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1 Kings 17:8-24
There are plenty of odd things about the story of the prophet Elijah, the widow, and her son, but the oddest thing of all is that the story happens at all. It is a shocker from the very beginning.
You see, in ancient times widows were the poorest of the poor. And in the elaborate set of commandments and laws that governed life among the people of Israel, there were numerous provisions spelling out how the community should care for widows, orphans, and strangers. Support systems ranged from leaving food in the fields to having a dead man’s brother marry his widow and bring her into his family.
The unnamed widow in this story seems to have been worse off than most. First, she lived a ways north of the kingdom of Israel, along the coast of present-day Syria. Since she was not Hebrew, we don’t know if her culture provided for widows. Second, she had not remarried, and her son was too young to provide any support. She was their sole provider and, thanks at least in part to drought and famine, they were on the verge of starvation.
So why in the world would God send hungry, thirsty Elijah to a starving widow? It makes no sense—at least not in the rational, income-minus-expenses-minus-savings, scarcity-driven, look-out-for-Number-1 model of accounting that most people (and churches) have followed from time immemorial.
That God would send needy Elijah, one of God’s top employees, to a destitute widow, one of God’s favorite charities, for help makes no sense at all—unless . . .
Unless God knows something about economics that we don’t. Unless, in God’s economy, even the poor have something to give. Unless, in every economy, in every time and place, generosity has generative powers. Super-generative powers. Unless, as modern social scientists have figured out, sharing what we have is one of the most empowering, self-helping things we can ever do.
Unless one of the best, most life-giving things we can ever do for someone is to ask them for help—no matter how poor or helpless they may seem.
So, yes, it is that time of year when we ask you to prayerfully consider making a financial pledge to the ministries of First Church. We are asking you to give more than you think you can afford.
We come to you not because we think you’re wealthy, not because we don’t already know how generous you are. But we don’t come to you asking for help only because we need your pledges more than ever. We also ask you to give because our tradition tells us that this is how we grow in trusting God, and this is one important way that God’s work gets done. And we ask you to be more generous than you think you can be because we love you—and we want you to experience the generative power of generosity.
It turns out that one of the best ways to receive the peace—yes, even financial peace of mind—that comes from trusting in God’s promise is to share that promise with others.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I am quite familiar with our church’s finances. I know full well that we pull a significant amount of money from our endowment each year to help meet our operating budget. I even know that the number of members who pledged a proportion of their income to First Church last year decreased—even as we exceeded the goal of our Widening the Welcome capital campaign. And, yes, I know that some of you think we are living beyond our means.
But here’s the thing: We have committed ourselves to following the rules of God’s economy. We are trying to live according to God’s dream of new life, hope, abundance, and peace for all. We believe the church—and this very congregation—is a big part of making that dream come true. We don’t raise money to meet a budgetary goal’ instead, we ask you to give as a spiritual practice, trusting that you, we, and the world will be blessed in the giving and the receiving. So, no matter the state of our bottom line, we believe in building into our church budget a significant tithe to outside missions and organizations that are doing God’s work. We believe that good things—seemingly miraculous things—happen when we share God’s promise by sharing what we’ve been given.
And the only reason we can even consider giving at levels that sometimes feel scary and risky is that we have each other. Because we belong to God, we can trust something bigger than ourselves. And because we belong to each other, we know that our combined sharing has a far greater impact than our individual gifts.
That’s one of the reasons I love the story of Elijah and the widow. As the story begins, he is alone with nothing. She and her son are alone with next to nothing. But once shared, the widow’s next to nothing becomes more than enough for them all. And once their sharing binds them together, their generous bond restores life to what had appeared to be dead.
By then the prophet, the widow, and the boy had come a long way together—a long way from the from day when the widow went out searching for a few sticks to rub together to make the fire that would turn oil and meal into a last supper for herself and her son. She had done all she could to survive, feeding her son twice as much food as she gave her herself, but now she knew their end was near.
We can feign shock at her apparent fatalism, but who among us hasn’t, on occasion, felt the passing desire to lie down, give up, and move on? After all, it takes a lot of time, energy, and talent—as well as money—to keep this church going.
So it’s not surprising that every once in a while someone suggests that we close our doors or sell the building or cut the staff or stop giving away so much money or stop funding youth and children’s ministries or merge with another church or . . . whatever. You name it, we’ve just about heard it all.
But then someone will give us a million dollars. Or eighty thousand. Or five hundred a month. Or as much as they can afford, no matter how “little” that is. And then, all together, we’ll give more than $500,000 to make sure this building, used by so many different people every week, is accessible and welcoming to all of them and to anyone else who might want or need to come through our doors—to pray, eat a meal, worship in another language, or simply make it through one more day.
And do you know what? Even as we worry whether we’ll find enough sticks to rub together to light a fire, a bountiful feast of love and belonging is being prepared for us. Even when we’re sure the last jar of meal and jug of oil are about to run out, an unexpected gift replenishes them. Even as we bemoan the expense of maintaining and improving this old building, still more groups and individuals come to consider it home and refuge. It is in use almost all the time! Even as we continue to share what we have—helping a jailed man avoid deportation and return to his family, helping a single mother avoid eviction, supporting groups from Amherst to Uganda to the UCC—resources are multiplied. Even as we remind ourselves that the impact of a congregation is no longer measured solely by the number of members on the rolls, people in the pews, or dollars in the collection plate, our reach through social media is increasing. As surely as banners and flags and signs are stolen, they are replaced—and their message is broadcast even more widely on television and in newspapers.
Even as we do the math, hold our breath, and say our prayers, life is being restored, vitalized and sustained—sometimes in ways that we cannot see.
Our lives, and our life together, are being redeemed and restored—thanks be to God, and thanks be to you!
Thanks be to the God who sent a hungry Elijah to a starving widow. Thanks be to the God who reminds us that we need each other, that we belong to each other. Thanks be to the God who reminds us that we all have something to give and that, when we do, amazing things will happen.
Giving can be a scary thing.
“Do not be afraid,” Elijah tells the starving widow as he asks her for food.
For thus says the God of all creation, the God of abundance: Share, and you will not go hungry. Give, and you will not go broke.
You bet it is.
I see it all the time. And I have experienced it in my own life. But don’t take my word for it—talk to one another about it; consider your own life and how you have benefited from the generosity of others. Consider your life—and how you have benefited from your own generosity.
Our scriptures tell us that the first Christians shared everything they had with one another. Not only did they belong to one another but all their stuff did, too! Day by day, they spent time together in worship, and then ate together in one another’s homes, sharing their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day God added to their number those whose lives had been restored by love and prayer and hope.
Beautiful as it is, we’re not asking you to sell all your possessions and share the proceeds. We’re not asking you to hold all things in common.
No, we’re simply inviting you to give a portion of what you’ve been given to the community gathered here and to our common ministries of love, spiritual formation, worship, justice, and peace. We’re simply inviting you to experience more life than you’ve ever known.
So, please give generously. Please give cheerfully. Please share more than you think you can—and then prepare yourself to see what mighty things may happen.