Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany 2023
Poverty was turned to riches, sorrow into joy.
The Right Reverend Anthony Ball Canon Rector
Sunday, 29th January 2023 at 11.15 AM
Earlier this week I was in Ethiopia and learned that after several months that the UNHCR’s distribution of food rations to the refugee camps around Assosa had resumed. When I had visited some of the Anglican churches in those camps in November I had been showed harrowing pictures of an elderly couple starving to death and heard heart-wrenching stories of children being sold and other desperate measures taken just to stay alive whilst food rations had been reduced. Reduced to zero.
This morning’s Old Testament reading about the widow in Zarephath—modern day Sarafand on the road between Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon, a country where many of the population have also sunk into food poverty—the reading about that widow put me in mind of the situation in the Assosa camps and some of the people I met there.
Today is the last Sunday in the Epiphany season and we have, over the past four Sundays, been seeing how God is revealed in Jesus’ life and ministry—and in our time. I’d like to reflect with you a little on both what is revealed about God in our readings today, how that has translated in my life and perhaps prompt some thoughts about what that might mean for each of you in your own circumstances. Those of you who are regular attenders at the Holy Communion or Eucharist services that are offered daily here in the Abbey will be familiar with the words of the Eucharistic Prayer that the priest will say as they consecrate the bread and wine in a few minutes time: “for at this time we celebrate your glory made present in our midst. In the coming of the magi the King of all the world was revealed to the nations. In the waters of baptism Jesus was revealed as the Christ, the Saviour sent to redeem us. In the water made wine the new creation was revealed at the wedding feast. Poverty was turned to riches, sorrow into joy.”
A new creation in the poverty of those refugee camps? Really? Granted, the residents had found some sort of sanctuary from the situations of war and violence in South Sudan and other parts of Africa from which they had fled. But theirs is hardly a life of luxury. Yet the worship in those refugee camps was amongst the most exuberant and joyful I have experienced, with dancing, song and ululations quite unlike that which we experience here in the Abbey—other than, perhaps, during the Commonwealth Service. There is a simple trust in the God who cares for people and has their best interests at heart—and coming together to worship God, to hear God’s word, is in itself part of what gives meaning and joy to life. It is not a matter of calculating that if I do this then God will do that, but just a rejoicing in how Jesus touches each life welling up from within and a trust in God’s provision. A humbling encounter.
The widow of Zarephath responds with the customary hospitality to a travel-stained stranger asking for water. In my case there was an insistence that I and those with whom I was travelling eat a delicious meal whilst those who needed the food far more looked on in satisfaction at the evident pleasure taken in their hospitality (my cultural instinct to resist such costly hospitality held in check). For Elijah, when he asked for some food, the widow indicates how little she has left for herself and her son. She clearly has not heard the Lord’s command to feed Elijah with which our passage opens! But Elijah’s life has been characterised by obedience to God despite the dangers and tribulations that brings—remember he has left Israel and gone to foreign territory after having to tell King Ahab that a drought will come on the land as a result of his lifestyle. Elijah trusts and tells the widow what is to happen. We are not told what the widow feels about it, but it’s a pretty good guess that it takes some courage and trust in who she as described as “your God” to believe and do what Elijah says. She does and thereby saves her household—and provides for Elijah too. “Poverty was turned to riches, sorrow into joy.”
That offers an obvious parallel to the account of the water turned to wine. Both stories are about a God of compassion, care and generosity. It is often noted that the quantity of wine provided—6 times 20 to 30 gallons, or around 750 litres for the more metrically minded—exceeds that which would have been needed and stands, as a sign of a God of bounteousness and abundance. Here too is shown that characteristic of trust—of both Mary and Jesus by the servants and of Jesus by Mary—and God meeting the need through the actions of another. And the confusion of the steward is beautifully picked up in St Paul’s perhaps puzzling passage about the foolishness of God.
Over the past two millennia we have lost touch a little with just how shocking death on the cross was—the very antithesis of power. How is it that the almighty God, who has made this wonderful provision for the needs of the groom and his wedding guests or Elijah and the widow’s household, can be crucified? How can God offer Good News in the form of a scandal—then, or now? But Paul insists that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.
In other words, we cannot understand God. Why does God use a poor, desperate widow to nurture Elijah? With the power to supply endless provisions he could have had his pick of far more comfortable places to stay. Why does God choose the Corinthians, fractious, not too bright and of little social standing, as a microcosm of what the Christian Church has always been, and still is? What possible use is a Canon of Westminster on the South Sudan-Ethiopia border (especially when you have the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland making an ecumenical visit to the region this week)? What is it that God is asking of you that seems incongruous or incomprehensible?
My worrying about what I could do about the physical needs of those refugees in Ethiopia was turned on its head by experiencing the way in which I was able to meet a spiritual need in offering baptism and confirmation or, indeed, in meeting a need just by being there and proving that they were not forgotten. That seemed to me pathetically little, but I trusted and have been rewarded richly (as well as been given a persistent sense of inadequacy and needing to do more). Yes needs for education, healthcare and the like remain, but at least for now the food requirement has been met. Taken with the two stories from our Old Testament and Gospel readings, my experience is resonant of Luke 6:38: “give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back”.
As we look around at a “new creation” that seems to have so much of the old about it—with marks of fallen humanity all too obvious—what might it be that you are being called to do to turn poverty into riches, sorrow into joy? St Paul speaks of “us who are being saved” reminding us that human beings do not save themselves, we are recipients of God’s salvation; and salvation is not a past event, but a continuous one - “being saved”. In whatever community you are placed, here in the UK or overseas, there will be people to whose need you can respond. It may seem that your prayers, your time, your money or your skills are unlikely to make a difference—but trust that your contribution will be a means for God’s “glory made present in our midst”, for the revealing of the loving God in whom we believe. The God who continues to bless us and feed us with his body and blood in this Eucharist.