Scripture Lesson: I Kings 17:1-16
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
In 1958, the People’s Republic of China initiated the Great Sparrow Campaign. This initiative was an effort to kill the sparrows that were eating the grain seeds which, it was thought, was impeding food production. The birds were shot and killed. Peasants banged pots and drums scaring the birds and preventing them from landing which led to their death from exhaustion. They dropped from the sky by the thousands. Nests were destroyed and eggs broken. Every effort was made to eradicate the grain-eating sparrow and it was nearly driven to extinction. Schools and towns were given awards and recognition for their efforts. The ultimate goal of the Great Sparrow Campaign was to increase agricultural output.
In the aftermath of the Great Sparrow Campaign, it was found that rice yields actually decreased rather than increased. It was the opposite of the intended result. What became clear was that in addition to eating grain, the sparrows were also consuming vast quantities of insects that also ate grain. Without the sparrows, the insect population soared, and locusts and other bugs decimated the rice fields. The Great Sparrow Campaign, combined with the effects of rapid industrialization, drought, and flooding, contributed to the Great Leap Forward Famine which accounted for anywhere between 15 and 45 million deaths in China. When the negative effects of the Great Sparrow Campaign were recognized, it was ended, but it was too late to mitigate the negative consequences.
The Great Sparrow Campaign is but another reminder that creation is connected. The world is an interconnected web of mutual interdependence. Nature and humanity, all species, plant and animal, land and sea, mutually dependent and intertwined. The more we learn about nature, the more we become aware of the connections and relationships among the many components forming an intricate, vibrant, living whole. Imbued into creation is essential interaction and relationship, even between the most unlikely life forms. We see that mutuality is essential to life.
This is borne out in the story that we heard this morning from I Kings. First Elijah,
God’s mighty prophet, who declares a drought that lasts for 3 years, and kills 950
prophets of foreign gods, this great prophet is driven to seek shelter in the wilderness where he is sustained by the ravens and a creek. The birds see to his existence. They keep Elijah alive. The humble birds. Creation, doing God’s bidding, saving the life of a human. Here we see interdependence and relationship.
Then when the creek dries up because of the drought, Elijah is directed to the town of Zarephath in Sidon, to seek out a widow who is to keep him alive. Sidon is the region that is home to Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, the king of Israel. Jezebel is credited with encouraging Ahab to introduce the foreign god, Baal, into Israel, complete with shrines where Baal can be worshipped. This has caused the God of the Israelites to send Elijah to straighten out Ahab about Baal. The drought will last until Ahab cleans up his act and shows his loyalty to the one God of Israel. When he is sent to Sidon, Elijah is sent into enemy territory. And he is sent to be served by a woman who is most probably a worshipper of Baal, the very god Elijah is trying to cast out of Israel. This is not an arrangement that we would expect or predict.
And there is more that makes this woman an unlikely person to be helping Elijah. She is a widow. She is poor. She is vulnerable. She is restricted in her economic options. And, to an Israelite, she is an outsider. Virtually powerless, she is bereft.
How is this widow supposed to take care of Elijah and save his life when she herself is preparing to die, with her son, of starvation? They have nothing but a bit of food for a last meal. And why would she even be willing to help Elijah? It is his God that is responsible for the drought that is killing her, her son, and her community. She is a victim of Elijah and his God.
This is a very unlikely pairing, Elijah and this widow. Someone with
nothing is supposed to keep someone else alive and the two are virtual enemies. Yet as the story unfolds, Elijah asks the widow for help. She gives it. And the two of them, along with her son, are sustained through the drought. In the next part of the story, the son becomes sick and dies and Elijah brings him back from death. These two unlikely characters are brought together and sustain each other. The widow, even given the little that she has to offer, helps Elijah. And Elijah, who has no sustenance, is instrumental in keeping the widow and her son alive for 3 years. There is a mutuality and interdependence that is at work. Unlikely parties are of benefit to each other in unexpected ways; connected, their destinies intertwined.
In this story, we see that the God behind it all intends for us to live in mutuality with each other and with nature. We are mutually dependent. The ravens minister to Elijah, and this widow and Elijah keep each other alive. God intends for us to be interconnected and interwoven in a web that promotes life. The path of life is a strand in this vast, unlikely whole; involved with and dependent upon those we least expect.
The way of life is the way of connection and relationship. When we are connected to God, to each other, and to the natural world, we are sustained and life is rich and full. In the life and ministry of Jesus, we see this borne out. Jesus interacts with those who are considered foreign, enemy, other. He feeds, heals, and forgives those who are considered beyond the pale even by his religious tradition. We are told of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman. So we see that he lets others minister to him. Jesus has given us the story of the Good Samaritan where the most unlikely character does the right thing. And the story of the Prodigal Son, where the father, who is expected to be angry and indignant, overwhelms his son with forgiveness and grace. In the teachings of Jesus, we see unexpected mutuality and changed paradigms of power in relationships.
Jesus interacts with all of humanity and all of creation as it is, imbued with the holy. He sees the divinity in all of life and in the earth itself. He is not defined or constrained by the artificial divisions and barriers that we tend to construct for perceived self protection.
The Bible and the way of Jesus show us what is of the most benefit to humanity, what is the most life giving, what is in service to our highest good; engagement with all of creation and all of life. Elijah goes to the enemy for food. And he is given life. The widow serves her enemy, and she and her son find life. We are meant to live in mutuality and interdependence, not in isolation and separation. Our well-being is intertwined with all of humanity, all of life, and all of creation. When we are engaged, even with unlikely partners, we thrive. The path of life is one of solidarity and cooperation.
Yet so often what we see around us is isolation and separation. We define ourselves over and against other people. We value ourselves and our kind above others. We think the natural world is here to serve us not to sustain us. This separates us not only from one another and from nature, but it also separates us from God, the source of love and life. We become alienated from the divinity within ourselves, others, and nature. We become afraid and selfish. Life is barren and death awaits. Even if we have material wealth, we are bereft.
Life expectancy has gone down in the US for the first time in 13 years. This is largely due to drug use and suicide. These are conditions that result from a broken soul, from alienation, from separation; not necessarily from material poverty, but from spiritual poverty. Life becomes dry and barren when we are separate and disconnected. Addiction looms. Drugs beckon. Life devolves into self absorption and pleasure seeking that is elusive.
When we are connected to each other, to the sacred, to life, to nature, we grow in our mutuality and interdependence. We know the importance of the world and the community around us. We appreciate our own worth. In service, we find our value and our wholeness. When we are served by others, we give them the opportunity to experience their worth and value. When we are separate and self-centered, our world becomes small and we wither.
Our son lives in California where there is a drought creating severe water shortages and necessitating severe restrictions. This is having a detrimental effect on farming. In an agricultural area of the state, our son saw signs put up by farmers and farm workers saying, “Is growing food wasting water?” “No Water = No Jobs” “Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl.” These are signs of alienation and separation. People are not listening to each other and working together with the land to sustain each other. There is definitely a difference of outlook between those who live in the city and those who are farmers about the drought. City dwellers want nice lawns. Farmers want to eat. Instead of cooperation, which could lead to life for all, there is conflict and acrimony which detracts from finding mutually beneficial solutions.
Elijah and the widow show us the divine intention for our mutuality and cooperation. Strangers, enemies even, giving each other life. We see it in Jesus befriending foreigners, women, sinners, Romans, the clean and the unclean. We see it in nature – remora and shark, birds and bugs, orchids and bees, oxygen breathers and carbon dioxide eaters – living in balance and mutuality. Elijah was fed by the raven. China, though they did not know it, was being served by the humble sparrow. When we vanquish an enemy through violence or extinguish a species it may very well prove to be at our own peril. The world has been designed so that we depend upon each other and all the other species that populate this sacred planet to sustain our lives. Creation is a vast, intricate, complex web. Who knows? Our future, our very lives, may depend upon the fate of the
endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. We’ll see. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.