Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, November 8, 2015
Small Gifts…Enlarged in God’s Hands
[I Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44]
Let us pray. Lord, your attention to the least and the lost is extraordinary. Unlike those who hold power on earth, you major in the minors – by attending to those who are fragile, vulnerable and powerless. That is the nature of divine love – and it takes our breath away! We love you and want to be more like you. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.
Back in the day when fewer women worked outside the home, women put their heads, hearts and limited finances together to change the world. Not all of you here grew up with the Thank Offering, because it was started by a woman named Eliza Clokey of Springfield, Ohio, in 1888. She urged each woman to give $1 above and beyond their gifts to the Women’s General Missionary Society of the United Presbyterian Church of North America as a “thank offering” to her Lord. Some say that effort SAVED the world missionary movement of that generation. Perhaps times were as tough back in 1888 as some of us feel it is in 2015.
Every major denomination like our own is facing cutbacks and serious shortages. World Mission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is sending out urgent appeals for funds, or they will bring experienced missionaries off the field in 2016. The Presbytery of Coastal Carolina is short of funds, because small churches like our own are keeping more of our money for ourselves to simply stay afloat. How far can all of us tighten our belts before we cut off our circulation?
And yet… one person with a vision makes all the difference in the world! Eliza Clokey… decided to say “thank you to God” and asked other women to do the same. Give one more dollar, she recommended as a THANK OFFERING. In other words, put one more dollar in God’s hands and see what God can do with it!
What a brilliant idea! The Women’s Birthday Offering, which we collect in the spring, is similar in nature to the Thank Offering. Both offerings offer grants to groups that are making a significant difference in the lives of vulnerable populations: groups as far away as India and Malawi, and as close as Florence, South Carolina, will be recipients this year. May each gift be useful in creating sustainable change in peoples’ lives!
Our Scriptures this morning focus on two vulnerable women who joined hands with God and refused to believe that their simple gifts were too small to make a difference.
In I Kings 17:8-16 we read that “the word of the Lord” came to Elijah, saying: “Go to Zarephath and live there where a widow will feed you.” Note that this was NOT Elijah’s idea, but God’s idea. God had sent a drought on the land as a punishment for King Ahab’s unfaithfulness, so the common people were in dire straits, including the widow to whom the Lord sent Elijah.
When he asked for a drink of water and a morsel of bread, she apologetically replied that she had absolutely nothing baked and was planning to use her last handful of meal and a few drops of oil to prepare a last meal for her son and herself to eat before they died.
Elijah assured her: “Do not be afraid – go and do as you have said, but first make a small cake for me… and there will be enough for you and your son. For God promises that the jar of meal will never empty and the jug of oil will never fail until the Lord sends more rain on the earth.”
The widow didn’t laugh, scorn or mock Elijah’s words in her moment of desperation. She could have been a cynic and said to Elijah – no way, Jose! Don’t try to “con me” out of my last handful of meal. No way! God can’t do that!
We read instead: The widow went and did as Elijah said, so she as well as he and her household ate for many days. Neither the jar of meal nor the jug gave out.
What stands out for me in this story is WHO initiated the move to Zarephath and WHY the miracle of the multiplied meal and oil occurred.
The word of the Lord – moved Elijah—and clearly directed his steps to the path of a widow and her son in need. God orchestrated this. God’s all-knowing and all-loving character connected his prophet to a needy woman and her son.
This move was multi-purpose. Everyone was suffering from a drought and a famine, but not everyone experienced a miracle. God provided for his prophet, Elijah, by providing for the widow and her son, blessing them both in an extraordinary way. Sadly, not every small gift is enlarged and multiplied. That’s just a fact. Why did God act in this story in this way?
None of us can know the mind of God – but from what I do know in the last 60 years of my life, I know that God LOVES. And I know that God GIVES to those in need.
And yet, I also know that every single person has a choice to LISTEN to God’s nudges or to ignore them. As human beings we do have the choice to say “No” to God as well as “Yes.” Good Christian people OFTEN say “No” to God’s nudges, guidance and even God’s thundering commands. Good Christian people REFUSE the gift of forgiveness for themselves and refuse to offer it to others.
God did not create robots. Somehow in God’s mysterious nature, God wants human beings to exercise their free will for GOOD, for GRACE, and for GRATITUDE.
We learn almost nothing about the life of the widow in Mark’s Gospel. We don’t know the back story of her gift when she put her two copper coins in the offering plate. All we know is that Jesus NOTICED… and thanked God for her, saying: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For 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” (Mark 12:43-44).
Hers was a self-sacrificing thank offering and Jesus gave thanks to God for that woman, as well as for her gift. In God’s eyes and in God’s hands, her small gift was enlarged.
For those of us who took our pilgrimage to Bangladesh and India, we had the privilege of seeing small gifts enlarged over and over again. Today’s story is probably the reason I keep going back to places that others regard as undesirable or unattractive. You see I find God hiding in those places and in those people. God jumps out and declares: “Here I am, Sue! Here I am. Don’t look for me in ornate palaces and luxury hotels, because you will not find me there.”
But God does not show up in every hovel of poverty. And God does not show up in every profound tragedy we face in our lives, because people close their eyes, close their ears and refuse to take actions in response to God’s love. One of the most difficult things for me to witness as a pastor is people choosing not to get better and people choosing not to access or utilize God’s unconditional grace and love in their lives. The longer I serve as a pastor, the more I see people choosing NOT to heal: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It sometimes breaks my heart. But God does not force us to receive grace, healing, mercy and reconciliation. God is a gentleman and a gracious hostess at an infinite feast.
Sometimes LESS is MORE in God’s hands. It can be good for us as individuals & families, and as institutions to experience drought and famine. It CAN open our eyes to the immense grace of God, who yearns to multiply our gifts in service to others for God’s glory. However, sometimes the MORE we have, the more controlling we are of how it is used and where it goes.
In Bangladesh we went to the home of a young woman named Mukhta, in the slums of Old Dhaka. She works at a young woman’s sewing cooperative, sponsored and supported by the Church of Bangladesh. Dr. Cindy Morgan warned us the day before we visited her home that we would have to walk across a kind of “gang plank” to arrive at the upstairs room where she and her parents and other family members reside. A wooden walkway without rails or sides led to her front door. We walked across it one-by-one. Laura was the last one to enter, because she often stood back to take photographs, and it was a “God-moment” for her when Mukhta held out her hand and helped her across, noticing that she was last. Mukhta is a “success story” in Bangladesh, because her ability to sew and provide for her family has been fostered by the Church of Bangladesh, as well as the Morgans, who found a supporting church to pay for Mukhta’s dental care. She had a very bad case of protruding front teeth, which we saw she had inherited from her mother. Mukhta beamed with pride when we visited her home. Her father showed us his office, which was a small metal box he wears around his waist and carries around on the streets to sell knick knacks. I looked through his box and purchased a small language learning booklet – to help me with the Bangla language during our travels.
Mukhta’s family purchased a large bottle of sprite and some peanut cookies to serve us as we piled onto the one double bed in the home. None of us can properly describe to you the hospitality we tasted and experienced in homes and with families like the women in these Bible stories. Jesus sees each and every one of them and thanks God for their generosity. They are not unnoticed or invisible to God.
Friends, we cannot help everyone in the world and sometimes we are not even able to help ourselves. Part of our problem is that we are not taking time to LISTEN prayerfully to the word of the Lord in our lives. I remember when I first met David Hudson. He had a wild side in his youth. This is how he described to me his conversion to Jesus Christ. Of course he was raised in a strong Presbyterian congregation in Charlotte, where his mother sang in the choir and his dad served as an elder and active member of the church. David was listening to a song on the radio about letting God be in the driver’s seat of his life. That message came to him at just the right time. He heard it. He gave God the steering wheel of his life. What a difference that has made ever since.
You may feel like your life is small and your resources are even smaller, but if you put yourself and your possessions in God’s hands, what an amazing and extraordinary difference it makes, not only in your life, but in service to those who are in greatest need. Let us pray.