Sunday, November 22, 2009

Generosity is the Hallmark

1 Kings 17:8-16

Julianna Claasen, in reflecting on today’s text, wrote:
Sometimes God’s provision comes in the most unlikely of places and by means of the most unlikely of people. 1
Or, to put it another way, “God works in mysterious ways!”

The story of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath is a perfect illustration of this principle. Think about it, God sends the prophet, who is fleeing from the wrath of Queen Jezebel, to a foreign land to find shelter with an impoverished widow and her son. What is more, not only was this widow poor, she wasn’t even a worshiper of Yahweh. Being from Sidon, she would have been a worshiper of Baal, the same god worshiped by Jezebel. And yet, it was this most unlikely woman who provided food and shelter for a stranger, even though her resources were few. But in the midst of her scarcity, God found abundance.

There is another story about a widow. Although this story is a bit different, it also features a widow who gives sacrificially. In fact, she gives her last penny to the Temple. You may have heard this story before, but I’d like to read it. Don’t worry it’s brief: Read: Mark

He 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.’ (Mark 12:41-44)

As you listen to these stories, do you hear echoes in the words of our opening hymn?
Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home; all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin; God our Maker, does provide for our wants to be supplied; come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home
(Chalice Hymnal, 718)
Do you hear in these stories and in this hymn, a call to trust in God’s provisions and to give thanks for God’s abundance?

In both of these stories, there is the background of scarcity. The widow of Zarephath is facing famine and the other widow simply faces the reality that her resources have come to an end. Their stories are reflected in many stories of our day, for we live in difficult times – when news about foreclosures, job losses, climbing unemployment rates, dominate our conversations. This news is serious, and we shouldn’t take it lightly, but is there another word that we should hear at this time of Thanksgiving? Can we not pause to reflect on our abundance and give thanks for God’s provisions?

1. Seeing God’s Abundance

While it’s difficult to talk about abundance when the times are so stressful, can we not find signs of grace in our midst? The widow of Zarephath didn’t have much, but she did have some grain, some oil, and a few sticks of wood. As we see from the story, this was sufficient for her to be a blessing to a stranger – and in the end she was also blessed.

Over the past week or so, I’ve watched several of our members post daily words of thanks on Facebook. These words of thanksgiving are reminders that we have been blessed beyond measure. After reading these for several days, I even set up a discussion forum on our Facebook fan page so we could offer words of thanksgiving in a more public fashion. Not too many of you have visited this forum, but there’s still time to share our thoughts about God’s abundance.

When we look at the biblical stories, we find many examples of God’s provision for humanity, starting with the Garden and moving on to the manna God provided in the wilderness. There’s the feeding of the 5000 and this story of the widow who shared what she had with Elijah, and received God’s blessings as a result. We needn’t be Bill Gates, Oprah, or Warren Buffett to experience abundance, so the question is – what are the signs of God’s abundance in your life? Finding an answer to that question, requires that we look at our lives prayerfully.

2. Generosity as a Way of Life

This biblical story reminds us that we can find abundance in the least expected places, but it also encourages an attitude of generosity. In the devotional readings for this week the message is one of generosity as a hallmark of one’s life – a message reflected in the title of this sermon. Therefore, as we hear this call to be generous with God’s abundant grace, we also hear a call to bring in and dedicate our pledges of support for the ministries of this church. We do this for at several reasons.

First, we give to the church as a sign of commitment to living in a covenant community of faith. If we wish to have a place to worship and serve, then it will take money to pay the bills – including salaries, utilities, and program costs. If we are to be a missional church then the church must have financial viability. Therefore, each of us must decide, prayerfully, how much should be given for this work.

Second, we take the offering in worship as a sign of our gratitude – because as the Psalmist puts it: “The Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 100:5). Yes, God has blessed us with every good and perfect gift, and so we respond by returning a portion to God’s house.

Third, by making these pledges and bringing in these offerings, we recognize that everything belongs to God and that we have given access to it as a trust from God. Or, as Mark Powell puts it: biblical stewardship is about “giv[ing] all to God by letting Jesus Christ be lord of who we are and what we have.”2 Yes, by making these gifts through the church we affirm God’s lordship over our lives – including our money. I think we can all agree that it’s difficult to let go of our finances. That’s why some people attach strings to their giving, even in death. But by putting those funds into the plate, we give up control. Yes, we trust they’ll be used wisely, but once we let go, those funds no longer belong to us.

Now, I don’t talk much about amounts or percentages, because I believe this is a decision that must be guided by God’s Spirit, as we prayerfully consider what to give. In this I tend to follow Paul’s lead. He doesn’t talk amount or percentage – instead he talked about cheerful and proportionate giving. In his second letter to the Corinthian church he writes:

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly, will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).

I believe this word is sufficient guidance – some among us will give more sacrificially than others – but my hope is that we will all recognize God’s abundance, and respond accordingly.

3. Offering a Word of Thanksgiving

Because this is not only the final day of our stewardship campaign, but it is also a day of Thanksgiving, I want to close with a word from Jimmy Carter that I have returned to on more than one occasion. He writes:

Almost every day is filled with opportunities to be grateful. When we wake up in the morning, when we meet a friend, when someone lends us a hand, when one of our children or grandchildren expresses love, when we go to a job that is gratifying, when an unanticipated opportunity arises, when we see a beautiful sky, or when we have any kind of exciting experience – all of these are opportunities to give God the credit and acknowledge God’s greatness. It’s a good habit to develop.3

As the story of Elijah’s visit with the widow reminds us, we can never know exactly how blessings will be shared, but God’s steadfast love endures forever – and in that promise there is hope for tomorrow.

As we pause to give thanks, let us remember an occasion where blessings were shared and received. Just a few weeks back, as we hosted SOS, I know that many of you were blessed, as were those who received care during that week. I know that many who stayed here were grateful for the blessings of meals and beds. Some expressed their thanks quite openly. Others, were quiet. After all, it’s not easy being in such a difficult situation. But I did hear words of thanks from them. I also heard words of thanksgiving from those who served as volunteers for the blessings they received in their opportunity to serve.

Therefore, on this day of thanksgiving, may we give thanks for the abundance of God’s blessings that never end.


2. Mark Allan Powell, Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life, (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 77.

3. Jimmy Carter, Sources of Strength: Meditations on Scripture for a Living Faith, (New York: Times Books, 1997), pp. 168-169.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Thanksgiving Sunday
November 22, 2009

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