“A Life That Says Thank You: Service Changes You”
October 15, 2023
1 Kings 17: 8-24
August 11, 1973. Cindy Campbell hosts a back-to-school party in the basement of 1520 Sedgwick Ave in the Bronx. She asks her big brother Clive to DJ, though when he’s behind the turntable he goes by the name DJ Kool Herc.
As the party heats up, Herc auditions what he called the “merry-go-round.”
Herc had noticed that there was always a certain part of the song where the dancers went wild – it was during the break…most often a brief drum solo that lasted a matter of seconds. “How can I keep that part of the song going,” he asked himself.
What if you have two turntables, he wondered, and you played those breaks back to back to back…you could extend them for minutes at a time. On this late summer evening, with two copies of James Brown’s “Give It up Or Turn it Loose” he did just that…he played this 6 second drum break on a loop and the kids went wild.
This has become the creation story for Hip Hop as it turns 50 this year.
Now in 1973, everybody who lives in the Bronx knows James Brown. But, thanks to his father’s large record collection, Herc’s taste in music was broader than most. So in the merry-go-round, he started mixing in samples from other records – an intro from the Incredible Bongo band, or a bridge by a British rock band called Babe Ruth – these are white artists that were not on regular rotation in the Bronx.
Which is to say, DJ Kool Herc mixed things that did not go together.
Our Scripture today is a story of God mixing people who do not go together.
It’s a story about the prophet Elijah, who is the hot-headed, pepper pot among the Hebrew prophets.
Elijah is fiercely loyal to the Lord and he despises those who worship any other gods.
So when Israel’s King, Ahab, marries a Sidonian princess named Jezabel and begins building altars to the thunder god Baal, Elijah is furious.
There are many ways he could respond – Elijah reaches for the nuclear option.
He prays to God and initiates this long, punishing drought.
In a drought, everyone – innocent and guilty alike – they all suffer.
Everyone, that is, except Elijah.
Elijah retreats to the Biblical version of Club Med. There’s a stream with ample water.
Ravens deliver him bread and meat twice a day.
It would be fair to say that Elijah is a very privileged prophet.
The ravens are something of a wink and a nod from the narrator.
Ravens are scavengers – they eat dead things.
By Jewish Law, they are unclean…and yet they are the instrument by which God feeds this prophet who is obsessed with purity. It’s as if God is subtly preparing Elijah’s heart for what is to come.
God causes the river to dry up and cuts off the daily deliveries.
And this is where we join the story. A reading from 1 Kings, the 17th chapter.
Then 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.’
So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘[and] Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’
But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a 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.’
Elijah said to her, ‘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.’
She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 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.
[But some time] After this the son of the woman…became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, ‘What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!’
But [Elijah] said to her, ‘Give me your son.’
He took [the boy] from her bosom, carried him into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?’
Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out, ‘O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’
The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.
Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, ‘See, your son is alive.’
So the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Do any of you remember the robot from that old show “Lost in Space?” It would flail it’s arms around and say: “DANGER WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!”
I want you to imagine that robot following Elijah as he steps into Zarephath, deep in Sidonian territory.
Our prophet can do nothing but think like the purist that he is:
“SIDON IS HOMETOWN OF JEZABEL – JEZABEL WORSHIPS IDOLS – IDOLS ARE BAD – ALL SIDONIANS ARE BAD!”
You can practically see the disgust dripping off of him as Elijah stomps into town.
“Give me some water,” he says without an ounce of awareness that they are living through a drought – a drought that he caused no less.
To make matters worse – in spite of the fact they are starving to death he adds “Oh and bring me some bread while you’re at it…I haven’t eaten since this morning.”
As a prophet, Elijah is tasked with seeing the world as it should be – but he is absolutely blind to the world as it is even when it’s staring him right in the face.
But God is beginning to mess with Elijah.
God cannot help but mix people who do not belong together.
So in spite of all his disdain for those idol-worshipping Sidonians – Elijah is about to meet an actual Sidonian for the very first time.
Maybe it’s the desperation in her voice that catches his attention, but the widow tells her story and Elijah listens. “I have nothing to offer you. We have just a handful of meal, a few drops of oil. I’m looking for a couple of sticks so I can bake what little I have left and then my son and I will starve.”
Scripture can be so maddeningly succinct. The way the story is told conceals what is most amazing here. Elijah announces the miracle of the endless grain jar and the bottomless jug of oil – which is impressive no doubt – but the real miracle is what’s happening in the heart of our prophet.
Softened a bit by her story, Elijah follows the woman to her home.
But people don’t change just like that and the prophet has far too much prejudice to overcome in a single day.
I imagine him dusting off the furniture before he sits – still salty about having to spend time in this Sidonian hovel.
And then a little boy enters. Does anybody remember the movie Jerry Maguire?
I imagine a little Sidonian boy with spiky hair and coke bottle glasses tumbling into the room and plopping down next to him.
Sidonian Boy says: Did you know that the human head weighs 8 pounds?
Elijah: Did you know that King Ahab of Israel is the reason it hasn’t rained for months?
Sidonian Boy: Did you know that bees and dogs can smell fear?
Elijah: Did you know that Jezebel ordered the death of all the Lord’s prophets and I’m the only one left?
Sidonian Boy: Did you know that my neighbor has three rabbits.
Elijah: I…I can’t compete with that.
I’m sure it looked nothing like that – but what I mean to say is that there is a connection…the beginning of a relationship…and something begins to shift inside our purity-obsessed prophet.
It’s just the beginning…but Elijah has nothing but time.
This isn’t a week-long stay at an Air B n’ B nor is it a one-week mission trip.
The drought lasts more than two years.
Two years that Elijah does life with this family.
Maybe that’s how long it took for God to change such a stubborn heart.
But changed he is.
When the boy becomes ill and dies, the widow pounds on Elijah’s chest “Is this why you’ve spent all this time with us – is it to destroy us for our sin.” She’s overheard his prayers – she’s listened to him go on about how much he hates being stuck among these Sidonians in Zarephath and how he’d just as soon burn the whole place to the ground.
She’s not wrong to accuse him; to ask: “Is this the work of your God?”
But then Elijah does something amazing. He says to the woman “give me your child.” Give me this boy that I have come to love as if he were my own. He cradles him in his arms and takes him upstairs.
And then our zealous-for-the-Lord, “follow Yahweh’s orders without question” prophet prays, perhaps like he has never prayed before. He beats on the chest of God “Have you killed this boy…have you brought devastation on this widow by taking her son. Answer Me! Have you?”
And he prays this not once, not twice, but three times.
Elijah is not letting this go.
A privileged prophet cries out from the upper room.
An impoverished mother cries out from the lower room.
God hears the unity of their prayer and the boy is revived.
This – this is the true miracle.
Forget about the jar of meal and the jug of oil.
God brought a privileged prophet together with a broke, idol-worshipping widow.
Elijah took up her cause even against God.
Love shifted something within him – and now he is changed.
This story underscores something we all know to be true: God uses relationships to change us. And the most potent relationships are the ones in which deep differences meet; where God mixes together two people who have no business being together.
I want to tell you about Steve Kinder.
Many of you will know Steve because he married our dear Gail Norwood not even a year and a half ago. Gail died all too soon this past summer, and it has been absolutely heart-breaking, for Steve most of all. That’s what many of you know about Steve.
What you might not know is that Steve served in the United States military for his entire career. The Army took Steve all over the world, including Afghanistan.
There is much about being a soldier in a hostile land that somebody like me will never be able to understand. I try to be sensitive to that at all times, but I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised that – two years ago when I put out a call for any who would be interested in helping to welcome a family of Afghan refugees, Steve was among the first to volunteer.
For about 18 months now, UPC has been in a sponsoring relationship with Sameer and Salama and their four children. There are many in the church who have helped this family in various ways – Leslie May facilitated our introduction, many others have helped in a variety of ways…I don’t mean to suggest that this has been the work of Steve and Steve alone, but I have so loved watching Steve connect with this family and how he has woven them into his own life.
From helping them move in to their first apartment, to working with Sameer on job interviews and organizing his bills and finances, to coming to love those four children who call him “Mr. Steve,” there’s a certain life-giving connection that has blossomed and flourished. He refers to Sameer as his brother.
I asked Steve “why did you choose to get involved in this family’s life like that?”
He told me “I probably spent a total of 6 years on Afghan soil. They are good, good people. Sure, some are extremists, but most of them are good people who just want to lead a good life. People like Sameer kept the Army’s refrigerator working out in the desert. People like Sameer kept our vehicles going.”
Then he told me about the time when his own vehicle broke down in Kabul in the middle of the night. He was on some important business – people needed him to get to his destination.
He told me about the mechanic that came out to look at his car, barefooted in the snow, and how the man promised he would work on the vehicle through the night and have it ready by morning.
True to his word, Steve had a working vehicle the next morning – and he also had a pair of boots for the man who helped him out.
The sermon title todays claims that Service changes you.
I’ll adjust that a little and say that Service invites us into relationships that have the power to change you; relationship that forever alter the person you are becoming.
As Christians, we build our lives around a God who messes with us; who mixes us together in odd, life-giving combinations.
A God who winks at us through ravens and relationships that we could never see coming.
Yes, sometimes those relationships are risky.
They invite suffering into our lives that we would never choose on our own.
The widow of Zarephath wasn’t exactly a promising prospect at first – Elijah found her half-starved, searching for a couple of sticks so she could go home, bake some bread and prepare to die.
But remember that we – the Church – build our lives around Jesus.
Jesus who told his first disciples to go search for a couple sticks as well – who said to them and says to us “take up your cross and follow me.”
I wouldn’t call it a Merry-go-round.
It’s not comfortable nor is it convenient.
But Church – this is what we are built for.