[i]Some stories make best selling novels,
but we forget them two years later.
Others become blockbuster movies,
but in 6 months we cannot recall the plot.
Then there are stories like Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
This tale was being told hundreds of years before Jesus
– and here we are, thousands of years later
listening to it again today.
Such stories hold our attention through the ages because
they are deep and universal.
They say something vitally about important for our lives.
The widow of Zarephath had no earthly means of support.
Even in a good economy, she would have been poor.
But a terrible drought had stricken the land; so things were even worse.
She had just enough food left
to make one last paltry meal for herself and her child.
She planned to cook that meal, eat it, then die.
All she could think of was surviving one last day.
That may not sound like it applies to us.
But everyone is neurologically wired, while still in the crib,
to feel fundamentally vulnerable.
Just being ignored or disrespected,
triggers the same survival anxiety
in our brain stem as a threat to our life.
We need to know we are loved, appreciated, and respected.
So we are all trying to survive – financially, socially, emotionally –
one way or another, trying to get by.
Our Old Testament story takes a remarkable turn.
The widow has only enough food for her last meal.
Elijah says, “Give it to me,” and she does.
Her crazy generous gift blossoms into a miracle
as the food lasts long enough
to save them all.
We hear an echo of this story in John’s Gospel
when a little boy gives Jesus his five loaves and two fish
to feed a multitude.
The point is simple if we just dare to believe it.
When we devote our gifts
– material, social, intellectual, or what have you --
to our own survival, our own well-being --
we have just enough to scrape by.
We subsist on the edge of anxiety.
But when we forget about self-preservation
and give ourselves away,
we plunge into the abundance of life itself
and the miracle happens.
When we give God whatever we’ve got,
however small, however inadequate,
God multiplies it to serve others and sustain us
at the same time.
The tricky thing about plunging into abundant life
is that we can’t do it on our own.
Someone has to invite us.
If Elijah hadn’t dared to ask the widow
to give him her last meal,
it would have been her last meal.
But by imposing on her, by challenging her to be
absurdly generous, he saved her life.
Our job is to invite each other into God’s grace.
Who are we in this story? Perhaps we are bot
the widow and the prophet.
There is a legend that the Risen Lord
appeared to St. Thomas and told him
to take the gospel to India.
But Thomas refused; so Jesus sold Thomas
to a slave trader who took him to India
and sold him to a Raja.
Thomas was an architect by trade;
so the Raja gave him the task
of building for him the finest palace in India.
Thomas took from the Raja’s account,
the construction costs for a palace,
bricks and hiring masons,
he gave the money to the poor.
Every few months the Raja would ask for a progress report,
and Thomas would hit him up for more construction costs,
which he would again give to the poor.
Eventually, the Raja demanded to see his palace.
So Thomas explained, “Your majesty,
there was no place on earth worthy of a palace for you,
so I have given the money to the poor
in order to build you a palace in heaven.”
The Raja thought a moment and then replied,
“Oh I see. Thank you.”
Although I come to you from Las Vegas,
I am not recommending a course of sacred swindling.
But I do say this:
Life and joy do not flow when we are marshaling
our time, talents, thoughts, and attention
to advance our own interest.
Life and joy flow when we give ourselves away.
But that is such a counter-intuitive thing to do,
we need an invitation.
We need each other’s encouragement.
The best thing we can do for another person
is often to ask them for help.
And when someone asks us for help,
they are doing us a favor.
It is nothing less that the gift of God’s abundant life.
[i] This sermon for Pentecost 3 is for a Preaching Course I am taking at the Anglican Center in Rome.