In Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella Kowalsky’s complicated sister Blanche DuBois prepares to leave the stage and says: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” (I won’t even try to say it the way Vivien Leigh said it in 1951.) Since then the phrase “kindness of strangers” has worked its way into numerous book titles, poems, bands, and another movie. It originated with Blanche, but it could just as easily have originated with the prophet Elijah. (Although for those of you who are “Streetcar aficionados, I will say that that’s possibly the only thing Elijah has in common with Blanche.) Much of Elijah’s story in the First Book of Kings is about depending on the kindness of strangers.
In the chapters before the passage we heard this morning, King Ahab calls Elijah a “troubler of Israel.” For Ahab, a troubler of Israel an enemy of the state. But the work of God’s prophets and leaders is to continually call Israel back to its true identity and purpose, to function not like a state, not like empire, but like God’s kingdom. Elijah angers Ahab by doing what prophets do: he calls Ahab out on his idolatry and his self-interested attachment to false prophets. Elijah flees the wrath of Ahab, heads out to the desert, and nearly dies of hunger and thirst. Go into the valley of Cherath, says the Lord to Elijah. You’ll find water to drink, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there. The ravens brought the prophet bread and meat, morning and night, provision in the desert from an unexpected source. When the water dried up in the valley, Elijah was again in need of intervention. The word of the Lord came to him again and said: Go now to Zarephath and live there, for I have commanded a woman there to feed you. What follows is the lovely story of the widow, her son, and the miraculous jar of meal which never runs out. The kindness of strangers.
When the time comes for Elijah to leave the widow, he finds himself dependent upon another stranger, the prophet Obadiah. There is no food and water involved this time, but there is a transaction of help and trust. More kindness of strangers, who, in this case, become friends. This exchange leads to Elijah’s great victory over the false prophets of Baal, which enrages Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, who vows to destroy Elijah. He escapes out into the wilderness, and this is where we find him this morning.
Elijah is having a moment. We’ve all been there. He’s just experienced a great triumph, and yet he’s despondent and depressed. He expresses what some might call “suicidal ideation.” “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah is in the thick of it. A wilderness experience; a crisis of faith. Like his ancestors, the ones we heard complaining in the desert last Sunday, he can more easily imagine dying out there than he can imagine being fed yet again by the God who called his ancestors out of Egypt and liberated them from slavery. As a prophet, he’s caught up in the tension we read about so often, between knowing the importance of his work and message and at the same time feeling his own unworthiness.
On our best days, the work of being “troublers of Israel” or, if you prefer, the work of being Christian in Seattle, takes something out of us. Even joyful victories may leave us depleted and despondent like Elijah.
Sometimes what depletes us is practicing the love of God with our families, or caring for people entrusted to us in our daily life and work. Sometimes what depletes us is being troublers of Israel. We may not identify ourselves as prophets—prophets rarely do. But I believe the prophetic work of speaking up on behalf of God is part of our baptismal vocation. As followers of Jesus, to be a troubler of Israel is to carry Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom into our daily lives, and look at what we find there through the lens of someone like, say, Elijah. Are the structures we engage with committed to welcoming the stranger, sharing resources with the hungry, caring for creation, recognizing and denouncing idolatry? These are good Old Testament prophetic values and they are Kingdom values. Being watchful and being critical, as Jesus so often tells us to be, often means being troublers of Israel.
Back to Elijah. Faced with all of the apostasy he has seen and fought, he is despondent to the point of despair. Once again, a stranger intervenes. This time, the stranger is not a raven or an old woman but an Angel of the Lord who says: Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you. The food that Elijah eats not only sustains him to live another day but strengthens him to run forty miles. These angelic hot cakes fuel him for a long and strenuous journey. Instead of giving up, he continues to be a faithful and effective witness to the work of God. The provision he receives in the wilderness is the food—the cake—and it is the reminder to get up! Elijah gets up because he is himself needed to be living bread for God’s people in the wilderness. I like to think that he gets up because he is curious what will happen next. Someone taught me a long time ago and I pass it on whenever I can: when you’re afraid or worried about something, try substituting the word “curious.”
From Elijah we learn that to be a troubler of Israel is to be on the move, and to be dependent on God’s provision in the wilderness. To be a troubler of Israel is to occasionally be afraid, or depressed. To be a troubler of Israel is to recognize the kindness of strangers. To listen to the angels in our lives who say: Get up! To be curious about what’s next. To be a troubler of Israel is to learn that our strength for the journey does not lie in ourselves.
Like the Israelites in the wilderness after the Exodus and like Elijah in the desert, our time in the wilderness is a journey of receiving and eating, witnessing, prophesying and becoming the living bread for the life of the whole world. We become this living bread as we become the Body of Christ. What do we need? Sometimes, we need to rely on the kindness of strangers. Sometimes, we need to be those strangers that others who are wandering can rely on. Sometimes, we need to be the ones to say: Get up! We need food for the journey, food that God provides. Like Jesus, our food is to do the will of God. Our food is whatever strengthens us to move onto the next task God sets before us.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.