Sermon for Williamstown
The third Sunday after Pentecost; June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:8-16
When I first read today’s story from the Hebrew Scriptures, the tale of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, a phrase sprang to my mind: ‘Charity begins at home’. This proverb lurked in the background of my head, challenging me, because it’s the absolute opposite of the message given by today’s reading. And yet it sounds biblical; it sounds like the sort of wise saying that could quite easily be part of the Book of Proverbs. In the end the contradiction was too much for me, and I went looking for where this particular proverb comes from. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, which I’m going to trust on this matter, that phrase was first coined in the fourteenth century, in England. One example of it I’ve found comes from the early seventeenth century, in a play by John Fletcher called Wit without Money, in which there’s the line: ‘Charity and beating begins at home’. (You don’t need to know that, although I think it’s interesting.) The point it, the saying isn’t biblical; this isn’t a case of one part of the Bible: a story, contradicting another part: a saying, although that does occasionally happen. Instead, the contradiction that was happening in my head as I read was a case of worldly wisdom, of the human impulse to care for one’s own, conflicting with the message of the universality of God’s love. And that conflict is very common.
In these weeks after Pentecost, we hear the stories of the prophets of Israel, starting with Elijah and Elisha. Elijah lived during the reign of Ahab, who married Jezebel and was persuaded by her to worship the god Baal, rather than Yahweh. According to the writer of First Kings: ‘Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.’ (1 Kings 16:33) So God sent a drought; Elijah told Ahab: ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’ (1 Kings 17:1) In the drought’s first years, Elijah himself is fed by ravens and is able to drink water from a small stream. But soon even that dries up, and we come to today’s story, with God sending Elijah to Sidon to be cared for by a poor widow.
Elijah is God’s prophet against Baal. Yet here, near the very beginning of Elijah’s career as a prophet, God sends him right to centre of Baal worship, into the very territory that Jezebel comes from, in order to be cared for by an adversary. This action of God’s is so unusual, so counter-intuitive, that centuries later Jesus quotes it to the people of Nazareth to warn them that his own ministry is going to break boundaries. (Luke 4:25-6) The great prophet Elijah, who has been proclaiming the word of the Lord to the king of Israel, now not only seeks help from a poor widow, but from a poor widow of a foreign nation, a worshipper of Baal. This tale is full of miraculous happenings but its very beginning, Elijah approaching the widow of Zarephath, might be the most miraculous of all.
The widow is in dire straits. She’s collecting a few sticks so she can bake the very last of her food; before she and her son lie down to die of starvation. In the biblical world widows and orphans were always the poorest of the poor, which is why so many of the biblical writings demand that the well-off care for them. With the curse of drought added to her ordinary poverty, this widow is on the brink of death. And yet amazingly, stunningly, she listens when Elijah tells her not to be afraid, and shares the little that she has with him. She could quite rightly refuse, and tell him that the needs of her own son must take priority over the demands of a stranger. Charity begins at home, after all. Except, of course, that it doesn’t. The widow miraculously shares what she has, and this prompts yet another miracle – her jar of meal is not emptied, neither does the jug of oil fail, as long as the drought lasts.
An Israelite prophet seeks help from a foreign widow. A starving woman shares the last of what she has with a stranger. And God blesses them both with what they need to live. There’s really nothing I need to add to this story, its messages are so clear. Don’t limit your care to the people of your own region and faith and nationality. God doesn’t. Don’t be afraid of sharing the little that you have. God will take it and bless it, and make it enough. But I do want to mention one way in which we as Australians can follow the example of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
Last Wednesday I went to the weekly Eucharist service at Trinity Anglican Church down the road. Every so often I like going to a church service that I’m not leading, and by visiting the Anglicans I can also claim that I’m building up our ecumenical relationships. While there, I picked up a copy of The Melbourne Anglican, their equivalent of Crosslight. On page three was an article about Anglican responses to the recent Federal Budget. The Anglican Church was particularly concerned about the Budget’s treatment of overseas aid. As you undoubtedly know, because churches and other bodies have been talking about it for years, one of the elements of the UN Millennium Project to halve extreme poverty by 2015 is for rich countries like Australia to give 0.7% of our gross national income in overseas aid. That amount was suggested in 1970; the Millennium Project is hoping that 45 years will have been long enough for rich countries to come through.
Australia has agreed to increase overseas aid to 0.7% of gross national income, but hasn’t said when it will do it. And in the most recent budget the federal government pushed back its commitment to have the aid budget equal to 0.5% of gross national income from the 2015-16 financial year to the 2017-18 year. (At the moment we give 0.37%, 37 cents out of every $100.) This disappointed the Anglican Church. The Melbourne Anglican quoted Bishop Philip Huggins saying: ‘Aid helps people make a future in their own land, not join the 30 million people already displaced globally. This is Australia’s moment to be a sign of hope to the global family. We have political stability, a strong economy, healthy intermediary organisations between the individual and Government, separation of powers, media and religious freedom, a flourishing arts community and much else!’
It’s not just the Anglicans who are disappointed. Turn to page three of our own Crosslight, and there’s the same story. The Chair of UnitingWorld’s Relief and Development National Committee, Dr Sureka Goringe, says the Federal Government had again broken its promise to the world’s poorest people. She said, ‘The tragedy is, we know sustainable development works. In 1990, 40% of the world lived in extreme poverty. That figure is now less than 20%. Sustainable aid has also halved the number of children who die each year before their fifth birthday. We are on the brink of a fairer, more just world. We must continue to demand that our government keeps its promises to the world’s poorest people.’ And the Australian Christian Lobby, a group with whom I cordially disagree on almost everything, is also upset by our overseas aid budget. The ACL’s Managing Director, Lyle Shelton, put out a media release saying: ‘The 0.5% of GNI figure that we were aiming for is well below the actual 0.7% figure that was estimated in 2000 that Australia would have to invest to reach the Millennium Development Goals … Despite our budget deficit, Australia is a wealthy country and it should be able to deliver a balanced budget whilst being generous to the world’s poor.’
Most painful of all, perhaps, is that fact that because hundreds of millions of dollars have been diverted from overseas aid to domestic asylum seeker processing, Australia is the third largest recipient of our own overseas aid.
Australian churches are united on the need for us to give a little bit more in overseas aid, and are putting a lot of time and effort into telling the government this. This is not because we are bleeding heart liberals. We Uniting Church types might be wooly-headed communists (that’s what my brother accuses me of being, anyway) but the Anglicans and supporters of the ACL aren’t. Nor is it because we don’t care about Australians who are doing it hard – every week food for local Emergency Relief is part of our offering to God and in July we’ll have the opportunity to support more Australians through the Share Winter Appeal. We know that in our own small way, churches are called to be prophets, to do our part to bring the grace of God to the people. As today’s story remind us, that involves caring especially for the very poorest and crossing all the boundaries that the world tries to create.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re in the midst of a kind-of-sort-of-pseudo Federal Election campaign. Uniting Justice has put out papers and briefings on the undertakings we as Christians might seek from our representatives during this campaign. On overseas aid it’s suggested that we ask that they honour previous commitments to providing 0.5% of our Gross National Income by 2015 to overseas aid; and ensure the delivery of the $600 million aid increase that was promised for the next budget. If you get a chance to talk to a politician in the next 100 days, ask them what they think about these goals. Remind them that, as today’s story Elijah and the widow of Zarephath tells us, charity does not actually begin at home.