Generosity Under Pressure
April 26, 2020 – Rev. Donnell T. Wyche
Preamble and Welcome
Hey church! We are grateful for you and the gifts of God that you represent. As a church we partner with the liberating presence of God to cultivate joy, hope & belonging as Jesus invites us into freedom, keeps us free, and helps us free others. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision. If you are looking for a church home, we would love to be your church home, and I, in particular would love to become your pastor.
Pastor Sam recently noted that as we continue to trust God and deepen our faith, we become the people of God by freely giving our time, talent, and treasure away. There really is a paradox of generosity that we experience when we learn to live with our hands open.
As the writer of Hebrews says,
16Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 13:16)
I am here today because of the generosity of others. My entire life is a testimony to the generosity of others. So learning how to live with my hands open and how to be generous in times of plenty and in times of distress have transformed my life.
Fear, anxiety and entitlement are the enemies of generosity
As many of us find ourselves struggling everyday to make sense of our new reality, as we cut corners to make ends meet, as we wait for state or federal benefits to arrive, when we are days away from crisis or disaster, when we are not experiencing the peace that Sabbath brings, one of the harshest things someone can demand of you is to care for someone else, to shift the focus off of yourself and to consider the needs of another. The old haunts: scarcity, fear, anxiety show up all at once to convince you to take care of #1 first.
With one voice they remind you of the first law of nature: self-preservation. When you are uncertain and afraid, it feels good to listen to them, and rehearse your response, “I would like to help you, but…”
What if when you are in situations like this, you suspended whatever you needed to in order to test whether God was giving you an invitation to surrender your fears and anxiety in order to trust more deeply.
What would choosing to open our hands instead of closing them do for us?
I want to consider the story of the unnamed widow in 1 Kings 17. Under King Ahab and his wife Jezebel’s leadership, Israel has rejected God and being lead to worship another god, B’aal. God sends the prophet Elijah to declare to King Ahab of Judah that a drought is coming. This drought will demonstrate the Creator God’s power over this false god, B’aal. In the midst of this showdown, God provides for Elijah by sending him to the city of Zarephath, where a widow will sustain him.
I’m reading from 1 Kings 17:10-13:
When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. (1 Kings 17:10-13)
Can you imagine?
You are out gathering the sticks for a fire for your last meal. You have survived this three and half year famine, but you are at the end, preparing yourself for the inevitable and a stranger, a foreigner, arrives, puts you to work and asks for the last food you have. What an unbelievably selfish, unreasonable, and rude request this is! All of the old haunts are right at the door – fear, anxiety, and entitlement are there – telling you to tell this stranger where to go and how to get there…
But pay attention, because there’s an invitation here too. This widow has a choice, as we all do, what will we do when someone needs something from us? How will orient ourselves, how will we act? Will we open our hands or close them?
While God has promised provision for Elijah, it seems as if the message hasn’t reached the widow yet. In what seemed like only scarcity, Elijah sees abundance and provision and invites the widow to join him in this vision.
For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’ ” (1 Kings 17:14)
Elijah offers a word of faith in a moment of deep fear and resignation. There’s something powerful when someone is able to speak a work of life in what seems like only death and despair. It’s a dangerous word, it’s hope. Elijah is leveraging the expectation of hospitality in this exchange, but more than that, he is also offering hope.
12“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.” (1 Kings 17:12)
After hearing about the widow’s preparations for death, Elijah gives the widow the same word of promise God gave to Hagar: “Don’t be afraid” (Genesis 21:17). The prophet goes on to speak as if the promise of God was already fulfilled: “Do not be afraid … but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” Elijah’s words, although seemingly absurd, actually invite the widow to participate in the new reality God’s promises were creating, but which for the moment remain hidden from view. How can we be generous when that generosity threatens everything we think we have? What is required to be generous?
It’s an activation of trust and faith. Faith in a God who can provide for you and trust that this God who can provide will provide. It’s a calculated risk.
She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah. (1 Kings 17:15)
She had to open her hands. As she does, she receives the provision that Elijah promised God would provide. But then the story takes a dark turn. Her son dies.
Watch what happens next… I’m reading from 1 Kings 17:17
17Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” (1 Kings 17:17)
I love these exchanges in scripture because they are so raw. “God, I’ve done what you required, what you have asked, so why are punishing for my obedience?” Elijah hears, understands, and sympathizes with the pain. Surely, the provision of God can extend further.
19“Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” (1 Kings 17:19-20)
Elijah straight up blames the Lord. How could you do this, God? Why would you do this?
21Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (1 Kings 17:19-20)
The Lord hears the cries of Elijah,
22The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. 23Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!” 24Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.” (1 Kings 17:19-20)
How do we become the kind of people who are generous? How do we become the kind of people who activate our faith and trust in God and are willing to freely give away what we have in service to others? In one sense, we learn how to do this by practice. We experiment and discover what happens when we say, “Yes.”
What did I discover?
What did I learn?
How did I feel?
Where did I experience God?
Let me share more of my story with you.
God helps those who are in need and are helpless
My childhood formed in me false narratives about God that I struggle with everyday. The first narrative is “God only helps those who help themselves.” I think we all want to believe this narrative is true and for two reasons: 1.) it justifies us and our actions and 2.) it allows us to judge others. When faced with the struggles of others, this narratives gives us permission to say, “You made your bed, now sleep in it.” “You want a different life then do what I did and work hard and see if your life doesn’t improve.”
Trade the story line of self-sufficiency for the narrative of interdependency.
The scriptures of course tell a different story, for instance the Gospels are a parade of the most despised, hapless, helpless, and broken people. Yet, Jesus reveals a God who is generous, who is powerful, and who is gracious. Jesus reveals a God who rescues those in trouble, heals those who are hurting (or wounded) and restores those who are broken. Take for example the woman caught in adultery, or the woman with an issue of blood, or the relationship that Jesus continues with his disciple Peter in spite of Peter’s rejection.
Trade the story line of mine for the story line of God’s.
Generosity is an attitude, an inward disposition, that spawns of self-sacrifice, which is how God acts towards us. Generosity is “other-centered.”
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6:-8)
Consider the places where your hands are closed.
How might you open your hands? What does it cost? What does it take to open your hands and receive and accept the generosity of others?
We have no hope of being generous, if we are unwilling to receive from others. If I have all the resources you need, yet you refuse to accept them, what good is that? You start by opening your hands. You open your hands as a sign of your willingness to receive. Only open hands can receive.