Rev. Leah Grundset
2 Kings 4:1-7
Today we start a new sermon series, one that takes us to a completely random, often forgotten part of the Bible. I know you are super excited; I can see it on your faces. For the next four weeks, we will study the prophet Elisha throughout one chapter of Scripture. It is not too often that we get to dig in deep with one chapter of scripture over four weeks, so this is a rich time of study for all of us.
The Hebrew Scriptures that make up the first portion of our holy scriptures are broken up into many different areas. In the beginning, we read Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which are known as (what?) The Torah!
Next in the canon, we find Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel followed by 1 & 2 Kings, which is where we land today. Normally, these are considered to be “historical” works. While not straight history, or whatever that might even mean, these are historical portraits of what was going on in the life of the people of Israel after the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness.
History, with interpretative commentary, shall we say! In fact, in the Jewish Bible, these books are considered to be the “former prophets” those who at every turn are questions, where is God and what are God’s people up to?
Let’s all test our Israelite history now. Remember in Joshua, they came upon the promised land. In Judges the people asked for someone to rule them and Judges, like Samson and Deborah, popped up all over the place. And then, at the end of the book of Judges, the people complained and they wanted (what?) a King!
All of the other countries had kings. Moab and Edom had kings and Israel wanted a king because basically…they wanted to be like everyone else. 1 and 2 Samuel tell us of those three early kings especially, Saul, David and Solomon. These passages are where we gather much of our narratives about Samuel and Eli, Hannah, David and Goliath, David and Bathsheba, all of David’s children and, well I think we could all continue to tell some of our favorite stories.
So, 1 Samuel introduces us to those three famous kings and 2 Samuel tells us of so, so many other kings throughout Israel’s history including the crazy ones, the just ones and the ones who never really had a chance. In between these portraits of kings, prophets are popping up and the people are living normal lives. The prophets remind us that there was a huge disparity between the rich and the poor. The everyday person was hungry, while the rich were banqueting on only the richest wines, the best oils and the most hearty meats.
1 and 2 Kings continue our story of Israel’s history with their monarchs. This is considered to be the “great, royal history” of Israel. Walter Bruggemann says that these books are a “Torah-focused assessment of royal history.”
Kings begins with the death of David and ends with the fall of Jerusalem in 587BCE. This expansive history offers thoughts on policy, bad kings, prophets and the everyday person. How was God moving? Were the people listening? This is part of our story too. Let’s see what it has to say. this is where we enter, in 2 Kings chapter 4.
The prophets are still being nosy and all up in the king’s business. Specifically, we turn our attention to the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah had been one of the chief prophets and there are many, many wonders attributed to him. Basically, he wouldn’t leave the kings alone—always reminding them to return to Yahweh.
When Elijah died, his disciple Elisha took over right where he left off.
Elisha gained notoriety in and among the people of Israel. He was working with the kings, counseling them, reminding them to remember Yahweh and pushing them all toward hope and the promises of God for the people of God.
Elisha traveled and lived within a school of prophets. Many of these, he probably inherited from Elijah. They lived together, ate together, taught together and ventured out into the community together. Something like a living-learning community that’s popping up all over campuses in the US today. They would study Scripture together and then go out and practice what it meant in daily life.
One afternoon, one of his colleague’s wives came up to him. Of course he knew her–her husband had just died, leaving her alone with two young children, a home and a floundering business to take care of on her own. She was a young widow, one who currently had no man to protect her. Without a male figure in her culture, she was vulnerable to almost everyone and everything.
Her husband had been a good man. He was a devoted member of the guild of prophets and a devoted follower of God. Soon after his death, this woman told Elisha that a debt collector came to her. Perhaps her husband had borrowed money for a new scroll, for their home or for a piece of land. We do not know why he was in debt, but we do know that the debt collector came to this grieving widow and demanded that she hand over her sons, to sell them into slavery to pay off her husband’s debt.
After this initial invasion and intrusion into her life, she runs to Elisha telling him about this. Imagine how this mother felt, having just lost her husband and now being threatened with the horror of having her two sons ripped from her grasp and sold into slavery.
Breathlessly, she tells this to Elisha, but in her fear, angst and grief she just ends her statement. She doesn’t have any great ideas. She doesn’t know how her God is involved in this painful, absence-filled part of life.
I also imagine the two children were scrambling, wondering what was about to happen to them. Were they about to be forced into slavery?
Elisha asked the widow, “What do you have in your house?” Apparently, he knew the way these debt collectors worked and his plan was to offer them some minor possession to at least hold them at bay for awhile. He probably thought she had some fine china stashed away or linens made of special cloth. When the widow wiped the tears from her eyes, humiliated, she looked up at him and said, “I only have a bit of oil.”
Oil was a staple in every kitchen. In many ways it was the sustenance of life. Oil flowed in households in that culture is the same way it still does in the Mediterranean world. Olive oil went in bread, went on meats, went on vegetables. So, for her to have only a little bit of oil left meant that times were hard; she was down to the last drop.
Elisha stood there with his hands on his hips and said. “Ok, well here’s what you are going to do—tell your sons to go and ask for all the vessels, pots, tins and buckets from your neighbors. Round them up- try to get the ones that don’t have cracks or holes. Trust me. Just get as many as you can get. And after you send your children out to do that, gather them along with all the jars, pots and vessels in your home. Shut the door behind you and continue pouring the oil until the last jar is filled.”
And with that, Elisha removed himself from the situation. He offered her a service of how to get out of this harsh, economic reality and she had to live it out. The neighbors jumped on board with this crazy request- they pitched in.
They handed over every empty jar they had to this woman, their friend, who only two days before had a husband by her side and her children in relative safety. As she gathered the jars on the earthy floor of her little home, she kept counting them to make sure she knew how many there were. It seemed that the home itself was overflowing with these jars.
She wondered exactly what was supposed to happen when she poured her little bit of oil into the smallest jar- the one that would actually hold the oil without making it look like an empty jar. As she poured she prayed, and as she poured and prayed, she wept. And as she poured and prayed and wept…she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. The jars were all filling up.
She was on the third jar, and the oil kept coming from her original pitcher. Her neighbors, who had so graciously offered up their vessels-in some cases, their livelihoods and their hopes, peeked through the windows of her home. They were desperate to see what was happening inside. Why had the prophet Elisha told her to get jars—from them?
The oil was flowing and the jars were being filled. She could not believe her eyes. Elisha the prophet had told her what to do and here was God in her midst, providing oil. The woman kept pouring and turned to her son and said, “Where is the next pitcher?” He said, “That was the last one, mom.” And in that moment, the oil stopped flowing. It had been good to the last drop.
She went and told Elisha what had happened– how her neighbors had given her jars, how her little bit of olive oil kept pouring, how all the jars were full, how in that instant she was able to see God in her midst because of those surrounding her. How empowering it was that SHE was the one to pour some out. Elisha wasn’t lifting a finger! This was the woman and her sons.
She listened to the prophet, worshiped God and acted in great faith that this wasn’t just some ponze scheme to collect jars and then sell them. Elisha told her to take the now-full jars, sell the oil, pay off her newfound debts and live off the rest. It wasn’t extravagant. It wasn’t a story where the oil kept flowing forever and she could magically reenact it whenever she needed a little extra cash. Nope.
It was a story about a community, a town of people meeting her need and rejecting the empire’s ideas of economic justice and slavery. Her town, following who they knew God to be rejected their day’s economic system and instead created a little pocket of economic justice. And in the midst of it, what do you know…God showed up.
St. Martin’s Catholic Church sits in Northeast DC, right at North Capitol and T St., a historic, beautiful church, which has served the surrounding community since 1901. Offering religious education, a beautiful worship space and a specific calling to participate in their surrounding neighborhood, St. Martin’s moved forward in a plan to create affordable housing.
Over and over again, their church members were moving to the suburbs because housing costs were skyrocketing. They had a transitional housing ministry, but once the people came into their program, well, they had nowhere to send them. Men and woman would come off the streets, they would be employed, they would be serving in the community, but there was nowhere for them go after transitional housing.
So, St Martin’s got a crazy idea. They had a lot of land- a lot of land for a church in DC. They had an empty convent building that hadn’t been used in years. And they knew people who knew people. They teamed up with WIN, Washington Interfaith Network, with whom Calvary is moving toward partnership, and they decided to break ground on a 178 mixed-income apartment complex. The first group of people will be moving in these coming days.
The Archbishop of Washington, speaking at the ribbon cutting last week said, “Everybody offered what they had, and what happened? We had a miracle.”
Here they had this empty vessel—land, buildings and space. They had an empty vessel, which needed to be filled for the betterment of its community as they listened for the voice of God in their midst. And why are we surprised—they listened, they offered their vessel and God showed up! God showed up in the faces of people who now have a home for the first time in a long time.
Those who are able to look around and see their community taking care of them. God showed up in an old, empty church building that now is brimming with life and offering itself as a home for the homeless. You can almost see the people of St Martin’s and their community glistening with holy oil as they offered what they had…and what they had was a miracle.
So, we too have so much to offer. Our neighborhoods all face economic injustice. We know that all too often people—yes, children are enslaved because of our habits. The calling of the people of God is to look and see- where is the need? Who is the widow who might lose everything she owns and is in desperate need of empty vessels to fill her up?
Who is the neighbor who Calvary is called to serve? We also have a huge facility here and during the week, you might think that it is quiet here. The church staff and many of you here during the week, especially in the summer know that is not true. We have opened this physical space to our community and our four resident partners who share the space with us. But there is always more to do.
Calvary opening up our empty vessel of a building and allowing the community to fill it so that miracles of life, provision and redemption happen even here. Slavery is escaped because children have a place to go. Hungry bellies are filled because there is a program making sure kids know how to eat, prepare food and care for themselves.
What vessels need to be filled in your world? To whom do we need to be opening the doors to, or delivering empty jars to or creating safe space for? We have a calling in this neighborhood in the same way St Martin’s does in NE. We have a calling in the same way that little town responded to the widow in their midst.
Elisha knew it. And that holy oil was good to the last drop.
The oil will flow. We just have to offer ourselves up. And you know what? God will show up.
May it be so. Amen.