I Kings 7:8-16
My parents were both Depression children. Times were difficult in small town America and people lived from paycheck to paycheck, if they got paid at all. But, as I queried my parents about their youth, they revealed something startling – almost countercultural- when a hobo, out of work, or a family out of food, came to their doorstep looking for a handout, they always had enough to share, even if it meant smaller portions at supper time.
In talking to my mother-in-law Maxine, she revealed a similar account from her youth: her mother rented rooms to make ends meet. Oftentimes, boarders couldn’t pay their room and board, but no boarder was put out on the street. As many in my parents’ generation asserted, “We weren’t poor. We just didn’t have any money.”
Like the widow from the gospel reading, they were generous in their poverty. They didn’t let scarcity undermine their neighborly care. They gave when it hurt and then discovered that even in tough times, they always had enough not only to survive but to thrive.
In every generation and every community, the conflict between abundance and scarcity surfaces. In the story of the widow of Zarephath, the prophet wants breakfast and so God directs him to a widow. She puts him off at first, with an explanation that is both rational and tragic. “I just have a little grain and oil. I’m planning to make a cake for my son and myself. It will be our last meal, for there’s nothing more in our cupboard, and there’s no end in sight to the famine.” Elijah persists, “Don’t be afraid, make me breakfast, and then some for your son. God will provide.”
She takes a leap of faith, trusting that a way will be made, and to her amazement, God does provide. There is enough oil and grain, and food for her family and anyone who comes to her door.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus condemns those who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Religious leaders and temple goers who know how to pray, but also know how to turn a profit at the expense of the poor. Then, as if to bolster Jesus’ words, another widow, down on her luck, gives generously to God’s work.
Now, both of these passages trouble me. I’m uncomfortable by the widow’s lack of prudence. I’ve spent a lifetime, shepherding my retirement plans, selling family homes, and my own homes at the best price, so I can live a comfortable retirement (but not too soon, I hope). As I look at my life, I wonder if it’s possible to be a “prudent” Good Samaritan. Is it possible to follow John Wesley, the parent of the Methodist tradition, and “make all you can, save all you can, and give all you can?”
I must be honest: I probably won’t drop all my money in the collection plate today or send it to causes that are important to me like Doctors without Borders, Bread for the World, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Still I ask myself, “How can I live by abundance, not scarcity, and give all I can?”
Many of us are overcome by seeing the generosity of people after a hurricane or fire. People make their homes available to strangers, work tirelessly to evacuate people from their homes, and risk their well-being to save another’s life. This is humankind at its best, grounded by the belief that we are all in this together.
But, we are always facing disaster, and we are all in this together every day. Millions are near starvation, seventy million people are refugees due to violence, drought, and political instability. It’s always the end of the world for someone, and we need to ponder not just sporadic acts of generosity, but a lifestyle of generosity and concern that becomes our attitude toward every problem in our midst.
There is a Godward movement in our lives – one that pushes us to go beyond self-interest to world loyalty, beyond greed to sharing, beyond fear to love – we just need to listen to it.
There are a lot of maxims that contain a great deal of truth. For example, “if you want something done, ask a busy person!” Quite often, the busy person knows that there are only 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in the week, and has cut to the chase, prioritizing the important over the unimportant. Time can appear scarce, but I have found that on the weeks when I put my time at God’s disposal, I end up having more time. My Bible study and lecture preparation, my daily writing projects, take half the time they normally do, when I let go of my strangle hold on my agenda and pay attention to God’s. I discover God always has enough resource for me to achieve what’s really important.
When we live open to graceful generosity, we may have to pinch, but we will come out on the other side. If we do what’s right – if we constantly ask what would Jesus do -if we place mission first, we will flourish at South Congregational regardless of what happens with the cell antennas or budget issues.
Both of these widows faced poverty and had to make decisions. In choosing God’s way, they discovered they could be generous and leave the future to God. Despite obvious scarcity, they found that truly had sufficient time, talent, and treasure for today and the long haul.
I’ve been a member of Bread for the World – a world hunger advocacy group – for nearly forty years. And Bread for the World asserts that we have enough resource to end world hunger; it’s a matter of choice – of living more simply so that others can simply live, deciding that enough is enough and generously letting go of what we don’t need. It’s a choice between living by scarcity or living by abundance. Let us choose God’s abundance, and rejoice in the generous time, talent, and treasure that emerges in our lives.
Once again, let me close with the counsel of John Wesley:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.