Sermon Seeds: Voice of the Silenced

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C color_green.jpg
Third Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 5

Lectionary citations
1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24) with Psalm 146
1 Kings 17:17-24 with Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

Worship resources for the Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time can be found at Worship Ways

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24)

Weekly Theme:
Voice of the Silenced

by Kathryn M. Matthews katehuey150.jpg

Our story begins with an evil king, Ahab; a false god, Baal; and, clearly, some kind of misunderstanding about just who exactly is in charge of things. Ahab rules over Israel, the northern kingdom (Judah was the southern kingdom), and the text tells us how “special” he is, for doing more evil in the sight of God than any of his predecessors (16:30). His foreign wife, Jezebel, from Sidon, has brought along her people’s god, Baal, and just to make matters worse, she persuades Ahab to set up shrines where this Baal can be worshipped. This is a huge mistake on Ahab’s part, and he should know better: there is, after all, a commandment about having false gods before the one true God.

On to the scene strides the great prophet Elijah, who delivers that message in no uncertain terms: he tells Ahab that there will be no rain for a very long time, unless he, Elijah, says so – even though Ahab and Jezebel are worshipping the so-called god of rain, storm, and fertility. (How ironic is that!)  Elijah is declaring the power of the One True God, not Baal, to bring the rains and end the drought, a message that does not go over well with Ahab. So God gets Elijah out of town for a while, looking after him along the way by sending ravens to bring him food, and leading him to a wadi that provides water for him to drink in the midst of the drought and the food shortage that must follow it.

An ironic destination

The time comes when even these provisions are not enough, and when the drought worsens, God sends Elijah to – of all places – Sidon, the very place Jezebel came from. Our passage begins here, with God giving Elijah what must seem like an incomprehensible command, to seek help from “a nobody” who has nothing: the great prophet has to rely on the kindness and generosity of a stranger, a poor widow, a foreigner who, presumably, is herself a worshipper of Baal.

The Bible is full of such irony, of course, with God at work through the most unexpected people, in the most unexpected places. Zarephath was actually a town situated in pagan territory, between the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean Sea, and we will hear all these names again in the Gospels, in lessons about the gracious love of God that crosses all human-made boundaries.

Desperate mothers and grieving widows

For example, hearing that Elijah went to Sidon reminds us of the story in the seventh chapter of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus goes to the same area and meets the Syro-Phoenician woman, another foreigner driven by love for her child who opens up the compassion and vision of Jesus to share the “crumbs” of the children with “dogs,” or Gentiles (a stunning and even upsetting idea to some when it was preached in the early church). And when Jesus’ hometown audience in Luke 4 found it hard to believe that one of their own could speak so graciously, he brought up this very story, about the widow of Zarephath, and the amazing way God is at work in the most unexpected of places, with the most unlikely of people.

Some of the best stories in the Bible, the ones that remind us of other really good stories in the Bible, happen in those out-of-the-way, across-the-border places, with people who are on the margins and yet surprisingly important in the grand scheme of things. Even the second part of this passage from First Kings, about the raising of the widow’s son, reminds us of the story in Luke 7 (today’s Gospel reading), when another widow’s son is raised by Jesus. We recall, too, another poor pagan widow, Ruth, in the Old Testament, also a foreigner, whose tender and unconditional care for her forlorn mother-in-law, Naomi, mirrors God’s own love and faithfulness, a love made flesh in Jesus.

Prophets speaking up for the poor

And so, while we know that Elijah was a particularly great prophet, and lots of wonderful stories are told about him in the Old Testament, his memory plays an important role in the New Testament as well: his name comes up often when people wrestle with who Jesus is (think, for example, of the crowd’s reaction to his last words in Matthew 27:47). Like Jesus, Elijah’s good news was particularly good for the poor, not so much for the powerful and arrogant. While his preaching doesn’t go over well with Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah does have a good word to bring to the impoverished but generous widow, beginning with that always-reassuring good news, “Do not be afraid.”Angels and prophets and Jesus himself tell us not to live in fear, no matter how bad things look.

The widow, preparing to die with her son, at the end of her rope, suddenly has salvation arriving at her door. Where there was scarcity, there is now sufficiency. Terence Fretheim notes the way God is at work supplying what the widow needs, just as God had provided what Elijah needed out there in the wilderness, when he fled the courts of the powerful, and the birds of the air brought him food. Fretheim draws our attention to the little ways and “the small ones” by which God sustains life, “through the birds of the air, small gestures, meager resources, feeble words, human obedience, and the witness of a poor woman” (First and Second Kings, Westminster Bible Companion).

A means of new life

Later, when the widow’s son lies dead, Elijah is summoned once again to be the means by which God brings new life. And, indeed, where there appears to be death, there is, amazingly, life! Small and powerless and yet full of insight, the woman recognizes that all of this is not magic, or the work of humans; instead, it’s the hand of the true God at work in her life, and she makes a leap of faith to trust the word of this God in her life.

That is a subtle but important point of this story. Tremper Longman III claims that, by feeding the prophet first, the widow has an opportunity to show her faith in God (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). I find it challenging to imagine that this poor, desperate woman has “faith” in any “God” (hers or Elijah’s) at this point: after all, she is preparing herself, and her son, to die. I suspect that there are other things at work in her at this moment, things we don’t focus on as quickly or as easily in Christian writing (or preaching), things like desperation and hope.

The good thing about emptiness

A reading like this one, in the midst of drought and famine, thirst and hunger, poverty and despair, provokes reflection on the phrase, “desperate hope,” for desperation, or despair, paradoxically, suggests hope-less-ness. However, at the worst possible moments, hope can still persist deep within our hearts, no matter what God or god we have been raised to worship and taught to place our faith in.

Perhaps the word “desolation” fits the widow’s situation even better, because it means “emptiness,” and when there’s nothing left, and you’re totally empty, there is room for all sorts of grace to move in and grow. Could it be that surrounding ourselves with so many things, so many activities, so much noise, so many worries, makes it hard for us to open up our selves, our hearts, to God’s love and grace to fill in the empty places underneath it all? I wonder about that.

It’s not that we’re not hungry, deep down in our spirits, maybe even starving, but if we fill ourselves with enough spiritual junk food, we may not even be around when the prophet bearing good news – and hope – arrives. (For a 3-minute video on the way our senses and minds have become dulled, and how we need to nurture our capacity for awe: “Shots of Awe”.)

Room in her heart for hope

The widow of Zarephath, however, is around when the prophet arrives, and she is empty, so she has room in her heart for hope. Perhaps out of habit or societal pressure (it was, after all, a core practice in cultures at that time), she acts out the rituals of hospitality and generosity, sharing the little that she has with a stranger, making room in the last moments of her life for another, but pondering her words as she gathers a meager meal for him.

The poor widow enacts what Walter Brueggemann calls “otherwise,” in his book on the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Brueggemann notes that the story of Elijah (followed by Elisha) breaks into a long historical account of the kings leading up to Ahab (a rather grim narrative of successions and wars, infidelities and punishments, leading up to the disgrace that was Ahab and Jezebel). He contrasts this terrible record with these wonderful stories about prophets, stories that dare us today to imagine a very different kind of world, one not based on power and might and greed (Testimony to Otherwise).

Look for stories on the margins

Years ago, as a history major, I had to learn what the “important” people did and when they did it, as if this were the only thing that mattered, and as if this “history” were also something objective, something established in fact. I suppose such information is helpful in understanding the context, the setting, in which the really important things happened, even if those really important things were going on in remote villages and at the bottom of society, in encounters like those between hungry prophets and desperate widows, the kind of thing you don’t read about in history books.

For example, I confess that I was rather bored in American history class by the dry accounts of the late-19th-century formation of labor unions by men with a measure of voice and power, instead of hearing the stories of the voiceless young women who lost their lives in the Triangle Fire in New York City in 1911. Because of that tragedy, many significant changes were made, but I never heard that story in school. Years later, I’m still trying to fill in the holes in my incomplete education, to learn where the really important and powerful things often happen, on the margins and in the most unexpected places. (For more on a story they didn’t tell us in school, see David Von Drehle’s book, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.)

A stubborn resolve to see and do “otherwise”

That might be what Brueggemann is saying about this story–and really, how much more important could an event be than bringing an only child, the only hope of his mother, back to life? Something important does happen when Elijah prays for the widow’s dead son to be restored to life (an incredible thing to pray for, really), and Brueggemann calls this something new in the life of someone who is “not privy to much newness.” 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.

It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus stirred the memory of Elijah in his followers. Brueggemann urges us not only to remember those great figures in history, like Martin Luther King, Jr., who have done the same, but to see our own lives differently as well, to venture out into the “sacramental” practice of imagining a different world, a practice that is biblical as well (Testimony to Otherwise). Or, as Henri Nouwen put it, “the Christian…keeps saying that a new way of being human and a new peace are possible.” 

How is our religious imagination?

A preacher might focus on religious imagination, then, or perhaps on the contrasts in this story, between power and powerlessness, hope and hopelessness, the “important” places in the center of things, and the really important things and events that happen out on the margins. Doesn’t the Bible tell us one story after another about such truly powerful events and people?

That might lead us to contrast Ahab and Elijah, or, as James Newsome suggests, the widow and Queen Jezebel, distinguished by how much compassion they had in their hearts. And this compassion teaches us, Newsome says, about the love of a God who will not be confined to Israel and Judah alone, but embraces all of humankind (Texts for Preaching Year C). Karl Allen Kuhn sums up all of this by looking at the big picture, by contrasting “the forces that lead to blessing and the forces that lead to destruction” in this story (New Proclamation Year C 2010). How are you, and your church, “forces that lead to blessing”?

Rains of mercy on a parched earth

There are all sorts of wonderful things swirling around in this story: the power of God, the rains of mercy on parched earth and dried-up lives, the small ones lifted up, the generosity that transforms the direst of situations, the blessings of God multiplying in unexpected and unimagined ways. When we look around at our lives and the life of the world, and the life of our churches, what abundance is about to break forth because of unexpected generosity and surprising compassion? What hope do we dare to welcome, and to entertain, in our own lives? What dreams of God are we, too, willing to imagine?

I once saw a website of a United Church of Christ congregation that dares to dream of the kind of world we glimpse in the story of Elijah and the widow, and in the ministry of Jesus himself: “Imagine a church that cannot stay put, but takes God’s welcome into the world. Imagine a church in conversation with other lives, other cultures, able to invite and be invited, to sit at other people’s tables, to learn and share the inestimable riches of God, to build relationships outside its walls. Imagine a church where the hands, hearts and feet of every member, young and old, are shaped for service, and a church that does not lack imagination about ways to use them. Imagine a church compelled by the Spirit to travel with Jesus, healing, reconciling and doing justice, a church filled with the daring and delight of the children of God. Imagine a church on the open road, agile and able, willing to follow Jesus into life’s margins, a church that gives itself away and asks nothing in return, a church mobilized for mission: Imagine First Church in Cambridge!” Amen, First Church in Cambridge, Amen!

What “otherwise” do you and your church dare to imagine, and to bring to life in the world, by allowing God to work through you in this world? How is God’s work getting done, through you?

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Vincent van Gogh, 19th century
“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”

Latin proverb
“Dum spiro, spero (While I breath, I hope).”

Dalai Lama, 21st century
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Frederick Buechner, 21st century
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Paulo Coelho, 21st century
“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”

Victor Hugo, 19th century
“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.”

Lectionary texts

1 Kings 17:8-16, (17-24)

Then the word of the Lord came to him, 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, “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.

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, 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 he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “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 to the Lord, “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.”


Psalm 146

Praise be to God!
   Praise God, O my soul!

I will praise God
   as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God
   all my life long.

Do not put your trust in nobles,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs,
   they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help
   is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Sovereign their God,

who made heaven and earth, the sea,
   and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry.

God sets the prisoners free;
   God opens the eyes of those who cannot see.

God lifts up those who are bowed down;
   God loves the righteous.

God watches over the strangers;
   and upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked
   God brings to ruin.

God will reign forever,
   your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise be to God!


1 Kings 17:17-24

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, 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 he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “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 to the Lord, “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.”


Psalm 30

I will extol you, O God,
   for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes
   rejoice over me.

O God my God,
   I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.

O God, you brought up my soul
   from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those
   gone down to the Pit.

Sing praises to God,
   O you God’s faithful ones,
and give thanks to God’s holy name.

For God’s anger is but for a moment;
   God’s favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.

As for me, I said in my prosperity,
   “I shall never be moved.”

By your favor, O God,
   you had established me
      as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
   I was dismayed.

To you, O God, I cried,
   and to you I made supplication:

‘What profit is there in my death,
   if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
   Will it tell of your faithfulness?

Hear, O God,
   and be gracious to me!
O God, be my helper!’

You have turned my mourning
   into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
   and clothed me with joy,

so that my soul may praise you
   and not be silent.
O God my God,
   I will give thanks to you for ever.


Galatians 1:11-24

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.

Luke 7:11-17

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”   

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!