory to find an unnamed widow God has “commanded” to feed Elijah.  She is not expecting him. Since gods were quite localized in those days, she was probably a worshiper of Baal, the resident god—she wouldn’t have thought of herself as available for the neighboring god Yahweh to order around.  And yet Yahweh has plans for her.  She seems to be, in the image of Kushner’s poem, carrying a piece to Elijah’s puzzle without knowing it.  Elijah is carrying a piece to her puzzle as well, as they will discover. 

         Elijah seems perfectly willing to trustingly follow God’s instructions. He might have carried some culturally inherited prejudice against foreign widow women in his heart, but he doesn’t let it show except in the somewhat high-handed way he tells her to bring him some bread.   Trusting God has worked out rather well for him so far, and he has nothing to lose.

         She’s the one who has to really stick her neck out here.  As one of the commentators I read noted, it’s not really a leap of faith that she takes—she doesn’t have a single reason to have faith in the god Yahweh.  Why should she share the very last crumb of what she has with this foreign stranger, when they are not even of the same tribe or religion?  It must have been an especially hard choice since she had her young son to feed with these last little scraps of food in the cupboard. 

         What she does in response to Elijah’s asking him to feed him, in response to the stranger’s outlandish promise that the grain and water would not run out, is take a leap of hope.  She hopes the stranger is telling the truth.  She hopes that he is right that she does not need to be afraid to share with him.  She takes a leap of hope and love, handing precious food over to the stranger.  And sure enough, life takes an unexpected, otherwise turn.

         I haven’t read the book, but read a commentator’s reference to Walter Brueggemann’s book about Elijah and his protégé Elisha, which is titled Testimony to Otherwise.  Throughout the prophets’ careers, they show in word and deed that there is an alternative to living shaped only by greed, power, selfishness and xenophobia.  Sure, greed and power seem to win the day a good deal of the time; seems like they won the day, for example, on Thursday when legislation that could cost 24 million people their health care passed out of the House.  It was depressingly unsurprising in the way the rich were rewarded and the poor and elderly were thrown under the bus.  Life as it is… but life could be “otherwise.”  The way it’s often been doesn’t have to be the way it always will be. 

         The widow of Zarephath must have caught a glimpse of the “otherwise” in Elijah’s summons to share.  Death seemed fairly assured, but opening her table and home might just bring about an alternative future.  Even though the person she is challenged by is not of her gender, her nation, her tribe or her religion—compassion for him just might open up some new possibility.  It might have gone against every instinct, everything she had been taught.  But she was “Other Wise.”  She was Wise enough to know that new hope might come from someone so wholly Other as this Israelite prophet being directed by a god she didn’t know. 

         Compassion is a value that transcends the borders and walls between tribes, traditions, religions, ethnicities.  Compassion enacted is a leap of hope into life that might be otherwise, an alternative to the mean and fearful life humans can fall into.  The communion table is a symbol of life that might be “otherwise” from the segregated and isolated tables we know.  Dorothy Day once wrote, “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other.  We know Christ in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore.  Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet too, even with a crust, when there is companionship.”  The widow set the table for a banquet when she decided to share what she and her little son had with Elijah.  Their companionship went on for some time thereafter; he moved in with her, and the meal and oil never ran out, as Elijah had promised. 

         This week’s resurrection story is another dimension of the “otherwise.”   To pray for the widow’s son to be restored to life is quite incredible, audacious, even for a prophet who has seen some pretty awesome things in his brief prophetic career.  But he has enough faith and  hope in the Other/Wise God to cry out for life where death seemed to have the upper hand.  And God listens to Elijah and brings life back to the boy. 

That’s what “otherwise” is about: the new, unimaginable, and very different way for things to turn out, instead of the worn-out, despair-producing, cynicism-provoking ways of thinking and acting that we believe to be the way the world has to work.

         Are these stories true?  Let me call your attention back to our “Consider This” quotation by Brian Andreas: “She kept asking if the stories were true.  I kept asking her if it mattered.  We finally gave up. She was looking for a place to stand & I wanted a place to fly.”  I am not as interested in the factuality of the accounts of miracles as a place to stand as I am in their evocative promise of a way to defy the gravity of life as it normally unfolds and fly into life as it could be “otherwise.” 

         One of the simplest and most profound truths you could pull out of this story of the widow and the prophet is “we need each other.”  There’s a story about a boy and his father who were walking along a road when they came across a large stone.  The boy said to his father, “Do you think if I use all my strength, I can move this rock?”  His father answered, “If you use all your strength, I am sure you can do it.”  The boy began to push the rock.  Exerting himself as much as he could, he pushed and pushed.  The rock did not move.  Discouraged, he said to his father, “You were wrong.  I can’t do it.”  His father placed his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “No, son.  You didn’t use all your strength—you didn’t ask me to help.”[2]

         When we ask for help from others, we show that we are Other/Wise.  When we accept help from others, we show that we are Other/Wise.  Only in companionship, collaboration and leaps of hope will we reach that alternative to life as it has been, collecting on God’s promise that life could be “otherwise.” 

One of our callings these days, Christians, is to be steadfast in hope and faith that life could be otherwise.  My sister likes to do jigsaw puzzles, and her favorite way to do them is to hide the picture on the cover and just figure it out with the pieces without seeing the picture before her of exactly what it will look like when she finishes.  Isn’t that more or less the situation we’re in as we create church and society?

Souls go this way and that.
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.


Something is taking shape, but we’re not sure about all the details.  In this church, we have the conviction that all the pieces matter, whether you are making a church or a functional, compassionate social order.  We believe that all the gloriously colored and curiously shaped pieces fit together in the big picture.  We wouldn’t think of keeping only the pieces with a straight edge or a paler hue. 

But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to [the] puzzle.
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.

         Whether people know it or not, we are all a piece of God’s vision for the beloved community.  Let us not hesitate to give or receive help from each other.  We may not know how each life will fit into the vision, but as we welcome our interlocking from friend and stranger alike, the lovely picture of the divine banquet takes shape. 


And when you present your piece
to another, whether you know it or not,
whether they know it or not,
you are a messenger from the Most High.
[3]



[1] Kushner, Lawrence “Jigsaw” Honey from the Rock

[2] Wolpe, David J. from Teaching Your Children About God

[3] Kushner, Lawrence “Jigsaw” Honey from the Rock

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