I Kings 17:8-16
In the book of Kings we learn about the leaders of the Kingdom of Israel. The book begins with stories about the great Kings, David and his son Solomon. It continues with many lesser rulers of a divided kingdom, each seemingly worse than the last. Jeroboam and Reheboam, Abijam and Asa, Nadab and Baasha; Elah and Zimri and Omri; almost all of them regularly do what is evil in the sight of God. But perhaps the worst of all is King Ahab. It is during the reign of this awful Ahab that we meet Elijah: one of the greatest prophets of all time.
Just before our text today begins, the word of God comes to Elijah, predicting a drought. God tells Elijah to go east, and hide himself by the Wadi Cherith. Elijah survives by drinking from the wadi and eating bread and meat delivered by ravens, according to the command of God.
Unfortunately, in time, the wadi dries up. Elijah is no longer provided for. God gives Elijah new instructions: “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” Elijah goes to Zarephath and asks a widow for water and food. The woman replies, “I have only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
Elijah is not daunted by the woman’s reply. He says, “Do not be afraid; but prepare some of your food for me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For God says: The jar of meal will not be emptied, and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The woman agrees to do what Elijah asks. And amazingly, she discovers that Elijah is right: her jar and her jug do not fail: her household is well fed.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend several days with a bunch of church people at a continuing education course on fundraising. We wrestled with big questions about money and faith. We considered new ways to invite people to use their financial resources to support the missions of our organizations. I left totally excited about the role of generosity in our faith lives, and the opportunities we have here at this church to deepen our shared commitments.
It is clear from this passage in the book of Kings that Elijah did not have the opportunity to attend this particular fundraising course. He’s asking for food, instead of money, but it comes down to the same thing. Elijah does just about everything wrong, from a fundraising perspective. He doesn’t get to know the woman at all before inviting her to give. He doesn’t explain what his mission is, why he might be a worthy investment. He doesn’t even truly ask for anything: he just demands what he wants. Worst of all, Elijah doesn’t take no for an answer. When this woman explains that she and her family are literally starving, he still pursues his object aggressively, demanding that she feed him before her own child, and promising that God will not allow her food to run out.
Strangely, this story ends well. The widow decides to feed Elijah. Meal and oil magically multiply in their containers to satisfy her whole household until the drought is over. What on earth are we supposed to learn from this?
Most of us have a complicated relationship with money, with resources. This relationship is shaped by our history of having too little, or just enough, or more than enough. It’s shaped by the attitudes of our family members and friends, and any faith communities and cultures we have been a part of. Sometimes folks talk about having “common sense” when it comes to money, but in my experience, people have very different ideas about what that common sense should be. There are several radically different philosophies about money floating around in our culture. For example: our American commercial culture tells us to take as much as we can get, and buy the most expensive things we can possibly afford. Commercial culture promises that money can give us pleasure, even happiness, while demonstrating to others how valuable we are. Alternatively, many of us here in New England have been taught to be very cautious with our money. Don’t show what you have; don’t talk about what you have; don’t spend more than you have; make sure you can be responsible for yourself. This Puritan-inspired attitude promises that our money management will prove our morality, preserve our pride, and keep us secure.
Most of us are already confused about money when Jesus comes to crash this party with an entirely different point of view. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters – God and money. Jesus tells a rich young man: “Sell everything you have a give the money to the poor.” Jesus tells us to consider the lilies; not to worry about our basic needs. Nothing that Jesus says could be considered common sense. If we follow Jesus, he won’t make us rich OR responsible. Instead, he tells us something that belies most of our experience. Jesus, and our wider scriptural tradition, tell us: It’s not about the money.
It’s not about the money. How can that be true? Money is great, and helpful, and often necessary. It’s one thing to hear that it’s not about the money in Concord, Massachusetts, where most of us are not planning to lay down and die after our next meal. It’s quite another thing for the widow in our story today. Surely it is about money, about resources, for her.
I struggle with why so many scripture stories lift up the generosity of those in true poverty. I don’t want to romanticize poverty, or spiritualize it. Want is real, and it can be brutal. I do wonder, though, if our ancestors realized what modern research teaches us: it is those with the most limited funds who are statistically the most likely to share them. Those who have the most limited resources are the most likely to be our leaders in generosity.
Why is this? Why are those with the most limited resources the most generous? I wonder if struggling with a lack of money reveals money’s limitations more starkly. Money can do a lot; but in the end, it fails to bring lasting pleasure, true happiness, moral superiority, individual independence, or security. When money is not available, when there is not enough, the truly valuable things are perhaps more obvious: relationship, compassion, community, faith. Money is a means, but not an end. If we make it our end, we are doomed to profound disappointment.
Each year, during our congregational giving appeal, I let you know what I plan to give, and why. I am glad that I am able to continue to give ten percent of my income to this church, dedicating it to God and to the ministry that we are doing here together. I am also working on a better plan for my giving outside of the church: an area for growth.
I should admit that my commitment to the church is not always easy for me. Sometimes I get a little twinge when a pleasure is out of reach of my family. Sometimes I get a little twinge when I think that we should be doing more to ensure our future security. Mostly, I am glad to say, my giving commitment gives me a profound sense of peace and gratitude. I want to keep letting go of false ideas of what money could get me, if I kept it to myself. I want to keep experiencing the power of throwing in my lot with others, of letting the wealth that has come into my hands work for the good of many. I believe in what God is doing here among us, and it moves me to be able to support it. Those quotes, those dreams we heard at the beginning of the service – they are worth the world to me.
Ultimately, scriptures teach us, nothing actually belongs to us individually. Ownership is an illusion. We can only be stewards for the wealth that comes from God and belongs to all God’s people, all of God’s creation. The amazing thing is, that the more we learn to share what we have with one another, the more it grows. Instead of fear and scarcity, as we give and connect we discover abundance: abundant resources, abundant love, abundant possibility. As our hands open towards one another, loaves and fishes multiply, and meal and oil appear out of thin air, through the mysterious and marvelous grace of God.
Dear God, money makes us anxious and afraid and enthralled and protective. It pushes our buttons, and we get all wrapped up in it, instead of being focused on you. Whatever numbers are in our bank accounts, help us to breathe deeply, day by day, shedding fear and shame and pride. Teach us that our true value and security come from you. Teach us how to share what we are able and called to share with glad and generous hearts, that we might relieve the wants of others, free ourselves of every burden, and participate in your miraculous multiplication. Amen.