Third Sunday after Pentecost
As I lifted my eyes from the letter I was writing seated in the bookstore café, I searched for a thought while I watched a woman ride in the door on a Walmart motorized cart. My son, across from me, was lost in the pages of a fantasy novel. I looked back down, pen to the paper to finish my sentence, and when I looked up a moment later, she was next to our table, had come straight to us.
She said, “hello,” then looked away, fighting the words and gearing up for rejection. Half through her explanation, feeling awkward and wanting to end her humiliation, I gently cut her off and said, “Do you need money?” Her answer was, “Yes, $26,” an amount so exact, so without explanation, and so more than what I was expecting and yet still modest, that I startled.
As I looked in my bag to see what I had, she said, “and also I really need a ride just over there,” gesturing toward the distance. Before I could gather words, my twelve year old said, “We can give you a ride.” Then seeing my face, which must have been processing the moment poorly, he followed with, “Or… we can, right?”
Moments later, she had asked the store manager to hold the door for her as we followed, a procession to our car to put her stuff in the front seat before she stowed the cart around a corner by a dumpster, then stood with her cane waiting for us to come around and pick her up. A car pulled up to me, the window went down, and a young man said, “Be careful, ma’am. I’ve seen her before.” I thanked him, he drove away, and we helped her into the car. “Just over there,” turned out to be 20 minutes across town, opposite direction of the gesture to some place I’d never been and didn’t want to go back to, but time enough together to feel like more than strangers.
Her coming to us was the closest situation I’ve had to a stranger at my door asking for food. Our culture has changed from the days when men down on their luck hitched rides on the sides of freight trains, and would wander along the tracks to my great-grandmother’s back door after dinner where she would fix them a plate to eat on the stoop. She was a widow, with six young mouths to feed, not from Zarephath, but Springfield, Ohio. Who knows if any of those men turned out to be Elijah. But when I think of this story in 1 Kings, I think of the stories I know of her, and I think of so many faces I know from shopping center corners and thoroughfare medians, aching to be brought “a morsel of bread in your hand,” a bite of daily bread and eye contact.
Though our culture has changed, all around us are doors without knobs and knockers, houses of love we open for one another, living hospitably, letting strangers be for us prophets, inviting us into abundance we couldn’t imagine.
What moves me most about this story of Elijah and the widow is the way his need opened the door to her provision, and how his asking for a taste of the tiny bit she had, brought to her abundance. She had enough for a last supper before she and her son would die, and Elijah had the nerve to ask her to share from even that, to imagine something beyond scarcity, one more last stab at hope before despair would eat her whole. If she would feed him, the meal would never run out and the jug of oil would never run dry until the rains came again – a promise too good to be true, it would seem, but even that promise was more sustenance than she had.
As my son and I returned in the car from our unexpected trip to the other side of town, we merged onto the highway and my kid said, “So we did it. We gave her what we had and a ride home.” And then, “You’re going to be a good pastor, Mom.” I was wiping tears in the dark, but less from gratitude (though his words were kind) than from confusion. I didn’t exactly feel like I would be good. Did I do right at all? Did we “do it” as he said, or was it meant to only be a beginning of a doing that we foreclosed upon when she closed the passenger side door and walked to her apartment? We did something – what was it, exactly?
Feeding people, meeting needs, is so messy, and how often we the privileged ones, the church, can fall into patterns of being providers, the ones who never dare to need, the ones with resources and answers which we have the power to give and to withhold. As pastors and priests, we break the bread and pour the wine. We’re the ones who place the morsels in the hands. It’s our job, and we are called to it. Sometimes we defend it like a right. But what would it mean to pastor in the tradition of Elijah?
What would it mean to pastor or even just be a good Christian from a place of vulnerability instead of power, for our own need to be the starting place of ministry? Elijah, through obedience to God, feeds the widow and her son by expressing first his own lack, by being the stranger at the door, by going to the place of need and saying first, “Me too… I am also hungry.” The story goes that the meal didn’t run out, and the jug of oil didn’t run dry, but instead God provided. They ate together, Elijah and the widow, and were sustained together, a relationship around a table which spanned many days.
What challenge does Elijah pose for those who are called to take, bless, break, and give? How do we become the prophet at the door, the one who dares to need without shame and ask for help from those we usually provide for? How do we become one who by presence, needful vulnerability, and the power of God transforms hunger into community, not with skill-sets and programming, but with our own hunger?
These are the questions I ask, as I move into my final year of seminary and imagine the days of ministry ahead. My longing, my prayer, is for the courage to be shaped like Elijah: not always the one with the answers but sometimes the one with questions, not always the answer to hunger, but the hungry one who needs to eat with and be eaten with, who longs for friendship and community too, one who is prepared to receive hospitality from other tables even as I stand behind the one Table. I long to be a prophet who would dare to ask my people for a morsel from their hand, and wait to see God move.