**Originally preached at Jazz Worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on June 5, 2016.
1 Kings 17:8-16
The Widow of Zarephath
8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, 9‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’
11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ 12But she said, ‘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; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’
13Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For 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.’
15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The 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.
For many years, the church I grew up went on mission trips to Mexico every summer to build houses with an organization called Constructores Para Cristo (CPC). This organization sought to confront the reality of homelessness and poverty in Piedras Negras, Mexico one small house at a time. Every week, when a new church group arrived to begin work, the staff of CPC told them the same story. It’s a common fable, so maybe you’ve heard it before.
The story goes that one day a man saw a his child walking along the beach and stooping over again and again to pick something up and throw it in the water. The man drew closer to the child to investigate, and realized that the beach was covered in starfish as far as the eye could see—brought in with the tide and now stranded. The little girl was picking them up one at a time and throwing them back into the ocean.
Amused, the man asked his daughter, “Why are you doing that?”
And she replied, “If the starfish don’t get back into the ocean, they’ll dry out and die. So I’m putting them back.”
The father laughed and said, “But there are thousands of starfish on the beach, there’s no way you could possibly save them all. Even if you tried to do this all day—it just wouldn’t matter.”
The little girl picked up another starfish and stared down at for a minute. Then she held it up to show her father and said, “It matters to this one.” And she threw it in the water.
The point of the story is simple and clear: even the small things we do matter. Whatever we can do to help makes a difference. The little girl understands this, but the father doesn’t. He’s overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and what impact he could make doesn’t seem worth the effort or cost. And so, he does nothing.
In our scripture passage for today, the scope is smaller, but the stakes are higher. Elijah is a stranger far from home. He has no community to rely on and no resources. And so he asks a woman—a widow with a son—for help. When he asks for water, she obliges—it seems easy enough to do. But then he asks for food. A morsel of bread.
The woman falters. Elijah is relying on her on the most basic level. Her faith and culture suggest that it is her responsibility to show hospitality—to care for him. But she feels incapable of meeting his needs. She doesn’t have enough—not even for herself and her son—so she can’t give enough. She tells Elijah that she has only enough meal for her and her son to eat and then they will die.
She feels overwhelmed, just like the man in the starfish story. But Elijah encourages her and tells her to trust in her faith in God. And so the woman does what she can. She gives him food and has enough for herself and her son and the meal and oil do not run out so that the 3 of them are fed for many days.
My life does not look like the life of the woman in this story—or Elijah’s life, for that matter. Though I may sometimes stress about my budget or my future, I am not on the verge of death. I am not short on food. I don’t wonder where I will sleep tonight. But I do know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by the scope of someone else’s need—to feel like I don’t have enough to give. Like I can’t do enough.
Maybe you know this feeling too. When we turn on the news in the morning, or scroll through our Facebook feed, or even just walk down the street—we are inundated with all the hard, terrible things happening in our world.
A quick glance at yesterday’s Chicago Tribune revealed 5 dead and 18 wounded in our city just one night into the weekend. It told the story of a young man—a Stanford student—convicted of sexually assaulting a woman at a party and being sentenced to only 6 months in prison. It talked about the professor killed in last week’s shooting on the UCLA campus. And of course it covered the death of Muhammad Ali while remembering the realities of racism he contended with and worked to overthrow in his lifetime.
We rejoice at the good, hopeful stories that find their way to us, but we cannot ignore all that is troubling around us. Countries and regions shredded by war. Ceaseless gun violence in our own streets. The seemingly insurmountable realities of climate change and our hurting planet. Hate and fear, pain and prejudice, illness, poverty, loneliness, and loss. It isn’t hard to see—it’s hard not to see.
As Christians, we believe that we are called to be generous. To work for justice. To care for creation, to serve others and especially to help those who are most vulnerable. But I think this question of enough often gets us stuck. In a world as broken as ours: where do we begin? And perhaps a more troubling question: where do we stop? For surely if we tried to solve every problem and meet every need, we would lose everything—maybe even die—while hardly making a dent in all that’s wrong in this world.
We fear that we don’t have enough to give—not enough to do and give as much as we’re supposed to. And what we can give—isn’t enough for the ones that need it.
This is, on some level, the struggle that overwhelms the father in the starfish story and makes the widow falter before Elijah. It is a struggle that I have known deeply—and personally—for most of my life.
Growing up, my parents were divorced and, over my early years, my father’s financial circumstances deteriorated so that—by the time I was in middle school—he was struggling to keep a roof, any roof, over his own head. Sometimes—there was no roof. Or there was just a shelter, or the broken-down van he’d been given by his church. My dad struggled with alcoholism, with job loss, with mental health issues, and diabetes—all of which impacted his stability and finances.
I learned about income inequality and the complexity of circumstances surrounding homelessness and poverty by watching it happen to my dad from the comfort of my 3-story, suburban house less than 2 miles away from him. I remember sleepless nights spent wondering if he was safe, if he was okay, if he would have a future, and why our lives looked so different. It didn’t seem right or fair. At 10 years old and at 13 and at 20—I was flooded with worry about all that my dad faced, with guilt over my own profoundly different reality, and with my own sense of utter helplessness to fix any of it. I knew that it would take more than a dollar, or a meal. I knew that there was something bigger broken, but I didn’t know what I could do about it.
I’ll confess something to you. I remember this feeling well not just because I felt it so often about my dad growing up, but because I still feel it—sometimes about my dad, but all the time walking through this world and the streets of this city. Every time I pass someone on a street corner asking for food, or change, or work, or help—I see my father. I wonder whose father/mother/child this person is and who might be somewhere worried about them.
Sometimes—I’ll admit—I duck my head and walk quickly—trying to think of something else. Sometimes, I try to calculate how much it would cost if I gave $5 or even just a dollar to every person I passed who asked for help. Sometimes, I think to myself all the reasons why it’s okay that I didn’t stop and engage. Always I feel that same overwhelming flood of helplessness. What can I do, really? If I couldn’t do it for my father, what can I do for all of these? Whatever I have to offer—it is not enough.
These are hard questions. Questions I imagine many of you struggle with too—whether about homelessness and poverty, or violence, and something else. There is some value to recognizing that there is a larger system of brokenness at work that one simple act of generosity or kindness cannot fix.
Another modern fable tells of a river with a village on its shores. One day, a villager notices a baby floating down the river and jumps in to save it. Then more and more babies come down the river and the villager gets a bunch of other people to help her save them all before they drown. Eventually, one woman leaves the group and starts to head upstream along the shore. Someone asks her, “Are you giving up?” And she says, “No, I’m going to find out how to stop these babies from ending up in the river to begin with.”
We need both direct service and love, and deeper work to dismantle systems of injustice. Both are crucial.
As Christians we are called to love one another and to work toward a world that is just for all people. Our faith demands that we act with care and service toward others in all the ways we can, when we can, as much as we can. Too often though, our awareness of the extent of brokenness in this world keeps us from doing anything at all. Knowing that a single act can’t solve the problem and that it is beyond us to fix the whole system—we avert our eyes from the painful realities of other people—we bury ourselves in our own concerns and comfort ourselves with the reassurance that we just can’t do enough—don’t have enough to give.
I don’t believe there is a clear answer to how much we should offer or how or when. There isn’t a prescription in our faith for how much good is enough. But we are told where to begin. Anywhere. And not to stop. We are called to do something, to give something. As much as we think we can spare—and then perhaps a little more. We are called to see each other and not avert our eyes—not surrender to our sense of helplessness, but trust that we are part of the larger work of God. And so are the ones we serve, and so are others serving. No single one of us is called to do everything, but we are called to recognize that we are connected and that only by committing to that connection and loving one another will needs be met and healing happen and good prevail.
It’s significant, but perhaps easy to overlook, what happens next in our scripture today—after the woman shares what little she has. I don’t mean the miracle where God allows her meal and oil to never run out, so reminiscent of other bible stores. I mean this little detail in the text, verse 15: “she went and did Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days.”
Did you notice what happens? That Elijah is included with them for many days? He was just a stranger on the road—an unknown traveler who—having been denied help or kindness—might easily have gone on his way and remained a stranger. Instead, his fate, his life, his well-being and that of the widow and her son become bound up together. In fact, it is because of this relationship that Elijah is around to help save the widow’s son when he dies.
The widow acts because she believes and trusts that—more important than her fear of scarcity or her sense of helplessness—is her call to relationship and community with Elijah. For her, that relationship is enough to make it worth it.
This is the kind of love and care we are called to. The uncomfortable twist in our gut as we walk by someone struggling or bear witness to the injustices of this world is the Spirit reminding us that we are all one. That we are made family by the God who loves us all. Whatever we do in the face of that discomfort, we cannot ignore it. When we avoid it, rationalize it, ignore it—we fail to see each other. When we act in love—whatever we do—we are reminded that we belong to each other. That our struggle is one struggle. That our story is one story. And that our hope is one hope.
The little girl in the starfish story doesn’t ask whether she has enough to give or can do enough to matter. She just knows that it matters enough for the starfish whom she encounters—and they matter enough to her—to try and keep trying.
What is enough? This is a question our faith compels us to wrestle with, but our faith also tells us that this is not a question that God asks at all. God offers us love and grace—and that love and grace help us to see each other, bind us up together, and empower us to love and serve one another in ways beyond what we imagine possible.
Even when we feel we don’t have enough or can’t do enough, we can trust in God. When it comes to how much of that love and grace God offers—to us and through us—the measure is never just “enough.” The measure is more than enough. Abundant. More than you can ever imagine. The measure of God’s love and grace is “endless.” Thanks be to God. Amen.