Sunday, June 23, 2013

Unafraid to Act on the Unfailing Abundance of God

This is the last sermon I preached as a pastor of Deer Creek and Mt. Tabor United Methodist Churches. I have been so blessed to be their pastor, as you will see from the sermon. 

Scripture: 1 Kings 17:8-16 (NRSV)
Then the word of the Lord came to him, 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.

Sermon: Unafraid to Act on the Unfailing Abundance of God
In February of last year I was really feeling worn down. I had just finished working as a hospital chaplain and was already waist-deep into my last semester of seminary. Though I only needed one class to graduate, I took a full-load of classes because I'm crazy like that. One of the classes I took was the General Conference class which required me to leave school for ten days at the end of the semester to go to Florida, so I was spending a lot of time in and out of my other professor's classes trying to convince them that I wouldn't let leaving for ten days affect my finals work. I was also working two part-time jobs and trying to come home as much as I could to see Aaron. And on top of all this, I underwent the examination by our Board of Ordained Ministry in Ellicott City, a three day interview exam that covered paper work I had written over two years before.

And so, naturally, during this exam that was basically to determine whether or not I could be a pastor in the United Methodist Church, I kind of broke under all this stress. I was inarticulate, I cried, I got frustrated with those pastors asking the questions. And, though I passed the exam, I left feeling complete demoralized and just empty. Now, much of my struggle with the exam didn't come from the Board of Ordained Ministry itself but from this world of stress I lived in--- you know how that is? Like when you are stressed and someone says to you, “Are you wearing that?” and your mind immediately goes to them thinking you are fat rather than just they haven't seen you wear it for a while or it has a stain or something. I interpreted comments as disparaging that probably weren't meant to be that. But the result was that I had never doubted myself as a pastor more than after I took that exam. Frankly, despite having three years of school plus this denomination examination under my belt, I wanted to give up on becoming a pastor.

I went to Bosnia for spring break that March (I know kind of random, but I did), and, though I didn't talk to our District Superintendent about it first, I began talking to my friends over there and looking into summer programs to learn Bosnian. I began to pray that I would not be given an appointment after all. I prayed God would let me do something else with my life. I was tired.

And then I got a call from Rev. Dr. Karin Walker about coming to Deer Creek and Mt. Tabor. As soon as she said the names of these churches, this knot in the pit of my stomach, the frustration with my call, it all just dissipated. I was still nervous and a little uncertain, but that desire to run away was replaces with trust and a faint hope.

I hope that when I came all this turmoil within me was not terribly obvious. In reflecting on where I was when I accepted the appointment here last year, I felt a lot like I imagine the widow of Zarephath must have felt.

Now, I know that may seem ridiculous to some of you. I know nothing of the intense physical hunger this widow felt. I know nothing of her poverty. Though I do feel that some of my perceived issues with the exam had to do with the fact that I am young woman in a profession many still assume is just for older men, I know nothing of the oppression this widow faced. So, in spite of all this, I hope you don't feel I'm too presumptuous in seeing myself in this story. I recognize, and hope you do as well, that it is a story about how God lifts up the oppressed, sides with them: a story about how our own nourishment and survival really are caught up in our own hospitality to the least of these.1

But this is also a story about finding abundance in scarcity, and about living a call to trust in God that we don't always remember we have. Carol Cook Moore, a professor at Wesley, says that it is a story that asks us, “What keeps us going during 'lean' times? And how can we provide for others during their times of want?”2

Well, I felt like I was in lean times last spring. I felt stretched, hollow, and a little abandoned. I wasn't collecting sticks so I could go home and eat my last bit of bread before awaiting death, spiritual or otherwise. But I was ready to throw in the towel on this pastor thing. That is: until I came here, and from the first day, you surrounded me in love, and affirmed me at every turn--- even on weeks when my sermons were bad and the service went long and I made you sing all those new songs I falsely promised you were easy to learn. You affirmed me when I stumbled over prayers and you just squeezed my hand. And when I let bible studies get way topic, we still ended up learning a bit about God. If I was nervous about a hospital visit, you were just so grateful I was there that you reminded me that sometimes words don't matter as much.

I heard Elijah's voice in you, that voice that told me not to be afraid. The voice that told me that though I may feel scarcity and emptiness in my soul sometimes, God promises abundance.

You see, you showed me that God has given me gifts for ministry. Or perhaps more than that, you have made me become a pastor. You have heard before that your gift is teaching pastors, and it is true. You took a tired, nervous young woman who was frustrated with the church and even a little frustrated with God, and you turned her into a confident pastor who was just told recently, “Well, I don't think much of women pastors, but, you know, you're ok.” (In some circles that's a pretty big deal.)

It wasn't me who did this work of pastor-creating. That was God, God shaping me through your love, affirmation, and gentle corrections or suggestions. You showed me that if I stay in love with God and the church, then amazing things happen.

And so when I read this story in 1 Kings, it is my story of famine and abundance that I see alongside the widow and Elijah's story. So what about you? Can you see yourselves in this story? Have you had to face life after the loved one? Have you had to face life unemployed? Maybe your famine looked different. Maybe your famine was when you were a church of nine people, meeting faithfully through gritted teeth Sunday after Sunday. Maybe it was when as a church who lost a matriarch, the woman who made all things happen here? Have you felt the despair the widow felt?

I think we all have in one way or another. So I turn your words to me back to you this morning. “Do not be afraid.” You are good at change, unlike most people, and most of you have been through change many times before. As a church, you have had good experience with change--- yes, many of you hated to lose Pastor Bonnie, but then I turned out ok, so it wasn't a terribly devastating experience. But that doesn't make this next change any less scary.

Elijah knew your fear too, though. Before Elijah came to the widow, at the beginning of the seventeenth chapter of 1 Kings, he had been in hiding by a riverbed, where God sent ravens to provide him with food. When the riverbed dried up, God sent him to the widow. Elijah should have known that if God could feed him using birds, surely God could provide for him through this woman. But these is an interesting detail here: God says to Elijah, “for I have commanded a widow there to feed you,” but when Elijah asks the widow for food, she does not act as though God has commanded her to do anything whatsoever. If I were Elijah, I sure would be wondering around then about God's provision. One of the commentators I read for today, writes, “We cannot blame Elijah if he mutters to himself, 'I would rather trust the ravens than depend on the widow. Does God know what God is doing?'”3 But if Elijah felt that way, he didn't reveal it in his words to the widow. He just said to her: “Do not be afraid. God will provide.”

Now, Elijah didn't mean that God will provide in the prosperity gospel sense that if you just pray hard enough God will give you whatever you want. And that's not what I mean either. I don't think I'm done with second guessing God's call on my life--- I don't think many of us are safe from spiritual droughts. There may be droughts and lean times in the future, for all of us--- who knows? But God is with us. Elijah says to the widow of Zarephath, “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.” God will fill you with the nourishment you need--- and God? God will not fail.

So, since we know God will not fail, how will we reach out as the hands of God, to be Elijah's voice proclaiming God's abundance in spite of the uncertainty of it all, or to be the widow feeding a stranger in spite of her fear? This is our call today. So let us emerge from this place today, unafraid to act upon the unfailing abundance of God.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for this story of miracles
and ask that you help us perceive the miracles you work in our lives every day.
Deer Creek United Methodist Church June 23, 2013
And God--- give us the strength and courage to enact your miracles of abundance
everywhere we go, even in times of famine.
We pray this in the name of the abundant life
you have given us through your son Jesus. Amen.

Mt. Tabor United Methodist Church June 23, 2013
1Juliana Claassens, Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16, Working Preacher, 8 November 2009,
2Carol Cook Moore as quoted on Crossroads Worship Experience's Facebook Page, 17 June 2013.

3H. James Hopkins, Homiletical Perspective on 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24), Proper 5, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, vol. 3 Petecost and the Season after Petecost 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 101.