Let us pray:
Wisdom of the Ages, whisper to us words of life from your words and mine. Amen.
Self-examination and repentance. Prayer, fasting and self-denial. Study of the scriptures and meditation upon them. These are the pillars of a holy Lent. Lent can be a hungry time. Hunger for things missed never so much as when having been giving up for Lent yes, but also, hunger for God. Hunger for time with God. Hunger for time to spend with God. Hunger for the transformations of soul, practice and, faith on the other side of the Lenten wilderness. Hunger for the hermeneutics of reversal, the turning of the world. Voluntary hunger for those who fast from food and sometimes water. And always, always, involuntary hunger for those whose deprivation is not an ancient religious practice tied to a particular liturgical season.
People are hungry. And I do not presume to say that there are no hungry people here because of the visible class and status markers. We know that too many Americans are hungry. Americans with homes and jobs and cars are going hungry. Too many cannot feed their children and themselves. Some choose to go hungry feeding their children the little they have. And some have nothing for themselves or their children. “Middle class” is often a myth designed to dress up realities like “house poor” and “working poor.” Stagnant wages and escalating costs of living, obscene healthcare costs and pandemic inflation and wartime price gouging mean that more and more people are going hungry in this, perhaps still, the wealthiest nation in the world. And then there are our kinfolk around the globe. Places where hunger is the daily reality for adults and children and where our poverty looks like abundance. People are hungry.
Today’s readings curated in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church – a lectionary that focuses on the vulnerable, marginalized and yes, often hungry – are full of hungry people with differing degrees of desperation and need. We start with a hungry woman and her hungry child. Is there any desperation so great as that of a parent who cannot feed their child?
Umma, short for Ummastarte – because a woman needs a name, especially when the narrator and editor of a holy text decides its unnecessary – Umma is at the gate of her community in Zarephath. The gate is a marginal a place, a liminal space, a place of transition and change. And liminal spaces are the places where the holy divine often breaks through into the needs and hunger of this world. Without knowing the location of her home and its distance from the gate, I imagine she has gone a long way, to the very edge of her comfortable and familiar space looking for scraps of firewood. She is gathering sticks, suggesting a lack of proper firewood already harvested by other hungry people or perhaps, her diminished strength due to her own hunger or both.
The prophet Elijah did not know Umma’s story; he did not know her need or her hunger. He was there to have his needs met. Elijah comes into this passage, into this town and into this woman’s life the beneficiary of divine provision in his moment of need and hunger. Having been instructed to have a nap and waking up to a snack in the previous verses, Elijah is sent on his way to this poor widow woman that she might provide him food, food that she does not have to spare, food for the next stage of his journey. This story is a dangerous story in the world that reads the text. There are no small number of religious leaders who call upon vulnerable, impoverished congregants, supplicants and disciples, mostly women, to give what they cannot afford to a church and its ministries with the promise that their needs will be met only after they have given like this widow or the widow in Mark 12:42/Luke 21:2.
Elijah prophesies to this widow woman in a country that is hers and not his in the name of a God that is his and not hers. You see, to go to Zarephath was to leave Israel, to go off the grid, for Jesus later to go on the run and, to go to the beach to a valuable length of coastline that neither David nor Solomon had ever been able to take from the Phoenicians. Umma is Phoenician. This is why – following the tradition of the rabbis – I gave Umma the name Ummashtarte, reflecting her religious heritage just as Elijah’s name reflected his. Umma, the widow of Zarephath lived in a prime real estate location but did not have two sticks to rub together and make a fire. Umma and her son were also food insecure. She had a home; she was the “mistress” of the house in 1 Kings 17:17, yet she was “house poor,” possessing little to nothing beyond her home. She and her child were hungry.
Elijah comes upon her when she is gathering kindling. The text does not tell us how he recognized her and knew that she was a widow. Perhaps Elijah knew that the first woman he encountered would be the widow of God’s instruction. We might imagine that she was dressed or veiled in a particular way signifying her status as a widow though there is no archaeological or anthropological evidence to suggest that but, let us not let scholarship get in the way of storytelling. At any rate he encounters her in public space, not at the door to her place. This means that he is not entitled to the hospitality for which he must ask. Thus he asks her to fetch him a cup of water meaning, she must interrupt her household labor for this strange man because once he has asked, some measure of hospitality is due.
As she goes to get Elijah a cup of water, he calls out after her and asks for something to eat, a small piece of bread. His request highlights the leanness of her hospitality. She has not invited him to sit or rest. She has not offered him water to wash his feet. She has not inquired after his well-being. Not all of these things were beyond her material resources. However, given what she will subsequently disclose, it may simply be that her well was dry, the well of her soul. She has no prepared food to offer. She has only the meanest of ingredients, a dab of flour and a dollop of oil. Enough to make one cake that she will divide between herself and her child. And then, she expects to die, of hunger.
As it is written, this story is Elijah’s story and she is a supporting player. But womanism reads from the margins to the center. Reading the story from Umma’s perspective requires us to tell a different story, preach a different sermon. As Jesus was so fond of saying, “you have seen that it was written… But I say onto you… “
Umma comes into the text in an otherwise unrecorded conversation or encounter with God. God tells Elijah in 1 Kings 17:9 that God has commanded a widow woman (with no further description) to provide for him. Why is her conversation with God missing from the text? We know why. She was a woman and a foreigner, considered disposable by the framers of Israel’s scriptures who used her as a narrative tool. But no one is disposable to God. Even when they are disposable to the constructed and contrived God in the text, no one is disposable to the God who transcends the text, the God beyond the text. And so one day when Jesus needed a sermon illustration, he turned to the foreign city of Zarephath and a foreign woman in his Women’s Lectionary knowing that his people had been conditioned to see foreign women as threatening, salacious and the cause of the downfall of good Israelite men and he turns the table on them with his hermeneutics of reversal.
Umma does as Elijah and God bid her. And then in v 12 she responds to Elijah using the Name of his God: As the Holy One your God lives… if she did not have a conversation with God how did she learn God’s most sacred and unpronounceable Name rendered here as the Holy One? Did she merely recognize Elijah’s appearance, clothing and, accent as Israelite? Unlikely because the distinctions between Israelite and Canaanite were thin; indeed, many understand Israelite to be a sub-genre of Canaanite.
My womanist sensibilities require that she has her own encounter with the Israelite God. Otherwise, Elijah is just another would be colonizer using religious language to couch his demands expecting native folk to hand over their resources without question. Indeed, the soaring language of God’s fidelity in the psalm is muddied by the portrayed of God as the Great Colonizer giving Israel the heritage and land of the other nations. Yet when read together, Umma’s story in the text and between the lines of the text is a rebuke to those like the psalmist who see Umma and people like her as perpetual outsiders, conquerors or those to be conquered. In my sanctified imagination, I see the conversation between Umma and Elijah’s God:
Umma was spending more and more time each day looking for wood that was getting harder and harder to find. Hers was not the only hungry mouth in town. She was not the only one looking for scraps of firewood. One day she heard a voice as strong as thunder and as gentle as rain. “Ummashtarte daughter of Astarte! Umma! She unbent her aching back and looked around. She saw some children playing. She ran at them clapping her hands shouting, “Shoo! Shoo! Go home to your mothers.” She bent back over the bramble she was breaking into manageable pieces and she heard it again: “Umma!”
“Who speaks to me?” she cried. The liquid thunder voice spoke again, “I am God Whose Name is Holy, the God of all creation.”
“Are you Ba‘al?” “Ba‘al is a child playing at my feet. I am the God of gods.”
“What do you want with me?” “I am sending you my prophet. Do as he asks.”
“What will he ask?” “The food on your table and in your child’s mouth.”
“Why would I do that?” “Because I will feed you and your child. My word is faithful and true.”
Muttering to herself, Umma takes her handful of sticks and goes home. When the prophet arrived she determined to do as he asks, only that and nothing more. She would put this God of gods to the test.
Umma trusts Elijah and his God and does as asked without question. Elijah’s prophecy is that her containers of oil and flour will continue undiminished until the drought is broken. Elijah’s words are faithful and true. The oil and flour remain and, Umma’s circumstances shift from poverty to abundance. This is the hermeneutics of reversal. Yet, the the miraculous reversal of her fortune is even more ripe for exploitation in prosperity gospel and related theological constructions.
The hermeneutics of reversal were also the daily bread of a mama’s boy in Nazareth. Before his birth his prophet mother prophesied:
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
This mother-prophet lived under occupation but prophesied that God had already changed the world. In the words of the Canticle of the Turning, she knew that the world was about to turn. So she raised her son in that faith. More than that, she raised him knowing that he would be the one, the very axis on which the world would turn. And I believe she raised him in their ancestral scriptures.
And so when he was surrounded by hungry and hurting people in our gospel reading, Jesus the love of God incarnate, put flesh on the bones of today’s psalm, a psalm his mother may have taught him:
4 …the Womb of Life is gracious and abounds in mother-love.
5 She provides fresh meat for those who revere her;
she remembers her covenant perpetually.
Without hesitation or reservation or checking the identity, ethnicity or nationality, passport or immigration status of those in his midst who were hungry, Jesus preached and lived the hermeneutics of reversal like his mama taught him. But this time, instead of calling down a miracle from heaven that few could replicate, this time Jesus called for those who follow him to be the means of the miracle that would see the hungry fed. He said, “You all give them something to eat.” You. All of you. This is your work. Then those who had something gave something and it was enough. It was enough and more.
That is how we feed the hungry today. We give what we have and it will be enough. It will be enough because the God who feeds widows and sparrows will be with us, walking with us, working with and through us and multiplying our meager morsels. We give our money and our time and our activism and our policy experience and our vote. We, ourselves. We live out the hermeneutics of reversal and change the world. We dismantle the structures of inequity without waiting for yet another voice from heaven because people are hungry for more than food. People are hungry for peace. People are hungry for the safety and security of their children, their gay children, their trans children, their non-binary children, their non-gender conforming children. People are hungry for freedom, for the freedom to be who they are on the inside and on the outside. People are hungry for justice in this country, some folks, black folk, are starving for justice. People are hungry for love.
And Jesus still says, “You give them something to eat.” You do your work and I’ll do mine bridging the gap between what is possible and impossible. And we will turn this world around because things cannot stand as they are forever. The world is about to turn, in fact the world is already turning. Reversals are not dependent on miracles from Heaven. You give them something to eat. Amen.
May God the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies
Accompany you through the gaps and brokenness in your life
Nurture, sustain and transform you to change the world around you. Amen.
Readings from Lent II, Year A, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church