A Little Goes a Long Way – Rev. Henry Brinton (audio available)
A Little Goes a Long Way
March 21, 2010
1 Kings 17:8-16
In the last month, two celebrity suicides have made the national news. First, an actor named Andrew Koenig hanged himself after suffering from severe depression. Then Marie Osmond’s son jumped from his eighth-floor apartment after saying that his depression had left him feeling friendless.
Depression. Loneliness. Friendlessness. These three are a deadly combination.
Suicides now outnumber homicides in the United States, and they are most common among the young and the old. Suicide is tough because mental illness is a factor, and counseling and medication do not provide quick or guaranteed fixes. In addition, Americans have become more isolated and lonely in recent years. When a 1985 survey asked, “How many confidants do you have?” the most frequent response was three.
Can you guess the number when the question was asked again in the year 2004? Zero.
Zero confidants. From three to zero in less than 20 years. This is a frightening trend. Friendlessness leads to loneliness, which leads to depression, which can lead to suicide.
Having friends is not just nice. It can be life-saving.
I begin with these thoughts on suicide because I want to stress how important it is that we have been focusing on Christian hospitality over the past four weeks. Making our church a more welcoming place is not about serving better coffee in the narthex, or coming up with an improved system for identifying visitors. Instead, hospitality is all about connecting people to this community of faith, in a deep and meaningful way.
When people become part of the church, they begin to develop relationships. Their number of confidants begins to move upward. Their loneliness is replaced by friendship, and they don’t feel quite so isolated. They make the kind of connections that we are seeing now in our Lenten small groups, which can bring people together in ways that they haven’t experienced before.
Christian hospitality can be a matter of life and death.
Making a place for hospitality has been a challenge for thousands of years. In today’s passage from First Kings, the prophet Elijah is sent by God from Israel to the city of Zarephath, up north near the foreign town of Sidon. God says, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you” (17:8-9).
Zarephath was a Phoenician commercial capital known for its exports — including wine, grain, and oil. And yet, it wasn’t prospering at the moment Elijah was sent to it, because the region was suffering from a terrible drought. Like us today, it was experiencing an economic crisis.
This becomes clear to Elijah as soon as he arrives at the gate of the city. A destitute widow is gathering sticks so that she can make a fire, prepare a few cakes, eat them with her son, and then die. The future looks bleak for her, and in reading this story it certainly sounds to me like she is depressed.
But Elijah remembers the promise of God — that a widow in Zarephath would feed him. He knows that his God has commanded hospitality, even in a time of drought and deprivation. So he says to the woman, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink” (v. 10).
The widow looks at him, probably wondering if this is the man of Israel that she has been commanded to feed. She knows that he is a foreigner, and realizes that she doesn’t have any personal religious responsibility to help him — she worships the god named Baal. But since a vessel of water is not an outrageous request, she turns to get some for him.
As she is going, Elijah calls to her and says, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” She stops and shakes her head, knowing that she cannot do it. Then swearing by the name of his god, the God of Israel, she says, “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” (vv. 11-12).
She’s got no bread, not even a morsel to offer. And because she is depressed, lonely, and friendless, she cannot imagine where in the world she will get some.
But Elijah believes in God’s promise, and he won’t give up. He is like the young priest in the Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino, which a group of us from FPC watched at movie night last month. This priest has made a commitment to visit with the flinty old widower played by Eastwood, even though Eastwood insults him and tells him again and again that he wants him to go away. Because the priest keeps showing up, and refusing to give up, the two of them develop a connection — they even become confidants.
“Do not be afraid,” says the prophet Elijah to the widow; “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 upon the earth” (vv. 13-24).
Here is the promise of hospitality, delivered by Elijah: With God, a little goes a long way.
We’ve seen this in our own lives, haven’t we? A child is born, like little Eliana, baptized today. Parents of newborns naturally worry about what is required to raise a child — emotionally, physically, educationally, financially. It can seem overwhelming. I remember, 22 years ago, when the nurse handed our daughter Sarah to us for the ride home from the hospital. I asked myself, “Is this legal?” I felt so unprepared. But with God’s help, there is always enough.
The youths come pouring into Fellowship Hall for their Sunday night dinner, the Family Seekers gather in the multipurpose room, and the volunteer cooks scramble to put the food out. Numbers are always a little bit fuzzy, but with God’s help, a little goes a long way.
The FPC elders put a challenge budget in front of the congregation, church members make pledges to support the mission of the church, and no one knows exactly how budgets and pledges will match up until after pledge dedication Sunday — which is next week, by the way — Palm Sunday. But with God’s help, there is always enough.
In all of these situations, it is critically important to make a place for hospitality — to open our hearts to children, open our church building to youths and young families, open our wallets to the mission and ministry of the church. Like the widow of Zarephath, we discover amazing things when we say “yes” to what God is asking us to do, and when we make a commitment to supporting God’s work.
Scripture tells us that the widow goes and does what Elijah says. She doesn’t have much to share — just a handful of meal and a little oil — but she offers it freely. Yes, times are tough for her, just as they are for many of us in the current economy. But despite her depression and destitution, she makes a place for hospitality. She operates within the limits that Jessica described so well in her sermon last Sunday.
And what is the result? She, Elijah, and her household eat for many days. The jar of meal is not emptied, neither does the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that was spoken by Elijah (vv. 15-16).
With God, a little goes a long way.
This is the promise that is made to us, as we strive to become an Uncommon Christian Community, one which extends hospitality and grace to all people. Like the widow of Zarephath, we have an opportunity to open our doors to strangers, and to share what we have. Like the prophet Elijah, we have a chance to trust in God’s abundance, and to believe that the LORD will meet our needs, even in difficult times.
One important element of this story is that neither the widow nor Elijah has a full experience of God’s goodness in isolation. The oil and grain meet their needs only when they come together, a prophet and a widow, an Israelite and a foreigner. Together, they form their own little “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7), and together they discover the amazing power of the one LORD God. “More than anything else,” writes Christine Pohl, an expert in hospitality, “vulnerable strangers need connections with other people.”
Because we too believe that we are better together than we are apart, we will gather next Sunday for a Town Hall Meeting, in Fellowship Hall at 10 a.m. This will be an opportunity for you to give voice to your interests and concerns, and to share ideas with the elders, Jessica, and me as we begin the process of finalizing the church budget. Since a budget is an important expression of our church’s vision and mission, we want there to be a match between your giving, our church’s priorities, and the will of God. We need each other to experience God’s goodness fully, so come join the conversation!
Christian hospitality is all about connecting people to God and to this community of faith, in a deep and meaningful way. It is a way of life that trusts that our resources will not be depleted, and that there will always be enough for all. It is an approach to life that brings people together, and fights the deadly threats of depression, loneliness, and friendlessness. It is a dimension of congregational life that can be truly life-saving.
So fill out the pledge card that was mailed to you, or pick up a blank card from the pew pockets. Return it on Palm Sunday, and plan on attending the Town Hall Meeting that day at 10 a.m. Attend a small group meeting today, and continue the conversation about how we can become a more welcoming church.
In all these ways, you will show that you want to make a place for hospitality. God will do amazing things with the gifts of time and talent and treasure that you offer.
A little will go a long way. Amen.
Michael Gerson, “Pulling loved ones out of the lure of suicide,” The Washington Post, March 3, 2010, A17.
Choon-Leong Seow, “Books of 1 and 2 Kings,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 127-130.
Christine D. Pohl and Pamela J. Buck, Study Guide for Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 39.