What does it mean when we say “God will provide?” Are we expecting magical bread to appear, or to do we play a role in bringing it to the table. Legend has it that a princess once said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” or “Let them eat cake” because she couldn’t understand why the poor couldn’t just find something to eat. We considered the reality of hunger through the biblical example of Elijah and a widow.
1 Kings 17:8-16
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
Provision frequently comes from unexpected sources.
Golden State Warriors’ and National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Steph Curry averaged over 30 points this season, with fellow Splash Brother teammate extraordinaire Klay Thompson averaging 22. These are really good numbers. Thus, if you had told me before game 1 of the NBA Finals versus the Cleveland Cavaliers that the two would only score 20 points combined and the Warriors would still win by 16 points, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Alas, world-class bench players like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa joined spark plug Draymond Green to humble mighty LeBron James and the Cavs. I do not bring this up in church to claim that God favors one team over another or to make an idol of our home team—I did listen to Rev. Joann’s excellent sermon last week—but to remind us that victory and provision frequently appears along with selflessness. One of the reasons the Warriors are so good is the willingness of a star player like Curry to share the ball with others, even if his personal statistics suffer. God frequently calls upon those deemed bench players by society to step up.
In today’s Scripture, we encounter a couple of key bench players who help spread faith in God and remind us how often our Creator chooses unlikely heroes. We meet Elijah the prophet in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) book of 1 Kings. At this point, King David has been dead around 100 years, and King Ahab is in power around 860 BCE. If you are new to the Bible and don’t recognize Ahab’s name, you might recognize his wife’s—Jezebel. Jezebel had brought worship of Ba’al, another god, to the nation of Israel. Ba’al followers considered him to be king of the gods, with special power over fertility, rain and dew. With tribal nations competing for resources, having a god with the ability to help them grow in number and have access to food was understandably appealing.
Elijah’s introduction in 1 Kings 17 includes a direct attack on Ba’al, saying “As the Lord of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The country enters a period of extreme drought for more than three years. People are praying to Ba’al for moisture to help them survive, and nothing is happening. As the story goes, Elijah received food from Ravens and enough water to survive, but soon his provisions disappeared.
We then meet a woman known as the widow of Zarephath of Sidon, a port city in Lebanon. Of significance, Sidon is the homeland of Jezebel, supporter of Ba’al. Later in 1 Kings, we learn that the widow is affluent enough to have a house with an upper room—a major amenity at the time. Yet, when we meet her, the drought has taken her hope and her will to live. She is gathering sticks to use as cooking fuel to prepare her last ration of bread, before resigning to die with her son. The widow seemingly has nothing left, including hope.
So here comes Elijah, with the audacity to ask for a drink of water and a morsel of bread! According to biblical scholar Richard D. Nelson, “Caught between the demands of ancient hospitality and the harsh reality of famine, she reacts with an oath and fatalistic resignation.” Though Elijah was a complete stranger to her, the widow couldn’t just let him starve. When he says that, “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth,” Elijah might as well be offering her magic beans. Knowing that this could be her last act before she and her son starve, the widow makes the bread for Elijah.
In feeding the prophet through her sacrificial giving, the woman and her son end up being fed.
What can we learn from this story and how does it apply to our lives?
I’m not here today to try to explain how meal jars and oil jugs replenish themselves.
I have experienced enough mysterious instances of provision that I would not place limits on God’s ability to provide.
In reflecting on this passage for several weeks, I’ve been struck by how the widow’s selfless partnership with God—even when logic told her otherwise—led to an even greater provision than she expected.
She easily could have sent Elijah packing and said, “Good luck. Perhaps God will provide for you.” Instead, God called her to be part of the story.
“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”
Legend has it in France in 1789, “Queen” Marie Antoinette uttered some fateful words that fueled the French Revolution: “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” or “Let them eat cake.” She allegedly said this upon hearing that her subjects didn’t have enough food, demonstrating her callous disregard for the common person. After all, brioche contained eggs and butter, ingredients beyond the reach of the poor at the time. Vilified for fueling France’s financial crisis, Marie was ultimately executed for treason in 1793. As it turns out, historians doubt that Marie actually said, “Let them eat cake.” The phrase first appeared in another book that was written when she was nine!
Nonetheless, her real or perceived inaction when people were in need was condemning. She and King Louis XVI could have done more.
All too often, we tend to assume that someone else will help.
Whether we have next to nothing like the widow in today’s Scripture lesson, or access to great wealth, God calls us into partnership.
How often do we miss the call because we are too busy figuring out if we have enough?
I frequently speak with people of faith who have some timeframe, some financial number, or some other condition, which, if met, would allow them to pursue what they think God really wants them to do.
Perhaps by fixating on what is not in the oil jar like the widow, we overlook the gifts that God is already providing.
I have previously told you about my deal with God when I worked in the business world, committing to go to seminary and become a pastor in two potential scenarios: 1) realistically, after I had worked until I was around 60 and saved a reasonable amount for retirement, or 2) the stretch goal, $15 million in my accounts from gains on stock options from the start-up for which I worked. Neither of my goals came to fruition in the way that I planned.
Around the time I was making these deals with God and working to determine that my metaphorical oil jar was full, I met a series of influential people.
One of those very special people is here today.
While I was telling God to wait, I accepted an invitation from the recruiting director at San Francisco Theological Seminary to an “Inquirer’s Weekend.” Though I explained that it would be many years before I would actually attend seminary.
After meeting other prospective students, I made my way to a dinner including faculty and administration. Seating at the event was open, so I made my way over toward a very distinguished looking duo. “I’m Migs Emerson,” said the woman. “And I’m Jim” said the man. Not President Emerson (he was serving as Interim President at the time). Not Doctor or Reverend, but simply Jim. I was very new to Presbyterian circles, and at the time did not know of their history at Calvary where Jim served as Pastor and Head of Staff for 12 years.
The Emersons were so authentic, warm, and intelligent. They reassured me that all would be well through the seminary’s time of presidential transition and shared about their many adventures in ministry, from New York to Denver, San Francisco to overseas. They had already served so many people around the world, they could have easily been sitting on a beach somewhere. Yet, there they were, still serving.
Sharing the gifts God was providing for them.
The Emersons were not people to simply say, “Let them eat cake!”
They opened their own home, doors and checkbooks to improve the life of others when the call came.
When Jim was at Calvary, he didn’t see it as acceptable for the homeless to fend for themselves, and helped found what became the Interfaith Winter Shelter and the San Francisco Interfaith Council.
Even after Migs passed 7 years ago, Jim refuses to see his oil jar as empty.
He is still teaching and reassuring us that God will provide and that we are called to partner with our Creator.
As we prepare to come to the Communion table today, may we remember that Jesus calls us not only to partake in eating the Bread of Life, but to share it with our neighbor.
What is in your oil jar? And what is God calling you to do with it now?
 Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 110.
 Robert Wilde, “Did Marie Antoinette say, “Let Them Eat Cake?” http://europeanhistory.about.com/od/antoinettemarie/a/histmyths4.htm, Updated March 6, 2016.