Stewardship of Treasure
“Stewardship of Treasure”
A Sermon on Mark 12:41-44 & 1 Kings 17:8-16
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
October 27, 2019 – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ But she said, ‘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.’ Elijah said to her, ‘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.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 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.
I suspect that some of you may have not heard this story from 1 Kings before. Truth be told, it’s been years since I’ve heard it. It’s a story that foreshadows the miracles of Jesus, like turning water into wine or feeding the 5,000. In short, this story is about Elijah being sent to visit a poor widow and her son during what we can assume was a drought or famine. She tells him she only has a handful of meal and a few drops of oil, just enough to make one loaf of bread, eat it, and then die from hunger. But through Elijah, God makes this miracle: no matter how many times she scoops out flour or pours out oil, there is always enough. Enough to feed her and her son, and even Elijah while he visits. God provides.
And so I wonder how many of you have come to church today feeling like you’re also scraping the bottom of the barrel; like you’re running on empty and down to the last drop of oil. Perhaps you’re just tired and you need a vacation; perhaps bad health has you longing for any way out; perhaps your family or relationship or job has sucked dry every last drop of energy and goodness that you have to give; perhaps feeling “full” – whatever that means for you – is not something you’ve ever actually felt. Perhaps you got to church today and saw the bulletin labeled “Stewardship of Treasure” and thought “Good luck. All this time and talent talk has worn me out enough – I don’t have any more to give to the church of myself or my money.”
Beloved, I am here to tell you that all of those feelings are normal and understandable and at least as old as 1 Kings 17. I even feel them about ministry sometimes, and it’s my job to keep my metaphorical oil jug full so that I have plenty to pour out. Sometimes it feels like we are just scraping by. When you come to me for spiritual counseling, it’s almost always because you’ve dug deep and turned up with a handful of nothing. That feeling is when I seek counseling, too. And when you come to me with concerns about our congregation, it’s always fears about scarcity – not enough money, not enough volunteers, not enough new members, not enough young people, not enough sensitivity to people’s needs. Whether you’re anxious about personal stuff or church stuff or both, so many times our complaints center around one thing; call it not enough, call it scarcity, call it stewardship, call it exhaustion – what I call it is emptiness. What makes us truly fear is when we look into our jar and see nothing but a drop left. Empty.
My friends, I am here to tell you that emptiness may make us fear and think we’re at the end of the road, but God looks at our emptiness and sees something much different. God sees emptiness as an opportunity to fill us up with good things.
The widow of Zarephath had only a handful of flour and a few drops of oil? No problem – God can make that last til the drought ends.
The widow in our Gospel story only has two little coins to rub together? No problem – God calls that abundance.
We have no more energy or creativity or money or ideas? No problem – God can take the little we have left and make it last. God can fill up anything.
I found myself in the position of siding with a Southern Baptist Evangelist this week. If you know me at all, you know that’s not normally my thing. But last week, a well known Southern Baptist pastor named John MacArthur was asked what he thought about evangelist Beth Moore. If you don’t know Beth Moore, she’s a Baptist preacher, author, and conference leader. She hasn’t been to seminary and isn’t ordained, but she is widely published, and well thought of as a preacher in conservative evangelical circles – and she preaches, incidentally, mostly to women’s groups. If you haven’t heard of her, ask your Baptist friends – they probably have. And so when Rev. John MacArthur, who has been a minister for over 40 years and is revered in many faith circles was asked what he thought about Beth Moore, he said these words: “Go home. There is no case that can be made Biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion…There are people who have certain hawking skills – natural abilities to sell – that doesn’t qualify you to preach…The church is caving in to women preachers.” In the same discussion, Beth Moore was described by an all-male panel to be “narcissistic,” power hungry, and uneducated; entirely because she is a woman who dares to preach.[i]
And let’s be clear, when Rev. MacArthur tells Beth Moore to go home, it’s not like we tease each other in sports and tell the other team to go home because the game is over. Ever since women have been answering God’s call to preach, we’ve been told to go home because some people think that’s our place. And the worst part about this whole interchange is that Rev. MacArthur’s words were met with applause, laughter, and jeering. You could practically hear the backslapping. And the audio clip has gone viral among church folks. Needless to say, when the audio came out, it was a rough day for women in ministry, because we were once again put in the position of defending our very existence. And as rough as it is for those of us in traditions that have been ordaining women for years, it was probably a pretty humiliating day for Beth Moore. None of this is surprising, of course – John MacArthur is a theological bully and Beth Moore is often the focus of ire.
What did surprise me, however, is that as the dust began to settle this week, Beth Moore publicly reflected on a text from Scripture almost identical to the one we’re studying today. She mentioned the widow not from 1 Kings but from 2 Kings who had also run out of oil to feed her family, and she said this:
“Times come when there’s nothing left. Times when…the jar is bereft of a single drop of oil… There’s so much I don’t know. But 50 years with Jesus, of this I’m certain: he can fill up that bone-dry jar of yours…Because I’m just gonna tell you Jesus call fill stuff up like nobody I’ve ever known.”
Look, Beth Moore and I aren’t cut from the same theological cloth. I can’t recommend her writing and preaching to you across the board. But beloved, when faced with public humiliation, in this instance, she got online and preached truth: Jesus can take our bone-dry emptiness and fill us up.
God can pour oil out of nothing, make wine from water, and feed a multitude from one lunch. Even when we bring Jesus emptiness, he is powerful and kind and will make whatever we need. Hopefully none of us had the bad week that Beth Moore had, but we can still proclaim God’s abundance when we’re at our emptiest. So if you are down to your last drop, if you are bone-dry, if you are empty: take heart. God has made bread from nothing and will do it again.
I want to leave you with this word about Stewardship. If you came here today doubtful that another Stewardship campaign is going to work; if you come worrying that you don’t have any money to give; if you come certain that we’re just going to have to make more budget cuts; if come counting how many heads are getting grayer; if you come to church today determined to look into our oil jug and see emptiness – friends, you might not be wrong. I’m not going to tell you that God will prevent us from having challenges. But if you come to church thinking emptiness is the last word, then you are wrong.
Emptiness is awful - it's a part of brokenness. But in holy goodness, God takes our emptiness as excuse to fill us with good things: to make bread from nothing and wine from water and a feast from loaves and fishes. In the Christian life, emptiness is not a cause for despair but an opportunity for change. So this Stewardship season, I don’t want to hear our annual angst – God has been abundant with us in the past, more than we’ve even acknowledged. God will be gracious to us in our future, too. God can make bread out of nothing – think of what God can do with the generosity you show to this church.
You should have received a stewardship letter and pledge card this week in the mail. In the back of the sanctuary are pledge sheets for your time and talents, as well. As you spend the next few weeks filling these out, I invite you to do this: don’t look at the jar and just see emptiness. Don’t focus on what you lack. Focus on what you can offer to God. It may not feel like much compared to the need, it may feel like just two little coins, but God has spent generations filling up bone-dry jars. You may be in a position to offer more this year, or simply the same as years past. Either way, fill out those pledge cards with joy and abandon! God can do miracles with nothing. Just think what God may do when we offer all that we have.