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We meet one of faith's greatest heroes as this story begins. Elijah - no question whose side he is on; his name means YAHWEH IS MY GOD. He gets no introduction other than the fact that he is from an obscure northern village called Tishbe. "As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve," Elijah announces to King Ahab, "there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word." Not a welcome word in the arid Middle East. The prophet high-tails it out of there at God's instruction and takes refuge in the country, where he drinks the cool, clear water of the nearby brook and is provided for morning and evening by some divinely-appointed ravens, an interesting choice in itself since ravens were considered "unclean." Go figure.
All is well for awhile, but with the passage of time, the drought took its toll on the brook and Elijah is given instruction to travel north to Zarephath, a Gentile city, along the Mediterranean coast near the mighty cities of Tyre and Sidon, and close to the ancestral home of Ahab's Queen Jezebel - no doubt, a little divine "in your face" business going on here. God says, "I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food."
Hmm. A foreigner? A woman? A widow? Can you go much lower on the totem pole, Lord? But Elijah does as he is told, meets the widow at the gate of the town where she is gathering twigs for what she says will be a fire to prepare a last meal for herself and her son - the food is about gone, and there is no likelihood of anymore. This is it.
Elijah is Mr. Pastoral Sensitivity here. He immediately inquires as to the poor woman's situation and offers to provide needed assistance through the food pantry of the local synagogue plus money for other expenses from the prophet's discretionary fund. Uh-huh. No. He just says bring water...and some bread, while you're at it. He hears that this is ALL they have, but it makes no difference to him. As to why the woman did not simply tell him to take a flying leap, we have to recall the Middle Eastern culture that holds hospitality high, even today, as the most solemn of obligations.
But Elijah does more than ask for food. After he hears her dire straits, he offers this surprising promise: he says, "first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 'The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.'" Then we read, "She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family." Hmm. A miracle.
I wonder if the widow in our New Testament lesson recalled this famous story as she put her last two pennies in the offering at the Temple. She was down to the bitter end as well. Perhaps some prophet approaching the Holy of Holies would see her predicament and come to her rescue.
Suddenly, I notice the calendar and find that these wonderful stories are joined at the lectionary hip precisely at the time of year when many churches, including this one, are engaged in their annual stewardship campaigns. Are these really good stewardship texts? I mean, we say good stewardship is the tithe, ten percent. These ladies gave it all, the last little bit. I swear to goodness, this sounds for all the world like "What the Hell?" stewardship. In other words, things can't get any worse, so, what the hell, why not give it to God? And the way our economy has gone over the past several years, some of you may be feeling that. How is that for a sermon? [I asked Christie that at breakfast yesterday - she said, "That's why YOU are the preacher!"]
As I read both scripture and history, one of the things that continually strikes me is God's penchant for using the unlikely to accomplish divine purposes. There were those ravens. Now a destitute widow. I mean, if you were God and Elijah were your prophet, and you had to provide for him, would you send him to a woman who only had a hand full of grain and a little oil in a jar? Noooooo. I would send him to Bill Gates, somebody who was loaded. After all, as Goethe said, "Giving is the business of the rich."(2)
But then again maybe that would not work. A survey done by the Gallup folks shows that almost one half of charitable contributions come from households with incomes of less than $30,000. Perhaps God knows we do better as givers if we have less to start out with.
Consider this: economic downturn notwithstanding, all of us live in a society vastly richer than the one our grandparents inhabited. This has been documented again and again, so many times and in so many ways it cannot be questioned. Yet even as our income has gone up, our spending has gone up even faster. As income has climbed, many people's giving to others has decreased; it may perhaps have stayed the same in dollars, but it has not kept pace with inflation. One recent study indicated that churchgoing Protestants in America give an average of 2.5 percent of their household income to the church. Now that may sound OK, as an average [although still not what it should be] - until you consider that in the depths of the Great Depression, Protestants gave an average of 3.3 percent of their income. As a people, we are earning more but giving less.(3)
But not everybody. Somewhere in your travels you may have heard the name Gordon Cosby (no relation to Bill that I know of). This one is the founder and pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. Gordon tells of an incident that occurred when he was a young man, minister to a small Baptist congregation in a railroad town just outside Lynchburg, Virginia. As he tells it:
My deacon sent for me one day and told me that he wanted my help. "We have in our congregation," he said, "a widow with six children. I have looked at the records and discovered that she is putting into the treasury of the church each month $4.00 - a tithe of her income. Of course, she is unable to do this. We want you to go and talk to her and let her know that she needs to feel no obligation whatsoever, and free her from the responsibility."In my files I have something intriguing I saved from a pastor in Bellingham, Washington some years ago. Donel McClellan writes, "In downtown Seattle a few years back (though it could have been any city in this land) a man was out walking one day, just before Christmas. He came upon one of those Salvation Army kettles. As he approached the volunteer ringing the bell, he felt an unaccustomed spirit of generosity wash over him. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out all his change. He dropped every last coin into the kettle with a smile.
The man turned to leave, but then he stopped. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet and emptied every last bill into the kettle as well.
Grinning like an idiot, he walked away with a bounce to his step. But about two blocks later, the bounce wore out. Suddenly it hit him! "What have I done?" he asked himself.
The man turned around, walked back to the old woman and asked for his money back. He got it, and left again, walking very quickly this time, head down, looking neither to the right nor the left.
"For two blocks," writes Donel McClellan, that man walked in the Kingdom of God. For two blocks he was free of the burden of his possessions. For two blocks he put other people above himself. For two blocks he was self-giving and generous. For two blocks he was blessed...but, like most of us, he could not stand the uncertainty that goes with that much blessing. He wanted to continue to think that he is in control. He walked back, out of the realm of God and back into the well-worn grooves of his weary world."
You have heard that old fund-raising admonition, "Give till it hurts." No. This one is better: "Give till it feels GOOD!"
If as you came into worship this morning and wondered about Christmas being in the title of the sermon six weeks too early, it is not. My hope is that, as we move through this stewardship season, we can capture one of the most precious features of the Christmas celebration.
Remember Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol? Here was a man so stingy he would not even let Bob Cratchet have the whole of Christmas day off from work, but who through insight into the hollowness of his own life and heart is changed into a person who gives out of joy and discovery that it is indeed more blessed to give than to hoard.
You know what I am talking about. We all love the feeling of discovering just the right present to give to someone we love at Christmas or for their birthday. Who has not felt the great sense of pleasure and excitement you first felt as a child, when you made or carefully saved money to buy a present for a parent? All of us find joy in giving to those we know and love. As the little poem has it,
I notice this, each year I live:
I always like the gifts I get,
But how I love the gifts I give!(5)
Perhaps our widows can attest to that. Do you want that feeling 52 weeks a year? A Year-Round Christmas? You can have it. Right here in the place you learned the verse that taught you, "It is more blessed to give than to receive,"(6) or the prayer of St. Francis that concluded, "For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
A Year-Round Christmas. You can have it. Yes, indeed. And "God bless us, everyone."
2. Denn Guptill, "But First You Obey," sermon, http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon.asp?SermonID=57613&ContributorID=1399
3. Henry G. Brinton, "Faith and Numbers," The Washington Post, 10/10/99, p. B2
4. Elizabeth O'Conner, Letters To Scattered Pilgrims, (San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1979)
5. Carolyn Wells, "A Thought"
6. Acts 20:35