(Normally, I don’t post sermon texts, but some have asked for this one. From this morning, July 1, 2018; 1 Kings 17. Seems word gets round. So, here it is.)
So, lately, I’ve been thinking about this idea, G-d the economist. Thought-provoking things emerge around these words—economy, household, guidance, principles, interactions, exchanges—images arise, comparisons, other stories, pages and pages of scripture come to mind; all of it leading to the verge of something: something surely glorious and hope-filled, though perhaps also troubling. But it is a “something” I seem to see only partly, straining, squinting, sure what is there is something worth sharing, but more than a little afraid my vision is inadequate.
Maybe, I can’t see the whole thing clearly for the same reasons our ancestors struggled to see it—for the same reasons that I suspect, really, we all struggle to see it: we’ve been flung so far east of it for so long, we no longer know, fully, what it looks like. Perhaps, it’s just too big, so it only comes to any of us in fragments—hoped-for, prayerful things, strung throughout time and history, joined by tender threads of holy Self-disclosure, human events, prophets, would-be messiahs, and even old-school justice-seeking, Marxist queer theorists like me. Could be, I’m just short-sighted. Nonetheless, I confess, what I have are fragments.
In one fragment: this Elijah text, leads me deeper into images of G-d as the Guiding Organizer of the Household, Cosmos; the One who acts through interactions and exchanges, guiding us to principles, activities, values and behaviors that carry within them not merely blueprints of G-d’s vision, but everything needful to it and on which it is made: the brick and mortar; gardens and farmlands; valleys, plains and mountains; the fishes and the creeping and crawling things; winged creatures; fruit trees and shade trees; rivers, streams, lakes and oceans; and even and especially, us, the dreamers and the workers:
the very creature-people to whom G-d has entrusted a divinely-dreamed and hoped for earthly household.
These images glimmer in and around the details. After leading him to prophesy the coming drought to the worst assimilationist, exploitative king in the people’s memory, the word of G-d guided Eliyahu (Elijah) to the wadi Cherith, saying: you will drink from the wadi and I have appointed the ravens to nourish and sustain you there.
And, so it was, G-d did for Elijah, a particular individual person, the very same that G-d did for the entire Hebrew people after the liberation from Egypt. This time, however, mana and quail did not simply fall from the heavens to the ground. For Eliyahu, Holy Provider charged the ravens, there, to bring him bread and meat in the morning and, again, bread and meat in the evening.
Elijah’s story, like dusty prayer beads, is woven with the desert stones of Moses and the Hebrew people, the liberation and the wilderness, Mt. Sinai and Torah, prophets and peace-dreamers, all tied and strung together, stretching all the way back even to Eden—the earthly cosmic economy, the first Household of G-d, organized around a just, equitable, communal, and cooperative economy: the one our ancestors lost sight of in a trajectory of body-bound temporal frailties, fears and self-preservations we seem destined to be governed by.
Here, in guiding interaction reminiscent of the garden, God acts through creation, itself, to sustain Elijah—from the wadi to the attendant ravens. In this fragment thread affirming the essentiality of diversity, our traveling prophet was fed, not by majestic beautiful birds like eagles or even doves but was nourished and cared for by nobody’s-favorite, wandering, omnivorous scavengers. Tishbite Elijah’s survival was charged to these creatures who have learned a little something about relying on creation to survive; ravens are one of the most ancient, adaptive and intelligent species of birds. They can, and do, live in any environment and adapt to even the harshest of conditions. Like Eliyahu, they are Toshav: sojourners, outsider residents, strangers of a sort.
And, even as the ravens brought him food, Elijah was assured sustaining water until the stream finally evaporated. This is, in fact, what wadis do. Wadi is an Arabic word for the bed or valley of a stream, often spring-fed and subject to changing water levels. These seasonal water sources disappear in dry times and flow again when the rains return. In the household of the wadi Cherith, water was a precious cyclical resource sufficient to preserve Elijah as he hid himself from the king.
In G-d’s household economy, it seems, no element of creation—be it seasonal wadi, grain for bread, or plot of ground to grow it—is expendable. No member of creation is too small, too weak, too unlikely, or too strange to participate in the good of G-d’s household.
Another thready fragment reveals: a dried, waterless wadi leads to life-giving interactions and exchanges between Elijah and the widow as she gathered sticks outside the gates of the city, preparing to make a final meal for herself and her son. Destitute, out of resources, she was on her own. In the household of Zarepheth, she was a widowed mother and a stranger—toshav, a resident outsider. There were no involved others, no extended community, no guiding principles of communal economics concerned with caring for her and her son. Yet, here, the piece-by-piece telling breathes a mournful hallelujah: she, who has nothing, trusts that somehow there will be enough… or at least, the three of them will perish together, not alone. Knowing the wadi would run dry, Holy Guidance could have organized anyone to give Eliyahu sanctuary, yet a widow—one of the very people Elijah’s message calls the elite economy-holders accountable to—is the one to attend him. And, so it was, in the divine economy of care, there was enough. The nearly-empty bowl of flour and jar of oil become a bounty. In another story, later, it will be a few fishes and scraps of bread that make a bounty.
Doubtless, for these three, bread would have been enough, yet in G-d’s economy, providence expands, spreads, rises up like sourdough. And trust, in defiance of all reason, assured Elijah was there to heal her son when he took ill. A synergy of mutual need saved them all. In G-d’s household economy, it seems, interdependence governs and every particular, individual person is worth feeding, sheltering and saving—no matter who they are, what their circumstances, or where they come from.
Following the fragments, it occurs to me, this story creates its own rather rabbinical social commentary: Widows become destitute, children become sick and strangers need the sanctuary of other strangers because the socio-political conditions at work in economies of the elite are, in fact, widow-makers, orphan-makers, outsider-makers, stranger-makers, and…clearly, prophet-makers. Perhaps, the story implies: if G-d’s household were to be a living thing in the human world, if G-d’s economy were the organizing economy at work in our lives, there would be no starving widows and children, no resident aliens, no strangers, no outcast least-of-these, no left-behind and forgotten wanderers, and no need for prophets seeking sanctuary. The prophecy Eliyahu came to deliver lives in the circumstances of its own telling.
These beaded allegory strands weave, in my thinking, an almost satirical reality: that, as long as it remains the stranger who sustains and nurtures the stranger, there will always be a stranger-class; as long as it continues to be the forgotten who care for the forgotten, there will always be a forgotten class. As long as it is those who are left out of the household of valued humanity who are willing to risk what little they have—often only life and limb—to care for, accompany, and work for the left-out and left-behind: as long as it remains that we continue to value and preserve a society based on systems of privileging, contrived hegemonic norms, exploitation and exclusionary economics, we will remain a people lost and wandering, flung far east of Eden—let alone, Jordan—and less and less able to remember who we are, where we come from, and who our Creator hopes we will become.
Another piece of busted-bead glistens, obvious, in the dusty story landscape of ironies told through the lives of Elijah, the widow and her son: a story that embodies the very conditions the prophet is called to name, the consequences suffered in the household of humanity when the people have lost the way. Yet, it seems to be what the people do.
From Eden onward, the people—all of us—fail to keep the way. Human memory, it seems, is short and fragile. Yet, the memory of G-d is long, adaptive and tirelessly imaginative. Unfailingly, holy remembering sends prophet after prophet to guide the people back to Torah—to a whole testament of holy economics, rooted in eternal principles of compassion, justice and peace that stand apart from and in direct contrast to the worldly, short-sighted, status quo economics of human UN-imagining.
All these fragile fragments, strung together, seem to trail off to the same desert place: the birth place of the One-G-d, the dusty places where bushes burn holy fire and people wander led by smoky clouds, the ground where all the prophets speak in different ways the same remembering, the hillsides where Jesus reframes the Torah, the ground where all the fragments get woven into something grand and seemingly unending. And an idea came to me:
perhaps, this is the point.
The household of G-d really is too big for any single one of us to see it, entire. It’s a household built on G-d’s relational, communal, and cooperative image and likeness. It takes all of us, each and every one of us, to look for it, see it, and become invested in it. The whole of scripture and history tells us this: all these stories, events, persons and proclamations, even our own as well, are essential, necessary; all both bead and prayer in a braided and unbroken holy self-disclosure-remembering, threading us endlessly, stretching back and weaving forward from G-d’s dreamed of Eden economy to this very day…and the hope that we can learn, together, to see and follow the threads. Perhaps, all we have are fragment stories precisely because without them, even and especially the broken and battered ones, there is no holy household.
These are the fragment glimpses of it I see.
So, it seems, all we have are fragments perhaps because it is particular, individual fragments that make the household whole. Maybe this is so in a divinely-dreamed, longing hope we will remember it’s up to us, collectively, cooperatively, to string them all together.