Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 7:1-17
We have heard a lot of Scripture today. Let’s start by looking at the bigger context. These incidents around Capernaum happen near the start of Jesus’ public ministry. In Luke chapter 4, Jesus preached his inaugural sermon. You remember that he read from the book of Isaiah, those beautiful words about bringing good news to the poor and release to the captives, and everyone thought it was wonderful. Until he went too far and talked about the ministry of the prophet Elijah to a foreign widow and the ministry of the prophet Elisha to an enemy combatant from Syria named Naaman. And then they wanted to throw him over a cliff.
In that first sermon, Jesus was comparing himself with Elisha and Elijah, great prophets in Israel’s history. And now in chapter 7, Jesus heals the slave of a foreign military man – hear the echo of Elisha healing Naaman? Jesus raises from death a widow’s only son -- hear the echo of Elijah raising the son of the widow of Zarephath? Jesus is doing what he said he would do. His actions line up with his words. Luke tells the story in such a way that people familiar with the Elisha and Elijah will see that Jesus is a prophet like them, but with power surpassing even theirs.
If we compare the stories of the widow of Zarephath and the widow of Nain, there are many parallels. They are both widows with an only son who has died. I Kings says that Elijah cried out to the Lord and stretched himself over the child three times and life was restored. Jesus simply commanded the young man to rise and he did.
The widow of Zarephath said to Elijah “Now I know that you are a man of God.” And the crowd of mourners with the widow of Nain says, “A great prophet has arisen among us and God has looked favorably on God’s people.” This story in Luke echoes the story in I Kings and both of them remind us of Jesus’ inaugural sermon. He is doing what he said he would do. He is like the great prophets of old, with even more authority.
Luke’s original audience would have immediately picked up on the similarities between Elijah’s time and their own. Elijah was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab. Ahab’s father had been known as the most evil king in the history of Israel, until Ahab came and took that title from him. During Ahab’s reign, there were years of drought and famine, to say nothing of the wars Ahab initiated against the counsel of the prophets, all of which created much suffering. His queen was Jezebel. Perhaps you’ve heard of her? She banked on royal privilege, believing that whatever she wanted should be hers.
It was a tough time, a barren time, a time when ordinary people despaired because of their leaders.
That could also describe first century Palestine. Many people struggled to survive. Much of the farm land was owned by the wealthy, leaving the landless poor in the position of finding work as day laborers. The country was occupied by Romans, who didn’t care about the Jewish people, and many of those Jews in leadership collaborated with Rome, against the ordinary people’s interests.
Walter Bruggemann is considered by many to be one of America’s most influential Old Testament scholars. He describes Elijah and Elisha as “completely unexpected, uncredentialed and uninvited characters in the royal history of Israel.”  The book is named Kings and yet it is the words and actions of the prophets which consistently interrupt that history to offer the power of life.
And we can see Jesus in a similar vein, an unknown rabbi from a backwater village who has no connections to the politically powerful clergy in Jerusalem. “Unexpected, uncredentialed and uninvited” describes him well.
What is significant about this story, and the reason I’m drawing out the comparisons between Jesus and Elijah is to point out that God visits God’s people in time of need and despair. During the reign of the most evil king Ahab, God showed up. In the era of Greco-Roman corruption, God showed up. We could trace this pattern through the generations. If we are paying attention these days, we may think that these are tough times, despairing times, one of those eras when, as Harry Chapin sang, “There’s muggers and there’s jugglers and we are led by clowns.” Some people even go so far as to say that God has left us – because they took prayer out of schools, because women entered the workplace, because of Roe v. Wade, because of gay rights – a whole lot of things get blamed for this, but the bottom line is the notion that things are bad and God has left us to our fate.
Against that idea, stands Elijah, sent by God very specifically to a foreign, unnamed, nobody of a woman, to provide for her and her son in the midst of a famine. Against that idea, stands Jesus. Sent by God to dwell among humans, he does not seek palaces or cathedrals, but spends his time with the disadvantaged and hopeless, those on the margins, those whose names would not be found in the history books. This same God continues to visit us. “God will not leave us alone, but will come to us again and again with power – especially when the powers and principalities of the world are most corrupt.”
Bruggemann has a book about Elijah and Elisha entitled Testimony to Otherwise. In it, he says that God gives us the capacity to image reality in alternative ways outside conventional, commonly accepted givens. Those givens may include such things as church doctrine or scientific certitude or national pride or wisdom received from our elders. The ability to attend to otherwise, to see things that stand in contradiction to accepted reality, was a particular gift of the prophets.
In Bruggeman’s own words, “What interests us now, however is the odd intrusion in “Kings” of the narratives of Elijah and Elisha. These narratives clearly interrupt the regularized formulation of royal power and are given to us in a very different mode of expression. Moreover they occupy about one-third of the books of Kings and in fact function not only to disrupt but also to call into question the significance of the royal account of reality. . . . These are acts of imagination against settled, controlled certitudes, an offer of otherwise in the midst of royal administration. . . . The stories, unlike the royal list, open the listeners in daring imagination to the claim that the world does not need to be perceived or engaged according to dominant shapings of power, to privileged notions of authority, to conventional distributions of goods, or to standard definitions of what is possible.”
If that is beginning to sound too abstract, let me offer a real-life example. Bishop Chrysostomos was the spiritual leader of one of the Greek islands during the Nazi occupation. When the German commander ordered all the Greek Jews to be gathered for deportation to Poland, the mayor of the island was ordered to provide a list of all the Jews living there. The mayor made the list but then went to the Bishop for counsel. The Bishop told him to burn it. Then Bishop Chrysostomos begged the German commander not to deport the Jewish people. The commander was unmoved. Finally, Bishop Chysostomos took out a slip of paper, wrote his own name on it and handed it to the German officer, saying “Here is the list of Jews you required.” This action confused the Nazis and gained enough time for the mayor and the Bishop to warn the Jewish people and hide them in the mountains. The people of the island provided the hidden people with food and shelter until the island was liberated more than a year later, saving the lives of 275 people. The bishop and the mayor and the people of the island did not accept the power of the Nazis as a given. Instead they practiced otherwise and brought an alternative outcome into being.
When I am tempted to despair, when I want to wrap myself in cynicism, it is because I am attending to the history of kings and not to the otherwise enacted by the prophets. It is because I am buying into the myth of scarcity instead of worshipping the God of abundance. It is because I am accepting that the power of political parties and presidential hopefuls is a given, instead of trusting the upside nature of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus the Christ.
If I believe that God will visit God’s people, I also believe that God will act as God has acted before. God will show up among the last and the least, the left out, left behind and let down. But as long as I am scanning the horizon for the world’s movers and shakers, I will not be aware of God’s visitation.
In chapter 7, Luke offers us two stories side by side, one about a foreign man, one about an Israelite widow. If we had more time, we could compare them in detail. We would find many differences. We would also find two important similarities. The centurion and the widow are both powerless in the face of death or disease which might lead to death. And they both have an encounter with Jesus which changes their situation entirely.
Those encounters happen because Jesus is moved with compassion. He sees the despair of the grieving widow. The death of her son has changed her place in the world and it is a now a given that she will occupy the economic margins. But Jesus knows that it can be otherwise. The centurion has authority over 100 men. He can usually make things happen, but he can do nothing for his slave. And anyway, he is the enemy, who would help him? But Jesus knows that it can be otherwise. He reaches across the accepted boundaries between Jew and Gentile, between enemy and neighbor and creates an alternative outcome and restores tangible hope.
It seems to me that practicing otherwise begins with the Holy Spirit, opening up our imagination to what might be possible, and also with a capacity for compassion. Many of you saw the Times Union story about Brian Huskie which I shared on the church Facebook page. Brian was a soldier in Iraq. At 23 years old, he saw the horrors of war up close. He lost three friends to car bombs and narrowly survived himself. He could have returned home, accepted the conventional wisdom that war is a necessary evil, that there’s nothing that can be done to change the situation, and gone on with his life. Instead he chose compassion. For the last 9 years, he has been a teacher at Albany high School. Many refugees are among his students, including several from Iraq. He reaches out to them with an understanding of their culture and with words and phrases in Arabic. They have come here fleeing wars and violence in their home countries. Instead of dismissing them as part of the collateral damage of war, he practices otherwise. Brian Huskie is aware that many refugee families cannot afford college and that there is no tradition of higher education in refugee camps. He encourages his students to stick with school. He is raising the money to establish endowed scholarships at UAlbany for refugee students from Albany High School. He chooses to enact an alternative reality where they have a future and a hope. He practices otherwise.
That Harry Chapin song I referred to earlier, the one that says that we are led by clowns, also asks “If an answer ever found us, would we change things?” That is still a good question. It takes a certain kind of courage today to act out of compassion, instead of self-interest, a certain kind of hope, to be engaged on behalf of the stranger, the person on the margins, those who have little say in what happens to them. We probably won’t see that courage and compassion in the headlines very often, but it is real and it happens when God shows up, unexpected, uncredentialed, uninvited. It is the courage and compassion that defies the world as it is and announces and enacts the reign of God on earth. It is the category-shattering, reality-shifting, power of the Spirit which transforms us. It is the hope of otherwise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Walter Brueggemann, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1&2 Kings, (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2000), p. 207
Christine Chakoian in Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Volume1, Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014) p. 193
 Walter Brueggemann, Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), , pp, 34-35