Consecration Sunday I Kings 17 & Mark 12
When you think about Abundance & Scarcity…is it about reality or a mindset, or a bit of both? What is the worst possible thing you could think of running out of in your home, or even in your life? (Elicit responses…) I’m going to share two stories with you. One at the beginning, and one at the end. But you have to promptly forget them, because they’re the best stories I have, and I need to re-tell them in years to come. Deal?
In Dec.1973, Johnny Carson was doing his Tonight Show monologue. He made a joke about the US facing a shortage of an important staple. “You know what’s disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper. There’s an acute shortage of toilet paper in the US.” The next morning, many of the 20 million TV viewers went to the store and bought all the Toilet Paper they could find. By noon, most of the stores were out of stock! People panicked & hoarded. Carson later had to apologize for scaring the public.
Even imagining the worst case scenario provokes anxiety doesn’t it? The fear of running out? Do we fear it because it may put us in mortal danger, or because we may have to ask for help, for provisions – is it about pride, fear, or something else entirely?
But scarcity is not only about financial well-being and material possessions – we can imagine scarcity of so many things can’t we? If you were a sailor, it would be enough wind; if it’s the middle of winter in the PNW, it’s enough daylight/sunlight. But what about having enough time, enough respect, enough love, belonging, connection.
We are confronted by two stories of scarcity from the lectionary today, and I hesitated to use them for Consecration Sunday and tying them too closely to Stewardship, because I believe there is great tension in these texts. The readings offer a glimpse of two widows: two women on the margins who have the capacity to see abundance rather than scarcity. Their situations seem hopeless; their choices absurd—give away all your money or share your last bit of food with a stranger? Why take such foolish risks?
When I read these passages, I sometimes wonder about the two widows’ state of mind. What was the one thinking as she put in every penny she owned into the temple treasury? And the other one from I Kings. What was she thinking?
There is a lot to unpack in the I Kings scripture, but the important aspect for today is that the Prophet Elijah is on the run from King Ahab. There is a drought. The crops didn’t grow. People became hungry. God tells Elijah to travel to the village of Zarephath,in enemy territory and depend on the generosity of a stranger – a poor widow, who will feed him.
Elijah obeys and finds a woman gathering sticks. He doesn’t ask, but demands water and food. The widow leaves her work to get this stranger a drink of water. But asking for bread is too much. She explains that she’s gathering sticks to cook one last meal for her son and herself, before they die.
Elijah says: “Don’t be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake … the God of Israel 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 upon the earth.” Audacious: make me a little cake first. Alas…
This widow put her own life and her son’s life on the line – it doesn’t look like it has anything to do with their future, but the flour and the oil do not run out. There is food for the widow’s household, including the prophet, who stays on for awhile. And they were reminded of God’s abundance.
When we look at the historical context of widows in the ancient world, we need to understand that the widow at the temple & the widow from Zaraphath were not poor widows; they were poor because they were widows. In the ancient world widowhood was a frightening prospect, as reflected in the frequent refrain in Israel’s law calling for special care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the land. Women were dependent on their male relatives.
Here is the tension. If these text are used in stewardship sermons to encourage sacrificial religious giving, particularly of those who are on the margins, that is spiritual abuse.
Jesus never commends the widow, applauds her self-sacrifice, or invites us to follow in her footsteps. He simply notices her, and makes an observation about what she has done. “All of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” He noticed her courage and dignity. “All she had to live on” could be translated from Greek as her whole life. This widow, at the mercy of unjust scribes in the temple, is nevertheless offering to God “her whole life.” The widow, like Jesus, chooses to give “his whole life” in the face of unjust structures that might destroy it.
The ultimate meaning of generosity and stewardship is the sharing of the goodness of the life God has given us, and our awareness and willingness to be thankful for all that has been given.
The theme of the biblical story is not the promise that we will be prosperous, but that we live as faithfully as we can trusting God’s abundance – that there will be enough.
Two nuns were taking a drive out in the country when, all of a sudden, the car just died. The driver looked at the fuel gauge and realized that they had run out of gas. Fortunately, there was a farm just up the road. So the nuns hiked over to the farm house and explained their problem. The farmer was very gracious, and said he would siphon some gas out of his truck for them. The only problem, he said, was that he didn’t have a gas can. They looked around the barn and the only thing they could find to pour the gas into was an old bedpan. “It will work,” said the farmer, “and there’s a gas station just a couple of miles up the road.”
So, the nuns fill up the bedpan and walk back to their car. They see another car parked behind their car, an orthodox Jew – complete with yarmulke, beard, the whole bit – getting ready to come and help. The nuns wave at him, tell him they’re fine, and one starts pouring from the bedpan into their gas tank, while the other says a brief prayer of thanks for the kindness of the farmer. The man in the car is a bit flabbergasted – all he sees is one nun praying and the other pouring from a bedpan into the gas tank. But the nuns assure him everything’s fine. So, the man starts to drive away, then stops and says: “Ladies, you know that we don’t share the same religious beliefs, but, boy, do I admire your faith!”