Small Money and Biscuit

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44

We have a penny and a biscuit. This is what we have to work with and then we are finished. The widow in Mark’s Gospel has the equivalent of a penny (year of inflation value not noted in my translation). The widow of Zarephath has a bit of flour to make a cake. The cake is made of oil and flour…so I am calling it a biscuit. Cake sounds too bourgeois, too fluffy. We have a penny and a biscuit

We will eat the last biscuit and die. These words by a woman who is at the end and are stated quite directly.

Elijah, the prophet who announced the drought in the first place, then assures her that she need not be afraid but that the God of Israel has promised that the oil and flour will be replenished until the rain returns.
Does she know who Elijah is? Does she worship the God of Israel? I don’t know you or your God but, “ok, sure….we’ll go for it.” Not sure if that is faith or resignation. Ah, what the h**l it, nothing to lose.

The prophet—or random guy Elijah—makes a request and…

15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

As an interpreter I must ask—What is the purpose of this story? Well, it continues the trajectory of God’s engagement with a people and a leadership that doesn’t follow God’s way. You may remember that God was not in favor of setting up the kingly political system in the first place. In particular, in the chapter before we read that the new king Ahab wasn’t starting off well.

We read, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all of the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33b) . Mmm, not a great start. Notable, yes…good?… leaves a little to be desired. “Did more to provoke the anger of the LORD”…yikes. Because of this, God sends the prophet Elijah to declare that there will be a drought. Elijah then flees (tough luck being the bearer of such terrible news) and lives by a wadi as a source of water. A wadi is a temporary stream in the desert and God delivers food morning and evening by ravens. Specifically, the ravens bring bread and meat. Which is good because it helps him survive but made me grimace when I thought about how that would work practically. Little dirty raven claws holding meat…likely not wrapped…

The water source then dries up and Elijah leaves hiding (because I guess ravens can’t deliver water? You know—it’s the claws, water is tricky. They can’t grasp water?…wasn’t this a miracle already?, couldn’t God just rig up a little water pitcher?) Whatever the reason, Elijah goes looking for water. Which brings us to the widow. The prophet asks for water—which is presumably in short supply and she obliges. He then asks for food as well (since the ravens can’t come into town?) The famine has gone on long enough that the widow is down to her last bit of food. Now as a widow with a child this dire situation likely would happen sooner than for others, however, the drought has apparently already been taking its toll.

A few observations or questions may be in order. Firstly, the sins of a leader or leaders can lead to great suffering—I was at an event at the Middle East Institute on Thursday and the situation of civil war in Yemen and US support Saudi bombing and the dire famine in which millions are starving or on the brink of starvation was discussed. While the answer isn’t clear the negative results of the actions of leaders is quite clear.

Secondly, the question of God’s action—perhaps culpability—in this suffering is raised. Diving into the philosophical and theological tangle is not what I plan to attempt this morning, but this passage made me wonder about day 2 after this story for all of the other widows. If this widow had one more meal and then nothing what about all of the others?
Speaking of widows in dire straits who give in noteworthy and sacrificial ways….across town and x number of years later…

We see Jesus in the temple.

Beware of the leaders who wear fancy cloths, are respected, have the best seats, consume the needy, and as show, pray long. He doesn’t actually say, “don’t be this way” but watch out for them. Though one can imply that this path is a risk—Jesus-wise. Don’t be caught. Don’t be fooled! He asserts that they will receive “greater condemnation.”

After this exhortation they sit down to watch the offering plate station. In this, the wealthy give large sums and then a poor widow gives the equivalent of a penny. (Incidentally, last Sunday before I knew this was a the passage, I discovered that there was a penny hidden behind the pulpit covering—it is of so little value I didn’t even pick it up…still here). So Jesus and his people are hanging out, loitering even (hang out like it was a mall in the 90s—See Dream Cities for an interesting discussion of malls), and checking out what people are giving. Jesus then notes that this destitute and vulnerable woman has given more. More?! If we watch closely, he doesn’t say anything negative about the large sums—though this is the impression. It is the impression because of the comparison and praise for the other party, the widow. This impression of implicit critique is also because of the passage just before. The feeling is that some of the large sums are able to be given because the ostentatious “scribes” have not only done their religious duties for show but have devoured the widows’ houses.

Their wealth is based on their exploitation of others. Was this particular widow impoverished due to her wealth being consumed? We don’t know. Perhaps she is simply part of a class of people who are stripped of their means of survival. While the main point of Jesus’ teaching is about motivation in religious actions there is a subtle (or not so subtle) economic critique in Mark. [1] It is not only the action and teaching of Jesus that matter but the text—the literary structure, flow, and rhetorical jabs matter as well.

Implicit in this is the economic critique but there is the explicit teaching as well. The gift of this destitute widow, though small—nay paltry—this gift given in this way was the greater gift.

Now this is not a sentimental “it’s the little things that count.” It is not an inspirational poster nor a Hallmark card with a kitten nuzzling something…anything! No, Jesus’ point was that giving that hurts (or is sacrificial) is better. But even that may be a tired moralism.

Giving that hurts somehow means more than the more “effective” big gifts. The rich young ruler in the Gospels gets generally affirmed—“You’ve done all the correct requirements, which would include the correct religious donations, but now go sell everything and give it away. Or Luke, the sermon on the plane—“blessed are the poor.” This is what Liberation Theologians called God’s preferential option for the poor. The widow who is poor amidst the wealth of those who disposed her—the widow and her tiny gift has given the greater.

Now it is fine for Jesus to say this. He isn’t the leader who is trying to repair the temple roof. It is fine for Jesus, he isn’t tasked with figuring out a budget. Those of us who do this institutional work very much appreciate this sort of gift. A smallish non-profit that I work with got a surprise $750,000 gift a year or so ago. The widow’s penny is great but….you gotta love a large bequest.

Which is the reality that James is addressing—don’t show favoritism to the wealthy who might become your benefactors.

Whether we try to or not and whether or not it is appropriate, we tend to identify with one character or set of characters. Because of our competitive or perhaps judgmental inclinations we quite likely engage with this text from what might be called a “distorted Jesus” vantage. We may watch how or if people give and think “well that’s interesting (of course not thinking it interesting in the curiosity sort of way but using this as a jab)…that’s interesting, it doesn’t look like they gave anything. (Of course, having the online giving option now sows some doubt in such judgments.) We may also feel some degree of identification with the scribes that get such a tough word from Jesus—are we devouring? Are we doing this only for show?

A problem with Jesus is that he, at least as recorded in the Gospel literature, is very definitive in knowing peoples’ motives. Jesus knows that this is all the widow has and that she is giving it in a laudable way. This is different than my anxious self-assessment. Am I up here preaching because I like the sound of my voice or because I have a call from God and the community to do this work? Am I distressed that the number of people here on a Sunday has decreased because I care deeply about proclamation of Jesus’ Gospel of Peace through word and deed on this particular location or am I distressed because it makes me feel like a failure as a leader?

Is Jesus inviting us to perpetual internal assessment? Are my motives pure? Is the percentage of my income given high enough? What if I get it wrong? What if we fail?

Kierkegaard’s leap of faith would seem to apply to the question of belief. Can it also be used to these more “applied” matters? What if—at least for those of us who tend toward introspection or self-doubt—what if we got over ourselves and got on with the simple things, the basics?

As a movement or organizational worker, I would much rather have someone give with wrong motives than get stalled or over-think it and not give at all. Motivation counts but if you are asking if your motivation is correct you are probably on the right track. Jesus wants us to be swept up in the Kingdom of God. Swept up not squashed down by perpetual self-reflection or doubt.

Being caught up in the work of God we may then be like the widow. The widow is swept up in the work of God. Those two copper coins—a penny worth, what I didn’t even bother to pick up from behind the pulpit drapes. All that she has is given to the worship and work of God. All that she has isn’t, at least on its own, all that useful. The power of God is seen in the widow. May we be like the widow. May we be like the women who lost everything and still gave.

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine (or, There Will Be Leftovers)

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

I ate a lot of leftovers this past week, while Nate was away at National Youth Conference. These leftovers were not, however, a sign of desperation or scarcity; they were a sign of abundant love. I had three types of leftovers. The first was a batch of smoked hamburgers that Nate made right before he left—where he showed love by cooking for me as a celebration/date night. The second was a frozen sweet potato and quinoa stew made by my neighbor. She had brought it by for us shortly after we came home from the hospital with Ayuba, just as many of you church folks cooked or provided gift certificates for us to ease our transition into parenthood. We ate a ton and then froze a container, which I utilized this past week. The third batch of leftovers was a gift from Faith K. this week, which she froze from a big pot of stew made for her family. She delivered this to me during my week of single-parenting a newborn. Faith knew that I would need both company (that she and Francis provided) and help feeding myself as I feed my tiny human. A week full of leftovers was a week where I felt held and cared for, even though it was a difficult and exhausting week. These leftovers meant love and community in abundance.

In two scriptures that we read today, leftovers are an act of God. We see people bringing small offerings to a prophet and to Jesus to be used by them. In both circumstances, God takes the small gifts and multiplies them beyond imagination. And there are leftovers.

Our third passage is from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. I think that all three passages can speak to our community’s present state here at Washington City Church of the Brethren. We see that what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. We see that our offerings, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  

There Will Be Leftovers

Our first passage involves the prophet Elisha. Elisha was the protégé of the prophet Elijah. Yup, their names sound the same in English. Eljiah’s name means “My God is Yahweh” while Elisha’s name translates as “My God is salvation.” In 2 Kings 2, the two prophets are traveling. They both know that Elijah’s time on earth is almost up and that Yahweh will come for Elijah. As such, Elisha will not leave Elijah’s side. Elisha asks for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit to carry on the prophetic ministry and the elder prophet says, “That’s a hard thing to ask. But if you see me when I’m taken up, then it is granted to you.” A few moments later, chariots and horses of fire whisk Elijah away in a whirlwind, leaving only his cloak behind. Elisha sees all of this, tears his own clothes in mourning, and takes up the cloak (or mantle) of Elijah. (This is where the phrase “take up the mantle,” meaning role or responsibility, comes from).

Fast forward a few chapters and a few miracles later to our passage, when a man brings an offering to Elisha. The man brings “twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some new heads of grain” (2 Kings 4:42). The Israelites were commanded to give to God from the “first fruits” or first harvest. Tithes and offerings in the Mosaic Law were typically agricultural produce and these often went to sustain the priesthood and prophets. As such, it wasn’t an abnormal thing to bring loaves of bread to a religious worker. Someone brought me bread this week – but it’s just because I have a newborn, not because I’m a pastor and she grew the grain.

Elisha instructs the man, “Give these breads to the people and let them eat.” Elisha’s servant is dumbfounded: “how can 100 people eat from these little breads?” A commentary explains that these are not the beautiful big loaves that we are likely picturing. They are small and flat breads, more like pitas, probably. Twenty pitas are not enough for 100 people. But Elisha ignores this and says, “Give it to the people. They’re going to eat and there will be leftovers.” The bread then gets passed around. The 100-person group eats heartily and, just as the prophet predicted, there are leftovers.

In our gospel passage, we meet Jesus and the disciples in Galilee. Jesus crosses the lake and the crowds follow, since he is healing the sick. Jesus and his disciples head up a mountainside and they sit down. Scores of people are around them, waiting to see Jesus teach and preach and heal. Jesus looks at the crowd and asks Philip, one of his disciples, “Where can we get enough bread to feed these people?” Philip is incredulous – Jesus is the person who has said the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. He doesn’t really go buy groceries, either. They rely on the hospitality of others and have little money… buying bread for thousands of people? Philips replies that the question is unthinkable and says, “Bread for these people would take more than half a year’s wages—200 days’ worth (200 denarii)!” Philip can’t even think about where to get the bread. He’s in sticker shock over how much money it would cost.

Another disciple, named Andrew, comes forward and tries to be as helpful as he can: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus responds by saying, “Sit everyone down.” All 5000 men and also likely many women and children. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks for it, and distributes it to those who are seated, giving them as much as they want. He does the same thing with the fish. When everyone has eaten their fill, Jesus instructs the disciples, “Gather the up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” They do as Jesus asked instructs and they fill up twelve baskets with the leftover barley loaf pieces. In the Kingdom of God, there will be leftovers.

This sign (and many other miracles of Jesus) reference and echo the miracles of the prophets of old, like Elisha, and surpass them. Elisha fed 100, while Jesus feeds thousands. The crowds recognize that God is at work in Jesus, even if they generally miss the point of his messages. V. 15 says that Jesus withdraws, knowing that the crowds would try to make him king by force. This isn’t the type of response that Jesus is looking for.

While these passages speak to both who Elisha and Jesus were, they also provide a message for us. Some pita breads and some fish can go a long way in the Kingdom of God. Sisters and brothers, what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance and wholeness.

More than you can ask or imagine

Our passage in Ephesians is one of superlatives. It’s kind of like Paul is gushing about what God does—not that that is a bad thing. Paul uses one big run-on sentence in the Greek and prays for the early church. He thanks God and prays that they would, out of God’s glorious riches,” be strengthened in their inner beings with Holy Spirit power. Paul prays that they would be strengthened and, concurrently, be rooted and grounded in love. He prays that not only would they be rooted and grounded in love, but also that they would have the power (emphasizing power again) to comprehend, with all the sisters and brothers, the magnitude and pervasiveness of Jesus’ love. The breadth, the length, the height, and the depth—to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And to be filled with all the fullness of God. As if all that isn’t a beautiful and moving enough prayer, Paul’s benediction closes giving God the glory, “to him who by the power [power again] at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). This phrasing stands out for me and has for the past few years. The power of God is at work within us and through us and can accomplish more than we could ask or imagine… abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine.

This passage in Ephesians is one of my favorite because it reminds me that the Creator of the Universe is at work. The One who raised Jesus from the dead is at work. We can offer what we have, even if it isn’t much, and trust that God can do abundantly more than what we ask or imagine. It reminds me to hope and trust in the One who is bigger than both all my fears and my hopes.

Little Congregation, Big Things

What we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  As you all know, we’re a small church. Despite our smallness, we were able to run the Brethren Nutrition Program, our soup kitchen lunch ministry. I remember some BNP guests saying with an incredulous, “Some of these big churches don’t do anything but you all are small, and you can put this on!” With BNP, we offered what we had and that offering was joined by volunteer labor, generous helpings of donated vegetables and bread from Eastern Market area vendors, and the gathering up of fragments from restaurants in Northern Virginia (the Oakton Church of the Brethren’s food reclamation efforts). We offered what we had and God provided, blessed, and multiplied what we gave.

We’re still in our post-BNP discernment and we’re examining how we can faithfully and effectively witness to Jesus’ way of reconciliation and love. We’ve been asking, “How can we serve our neighbors? How can we reach out? How do we invite? How do we build upon the gifts and strengths that we have within our church community?” These questions have not yet been answered; they’re an ongoing dialectic and discernment.

The two disciples in our gospel passage illustrate two different ways of responding to Jesus’ call on our lives and our community. Philip couldn’t wrap his head around Jesus’ request to brainstorm food for 5000. Philip shut down that conversation—there’s no way we can pay for that. Andrew, on the other hand, didn’t understand what Jesus was going to do but he still scrounged up the meagre resources he could find.

Are we Philip or are we Andrew? How do we perceive the opportunity to transform our ministry? Do we shut down and end the conversation? Perhaps we think about the ministry of this church and the task of outreach and caring for our community as overwhelming. That’s too big for us. We could never do that. How much money would it cost? How are we going to find the people to run it? We don’t know where to start…

Or, do we see an opportunity to give even what little we can scrounge up and trust that Jesus can use it? Well, I have interest in books. I have love for gardening. You know how to fix bicycles. You play music. Etc. etc. What are our gifts and strengths as a church? What do our individual people bring as assets and potential strengths to our ministries? What are our interests, skills, talents, and resources that we can offer? What are our community’s needs?

We are called to make disciples, to invite people into this Jesus-led journey of radical love, nonviolence, hospitality, mercy, and peace. The Andrew approach would be to look at what we already have to offer to Jesus. What are the resources that you can scrounge up? What talent, gifts, and interests do you already have, resources that we can use to build up this church and its ministry to the world around us? I invite you to commit to regular prayer with me about our ministry, for God to reveal what we have to offer, what we can give for God to bless and multiply—so that there will be leftovers, beyond what we ask or imagine.

What little we offer to God can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  AMEN