We Are Sufficient! (1 Kings 17:1-16; Hebrews 13:1-9; Matthew 6:25-33)
As I have said, I abandoned the lectionary texts of the morning, which were good ones by the way, after I was well along in the preparation process. I did it because today is our annual meeting, and it is an annual meeting in which we are facing some pretty big changes brought about by my retirement from the seminary. Our proposed budget, for example, is less than 72% of what it has been for over a decade. We have known, down deep of course, since we first started the seminary project that this day would come. And it is here. The question that is important, it seems to me, however, is only marginally financial. What will this time of change mean for us? How will we deal with it? What will it do to our personality as a congregation? What will our attitude be going forward? All this made me want to say some things that I’ve been thinking about, and consider important in regards to where we are today. (Visitors will have to make of all this what they will, although I hope there are some helpful insights for you, too.)
I will only take a few moments to talk about the three texts that are the underlayment for today’s comments. The Old Testament lesson consists in the opening two pieces of a long section from 1 Kings 17-2 Kings 10 that reflects on life in the kingdom of Israel in about the late 9th century BCE. After Solomon’s death, what had been one nation divided into two: the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom which kept the name of Israel. The Hebrew Bible, for the most part, favours the southern kingdom, in part, because it continued under a king descended from David and continued to worship in the temple Solomon, David’s son and heir, built in Jerusalem. Those in the north did neither because they found God’s will in neither. The result is that the Book of Kings describes every northern monarch with the word “evil,” which has been misread to mean “morally defective,” as it does in English. What the Hebrew word actually connotes is “diverging (from a norm) in a harmful way.” Some of the northern kings were quite good politically and economically (better than their southern counterparts as it happens). The stories that begin in 1 Kings 17, however, do not deal with kings and queens other than as set pieces for the work of the two prophetic giants Elijah and Elisha.
Most importantly this morning, these two stories say that God tended and cared for Elijah here, first by giving him ravens and a brook to support him. When that didn’t work anymore, God provided a human helper in the person of a widow from a place called Zarephath, who only had a little, but who shared what she had. The story was reflected on as a parable for faithful people. And we may read it so. Pretty much the default action of people in both the ancient and contemporary worlds when they are faced with having only a little, is to clutch the more tightly onto the little they have. It is when we understand that, with God, the little is sufficient, that we can relax our tight grip on our little resource and be generous. Let me say it again, with God, little is enough. It is sufficient! That’s what this non-traditional family of the prophet, the widow, and her son learned together. The widow’s little jar of meal lasted and the jug of oil was sufficient for their needs. There was no need to be stingy and tight-fisted, God’s provision was and is enough.
The Lesson from Hebrews 13 contains short bits of advice to the congregation(s) addressed. The words begin: “Let mutual love continue.” “Love,” remember, in the biblical world is not simply a feeling you feel when you feel like you’ve never felt before, it’s an action on behalf of others. It’s taking care of the other and having the other’s back. And this action is “mutual,” “reciprocal.” When we take care of one another, and even strangers, we take care of all humankind, and might even tend to angels. Also, “Take care of your leaders.” We all are a part of one another. One of the most common phrases in church lingo today for a minister who is the only clergy in a congregation is “a solo pastor.” There ought never be such a one in any congregation. We are not alone. There is no solo-anything if we get it right. I think of John Donne’s 17th century meditation that contains the famous lines,
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII, 1624)
The Gospel comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a collection of his teaching from all across his ministry that Matthew gathered into one place. The lesson teaches that disciples of Jesus may approach life open-handedly, generously, and without worry, because God gives enough – a sufficiency – for the day and the hour. God’s people need to learn to help one another accept God’s providence, and treat others as generously as God does.
How do all these words from various places across the scriptures speak to our small congregation facing, at least, short-term diminishing resources, smaller numbers, etc. And those two words “at least” are important. It may be that we have to learn to live permanently with less. In sum, these passages urge us to realign our thinking, not to focus on what we don’t have, but on what we do. They urge us to think of things not in terms of scarcity, but of sufficiency and even abundance, because God is a God of sufficiency and even abundance.
After I started thinking about all this, I read a recent article in the little newsletter that MMBB (our denominational retirement board) publishes called “Tomorrow.” The article contained words in it from as diverse places as Dr. Amy Butler, minister of prestigious Riverside Church in New York City (an ABC Congregation by the way), and Rev. Phineas Marr (who some of you will know), minister of the slightly less prestigious First Baptist Church of Kenosha. Their words came to me at just the right time to help my thinking. The title of the piece was “Moving Beyond Scarcity to Sufficiency – How Much is Enough?” put together by Margaret Marcuson. The article seems aimed at professional ministers, but it contains much for all of us to ponder – especially in times like these.
We are living in a time of great cultural change and that is mirrored in church-life. People often mistake change for something else, and, as Amy Butler says, “Every time something familiar changes, we flip out.” All kinds of people are saying that the church is dying. Well, it isn’t. Local churches may be, but the church isn’t. It is changing. It is true that many churches have fewer people in the pews than they used to, and fewer resources. Butler said, even growing churches that seem to have people with money have trouble meeting their budgets. And when we don’t have as many people or as many resources, if we’re not careful, the attitude of scarcity weasels its way (again, Amy Butler’s words) into our corporate life. We hang on fiercely to things. We start getting un-generous. We start thinking that if we don’t hold onto it we’ll go out of business. It’s hard to take care of one another, or live in gratitude to a generous God the attitude we have is in survival mode. In my view, survival mode is the quickest way to die. Grasping for survival shuts down creativity and makes risky mission (the very quality that congregations need to thrive) impossible because they’re too worried about saving money for someday or worried about trying something that might fail. If we’re afraid of failure, we’ve failed already.
It is my view that many folk out in the world have learned the lesson of generosity more than folks inside some churches. This is where I think the folks at First Baptist are ahead of most. We have never been a so-called “wealthy congregation,” and I think that has made many folk here grateful people who are willing to share selflessly. I have listened to stories of the past when people shared their own coal to heat the church building. And most of you know of that delightful little note that I discovered in the church record book at one end-of-year reckoning back at the end of the 19th century, that said, “the balance on hand at the end of the year was ten cents, thanks be to God.” When the budget or the numbers go down and the age goes up, how can we and keep from getting into a scarcity-mode of thinking and stay in a mode that says “It’s enough, it’s sufficient.” Thanks be to God?
First, I would take a point that Marcuson makes in her article. We need to name the reality and accept it as it is. Amy Butler reminded the folk at Riverside Church (yes, even there), that there are fewer people in the pews on Sunday than 50 years ago. That is not failure, that is a fact. We need to understand that’s the way it is in many places and understand that the worst thing we can do with that information is to beat ourselves up with all the stuff we’re doing wrong. “We worship a God who is bringing life out of death; ever creating.” What opportunities for renewal and ministry does our smaller size provide? How do we understand that we don’t have to wait for more or better or richer, but that we are sufficient because God has gifted us with the grace to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our community? We need to think about that. It’s also an old story, but we do need to think how blessed our situations are both globally and historically. Compared to others, we really do have enough. Most of us eat every day and sleep in warm places, and have people who touch our lives every day with grace. It is enough. It is sufficient. Thanks be to God!
Next, we can look at what we really need, rather than what we’ve always assumed we did. We can be creative in our simplicity. Then, we can look at our church life and simply (maybe bull-headedly) resolve to continue to be generous as a spiritual practice. The practice of regular giving, of turning loose of something of mine that I value, teaches me to loosen the grip of scarcity and move beyond the fear that there’s not enough.
Last, we can look at one another in this wonderful community of faith at West and Main with the eyes of sufficiency. It’s easy to look at one another and see what we’re not, what we don’t have and can’t do. What we need to resolve to do is to look at one another and see what and who we are, and what we can do in our communities. We can’t take on all the ministry in the world, but we can do some things. We need to work away at accepting ourselves as we are. God loves us that way, thankfully. When we do that, we will make room for more creativity and for more “out of the box” mission thinking.
Today, before we even get to our annual meeting and look at things like budgets and all that, I want to celebrate our many resources – your faithfulness in support, your use of this facility for mission, and your unstinted commitment to this place as a sacred space. We are enough, our people are enough, we have enough, and our God is enough.
In the name of that sufficient God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.