Wouldn’t you know it? Just on the Sunday we most need to hear them, the Sunday we make our commitments to God through our participation in the life and ministry of this community of faith, we are regaled through the gift of the lectionary texts, with some of the richest and most compelling stories in our canon of faith.
Today we’ll take a little tour of a passage from 1 Kings that you might remember from Sunday School because . . . it is SUCH a good story.
Times were hard in the village of Zarapheth.
In fact, times were hard all throughout the land of Israel. They had a deplorable king, Ahab. King Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel had been up to no good for some time, and it was the unsavory responsibility of the prophet of God, Elijah, to bring the bad news: Elijah predicted a terrible drought, the consequence of self-centered and evil behavior, and the drought struck the land with a vengeance. Everyone was starving.
Our story this morning comes right in the middle of what biblical commentators refer to as “the Elijah cycle”, a series of stories about the prophet and the incredibly difficult job he’d been given. He’d predicted the drought, you see, and everyone knew he had predicted it, so he rushed away to a secluded place where God provided water and the ravens brought him food, because there just was no food to be had anywhere in Israel; they were in desperate straits.
When the brook dried up Elijah got another word from the Lord, a message that the next stop on his adventure of prophecy would be to travel to the village of Zarapheth.
There, God told him, he would encounter a widow who would feed him. “Unlikely with things the way they are,” I’ll bet he thought. But off he went to find his next meal in a land where everyone was starving and everyone was thirsty.
As he came to the village of Zarapheth Elijah found the widow God had told him about. She was gathering sticks on the side of the road. “Woman!” Elijah called to her. “Bring me a drink of water!”
While this might sound shocking to you, this was commonplace in biblical times. The women tended the well and supplied the water for their families and even for weary travelers. She went off to get him some water and when she returned Elijah mentioned, almost off-hand, “and would you mind bringing me some bread?”
“Would you mind bringing me some bread?”
That was all he asked, but it was enough to send the woman into a tailspin. The arrogance of this man!
Here was the reality in which she lived: this widow, poorest of the poor, most destitute and downtrodden of society, had been out gathering sticks, you see, to make a fire. She was totally and completely at the end of her rope. In fact, she yelled at Elijah, “I don’t have any bread! I was just headed home to mix together the last little bit of oil and the last little bit of flour, the very last things left in my pantry at all, to make one little cake for myself and my son, our last meal before we give into the hopelessness that surrounds us and lay down to die.”
That was the reality of her life, she explained to Elijah . . . that that very morning she had awoken to survey the reality in which she lived: just a little flour left in a jar. Just a little oil in a jug. Just enough for one more small meal, and then she could see the end . . . right there in front of her eyes.
That was the reality.
No, no, Elijah told her. Oh, no. It might LOOK like the very last dregs of oil . . . it make seem like just enough flour to make one more cake. But I am telling you: the reality you see in front of you is not God’s reality.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Dear Dick: You saved me today! Your sermon, that is. I always find this particular Gospel text so hard to preach on! I was in a bind and so very grateful for your expert sermon!”
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Many of you know I am part of a group of clergy studying leadership. We met for the final time in our two year curriculum this past week here in Washington and I had some time to spend with this great group of colleagues who are so gifted. One of those is Jim Smith, who, strangely enough, came to see us at the end of August to lead us in thinking about stewardship.
I saw Jim Tuesday afternoon and we were catching up on all our various church situations when he stopped and said: “I can’t believe I am telling you this; I am so embarrassed. Last week I cried in the pulpit.”
Well, I tried to look appropriately outraged, but since I myself have had some problems with controlling the tears in worship lately, I had to pat his arm sympathetically and ask what happened. Here’s the story he told me:
When he came to be pastor of Faith Church 6 years ago Jim met a family in the church who were parents of 3 year old Julie. He learned pretty quickly that Julie was the unlikely survivor of a very rare form of brain cancer, diagnosed when she was just turning 2. Her parents pulled out the stops to pursue the most aggressive treatment available, took every risk they could, even though they knew when they entered the risky treatment plan that if the cancer ever returned it would never respond to treatment again. Miraculously, with the chemo they gave her when she was 2, Julie’s cancer went into remission.
Jim explained to me that over the years in church together their families had become very close, as their kids are the same age. After recent concerns about lingering health problems lately, just last week the family learned that Julie’s tumor had changed; it was now fluid-filled; the cancer had metastasized; Julie given about one more month before she went blind and possibly six months to live. The family didn’t know what to do; they hadn’t told anyone except their pastor, Jim.
They hadn’t even told Julie.
Well, last Sunday nine-year-old Julie sang a solo in church. Her high, clear voice rang out through the congregation, Jim told me, as she sang “I’m a miracle because God knows my name! I am a miracle, me, Julie! I am a miracle . . . God knows my name and God loves me.”
At the end of the song Julie curtsied before she went back to sit with her weeping parents, two people who knew the reality of Julie’s situation . . . that in six months or less she would not be able to sing about being a miracle; in fact, she would not even be with them at all.
Jim and I agreed right then that a box of Kleenex is an absolute essential for the pulpit.
As desperate as Jim and his family and congregation feel at this moment about Julie . . . that was the grim reality faced by the widow in 1 Kings. There was no denying it: just enough flour, just enough oil, just enough for one more meal and then death.
But Elijah had the guts to say no.
He knew his words would be hard to swallow, so he started with the good old admonition, “Don’t be afraid!” (Having read the Bible for a large portion of my life, I can tell you that if you ever hear the words “Don’t be afraid!” you should be very suspicious . . . ).
The reality you saw in your kitchen cupboard this morning might be the reality of this world, but it is NOT the reality of God. The limitations of your little cup of oil and handful of flour might seem like indicators that death is right around the corner, but those are not the limitations by which God operates.
To illustrate this, Elijah invited this widow to step out in faith. He told her to make a little loaf of bread for him, and then to make another little loaf of bread for herself and her son. Elijah told her that in her cupboard every morning there would be just enough flour and just enough oil to eat for that day . . . every day until the drought ended and God restored the fortunes of Israel.
Last Sunday afternoon Jim told me he went to see Julie’s parents. You see, we’re not the only ones having stewardship commitment Sunday this morning; Jim has been working toward that in his congregation as well. And you heard him when he came to preach here with his big bowl of M&Ms, illustrating for us the lavish generosity of God’s reality, as opposed to the stingy generosity of ours.
Jim went to see Julie’s parents because he wanted to talk with them about their pledge. He knows, you see, that they still have hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills left over from the last time Julie was sick. He knows they only stand to pile up more bills as they move through the next few months. He sat down with them and told them that he knew . . . he had known all along . . . that every dollar they placed in the offering plate was a true act of faith. He knew that they had been faithful despite the bills that were their reality. But with the news they were facing now, Jim told them he didn’t want the church stewardship campaign to add to their distress. Jim told them just to focus on trying to get through this time for their family, no matter what it took, and not to worry about pledging or supporting the church.
With tears in his eyes again, Jim told me the response of Julie’s parents.
They looked aghast at Jim and said they felt their tithe—10% of their income—was the least they could do. In fact, they were thinking about giving more. Jim looked at them in disbelief. How could you feel that way, he asked, when Julie has just received a death sentence? When you are going to lose your beautiful 9 year old daughter?
The parents responded to Jim. “Jim, you are the very one who taught us nothing we have belongs to us . . . it all belongs to God. Look at everything we’ve been given! A community of faith to walk with us through this ordeal, friends who support us, a God who hasn’t left us once through this entire time and 7 whole years more to share with this amazing child. Julie was right when she sang about being a miracle on Sunday. Julie’s life has been a miraculous gift from God.”
“How blessed we are,” they said. “Giving back to God, participating in the life of this congregation by giving our money as generously as we can . . . well, it’s the least we can do.”
When Elijah suggested to the widow of Zaraphath that she abandon the limitations of her own reality and instead embrace the reality that God offered her, the possibility to see her life through the eyes of God, well, that was a pivotal moment in the story.
It wasn’t about Elijah.
It wasn’t about God.
It was about the widow. It was about whether she was willing to take a step out of the reality she saw right in front of her eyes that morning when she looked in the cupboard for food and step into the reality that God was offering, a reality that didn’t seem all that logical but that held out just one more shred of hope . . . of promise . . . of possibility . . . of life.
Well, you know that same reality, God’s reality, was the reality by which the widow in 1 Kings chose to live her life. She looked deep within herself, gathered all her courage and mustered just enough bravado to believe that God held her life and the life of her son in God’s hands, and that God would do what God promised to do . . . if she could just look at her life through the lens of God’s eyes.
What’s your reality? Lots of bills to pay; should be saving more for retirement. You know, college is coming up and who knows what the economy is going to do in the year ahead, right?
That might be your reality and my reality, but if it is, then you and I are standing in front of an almost empty cupboard, staring at the very little we have when God is inviting us to participate in the generous, life-giving abundance of God. If that’s the reality we’re living by, then we have given in to life-stealing circumstances and world-imposed limitations and forgotten that God’s reality for our lives can be so much different.
Could giving our best mean turning away from the limitations of the cupboard and instead stepping out in faith to embrace and join in the generous work of God?
Today as a congregation we pledge to give our best, and in doing that we intentionally turn away from conditions and concerns that limit your vision for what God can do in our lives and in the life of this church.
And we are opening our hearts in faith to give . . . not just enough, for that’s a reality that leaves us living hand to mouth, focused on the end of life. Instead, may we open our hearts to give in the reality of God’s goodness to us . . . lavish, overflowing, abounding, without limit.
To give our best in response to God’s goodness . . . I keep hearing the words of Julie’s parents ringing in my ears: I think giving our best is the least we can do. Amen.