Writing A Better Story

(“Writing A Better Story”  is a sermon on Stewardship by Rick Kirchoff, based based on Mark 14:3-9.  Perhaps, this message may help you as your develop your stewardship sermons.)

Jesus knew that storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to put ideas into the world.  A well told tale can touch us at the deep places of the soul, give life to a difficult concept, and it can even challenge us to write a better story with our lives. 

Jesus says as much about the story of woman who crashed Simon’s dinner party.  Listen to this paraphrase of the 9th verse of 14th chapter of Mark.  Jesus says to the woman: “Nobody will forget what you’ve done.  When they remember me, they’ll tell your story and remember your act of extravagant love.”  

The stories of three women shape this message and invite us to write a better story with our lives. 

We meet the 1st woman at a party at the home of Simon.  It’s a dinner party & in style of meals in that day, the guests were all reclining around a low table. Caught up in the conversation & the joy of the occasion, no one seemed to notice as an unnamed woman slips into the room.  Deep emotion is etched on her face.  In her trembling hands she cradles an alabaster jar.  She rushed over to Jesus, breaks open bottle, and pours all its contents onto the head of Jesus. As liquid runs down his face and body, the aroma of expensive perfume fills the air.  

Some folks were shocked and said, “What a waste!” Others agreed, “Yeah, think of how many poor people could’ve been helped.”  

But Jesus responds: “You’ll always have a chance to offer kindness to the poor.  This woman has done a beautiful thing for me.  And whenever people remember me, they will remember her extravagant love!”  

There’s a marvelous line from a T.S. Eliot poem. He wrote about those who “measure out life in (small) coffee spoons.” In other words, they live lives that are cautious, calculated and carefully controlled. 

But not this woman! 

There’s nothing about her devotion that’s small, calculating or cautious. No one would ever accuse her of measuring out life or love or generosity in tiny portions!  Her love is lavish; her devotion is extreme; her gift is extravagant.  

Let me ask: in world where so many measure out life in tiny portions, what kind of story are we telling with our lives, our giving, our devotion?

Honestly, when I ask that of myself, and a part of me wants to argue: “Come on!  We’re deep into a pandemic, with no end in sight. And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.  Things are tough!  There’s so much uncertainty!  Isn’t this a time to be cautious; conserve what you have; take care of number one.  There’s something to be said for playing it safe!” 

Immediately, I think of the story of a woman we meet in I Kings 17. 

Again, we don’t know her name.  All we know is that she lives in the little Gentile town of Zarephath, and she’s facing a desperate future.  

She’s a widow, without a job and without money.  All she has is a little boy, who depends on her for survival.  To top it off, there’s been a terrible drought. In her cupboard, she has only enough flour and oil to make a tiny loaf of bread for herself and her beloved son.  After that, short of a miracle, they’ll starve.  And in that harsh world, miracles were few and far between. 

When we meet her, she’s out gathering sticks to make a fire to prepare a last meal for herself and her child.  

As story goes, a stranger calls out to her.  It’s Elijah, the great prophet of Israel who’d courageously challenged King Ahab and Baal prophets over their idolatry.  His challenge was successful, but this didn’t go over well with King Ahab and Jezebel.  Ahab and Jezebel want him dead.  But Elijah escaped. He’s been hiding out, living in the wilderness by a brook.  But with the drought, the brook dried up. If he stays there, he’ll die. If he goes back into Israel and Ahab gets hold of him, he’ll be tortured and murdered.  

God says to him, “Elijah, go to Zarephath.  There’s a widow who will take care of you.”  

So, Elijah goes to village and sees this widow gathering sticks.  He calls out to her and asks, “Would you bring me a little water to drink?”  And as she was going, Elijah adds, “And would you please bring me a piece of bread?”

She knows nothing of Elijah.  To her, he’s a nobody, a stranger & Jewish foreigner to boot. Elijah knows nothing of the woman’s story and her desperate plight.  

But then he hears her story, and Elijah probably thinks, “Lord, surely this isn’t the woman you told me about!  She’s more desperate than I am!”  

Still Elijah says to her, “Don’t be afraid.  Go home; do as you’ve said.  Make a small cake of bread for me from what you have, and bring it to me.  Then, go back, and make some for yourself and for your son.  For the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up your oil not run dry…until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.’”

Now, put yourself in this widow’s place. She and her little son are about to starve.  She’s arranging, what she knows, their last meal. And this foreigner — a stranger who worships differently — calls to her, saying, “My God will take care of us all.”  

What is she to do? Whose bread is she supposed to fix first?  Will she prepare bread for this foreigner, Elijah!  Or for her beloved son and herself?  Remember, she has only enough flour & oil for one tiny loaf of bread. 

At home, she pours out her last bit of flour, mixes in the oil, kneads it into a cake, bakes it.  And then, in an act of defiant hospitality, generosity and trust, she takes it to Elijah. 

And now, she has nothing.   

She goes back home, probably thinking, “Oh, my god, what have I done?”  

But she also remembers God’s promise to Elijah about the flour jar, and so she looks into it.  And there, out of nowhere…just enough flour…and just enough oil.  Not mountains of flour, not bushels, but just enough for day.  

And the next day, it happens again…and the next day, and the day after that.  Just enough for their daily bread.  There was food enough every day for her, her son and for Elijah.  Scripture tells us that the jar of flour was not used up, and the jug of oil did not run dry.

I imagine that until the day she died, she treasured that flour jar, remembering the time when she was living from one day to the next, just trusting God – trusting God for her daily bread and living in defiant generosity.  

I don’t know if it’s true for you, but in hard times, it is so tempting for me just to live cautiously, measuring out our life & love & generosity & service in calculated, careful, tiny portions!  

But church of Jesus is to be a place where an extravagant spirit pervades everything we do.  Jesus didn’t come to start a mild movement of mild people who do mild things in mild ways.  He came to build a community of folks who aren’t afraid to be excessive in their service, generous in their giving, and lavish in their love.  

What kind of story are you telling with your life? 

Is it time to write a better story?

I’ve told you about 2 women…now a third.    

She was born in 1908, conceived when her mother was raped on a wooded path in rural Mississippi. She was raised by her grandmother and aunt, who cleaned houses, cooked, and took in the dirty laundry of others to make their living.

As a child, she would come home from elementary school, do studies, and then iron clothes. 

The three women relied completely on each other, but when the aunt returned from a hospitalization unable to walk, this 6th grade girl dropped out of school to care for aunt, and take up her work as a wash woman. 

Six days a week, she scrubbed laundry by hand on a rubboard. She tried an automatic washer and dryer in the 1960s, but found that “the washing machine didn’t rinse well enough, and dryer turned the whites yellow.” After years of boiling clothes and then doing four fresh-water rinses, that wasn’t good enough to meet her high standards. So, she went back to her scrub board and 100 feet of open-air clothesline.

Asked to describe her typical day, she answered: “I would go outside and start a fire under my wash pot. Then I’d soak, wash, and boil a bundle of clothes. Then I would rub ’em, rinse ’em, starch ’em, and hang ’em on the line. After I had all of the clean clothes on the line, I‘d start on the next batch. I’d wash all day, and in the evenin’ I’d iron until 11:00 at night.”

This was her life for nearly 75 years…earning nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars.  She lived simply.  She saved regularly.  She never owned a car; she walked everywhere she went, pushing a shopping cart nearly a mile to get groceries.  Never missed Sunday service at her church.  She only took one trip out of MS during her lifetime, to Niagara Falls and Chicago, and she couldn’t wait to get back home.  

She retired in 1995 at age of 86. During that time, living simply, she saved dimes, quarters and dollars.  And when she retired, this washwoman, Osceola McCarty had managed to save total of $280,000.

Amazing thing: Osceola McCarty decided to give most of that money away. Setting aside just enough to live on, she donated $150,000…to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for needy students seeking the education she never had. When others heard her amazing story, they wanted to join in her story, and 100’s made donations that multiplied her original endowment. Today the McCarty fund totals nearly $700,000. It’s expected to reach a million dollars soon. 

Osceola once said, “My only regret is that I couldn’t give more.”

There are stories that put powerful ideas into the world. Osceola’s is one of those. But so is that of the woman with the perfume, and the widow of Zarephath. 

They invite us to write a better story with our lives, our service and our giving. 

If you take away nothing else from these three narratives, I hope you remember this: The Christian life is not some mild movement of mild people who do mild things in mild ways.  It is a movement of those who, in name of Jesus, aren’t afraid to be extravagant in their giving and lavish in their love.  

What kind of story are you telling with your life? 

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