Friday, November 7, 2014

Only a Little

November 2, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

1 Kings 17:1-16

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word. " The word of the Lord came to him, saying, "Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there. "

So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you. " So he set out and went to Zarephath.

When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand."

But she said, "As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, 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 said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: 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."

She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

Elijah the Tishbite, prophet from Gilead, is not exactly a ladies’ man. Ahab, the king, has taken a wife who is a worshiper of Baal, and has turned to worshiping Baal himself. Baal, when given sufficient sacrifices and offerings, is the maker of rain. But the God of Israel has sent Elijah to speak to Ahab. Elijah has pronounced that there will be no more rain in the land until God says so - not only no rain, but not even any dew. So much for Baal giving rain. It is going to be a very dry season.

Jezebel calls her minions and tells them to round up the livestock and find them some water, so they will not die. Later in First Kings, we find out that Jezebel is so infuriated by Elijah that she calls her minions and tells them to round up the prophets, and have them all killed. So you can imagine where Elijah is on Jezebel’s list. He has to leave Sidon, so he crosses the Jordan, going away from the promised land, and goes out into the wilderness.

He finds there a wadi, a deep, rocky ravine with a brook running through it, and there the ravens feed him and he has water to drink. Not optimal, but it beats execution at the hands of Jezebel. Then the wadi dries up, and God tells him to head into town, into Zarephath, in Sidon, where God has commanded a widow to feed him. Already, things are not making sense.

Who wants to rely on an isolated brook for water in a time of drought?
Who wants to have food brought to them by birds who eat carrion?
-- birds that are unclean according to the law of Moses?
Who wants to rely on a widow, who, being without a husband to support her,
and unable by law to have inherited anything, is destitute by definition?
How can you count on God for provision and support under these circumstances?
And why is God choosing these ridiculous sources to provide?

But it is almost formulaic – God speaks to someone, tells them to do something that makes no sense, and they do it! So Elijah leaves the dried up wadi and the raven cafĂ©, and heads toward the town of Zarephath. We’re not told how he knew which widow to hit up, but he gets to town and sees a woman gathering sticks. He asks for water and she goes to bring it to him, and then he adds, “could you bring some bread, as long as you’re going?”

Umm…. what?

It’s hard to know if she had thought through her plan, and this was the first time she had spoken of it out loud, or if it simply came to her as she answered him. But her plan was grim and sad – cook the last bit of meal she had, feed her son and herself, and then lie down and wait to die. The sticks she was gathering were for the fire, the last cooking fire she intended to make, for the last bread she intended to eat. She had only a little, not enough to share. But Elijah said, “Don’t be afraid. You can go ahead with your plan, but first, make a little bit of bread for me. ”

And then he made this peculiar promise: the meal won’t run out, and the jar of oil won’t empty until the drought is over. That’s an extraordinary promise. It’s hard to imagine why she would believe such a promise, from a foreign prophet representing a foreign God. Everyone knew that Baal would send the rains, when he was through being displeased with the people. Maybe she figured it didn’t matter – maybe she thought that she and her son would starve one way or the other, sooner or later. Maybe if you don’t have much, such decisions are simpler. Maybe when you have only a little, you naturally find it easier to share with someone who has nothing.

It’s also hard to figure why the God of Israel would send the prophet Elijah all the way to Zarephath in Sidon, to a foreign woman, rather than to an Israelite. In any case, the promise of Elijah’s God proves true, the oil and the meal do not run out, and the widow and her son survive.

Now, the easy thing for me to do at this point, and maybe the obvious direction to go, is to point out to you that if this widow on the brink of death can give the last tiny bit of meal and oil she has to a prophet from another country, then surely you all can increase your pledges to this church for 2015. Because, seriously, you won’t starve to death.

Then the easy thing for you to do, and maybe the obvious thing, is to smile and nod and say “good sermon, pastor” and have a piece of cake, and then on the way home, say, “That’s the way it is with churches – they just want your money. ”So let’s not do all that, ‘kay? Because doing the easy and the obvious is no fun anyway.

And I know you might have thought this story is about the widow and her son, or about the prophet Elijah and his tangle with the wicked Jezebel. But… I don’t know if the widow of Zarephath is really our model here. Yes, she shared generously out of the little she had. But maybe the relevant piece for us is that she shared without hesitation.

Maybe because we have so much, we lack that ready spirit. Maybe because we have been blessed so richly, rather than give all we can, we want to give only a little. And maybe some of us are giving enough to God to feel it, and we feel that even the most we can give is only a little.

But this story is not about them. It’s a story that is bigger, and better, than any individual story. It’s a story that stretches across generations, across centuries, millennia, even. Your story, and this congregation’s story, and this town’s story are all pieces of that bigger story.

Our congregation’s history of God’s provision began in 1844. The 1908 history of Whiteside county puts it this way: “For once the staid Calvinists seem to have got ahead of the lively Arminians, for … although the circuit rider was early on the ground and occupied on alternate 'Sabbaths the courthouse, the Presbyterians were the first to secure a local habitation and a name; the church was organized with ten members on Nov. 4, 1844: John and Maria Galt, Eliza Wilson, Mary Wallace. J. C. Woodburn, with Mary and Jane, W. H. Cole, Carlisle and Jane Mason.”

It’s interesting to see how our story is told by a historian looking back just sixty four years – writing history at a time when some of the participants were still living to tell their stories. For example: “When Mr. Stebbins was installed as the first pastor, he received the munificent allowance of $200 from the general board of the church and an equal amount in pork, potatoes, and similar dainties from the people”

Fortunately, the compensation for pastors these days exceeds $200 plus pork and potatoes! I can’t imagine what the other dainties were! But the writer goes on, and this is fascinating, and I think relevant for us today, about the installation service of the first pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sterling: “Before his [Reverend Stebbins’] installation, union services were held by the Baptists and members of other churches, each family bringing its own candle. ”

Can you imagine, then, in the early evening of November 4, 1844, 170 years ago, the families coming to the union service, families from every part of town, from other denominations, coming into the new church, each family bringing its own candle?! Each family bringing only a little light, until the whole sanctuary was aglow. each bringing only a little. Maybe that’s something to learn from the widow of Zarephath.

But maybe, just possibly, this story is about how God provides for us, in times of trouble, in times when all of life seems dry and parched, in times when a last meal and a quiet death seem like the only choice we have. God provides for us in unlikely ways, with unexpected strange birds bringing us meat and bread, with strangers who become hosts, with a meal that goes on and never runs out, with the oil running down over our heads and into our collars, anointing us with love that never stops flowing.

And as Jesus pointed out, in his first sermon at the temple, God could have chosen all sorts of people to use, but God chose this unlikely woman, a pagan and a stranger, as the focus of extravagant grace.

This table is a reflection of God’s mercy and provision,
a place where whatever we have becomes plenty, and whatever we share is enough;
a place where all the saints of every generation gather with us
to share in this cup and this bread;
a place where God’s love in Christ Jesus is poured out and never ends,
where the body of Christ gathers to remember and to be re-membered,
where all our broken-ness and separation are mended and healed and made whole;
where all our tiny little candlelights gather to set the world aglow;
where all our gifts, even if they are only a little, are made one in Jesus Christ,

We can give everything, everything, everything, and in comparison to God’s profligate, extravagant generosity, when we bring it, it will seem to us only a little.

Thanks be to God for this generous gift of life and word and provision.
To God alone be the glory!


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