Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God’s Love Still Has the Last Word” (1 Kings 17:8-16)
November 11, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Thirty years ago this fall my all-time favorite concert film, U2’s 1988 film Rattle and Hum was released. I saw it with some friends on its opening Friday night. Two nights later I saw it again, this time alone, the late show, no one in the theater but me. Apparently very few others agreed with me about what an awesome film it was. When it was about to begin I went to the back and asked the middle aged theater employee if he could crank up the sound since I was the only one there. He shrugged, “Sure, why not?” Then he cranked up the sound, and I sat in the middle of the second row, leaned back, my legs resting on the seats in front of me, and absorbed Rattle and Hum, a truly epic experience.
On the soundtrack of Rattle and Hum is a song co-written by U2’s lead singer, Bono, and the legendary Bob Dylan, a prayer called “Love Rescue Me”:
Love rescue me
Come forth and speak to me
Raise me up and don’t let me fall
No man is my enemy
My own hands imprison me
Love rescue me
Many strangers have I met
On the road to my regret
Many lost who seek to find themselves in me
They ask me to reveal
The very thoughts they would conceal
Love rescue me…
I’m here without a name
In the palace of my shame
Love rescue me
Each of you could probably remember a time in your life when you have felt isolated in a prison made with your own hands, or when you have encountered other lost people on the road to your regret, or when you felt without a name in the palace of your shame. Some of you may be experiencing that today. In those seasons we pray that simple honest prayer, “Love, rescue me.”
The Old Testament passage for today recounts an episode in which a poor widow apparently had prayed something along the lines of “Love, rescue me” because God sent the great prophet Elijah to her, as the writer of 1 Kings tells us: “The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’” When Elijah arrives and finds the poor widow, who is gathering sticks to make one last meal for her and her starving son, he asks her for some bread and water. But she replies, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and 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” (1 Kings 17:8-12). This poor widow was out of options, out of money, out of hope. She needed love to rescue her.
Fifty-five years ago this month was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a tragedy that left his wife Jackie a thirty-four year old widow and sole living parent of five-year old Caroline and three-year old John. In the powerful 2016 film Jackie, Natalie Portman brilliantly portrays Jackie Kennedy in the days following her husband’s death, a role for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. One of the recurring threads of this film involves poignant conversations Jackie has with a Catholic priest, whose name is not revealed, played by the late legendary British actor John Hurt. Like the widow of Zarephath, Jackie is a widow with young children, a widow who has lost hope.
As they walk along a wooded road Jackie says something honest but shocking, “I think God is cruel.” The priest responds, “Well now you’re getting into trouble. God is love, and God is everywhere.” Jacki’s anger increases, “Was he in the bullet that killed Jack?” The priest quietly replies, “Absolutely.” “Is he inside me now?” “Yes, of course, of course he is.” “Well, that’s a funny game he plays, hiding all the time.” The priest says, “The fact that we don’t understand him isn’t funny at all.”
In a later conversation Jackie, like the widow of Zarephath, refers to God as “your God” which implicitly means “not my God” and says to the priest, “If there’s a heaven, then there’s your God, with all his empty promises. What kind of a God takes a father from his two little children?” The priest replies, “Thy Lord sacrificed his only son.” Jackie adds, “And my two little babies: Arabella in the womb, and Patrick, thirty-nine hours on earth, just long enough to fall in love with him. What did I do to deserve that?” The priest gently replies, “Nothing.”
When we suffer loss like Jackie, we may deny God’s existence or deny God’s love, or both. Like Jackie we may ask, “What did I do to deserve that?” Scripture does not turn a blind eye to this, as the psalmist wrote in Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day?” (Psalm 13:1-2, The Book of Common Prayer 597-598).
When experiencing suffering and loss we also spin scenarios about what “should have been.” In a later conversation with the priest Jackie says, “I lie awake at night and all I can think is that I should have been a shop girl or a stenographer. I should have married an ordinary, lazy, ugly man.” The priest replies:
Let me share with you a parable. Jesus once passed a blind beggar on the road. And his disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he should be born blind?” And Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was made blind so that the works of God could be revealed in him.” And with that he placed mud on his eyes, and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam. And the man did, and he came back seeing. Right now you are blind not because you’ve sinned, but because you’ve been chosen, so that the works of God can be revealed in you.
That is what happened with the widow at Zarephath. In response to telling Elijah she was making one last meal for her and her son before they died, Elijah says:
Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: 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.
And against all reason, this poor widow “went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days” and the writer concludes, “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah” (1 Kings 17:13-16).
Back to Psalm 13 for a moment…the psalmist does not give an answer to the questions “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Likewise when Jackie asked, “What did I do to deserve that?” the priest responded, “Nothing.” But the psalmist does not stop there, for Psalm 13 concludes with words of surrender and hope: “I put my trust in your mercy; my heart is joyful because of your saving help. I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly; I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High” (Psalm 13:5-6, The Book of Common Prayer 598). The psalm begins with questions of doubt and despair, but ends with declarations of hope and praise.
Back to the film Jackie one last time…near the end of the film Jackie has one more conversation with the priest, who catches her off guard with his honesty:
There comes a time in a man’ search for meaning, when one realizes that there are no answers. And when you come to that horrible, unavoidable realization, you accept it, or you kill yourself. Or you simply stop searching. I have lived a blessed life. And yet every night when I climb into bed, turn off the lights and stare into the dark, I wonder is this all there is?
Jackie is stunned, “You wonder?” The priest continues, “Every soul on this planet does. But then, when morning comes, we all wake up and make a pot of coffee.” Jackie interjects, “Why do we bother?” The priest continues, “Because we do. You did this morning. You will again tomorrow. God in his infinite wisdom has made sure it is just enough for us.”
On the surface the priests’ words here sound nihilistic, but I think the deeper message here is that even if there are no answers for the suffering in our lives, no answers for the loss in our lives, God is still love, and God is still everywhere—and surrendering our lives to “God in his infinite wisdom” is enough, so we indeed make another pot of coffee, and we drive to church, like all of you did today. We pray, “Love, rescue me,” and in his time, God does exactly that.
Shortly before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday Peter, James and John got a brief glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration, when as Mark wrote, (Jesus) “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” And Jesus was not alone, for Moses and Elijah—the same Elijah from today’s Old Testament passage—appeared with him (Mark 9:2-4).
Shortly after that Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time in his earthly life, and in today’s gospel passage Mark records a very interesting episode involving another poor widow. Jesus sits down by the treasure in the temple and watches people give their money. After seeing rich people put in large sums of money he sees a poor widow “put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” He then tells his disciples:
Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on (Mark 12:41-44).
Jesus himself did that a few days later on Good Friday, when he gave all he had on the cross for you, when Jesus asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), when Jesus asked John to care for his mother Mary, who apparently was also a widow (John 19:26-27)—and, when Jesus in the midst of unimaginable suffering and loss, breathed a prayer of surrender in his final breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
God, who is Love, did all that to rescue you. Scripture tells us God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). When Jesus returns at his Second Coming, as we prayed in the collect today “with power and great glory,” Love will complete his rescue of you. In the meantime, in spite of the suffering and loss you experience, God is still love, God is still everywhere. God’s love still has the last word.
And when it comes to God’s love for you, as Elijah assured the widow of Zarephath, “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail.”