Sermon delivered at the All Assembly Banquet of the 2018 Regional Assembly of the Great River Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
When Dr. Burton first presented me with the honor of speaking this evening, my initial thought was to talk to you about my journey from being raised a Southern Baptist and pastoring Baptist churches for over 25 years before getting to a point where I became so discouraged with church ministry that I left the church all together. I will never forget telling some colleagues before I left: that what I wanted to do more than anything else was to follow Jesus for at least six months before I die, but I can’t do that pastoring a church.
I was going to talk about my three-year hiatus from ministry until I discovered a new calling with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) five years ago. I was going to talk about the new hope I possess for the church as the pastor First Christian Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
However, if I am to be honest with you this evening, I need to confess that I am once again becoming discouraged.
For these are some very difficult days to pastor a church. They are difficult days to be the church. I haven’t experienced anything quite like it since I began serving churches in 1986. And I have a feeling that you know what I am talking about.
So, what I need tonight, and I am supposing you need tonight, is not a word from Jarrett Banks about where I came from, the story of my past, but what I need, and what you need is a word from the Lord, about where we are all going, our future story together as the church.
Yes, what we need tonight, is a word from the Lord.
If we turn in our Bibles to 1 Kings 17:8 we will read:
“The word of the Lord came to him.”
Whenever I read a verse like this one, someone will inevitably comment: “I sure wished the Lord spoke to people today like God did back in the day.”
The good news is, as our UCC kinfolk love to say, I believe “God is still speaking.” The problem is we’re usually not listening.
The passage continues:
“Go now to Zarephath and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you when you arrive.”
Elijah is listening. For he sets out and goes immediately to Zarephath.
And when he comes to the gate of the town, just as the Lord had said, he meets a widow who is gathering a couple of sticks to build a fire for dinner. He then calls out to this one who has been commanded by the Lord to extend some gracious hospitality to him: “Hey! Pour me a glass of water. And while you are at it, bring me a slice of bread.”
But she answers: “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.”
Like you and me sometimes, she must not have been listening when the Lord spoke, when the Lord commanded her extend hospitality to a stranger when they arrive at the gate.
Or perhaps she heard the command. She just doubted the command. She questioned the command. But maybe she didn’t so much doubt the command as she feared the command.
Several years ago, she had plenty. Things were a lot better. Money was coming in. She never worried about meeting her budget. Her pews, I mean her cabinets, were full. She could afford to be generous. She had enough to extend grace without reservations, show hospitality without restrictions, and to love without conditions. But now, after watching so much dwindle away, she had become fearful of the commands of the Lord. She was afraid of grace. She was afraid of love. She was afraid of the risk that love always demands.
The last time she she took an inventory, she saw that she had only enough flour and oil to make one final meal for her and her family. Then, in the midst of the drought and famine in the land, she knew that they would surely die.
Elijah then says: “Do not be afraid.”
Hebrew Scripture Professor Katherine Schifferdecker imagines her saying:
“Easy for you to say! You’re not the one preparing to cook one last meal for yourself and your son before you die. You’re not the one who has watched your carefully-hoarded supply of flour and oil relentlessly dwindle day-by-day, week-by-week, as the sun bakes the seed in the hard, parched earth. You’re not the one who has watched your beloved son slowly grow thinner and more listless.
“Elijah says to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son” (1 Kings 17:13).
“How dare this man of God ask me for cake, knowing that I have so little? Who does he think he is, asking me for bread before I feed my own? There is simply not enough to go around. I told him that I have only “a handful of meal, a little oil, and a couple of sticks. There is not enough. And Death waits at my door.”
Then the good news:
For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’
Do you know what we call that? We call that “a future vison story.”
If you follow the difficult, risky commands of the Lord to give generously and graciously, if you dare to step outside your comfort zones to follow the steps of the Lord, which will probably lead you to places you’d rather not go, “Your jar will not be emptied, and your jug will not fail.”
She went and did as Elijah said. And he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah (1 Kings 17:14-16).
So the question for churches of the Great River Region in 2018 is this: Have we heard the word of the Lord?
Are we listening?
Maybe we’ve heard it, but we doubt it. We question it? Maybe we fear it.
How dare the Lord command us to give so generously, when God knows we have so little?
How dare the Lord expect us to risk so much? To take such a leap of faith? To step so far outside our comfort zones?
We’ve heard the treasurer’s report. We’ve been to that board meeting.
Every week we see it. Membership is declining. Attendance is decreasing. Income is shrinking. We simply do not have enough.
Following the commands of Jesus these days is just too dangerous, too radical, too much, too hard. We need to play it safe. We cannot afford to make anyone who gives a dollar to our church the least bit uncomfortable!
As the Lord your God lives, we cannot feed the hungry or give drink to the thirsty when we barely have enough for ourselves.
We can’t welcome the stranger, give shelter the homeless or care for the sick, when we can barely pay our own bills.
As sure as the Lord God lives, we do not have enough to speak truth to power. We can’t call out their lies and their deceit, their stoking the fires of fear, their fanning the flames of bigotry and hate, their sowing the seeds of vulgarity, division and violence.
As sure as the Lord God lives, we cannot defend the rights of women who are doubted by men and mocked by the crowds, the rights of immigrant children who are separated from their parents and orphaned, the rights of refugees who are dehumanized and threatened with military force, or the rights of transgendered people those in power wish to erase.
Have you been outside? Have you heard the news? Do you know what is going on? Why, there’s an anti-Christ spirit gripping our land!
We cannot afford to love our neighbors when it is more popular to judge them.
We cannot afford to identify with the least when it is more popular to be the greatest.
We cannot think about being last when it is more popular to be first.
We cannot share our wealth with the poor when it is more popular to hoard our wealth and scorn the poor.
We cannot be peacemakers when it is more popular to buy a gun.
We cannot preach love our enemies when it is more popular to cry: “lock ‘em up.”
We cannot break down the barriers that divide us when it is more popular to build a wall.
We cannot call Muslims and Jews our “sisters” and “brothers.” We cannon ever hashtag “Black Lives Matter” or even mention the words “racism,” “sexism,” and “homophobia” when it is more popular to hate.
We cannot care for our environment, protect wildlife, or be a Green congregation. We do not have enough to even talk about our responsibility to support renewable energy and to be an example to the world by reducing our carbon footprint when it is more popular to scoff at science.
We cannot support affordable healthcare, fair living wages and access to a quality, equitable education when it is more popular to do the exact opposite.
We can’t follow Jesus when it is more popular to worship Jesus.
We simply do not have enough to follow the risky commands of the Lord.
We do not have enough sticks to lose ourselves.
There’s not enough meal in the jar to deny ourselves.
And there’s not enough oil in the jug to even think about picking up a cross.
When attendance is down, the budget is behind, morale is low and sticks are about to run out, when we can see the bottom of the jar, and we’re squeezing mere drops from the jug, the grace of Jesus is too extravagant, the mercy of Jesus too generous, and the love of Jesus too gracious. The light Jesus commands us to shine, well it’s much too bright!
We doubt such light. We question such light. We fear such light, and truth be told, we are ashamed of such light.
Common sense tells us us that it would be better for business to keep that light hid, out of sight, under a bushel or locked in a closet.
People might squint their eyes and tolerate us preaching “we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God welcomes us,” and they might shade their eyes with their hands and let us say that “all means all”; but some folks might go blind if we actually practice what we preach!
But then comes the good news.
Are you listening?
When the culture tries to control you,
when an anti-Christ spirit pushes back and tries to hold you back,
when this unholy spirit uses fear to make you preach what is popular instead of what is the gospel, to practice what is socially acceptable instead of what is the Word of God,
when the culture tells you that you do not have enough sticks,
that you need to retreat into the sanctuary, look forward to leaving this world and going heaven and stop worrying about bringing the kingdom of God to this world,
that you should run from new ideas, close your minds to new ways of being the church,
that you need to try to relive the good old days instead of following the Lord into good new days,
that you need to accept a personal, private Jesus, keep him deep down your heart and out of the public square.
that you need to embrace an alternative gospel, some fake news religion that is the opposite of the good news of Jesus,
that you need to be tightfisted with grace, scrimp on mercy, and be stingy with love;
behold, a message bearer shows up and you receive a future vision story. And that story goes something like this:
“Do not be afraid. Because your jar will never be emptied and your jug will never fail, and as long as you are following Jesus, you will always have a great big pile of sticks!”
There’s not enough nails in Jerusalem or anti-Semitism in Pittsburgh or racism in Louisville, or pipe bombs sent through the mail, or troops sent to the southern border, or bullies in your church that could ever empty your jar.
There’s no amount of Russian interference or American voter suppression or Gerrymandering that will ever cause your jug to fail!
There is no new policy, no executive order, no tweet and no political rally that will ever void or erase any of your sticks!
One day, Pricilla, a dear friend of mine, called me to give me the news: “Brad and I have decided to adopt two morechildren from Ukraine.”
“Two more children!?!” I responded.
They had already adopted two the previous year, one was two and the other was three years-old. They both had lived in an orphanage since they were born and suffered with PTSD and other issues.
As a concerned friend, I asked, “Do you really think that is wise? You’ve already have two adopted children. And I know what a handful they are. Pris, I know you are a great mother, and I know Brad is a good father, but don’t you think there are limits? Aren’t there limits to how much you can give?”
Pricilla responded by saying something like: “When it comes to love, I have not yet found the limits. You know, Jarrett, I really don’t believe one can ever run out of love. From my experience, love is a renewable resource. The more love you give… the more love you seem to have.”
Once again, do you know what that’s called?
That’s called “a future vision story!”
In the Second chapter of Kings, we read about a man who brings the prophet Elisha a prophet’s tithe: Twenty loaves of bread and some fresh ears of grain in a sack.
Elisha accepts the tithe, but says, I want you to take this food and give it to 100 people who who are very poor.
The man responds: “But there’s just no way. There is not enough food here to set before a hundred people.”
But Elisha assures the man and assures him with a future vision story: “Because of your great faith in giving to the Lord during this time of scarcity, I have this feeling that there’s is going to be more than enough.”
The man set the food before the people, and sure eough, there was not only enough, but it was more than enough, as they had leftovers.
They had leftovers.
Just like they had after the disciples fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and a couple of fish.
Just like I am sure they had had after Jesus turned 180 gallons of water into all of that wine!
Just like I am sure they had after the father welcomes the prodigal son home with that extravagant dinner party!
The good news is that God is still speaking today. God is still filling jars and replenishing jugs, and in God’s kingdom, the sticks that fuel the fire of the Holy Spirit are renewable resources!
So listen up! Do not doubt, and do not be afraid! And whatever you do, do not be ashamed!
Love generously! Love extravagantly! Love graciously! Deny yourself. Put the needs of others ahead of your own. Take a risk. Take up a cross. Go ahead and make some folks uncomfortable. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and include the differently-abled. Be kind, do justice, walk humbly, speak truth to power, go vote, preach good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.
Because, there is enough. There will always be enough.
No, in God’s abundant mercy, we have a future vision story that assures us there will always be more than enough.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.