MESSAGE: “Generosity in Drought”
Text: I Kings 17:1-16
Liturgist Text: Mark 1:9-15
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to anchor the Lenten journey of self-denial in faith and generosity with the story of Elijah, the Zeraphath widow and her son. Also, to introduce our Lenten Mission Offering for 2021.
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One of the stories I often share as a children’s message is that of a poor beggar in India. The beggar hears that a wealthy, generous prince of India, a Maharaja, will soon parade through the streets of his village. He is excited and makes sure to position himself near the front of the line where the Maharaja will easily see him. Sure enough, the Maharaja notices the beggar and stops to speak, “What do you have to give me?” he asks the beggar.
Rattled, the beggar fishes in his pocket and produces about ten grains of rice. It is all he has to his name. Resentfully, he gives three to the Mahraja, who thanks him and continues on his journey. “I can’t believe he didn’t offer to help me!” the beggar lamented to himself, “Not only that, he even took away some of the paltry amount I had on me!” Shaking his head in disbelief, the beggar returned the remaining rice to his pocket. To his surprise, something else was already there. “Three grains of…wait…this isn’t rice, it’s gold! The Mahraja exchanged my three grains of rice for three nuggets of gold!” But then it dawned on the beggar, “Oh my! If only I had given it all, I would have ten nuggets of gold!”
The point of the story of course is this: if we have enough faith to trust everything we have to God, we may find ourselves blessed beyond measure! (pause) But there’s the challenge. That little word, ‘may.’ Because there is no guarantee. Faith is all well and good, and certainly we need more of it, but giving is not always a boomerang, returning abundance to our doorstep. Sometimes what we give stays given, and we must make do without it.
I know I have shared this story before, but it once again serves our purpose this morning. When I was nine, I joined the Columbia House Record and Tape Club. After receiving my freebies, I purchased the required ‘three-at-full-price.’ The trouble was, I didn’t have the full price. I ended up with $10 against a $100 bill. At the time, I read a daily devotional by Oral Roberts who spoke in detail about ‘seed-faith giving.’ The gist of it was, “If you give a seed faith offering to God through Oral Roberts Ministry, you can expect to receive it multiplied back to you ten times over.”
“Perfect!” I thought to myself. “I can do math. I’ll give Oral my $10 as an offering, and I’ll get back the $100 I need to pay Columbia House!” So that is what I did. I offered the contribution to God in prayer, stuffed it in an envelope and mailed it to Oral. Then I waited…and waited…and waited. I received payment reminders and demand notes, but no $100 windfall. When I received a ‘Collections’ notice, I realized the windfall would not be coming. After my chores and work were done, I found ways to earn a little extra money, and eventually I had the $100 with penalties needed to pay the bill. Perhaps Oral would say, “See you got what was promised—you just had to work for it!” But it didn’t go exactly as I imagined.
With these two cautionary tales in mind, let us enter the story from I Kings of the prophet Elijah and the widow of Zeraphath. (Read: I Kings 17:1-16).
The story begins with a pandemic of trouble: years of drought. King Ahab and Judah have been unfaithful to God and drought is the penalty. But the drought of course falls on the just and the unjust, so even Elijah is troubled by the effects of the drought. He camps by the Wadi Cherith, fed by ravens, until the water dries up, at which point he finds himself dehydrated along with everyone else.
God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath in the region of Sidon, that is, outside ‘Promised Land’ territory. There he will meet a Phoenician widow who will feed him for the duration of the drought. The only real trouble with this plan is that God fails to inform the widow. As Elijah enters the town, he immediately encounters the widow who is gathering sticks for a home-fire. He asks her for a drink of water, which, given the culture’s commitment to hospitality, she prepares to do. But then he also asks for bread to eat.
This is a problem, because the drought is so bad that the woman gathers sticks to bake little more than a biscuit to share with her son as their final meal, before presumably succumbing to starvation. When all you have is one biscuit, I suppose it doesn’t matter if you have one, two, or as it now appears, three people gathered to eat it, for it still will be inadequate.
Elijah tests the woman’s faith. “That’s ok,” he says, “you can make a biscuit to share with your son but first make a cake for me. God has told me that your supply of meal and oil will not fail. (Sounds a little bit like Oral’s seed-faith promise to me regarding my Columbia House Record and Tape bill) The widow of Zeraphath may be doubtful regarding Elijah’s ‘pie-in-the-sky’ promise, but what does she have to lose really? A little bit of flour which won’t be enough to carry her until Tuesday anyway? She puts her faith in Elijah and hopes for the best.
Her investment of faith is well-placed, for miraculously, the jar of meal and jug of oil do not run out, but renew their supply day after day after day after day. In fact, if you read further in the story, you learn that her son dies of an illness, but because she has provided hospitality for a prophet of Yahweh, Elijah miraculously restores her son to life. By sacrificially caring for the Lord’s servant, she has anchored a future for both her son and herself. Centuries later, Jesus will reference her faith as a foreigner’s gift of faith when a prophet has been rejected from his home town.
For me, this biblical story reminds me to risk faith in God, not necessarily in a Maharaja, or Oral Roberts, or Elijah, but in God. God knows our predicament even better than we do. The word which God gave to Elijah was a lifeboat from a shipwreck in a stormy sea. God was determined not only to save Elijah from drought, but also a Sidonian widow and her son, completely unknown to Elijah, but very much known by God. Sometimes the gift of caring for someone else is the very thing which rescues us from a self-centered focus or a sabotaged life.
I suspect this is the very reason Conference administrators chose this story as the biblical basis for a New England Conference pandemic relief fund, called The Zeraphath Emergency Relief Fund. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have suffered, and available financial safety nets have not caught all who are in need. In the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, there have been churches, pastoral families and local church parishioners who have faced needs beyond what safety nets cover. The conference relief fund, which our Missions Committee has chosen as UMCA’s 2021 Lenten Mission Offering recipient, is a financial resource carved out to meet those needs.
The UM Foundation of New England, the Preacher’s Aid Society and the extended cabinet (comprised of the Bishop, District Superintendents, and other Conference personnel) believe in it so strongly that they have committed matching grant resources for every dollar given up to $40,000. Thus, if $40,000 is raised, a full $80,000 will be available for relief efforts. It is a way for our church to partner with the Conference by providing ‘Generosity in Drought.’
Perhaps some of us feel tapped to a financial breaking point, especially with fear of the unknown stretching before us. But I wonder. Is there something I might be able to give up for the season of Lent to help take care of someone else? Imagine how good it might feel to know that our contributions to the Zeraphath relief fund were enough to keep one of our sister churches of the Many Waters District from closing? Or to sustain Camp Mechuwana for future camping? Or to provide for a pastor and his or her family so that they may continue to serve in a local church?
Imagine how good it would feel to help a local church parishioner and his or her family when unemployment funds have been exhausted? Who knows? Maybe by saving someone else, we may learn that we have invested in our own church further down the road, or in a generation yet to come, who may not be known to us, but most assuredly is known to God?