I find this morning’s Old Testament story gripping. Imagine what it must have been like to be the Widow of Zarephath! Imagine living during a sever drought. Imagine her worry and anxiety about not having enough. Imagine how she must have daily watched the level of meal in the jar and oil in the jug, wondering when her last day would be. And she had a son! Just imagine her anxiety and worry!
And imagine that last day when she went out to gather sticks to make one last fire to bake one last loaf from the last of the meal in the jar and the last of the oil in the jug. Elijah appeared, looking rough and wild… and hungry. “He’s going to ask me for food,” I bet she thought. Which he did. She was ready with her polite but pointed response:
As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.
But Elijah is not so easily deterred. He said:
Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.
“Sure,” I can hear her thinking. “And I have a bridge to sell you.” But something shifted. “I’m about to die anyway,” I can hear her say to herself, “I can either choose to withhold, or I can choose to be generous.” She chose to be generous.
Each of us has a Widow of Zarephath inside – a widow who sees the “drought” and is worried and anxious about not having enough. It’s so easy to worry about not having enough! And… each of us has the other Widow of Zarephath inside – someone who has the capacity for generosity, who recognizes the choice to withhold or be generous, who is willing to take a chance and share our last “meal” and “oil.”
My wife, Ashley, and I have certainly experienced “drought” in our life. Like, What were we thinking, getting married and starting a family when we were both still in school? When I look back at the places we lived during those years, the number of times we had to move, the number of times we had to borrow, the number of times people were so generous with us… I feel ashamed. I’m not ashamed of where we lived or how little we had; I feel ashamed because God cared for us at every step of the way. Never once did our “jar of meal” go empty; never once did our “jug of oil” fail. We were so humbled by God’s generosity that when we graduated and began earning salaries, we made a commitment to give back to God by tithing our income. (“Tithing” means to give away 10% of our income.) We give the majority of our tithe to the church.
Looking back, I’m sure the Widow of Zarephath never regretted her choice to be generous. (What’s not to like about a never-empty jar of meal and a never-failing jug of oil?) Nor have Ashley and I ever regretted our choice to be generous. Of course, there are days when the jar and the jug are looking pretty low… But when “Elijah” appears, we always say “yes.” When it’s time to pledge, and when we hear the call to give 10%, we always say “yes” because we’ve learned that God will not let the jar or the jug run out. We’ve learned that, as generously as we give to God, in a mysterious way that I can attribute only to grace, God gives it all back and more. AND… not only have we learned that the jar and the jug have never run out, we’ve learned what I’m sure the widow learned, which is what all generous givers learn: that when we give generously, we know freedom, joy and gratitude as we’ve never experienced before. We know freedom, because when we give generously, we no longer need to worry about not having enough. It makes no sense that, in giving away and ostensibly having “less,” we would have more. But when we give generously, we’ve discovered that we do have more, and we are mysteriously set free from worrying about not having enough. We know joy, because generous giving brings joy. I’ve heard people say, “Give until it hurts,” but I don’t think that’s good advice. I say, Give until it feels good, because generosity feels good! Generous giving brings joy to our lives. And we know gratitude, because giving opens our eyes to see how much God gives us. I don’t know how or why it works, but when we started giving 10%, we went from feeling we didn’t have very much to feeling grateful for the abundance that God had showered and continues to shower on us.
When the Widow shared her meal and oil with Elijah, I know she experienced freedom, joy and gratitude. I can say that “I know,” because whenever we give generously, we are freed from anxiety, giving brings joy, and giving opens our eyes to see how richly God has blessed us.
Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday, the day on which we will be invited to make a pledge of financial support to Trinity Parish for 2016. I invite us this week to take time to pray about what amount we might pledge for next year. Maybe, to help us in our prayer, consider the widow’s story in this morning’s lesson. Maybe take home the order of service and read over the lesson before you go to bed each night. Maybe imagine what it was like to be the widow and to feel anxious and worried about not having enough. Maybe imagine what it was like when Elijah approached her and her choice of whether to withhold or give. And maybe imagine what it was like for her when she did give, and then to discover that the jar of meal never emptied and the jug of oil never failed. This week take some time to talk to God about what you might pledge to Trinity Parish this coming year.
As you pray, I will be praying, too. I will be straight-up and tell you that I will be praying that we choose generosity. I won’t be praying that we’ll choose generosity because I’m concerned about bottom line – pledging is not a budget matter. I will be praying that we give generously because I’m concerned about our spiritual life – pledging is a spiritual matter. For as we give generously we will experience – as I know the widow experienced, because all generous givers experience it – the freedom, the joy and the gratitude that come from generous giving. And if we give generously we will discover that we have food enough and to spare, for we will be satisfied – amazingly, richly satisfied – in all that the Lord will then do in us and through us.