Extravagant generosity: it all begins with God
PEORIA – Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton opened the 2013 Annual Conference with the retelling of the story of the prophet Elisha and the Shunammite woman to weave a tapestry of extravagant generosity in his first sermon and episcopal address since being assigned to the Illinois Area in September.
“If there is one Old Testament prophet who embodies extravagant generosity, it’s Elisha,” Keaton said.
A wealthy woman, the Shunammite woman gifts others with the resources God places in her hands and Elisha and his ministry caught her eye.
“Risking rejection, she invites a total stranger to stop at her house and have a meal,” Keaton said. “And Elisha accepts. Although the woman has no idea what Elisha does, she senses his basic need for food and fellowship….Before long, her house is a regular stop on his ministerial journeys.”
Keaton notes that extravagant generosity does not always have to be something big. “Someone is hungry and is fed. Another in jail and longs for a compassionate visitor,” he said. “A family of eight has a fire. It damages part of the house. Friends and neighbors take a child or two until the house is repaired and the family can return. Such generosity touches the heart, mends the broken spirit and enlivens people of faith.”
But the Shunammite woman goes beyond a simple act of kindness. She proceeds to build an addition on to her house for the itinerant stranger, “no strings attached.”
“Building an addition to her house has some parallels to our work in Liberia,” Keaton said. “We build wells, houses, churches, take on other construction projects, provide salary support and dispatch Bunny Wolfe to lead our work there. They cannot pay us for the privilege of serving them nor would we ask them. At the same time, how could the people of Liberia not view our ministry with them as a gift from God, a miraculous outpouring love that reminds them of the extravagant generosity of God?”
But Keaton also said there is something more than brick and mortar going on between the woman and the prophet. “The personal and political needs of the northern kingdom kept Elisha going night and day,” he said. “Much effort and energy were required for Elisha to stay in touch with God. Maybe, the woman identified a growth area in Elisha’s ministry and took the initiative to do something about it. Even if Elisha did not know or disregarded his bent toward workaholism, he needed a home-cooked meal and a place to keep himself together while performing the prophetic ministry to which had had been called.”
Later, the prophet prophesizes she will hear a son despite her husband’s advanced age. “In Elisha’s world, women without children were stigmatized,” Keaton explained. “Some critics suggested it was God’s punishment.”
Drawing parallels with today’s church, signs of barreness takes many forms.
- Too few churches doing Disciple Bible Study in prisons or halfway houses
- Welcoming former inmates into worship and church membership or visiting them in jail
- No disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in 10 years
- Dying churches and deferred hopes
- No radical hospitality, no prayer and no power
“Barrenness is a fact of life,” Keaton said. “Sometimes, we can pray our way through. Inevitably, God has to step in and do God’s thing.” The woman gave birth to a son.
Bishop Keaton related the story of visiting the Fairfield Children’s Home while in Zimbabwe in March for the 20th anniversary of Africa University. A spontaneous offering while out at the orphanage collected $550 for the ministry “when the cupboards were bare.” Later, that total ended up being $800.
But barrenness was a real threat when the son became stricken and died. When the prophet arrives at the house, he goes to his room and prays and after praying, the boy is resurrected.
“Equally amazing, the Shunammite woman had no idea when she built an addition for the stranger who turned out to be a prophet that his room would be the very room where her only son would get up from the grave. I cannot help but think that the room was the ultimate example of extravagant generosity.”