The audio from today is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
I was really tempted this week. Like you, I read the E-Pistle and saw those red numbers. I hate red numbers. I was tempted, badly, to stand up this morning and preach a fire and brimstone stewardship sermon. I really wanted to join generations of preachers in turning the Widow’s Mite story into a story about giving sacrificially, inviting everyone to model the generosity of the poor widow who gave “her whole life” to the mission of the Temple, but I know that’s not really what that story is about. I know that voluntary giving wasn’t a thing in 1st century Palestine and didn’t really become a thing until the early 1900s. I know the widow had no choice but to give away all that she had. I know it is really a story about Jesus’ ongoing frustration with the Temple system; a system that has abused this poor widow into thinking she had to deposit even her last two coins into the Treasury. Preaching the Widow’s Mite as a stewardship sermon makes me no better than the Scribes Jesus condemns for “devouring widows’ houses.” Like everything else, the church always needs more money, and standing here telling a group of widows, pensioners, and generally good folk who are doing their best to make ends meet that they should be giving more might be tempting, but it isn’t the sort of stewardship that I think God has in mind.
Thankfully, there is another option. The Old Testament lesson also features a widow but this widow had a choice to make. Would she choose the fear of scarcity or the God of abundance. So instead of that poor widow in the Temple, let’s instead look at stewardship through the lens of the story of Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath. Times are tough in Israel and the surrounding region. The King of Israel is a man by the name of Ahab, who Scripture tells us, “did more evil in the sight of the Lord than all who came before him.” Ahab was married to a woman named Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon. Sidon was a foreign land to the north of Israel where they didn’t worship YHWH; they worshipped a storm god named Baal instead.
Soon after the wedding, Jezebel convinced Ahab to build altars to Baal in the land God that had promised to Abraham’s offspring. Needless to say, God was not a happy camper, and so he sent a prophet named Elijah to declare to King Ahab God’s displeasure and to announce a drought in the land that could only be quenched by the word of God, not the cult of Baal. Elijah then wisely ran and hid by a small creek where he was fed by ravens and drank his fill from the creek until it dried up. Here’s where our lesson begins with God once again speaking to Elijah, telling him to leave the land of Israel and enter the land of Sidon, the home country of Jezebel and the land of Baal. There, in a city named Zarephath he would find a widow whom God had commanded to feed him.
Just outside of the city’s gates, Elijah stumbled upon a woman gathering sticks. I’m not sure how he knows that this woman is a widow, but he does, and assuming the basic hospitality rights of a stranger in the first century, he asks the woman for a drink. It is then that Elijah seems to remember the promise of God, that a widow would feed him, and so he calls out to her again saying, “BTW, [by the way] would you grab some bread while you’re at it?” At this point, I can’t help but wonder if Elijah had stumbled upon the wrong widow. Maybe the real widow that God had promised is still waiting with a plate full of food for Elijah. Because this widow doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo from God, and she is clearly less than amused at the bold request of this strange Israelite nomad. The sticks she had gathered fell to the ground as she looked at Elijah and said, “Bread?!? Does it look like I have extra bread to just give away? It hasn’t rained for months. Did you see the fields as you walked here? There is no wheat for flour, no olives for oil, not even enough water to drink. I’m here to gather a few sticks so I can build a small fire and bake one last meal for my son and me to eat before we die.”
Elijah, the exiled prophet of YHWH, with conviction that can only come from complete trust in the promises of God, looks right back at her and says four simple words, “Do not be afraid.” That phrase appears quite often in both the Old and New Testaments. It is quite rare, however, for those words to be spoken by a human being. “Do not be afraid” is most often spoken by God or one of the angels. It is a phrase that assumes there is something to be afraid about, but because God is there, fear is not necessary. A severe drought in the land is something to fear, but Elijah knows that the drought is conditional and that God can and will provide daily bread for this widow, her son, and Elijah, if only she will put her trust in YHWH, the God of Israel, instead of Baal, the storm god of Sidon.
It seems to me, this is where the stewardship sermon begins. The kingdom of God is about trusting God over the idol of fear. Elijah has nothing. His little creek has dried up and the ravens have long since abandoned him. The widow has only slightly more, two sticks, a handful of flour and a drop or two of oil. Food supplies are critically low, and fear is in abundance, when God shows up and through his prophet says, “Have no fear.” I worry about money all the time. Like most of you, my family lives paycheck to paycheck. Saint Paul’s lives Sunday to Sunday. Beckwith lives month to month. The diocese and even The Episcopal Church struggle to raise enough money to keep the doors open and ministry happening. I want to be neck deep in fear most of the time, but I know that the God of infinite provision has spoken and said, “Do not be afraid.”
The Widow at Zarephath trusted this foreign God enough to feed Elijah from the little bit she had. I can’t help but wonder if you and I are capable of the same sort of trust, handing over to God our whole lives, every last piece of us, knowing that in return he’ll give us infinitely more than we can ask or imagine? More than our money, more than our time, more than anything else, God desires our trust. That isn’t to say that the giving of our time, talent, and treasure isn’t important. The giving of our resources is the sacramental sign of our trust in God. When we give sacrificially, we show with an outward and visible sign that inwardly in our souls we trust that God has provided everything that is, was, and ever will be. The hard truth is that very few of us trust God in that sort of way, myself included.
Even though my family gives away roughly 11% of our annual income, there are days, and lots of them, that I don’t trust God 100%. Because of my lack of faith, my offering is more pitiful than the widow’s two copper coins which were given fully trusting that the Lord would provide for her. In the end, it isn’t the money that matters to God, but rather, it is what the money symbolizes – our trust in the Lord’s never-ending provision of everything we have. Do we trust God enough to believe him when he says, “Have no fear,” and like the Widow at Zarephath to give the first fruits of our whole lives to the building up of his Kingdom? Will we choose to give up our faith in the idol so scarcity and place our trust fully in the God of abundance? I say to me as much as to you, have no fear, trust in God fully, and he will provide more than we can dare to dream. Amen.