Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
Whether or not we feel the pain and grief of any one of these events more than another, we are all feeling the burden of their collective weight. The shooting in Thousand Oaks is the 307th mass shooting in the United States in 2018. To put that in perspective, today, November 11th, is the 315th day of 2018. And sadly, 2018 is unremarkable in that aspect. 2017 gave us 346 mass murders, and 2016 had 382*. After seeing the same sad story played out again and again, many of us are feeling angry, frustrated, defeated. We wish there was something we could do to stop the violence, something anyone could do. We have options, of course, but while we continue to argue over which ones are worthwhile, lives continue to be lost.
For us Americans, this is a foreign idea. We have been taught that we are each the masters of our own destinies, the writers of our own stories. It is a national virtue not to rely upon anyone else. Our wealth, our technology, our culture—these are the things we have come to rely upon to protect us from the dangers that our ancestors faced; dangers like poor sanitation, clan warfare, infant mortality, and food insecurity. Those things have insulated us so much from the reality of death that even in the 15th year of the occupation in Afghanistan, we are able to forget or ignore the reality that we are currently engaged in an endless war.
These shootings terrify us for many reasons, but one of the most basic is that in a country marked by its wealth and prosperity, they force us to realize us how destitute we all are. We are each of us widows collecting sticks to bake our last meal. Our wealth, our technology, our culture—these things are the last of the flour and oil: they may stave off death for one more day, but they are not enough to save us.
Each of these crimes was motivated by hate and frustration, and all of that hatred was ultimately born out of fear: fear of being alone, fear of losing power and privilege to people of other races. I suspect that this fear festered into hate and was distilled into desperation. I suspect that, feeling powerless to save themselves from what they feared, they decided to do something—anything—that might make even a small difference, even at the cost of their lives.
What worries me is that I see a similar progression among us as we shoulder the weight of each new mass shooting and hate crime. We are fearful that we or someone we love might be next, fearful that nothing is being done to prevent these events from happening. Our fear leads to anger against those who we see as preventing us from addressing the problem, and that anger so often leads to hate. Although we may not take up any physical weapon to deal with the people we hate for refusing to deal with the problem as we would like, but we do belittle them, disrespect them and write them off as ignorant, stubborn or malicious.
Since we are widows, poor and unable to sustain ourselves, let’s consider the story in 1 Kings from the perspective of the widow. She has only one more meal’s worth of food for her son and herself. She has rationed what little they had for as long as she could, but now the end has come. She used to be able to beg from her neighbors: a bit of food here, some money there. It was humiliating, but at least it kept her and her son fed. But now with the drought, everybody was rationing their food and money just as she was. Instead of the charity they had once shown to her, now her neighbors either refused to make eye contact or became outright belligerent, accusing her of trying to take food out of the mouths of their own children. When it’s every man and woman for themselves, someone who depends on the kindness of others always loses.
When Elijah appeared at the town gate, and asked her to give up some of her last meal to feed him, it’s plain that she was afraid to do so. She feared—rightly—that by feeding this man, she and her son would die that much sooner. She doesn’t fear Elijah, but she does fear that doing as he asks will kill her and her boy. It is important, then, that the first thing the man of God says to her in his reply is “Fear not.” Fear not, you will not die. Fear not, all hope is not lost. Fear not; there is no need to be desperate. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate. Fear not.
Or, she can trust him. She can trust that, against all odds, sharing her final meal with him will save the life of her son and herself.
The story, of course, is not just about this widow in Zarephath. Since we are all widows, hoarding the last of our oil and flour, the story is also about us. Her choice is our choice: we can continue to trust in the wealth and the technology and the stuff we have created and accrued to protect us from madmen who would do us harm. We can invest money in steel bars and guns and automatic door locks and security cameras and burly armed guards to keep us safe. And they will for a while, until the oil and the flour run out. But when it’s every man and woman for themselves, someone always loses. Guns and bars and locks won’t solve the problem.
Our other option is to trust in the one who comes from God, asking us to give up what little we have and place our lives in the hands of one who has already been killed. Sadly, we know from what happened at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and from what happened at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX that faith in God cannot protect us from bullets—but it can protect us from fear. Although it may have been bullets that ended the lives of 27 people over these last two weeks, it was fear that pulled the trigger.
While we will continue to debate—as we should—what steps we can take together to make our nation, our communities, and our families safer, I am firmly convinced that the way to sustain life is not to shrink back in fear, but to share hope. In Zarephath, Elijah shared such hope with the widow, and in hope she shared her meager food with him; and in that sharing, both were saved as God kept the promise in our psalm to watch over the foreigner and uphold the orphan and the widow.
I know we are all tired and angry and frustrated about this. I know it feels like there is nothing you can do, or that if there is that others are standing in the way. But one thing we can do—perhaps the most important thing—is to refuse to give into fear, to hate the ones who seem to be asking us to give up what safety we have. We can instead share the life-sustaining hope of God with the people around us, even those we call “enemies.” It may not seem like much, just a small, flavorless cake of flour and oil or two small, copper coins, but I am convinced that as long as we are sharing those cakes with one another, the flour and oil will not run out.
I am convinced of this because the one who invites us to share this hope lives. Like all those people gunned down in the last two weeks, his life was taken in fear by the hatred of humanity; and yet he lives. Fear and hate could not stop him, and it cannot stop us who live in him. I choose to trust in the one who overcomes death with life; unlike guns or bars or locks, he has the power to save all who eagerly wait for him.