November 16, 2012

Bring Me a Morsel

I love it when familiar readings say something completely new to me.

That’s what happened earlier this week, when I browsed the lectionary to see what sort of message might jump out at me as the season of annual financial commitment is moving toward its conclusion. In this week’s alternative reading from the 1 Kings, I found a richness of themes that made me glad the passage will come around again in another three years.

Today, I’m choosing to focus on how both the surrender to scarcity and the miracle of abundance seem to be lacking in passion. Listen to the widow’s words, as she responds to Elijah’s request for a morsel of bread:

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.

Not a hint of self-pity. Not a word of appeal. It is a simple fact that she has run out of resources. She is at the end of her stores. She and her son will eat the last of what they have, and they will die.

By the same token, when the meal and oil miraculously carry not just the widow and her son, but the entire household through the drought, through to the time when rain falls on the land, there is no celebration, no gratitude, no acknowledgement of the power of the Lord. Where is the leaping and praise that we see in Jesus’ healings? Where is the thank offering? Where is the conversion from “as the LORD your God lives,” to realizing that surely Elijah has come to her from a God who desires a relationship with her?

They ate well and didn’t die.

The end.

I want more.

I want the widow of Zarapheth to understand how offering what she had was transformed into having what she needed. I want her to be filled with the same sense of wonder and possibility I experienced a few weeks ago at our diocesan convention.

In the pre-convention “Stewardship Toolbox” workshop, I invited clergy and lay leaders to spend an unscripted hour offering whatever was on their minds, in any area of financial or non-financial stewardship. As a community, we shared our experiences, asked questions, explored possibilities, and offered insights our own and one another’s expressions of stewardship ministry.

One participant captured the imaginations of everyone gathered when she introduced herself as a lay leader from one Maine’s most isolated and impoverished coastal communities. She beamed as she shared her tiny congregation’s success in transforming the time and talent of a largely unemployed or retired population into the funds the church needs for operations and mission by serving meals to the study groups that frequent the area. She burst with joy when someone asked her what sort of income this ministry generated, “We work with donated food, so the whole $400 per meal supports the church! We are even working toward the possibility of a part-time priest!”

This is a community that could very easily have baked a cake from the last bit of meal and quietly faded into the decline of mainstream denominations and the ever-steeper struggle to remain viable in an unsustainable economy. It happens all the time, in small rural communities and formerly thriving urban neighborhoods. We read about it in the press and study it in ecumenical gatherings.

But not here. Not on this widow’s watch.

I watched in awe as the Holy Spirit moved through our gathering, as the light in her eyes jumped like a flame of Pentecost to catch in the imaginations of her fellow lay leaders. I saw wheels turning as people processed the conversation, relating her story to the possibilities in their congregations. I saw the usual boundaries geography and socio-economic difference melted as ideas bounced around and questions and suggestions fed into one another.

And yet for all her success, this lay leader shared in the same question that challenges all of us: How do we inspire people to give? How do we conduct an annual pledge drive when we are asking not for money, but for the time, talent, effort, and dedication to transform that which we have into that which we need? How do we engage the transformative power of creative abundance?

And there we find another lesson in our reading: Ask.

Elijah is hungry. He needs a drink of water and a morsel of bread. When the widow explains that she can’t, what does Elijah say? “Do it anyway.”

When it comes to resourcing our parish from the abundance (or scarcity) in our community, asking for what we want can open an array of unforeseen opportunities.

So what if this church were to invite an ingathering of time pledges? Talent pledges? Effort and Dedication pledges? What gifts and graces might we discover if people were to “commit ___ hours to the mission and ministry of St. Swithin’s, to be given ___ weekly ___ monthly” just like we traditionally do with our financial pledges? Where might we see vitality bubble up when lay leaders are equipped with a treasury of time, time that will be transformed into whatever is needed for mission and ministry to thrives?

How would the fruits of such an ingathering be celebrated in the offertory? What would the invitation and dedication look like when we lift up what we can accomplish, as a community, with what we have to work with, as people of faith?

How might such a jar of meal not be emptied, nor such a jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord?

This blog originally appeared on the mainestewards blog and is reprinted with permission.