Survival of the Altruist

My last sermon for First Christian Church, preached this morning, June 5th, 2016 at our combined 10 am service. I sure am going to miss these folks! The text for the sermon was the story of Elijah visiting the widow in Zarephath and providing for her and her son – 1 Kings 17:8-24. In our “survival of the fittest” culture, how many times have we refused God’s call to meet a need because we were afraid it might hurt our chances for success? Here follows the text and the sermon:

 

And the word of the Lord came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon, and stay there; I have designated a widow there to feed you.” So he went at once to Zarephath. When he came to the entrance of the town, a widow was there gathering wood. He called out to her, “Please bring me a little water in your pitcher, and let me drink.” As she went to fetch it, he called out to her, “Please bring along a piece of bread for me.” “As the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I have nothing baked, nothing but a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am just gathering a couple of sticks, so that I can go home and prepare it for me and my son; we shall eat it and then we shall die.” “Don’t be afraid,” said Elijah to her. “Go and do as you have said; but first make me a small cake from what you have there, and bring it out to me; then make some for yourself and your son. For thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: The jar of flour shall not give out and the jug of oil shall not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the ground.” She went and did as Elijah had spoken, and she and he and her household had food for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the jug of oil fail, just as the Lord had spoken through Elijah.

After a while, the son of the mistress of the house fell sick, and his illness grew worse, until he had no breath left in him. She said to Elijah, “What harm have I done you, O man of God, that you should come here to recall my sin and cause the death of my son?” “Give me the boy,” he said to her; and taking him from her arms, he carried him to the upper chamber where he was staying, and laid him down on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord and said, “O Lord my God, will You bring calamity upon this widow whose guest I am, and let her son die?” Then he stretched out over the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, saying, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life return to his body!” The Lord heard Elijah’s plea; the child’s life returned to his body, and he revived. Elijah picked up the child and brought him down from the upper room into the main room, and gave him to his mother. “See,” said Elijah, “your son is alive.” And the woman answered Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord is truly in your mouth.”

 

So, how many of you watch sports? It can be any kind of sport. I’m showing my true colors here a bit; I’m not a huge sports fan, but I can get into them time to time. Particularly, football, which, around these parts, is called soccer, because we have American football, but the rest of the world calls it football, so there it is. But, getting back on topic, if you’ve ever watched any kind of sport, I suspect you know the basic premise. There is generally some sort of physically-based competition, and there is a winner and a loser. In a lot of sports there is actually a ranking system – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. But the object of any sport is to beat out the competition and to win the whole thing, right? It can be a great source of entertainment, obviously – people all over the world enjoy the spectacle – and we’re always rooting for someone, right? Like that question everybody always asks you before the Super Bowl – who are you going to root for? Who do you want to win? We want our team, our player, to be the best! We want them to strive for physical perfection; we enjoy seeing their display of athleticism pitted against the other team’s or player’s. And for those die-hard fans among us, our hearts will beat in anxious desperation as we silently will them to 1st place.

 

Still, with all of the excitement that watching sports entails, I would contend that seeing our favorite player or team win it all is not the best thing we could ever witness while watching sports. It is not the thing that gives us the best feeling. Neither, I think, is seeing some superb display of athleticism – the amazing drive, the unfathomable catch, the superior trick shot to win the whole thing. These are awesome to watch, and certainly they may give us a rush of awe and excitement, but the feeling, ultimately, is not, I contend, the best that we could get while watching sports.

 

A few years ago, I recall a video going around the internet of a young high school girl competing in the state championship track meet – some of you may remember seeing this. And the reason that this video got so much attention is that, during one of the races, a runner stumbles and falls just before the finish line – her legs, exhausted from the day of running, had given out, and she couldn’t go any farther. And then, this particular young lady comes running up from behind her, lifts her up and puts her arm around her shoulder, and runs with her to the finish line. She could have passed her and gotten ahead, gotten a better placement. But, instead, defying the inherent competitive logic in sports, she chose to help her fellow competitor cross the finish line in last place. The news anchor that was reporting on this video said, “you know, usually in track you’re paying attention to the person in first place; but, with this video, it’s the runners in last place you want to watch. I could sit here and watch this all day.”

 

The news anchor is right. Aren’t those the moments in sports that make us feel the best we could ever feel? Those moments when someone commits a selfless act of what we might call “extreme sportsmanship”, forsaking their own opportunity at being the best physical specimen they can be in order to help an opponent? It’s different – it’s not a feeling of awe and wonder at the physical prowess of an athlete; nor is it the feeling of excitement and elation over a team’s hard-fought victory – but it is still arguably the best, because it is such an unexpected display of kindness. It is the warmth of seeing and knowing the capacity of one human being’s love for another. It’s what brings tears to our eyes when Piglet gives his house to Owl after Owl’s is destroyed in a storm – can you tell I have a young toddler at home? It is a feeling, lodged deep within our souls, that tells us that those people who are willing to break from the principle of “survival of the fittest” are not, in fact, weak, but rather the strongest of us all. You might even say there is something of God in them.

 

Which brings us to our text this morning. There has been a great drought in the land of Israel. You see, Ahab, the king, has committed the land to worshipping the Canaanite storm god Baal, who was thought to bring rain and new life onto the earth. This is a smack in the face to YHWH, the God who led the Israelites out of Egypt and has provided for them again and again, and so, perhaps to demonstrate once again who truly has power over the rain, Elijah announces that there will be a drought, and so there is. Now, I wish I could tell you that there was some other reason for the drought – according to the story, there is not. God brings drought to the land of Israel because of King Ahab’s idolatry. Whether or not we think that is justified, such is the situation when Elijah encounters the widow in our story today. The land is suffering. The people are starving. Our widow has but a handful of flour and a little oil. Just take a minute and imagine her situation – a handful of flour and a little oil! Listen to what she says – “I am just gathering a couple of sticks, so that I can go home and prepare it for me and my son; we shall eat it and then we shall die.” This woman is at the end of her rope; this is all she has left, and then she and her son will die. And remember, she is merely the face we get to see of the crisis that has wrecked Israel. There are millions of others like her throughout the land! So why did Elijah go to her?

 

Before he left, Elijah was staying near the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan River. Elijah is here, being fed by the ravens. When the Wadi dries up, God commands Elijah to go to this widow, but it’s not like she’s in the town next door. She’s in Zarephath, which is waaayyyy up here, by the Mediterranean Sea, near modern-day Syria.

In fact, if this was really about Elijah’s survival, it would actually be quicker for him to go to Jerusalem in the land of Judah, where there was no famine. Even if he couldn’t go to Judah for political reasons, he could have easily gone someplace where they had more food than just a handful of flour and a little oil. So why go to this widow?

 

Simply, because God told him to. And wherever God tells you to go, you go. Perhaps God told others to go to the other starving families throughout Israel. Perhaps, wherever there is a need, God is always telling someone to go and meet it. In our story today, Elijah goes to this woman, and he sees her need. He is compelled to help, knowing that God is on his side, and so he tells her to make him a cake, and then make some for her and her son, and she will not run out. She, having very little, does according to what Elijah says; perhaps out of faith, perhaps out of desperation. But she does it. And then, guess what? Not only does she have her needs met – she is also able to meet the needs of the one who helped her.

 

Imagine if this was how the world always worked! Imagine if everyone was not only able to meet each other’s needs, but also willing! Isn’t it one of life’s little miracles every time a need gets met? I remember sitting in Passion, this huge college Christian conference in Atlanta, Georgia, with roughly 20,000 other students when they announced that not one, but two border facilities would be built between India and Nepal to check vehicles for human trafficking, because we gave enough. I remember sitting next to my friend, James, on the curb when he gave a dollar out of his cup to a friend who needed money for the bus. I remember helping to build a retaining wall for a clinic in Nicaragua so it wouldn’t flood every Spring, and people could get the healthcare they needed. I remember when I got in my car accident, and how many folks offered to let me borrow their car while mine was being fixed. It’s incredible, the lengths that some people will go to in order to help someone in need.

 

And yet there are still so many in need. There are so many, like this widow, who are dying of starvation. There are so many, like her son, who are dying of preventable disease. And, certainly, we want to help, but are unable to. We do a lot to help our community, we could maybe do more, but we, First Christian Church, obviously cannot meet the needs of the entire world on our own – but! I’ll tell you who can. Look at the story again. Elijah is sent to one woman, and God works through Elijah to meet the needs of her and her son. How many others did God send? How many others refused to go? How many of the worlds needs would be met if everyone whom God sent actually went? See, our problem is not necessarily that we are not helping, but rather that we have failed to convince everyone else to help. Our problem is not necessarily that we are operating according to the principle of survival of the fittest, but rather that we have allowed that very principle to penetrate and to infect our society. We live and breathe it here. If we aren’t competing for physical prowess, we’re competing for social standing. If it’s not for social standing, it’s for economic prosperity. Sometimes, we’re even competing just to keep food on our tables and a roof over our heads. It’s what we’ve been taught. It’s how we were raised. We were told to be the best we could be, to fight to succeed. Maybe not told directly, but, growing up in the U.S., this is what we were made to understand: that having a job and making a lot of money is more important than being a good person. In fact, if you don’t have a job and you don’t have enough money to provide for your family, you are a bad person. But as long as you have money and are successful, you will generally be considered a good person until you prove otherwise. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I apologize if I’m being redundant, but I want to make this point entirely clear – our culture is all about success. We literally value people based on how much money they make and how much they have. We publish lists about it! We teach our children to do anything to get ahead. So, maybe you can understand why someone in our culture might be less inclined to answer God’s call to meet the needs of the widow.

 

Y’all, those people out there yelling in the streets are right – this country needs Jesus! But not in the way they think it does. We’ve already tried spreading the Gospel by guilting people into believing – that didn’t work. We’ve tried spreading it by telling people that God would bless them with money and success if they were good believers – that didn’t really work either. What if we tried a different method of evangelism? What if, instead of telling people they need to come to church, to come to us, we went out to them? What if we decided to go and meet their needs, to answer God’s call and to be the hands and feet of Christ? What if we convinced the whole, worldwide Church to do this? The Church is huge; it’s powerful; it could change the culture. It could change the way we think about success in this country.

 

There’s a famous psychologist named Jacob Maslow. He said that people have certain needs that they will satisfy in a particular order, and he came up with a little pyramid to show this. At the base are physical needs, like food and water; the next are safety related, like shelter and security; then come relationships and belonging; then self-esteem; and, finally, self-actualization, which we might interpret as the spiritual needs – finding your purpose in life, discovering who you really are, etc. So, what this means is that if you don’t have food or water, you’re going to focus on getting those before you start worrying about finding a safe place to live. If you don’t have a safe place to live, you might not be as concerned with finding meaningful relationships with people. And so on and so forth. Now, I don’t know how much stock to put into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I do know that if I am dying of starvation or otherwise in distress, I’m less likely to listen to a sermon on the street.

 

The same with the widow in our story. She could care less about God – all she wants is to be able to take care of her family. And Elijah – Elijah doesn’t see her as a project person. He’s not trying to turn her into a good YHWH worshipper. He’s just following God’s commandment to go and live with her. He provides for her and she provides for him. They get to know each other. And when her son becomes seriously ill, Elijah steps in without a second thought and heals him. It is then and only then that the woman says, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord is truly in your mouth.”

 

If you want to grow the church, and bring more people in, that’s how you do it. People aren’t going to see God in you if you’re shouting at them. They aren’t going to see God in you if you amass a great amount of wealth and leave them by the wayside. And they certainly aren’t going to see God in you if you make it clear you just want more butts in the pews. They aren’t going to see God in a church that is just trying to succeed; just trying to survive. Meet their needs. Love them in their time of crisis. Heal them, without agenda. Only then will they say, “Now I see that you are an agent of God and that the word of the Lord is truly in your mouth.” Amen.