Sermon for November 19th, 2017
2 Kings 4:38-40
38 When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land. As the company of prophets was sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Put the large pot on, and make some stew for the company of prophets.” 39 One of them went out into the field to gather herbs; he found a wild vine and gathered from it a lapful of wild gourds, and came and cut them up into the pot of stew, not knowing what they were. 40 They served some for the men to eat. But while they were eating the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” They could not eat it. 41 He said, “Then bring some flour.” He threw it into the pot, and said, “Serve the people and let them eat.” And there was nothing harmful in the pot.
Stew(ardship): Elisha's Stew
Howard Bonneville was a generous man. His wife was much more, shall we say...frugal.
When the offering plate was passed each Sunday at church, Howard would reach into his wallet and pull out a one-hundred dollar bill. But before he could put it in the plate, his wife would snatch it from his hand and whisper to him, "Howard! A hundred dollars is a lot of money!" Then she would take a 20 dollar bill from his wallet and put it in the plate instead.
One day when the boy scouts were selling popcorn, Howard came home with one hundred dollars worth of popcorn. Sure enough, his wife chided him severely: "What were you thinking, Howard? A hundred dollars is a lot of money!"
On Howard's 80th birthday, he went with his wife to the county fair. One of the attractions was a fundraiser for the local VFW: A restored World War I Bi-plane that would take a passenger up in the air for a thirty-minute ride through the clouds. The price? You guessed it...one hundred dollars. Howard really, really wanted to take that ride. But his wife was dead-set against it. "A hundred dollars is a lot of money, Howard!"
The pilot of the airplane grew tired of listening their argument, and said, "Listen, you two, I'll make you a deal. I'll give you both a ride for free if you'll just shut up, and stay quiet for the whole flight. But if you speak even a single word, I'll charge you the $100."
Howard was elated, and this time his wife could hardly object on monetary grounds, so off they went. The pilot took his plane through banks and spins and loop-the-loops, and then did the whole thing over again. Amazingly, he never heard a single word. When the plane landed he looked back at Howard and said, "I'll have to admit I'm impressed. You never spoke once."
"Well," said Howard, "I was going to say something when my wife fell out of the plane, but... A hundred dollars is a lot of money!"
We are talking about money today, and so I sincerely hope none of you fall out of the plane, or your pew, for that matter. Seriously, though, this story illustrates the point that money is entirely relative. $100 may seem like a whole lot of money when it comes to something as trivial as a plane ride, an impulse purchase, or perhaps when the offering plate passes by you in church. And yet, when it comes to big picture things like life or death, personal safety, the cost of an education, or the well-being of our children...most of us would spend $100 or ten times that without even blinking an eye.
The way in which we allocate our resources, the way we decide which things are worth the $100 and which things are not--in church lingo, we call that "stewardship." And we are now in the midst of our annual stewardship campaign, where we remind our members of the promise they made when they joined this church to support it faithfully through their giving.
Incidentally (in case you were wondering), you don't even have to be a member to contribute! If you enjoy sitting here in this nice air-conditioned room on Sunday mornings, listening to some great music and some half-way decent preaching, or if you have benefitted in any way from the programs, the services, and the fellowship that our church provides, please know that those things all have a cost, and are made possible by your donations.
So last week, this week, and next week, we are talking about stewardship. The first four letters of "stewardship" happen to form the word "stew," and as we talk about giving this year, we are using the metaphor of stew (the kind you eat), in the lone three places in the Bible where the word "stew" actually appears.
Which brings us to today's passage in Second Kings. The central character in our story is the prophet Elisha. That's Eli-SHA, not Eli-JAH. Eli-JAH was the greatest prophet in Ancient Israel, and Eli-SHA had the misfortune of coming right after him, and despite some pretty amazing miracles, Elisha lives forever in the shadow of his great mentor and teacher, Elijah.
But the great prophet Eli-JAH, as best as I can tell...never made stew, and thus is disqualified from our sermon series. But Eli-SHA does. And that brings me to my first point about STEW-ardship. It's this:
There will always be someone greater than you, someone wealthier than you, someone who seems to have their life completely figured out. You can spend a lifetime wishing that you had as much to give as that person. You can even tell yourself that if you only had what that person has, THEN you would be able to really give.
Elisha could have done that, too.
He could have said, "look, there's no way I'll be able to give to Israel what Elijah gave, so why bother? I won't even try." Instead, Elisha gave what he had. It wasn't exactly a chariot of fire blazing through the heavens...it was just stew. But it fed some people, and saved some lives.
So don't let what other people give determine or diminish what you have to give. Just throw what you've got into the stew, and trust God to make it work out.
In verse 38, at the start of the story, we read that "When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land. As the company of prophets was sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Put the large pot on, and make some stew for the company of prophets.”
There was a famine in the land. Actually, there was a famine in the land for most of Elisha's ministry, and a significant number of his miracles had to do with feeding people when there wasn't enough food to go around. So that's our second point about STEW-ardship:
It is precisely in the times of famine that we most need to come together and make some stew. It is in our hardest, leanest, most challenging circumstances that we are most called to give generously, to take care of the company of those gathered around us.
Verses 39-40. One of them went out into the field to gather herbs; he found a wild vine and gathered from it a lapful of wild gourds, and came and cut them up into the pot of stew, not knowing what they were. They served some for the men to eat. But while they were eating the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” They could not eat it.
Wouldn't you hate to be that guy, the one who found the gourds that nearly killed everyone? He was probably relegated to clean-up duty for the rest of his life. But in a way, I get it--in a time of famine, you have to hunt far and wide for ingredients to throw into the stew. You have to be creative; you have to take risks, because the things you know, the things that used to work for you just aren't there anymore. Sometimes those new ingredients work and they save you...and then sometimes they don't, and they nearly kill you.
There's a great lesson here, too (number 3), although this one has less to do with you as individual givers, and more to do with us as a church, as a community that practices good stewardship of our resources. There is no doubt that our church--along with most churches today--is in a time of famine, and has been for the past twenty years, as fewer and fewer people in our culture attend church or give to the ministry of the church.
And so, like the one Elisha sent out to gather ingredients for the stew, we have to take risks and try new things, new avenues for giving, new ways to be a financially sustainable community. Some of those things might save us, and some of them might nearly (or actually) kill us. That's our reality.
But notice that Elisha does not punish or even criticize the man who brought back the gourds. Instead, we read in verse 41 that he simply said, "Bring some flour." And then he threw it into the stew.
This is the 4th point about stewardship. Elisha does not, cannot, solve the problem by removing what is bad from the stew. He solves it instead, by adding something more, by changing it once again, this time into something good.
I have known several people, who, unfortunately, when they have a bad experience in the church--they don't like something the pastor did or didn't do; they don't like some change in the music, or the color of the carpet--and so they reduce their giving, or stop giving altogether. They still attend, and continue to absorb and benefit from the ministries of the church, but they give less than they did before.
Now, this is not the same as someone who has a change in income or life circumstances, and so has to give less (that's completely understandable, and I've even counseled families to give less when there is need). No, this is someone who tastes something they don't like in the stew, and tries to fix it by withholding their contribution.
That doesn't work. It doesn't change the stew. All it does is starve the others who have faithfully thrown in their contributions. What does work? When the stew tastes bad (or deadly), Elisha doesn't subtract--he adds. The man of God throws something more into the stew, something good. He does it calmly, quietly, and faithfully.
So if an experience at First Presbyterian Church ever leaves a bad taste in your mouth...step up your game. Give more. Get more involved. Fix the problem by adding to the life of this community, not by subtracting.
The fifth and final lesson from today's scripture passage is the response of the people, the company of prophets. We read in the last verse that Elisha said, "Serve the people and let them eat.”
What happens next? "And there was nothing harmful in the pot." How do we know it wasn't harmful anymore? The clear implication is that they ate it...and they didn't die. But that's quite an act of faith. If you ate something that nearly killed you, and then someone threw in a little extra flour and said, "okay, try it now." Would you?
I think sometimes great hunger has a way of producing great faith. And we are hungry people. We hunger for community and relationship; for a place to be accepted and embraced. We hunger for deeper meaning and purpose in our lives; for a connection to the divine. We are hungry.
And so, in faith, we come to this place. We gather around this table. We throw whatever crazy ingredients we have to give into the stew that is First Presbyterian Church. And then...we eat it. Together. Again and again and again.
It's a great stew, and it will nourish you and help you grow. But if you stick around long enough, you'll eventually eat something that someone threw into the mix that makes you sick.
When that happens, may the spirit of Elisha and the prophets be upon you: Just throw some flour in the pot and come back to the table. Keep giving, keep coming, keep working, keep sharing...keep stewing.
And eventually, in the words of Deuteronomy 8:10, "When you eat and are full, you will GIVE THANKS to the Lord your God for the land and for all the good that he has given you."
People of First Presbyterian Church...Happy Thanksgiving. May we give thanks, and may we thankfully give.