2nd Kings 4:8-37
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
If there is one Old Testament prophet who embodies Extravagant Generosity, it’s Elisha, Elijah’s successor. He has a personal experience of God’s extravagance. To be a worthy successor to Elijah, Elisha asks for and receives “a double share of Elijah’s spirit.” A major sign of that blessing shows up dramatically in the narrative about a widow’s jar of oil. Her husband dies. Bills go unpaid. If she does not pay them, creditors will take her two children and sell them as slaves. Distraught, the widow begs Elisha for help. Elisha asks if she has anything of value in the house. “One jar of oil, she responds.” Elisha sends the widow into the neighborhood to borrow every pot and pan she can get her hands on. With the help of her two sons, the widow fills every pot and pan from one jar of oil. When the last pan is filled, the oil stops. Containers of oil are everywhere. Subsequently, Elisha instructs the widow to sell the oil, and pay her debts. “You and your children can live on the rest,” Elisha prophesies.
Without God’s intervention through Elisha, society would have another grieving family victimized further by financial caprice. Was there no other way to settle her financial obligations than enslaving her children? Were debt collectors that cruel? Didn’t they care about what might happen to this widow if she lost her children to slavery because of unpaid debt on top of losing her husband and his income? That’s a prescription for breakdown or serious illness. Thank God for extravagant generosity. Our sermon reviews the saga of another woman. This woman is wealthy not poor. Nevertheless, she is the recipient of extravagant generosity. At same time, this woman gifts others with resources God places in her hands.
Like a lot of preachers, District Superintendents, Bishops and lay folk, Elisha is on the road constantly. His ministry involves the sacred and the secular. On one hand, Elisha has political involvements with the Northern Kingdom. He anoints Jehu as King of Israel. He stops raids on Israel by the King of Syria. While we cannot say that Elisha is a spy for Jehu, he does warn folk in the Northern Kingdom to be on the watch for surprise attacks by Syria. Where does he secure that kind of military intelligence? On the other hand, Elisha performs miracles like Jesus. He heals Naaman the leper, the commander of an army. Elisha opens the eyes of the blind, purifies a polluted water system of a city and miraculously feeds 100 men with “twenty barley loaves and a few ears of grain.” Day and night, Elisha’s ministry takes him across the length and breadth of the Northern Kingdom doing the work of the Lord. And most of the time; Elisha travels through the city of Shunem.
A wealthy Shunammite woman notices all this activity. Apparently her residence sits near a well-traveled Shunem road like Highway 29 in Rochester or Highway 4 in Springfield. So, one day the Shunammite woman gets a bright idea. Risking rejection, she invites this total stranger to stop at her house and have a meal. And Elisha accepts. Although the woman has no idea what Elisha does, she senses his need basic need for food and fellowship. In any case, Elisha accepts her invitation. Before long, her house is a regular stop on his ministerial journeys. Extravagant generosity does not always have to be something big. It can be small, simple but no less profound. Someone is hungry and is fed. Another is in jail and longs for a compassionate visitor. A family of eight has a fire. It damages a part of the house. Friends and neighbors take a child or two till the house is repaired and the family can return. I know that story. Such generosity touches the heart, mends the broken spirit and enlivens people of faith.
In this story, the Shunammite woman goes beyond a random act of kindness. She has another bright idea that probably makes her husband a bit nervous or uncomfortable. “I believe that Elisha is a holy man,” she says to her husband. “Let’s build a small room onto our house, put a bed, table chair and lamp in it so Elisha can stay whenever he comes through town.” Scripture does not report her husband’s “yes dear.” But there are a lot of things scripture does not report. That aside, the Shunammite woman spends big money to put an addition on the house for this itinerant stranger, no strings attached. Consequently, Elisha always has a meal, his own room at the home of a wealthy woman and her old husband.
Building an addition to her house has some parallels to our work in Liberia. We build wells, houses, churches, take on other construction projects, provide salary support and dispatch Bunny Wolfe to lead our work there. We send work teams that invest time, money and prayer, and relationships with our brothers and sisters in Liberia. We pray for them. And they pray for us. They cannot pay us for the privilege of serving them nor would we ask them. To do otherwise would rob Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference of the opportunity to give back to “the least of these” a portion of what God has granted us. 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?” God is good all the time.
Beyond the cost of brick and mortar, what happens between the woman and the prophet Elisha ought to be noted! The personal and political needs of the northern Kingdom kept Elisha going night and day. Dealing with the serious crises in the lives of abled and different-abled citizens drained him. Much effort and energy were required for Elisha to stay in touch with God. He needed silent retreats and rest where he could read, write, think and pray. Maybe, the woman learned that Elisha ate too many fast foods, like locusts and honey. Maybe, she guessed that Elisha paid little attention to his diet. Maybe there were times when Elisha fell asleep at the table just before he had to hit the road again or was just bone weary. 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 it 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 he had been called.
Some pastors, District Superintendents and Bishops are dropping like flies because they won’t or can’t stop driving themselves into the dust. Clergy and their families tend to be less healthy than the general population. Rick Van Giesen wrote an article in the April 2013 Current Magazine about clergy self-care. To summarize, Rick writes, “We are not taking care of ourselves. Less than 33% of us go to the doctor for preventive care. Only 37% of us check our cholesterol.” Diabetes, heart trouble and other maladies are marching through our ranks like Sherman’s march to the sea. The Duke University School of Divinity Study of Clergy Health in North Carolina is paradigmatic. During an NPR program on Clergy Burnout, Robin Swift, Director of Clergy Health Initiatives offers these figures. In North Carolina, clergy health is worse than those they serve. “Their rates of obesity are 10% higher. High blood pressure and asthma rates are 4% higher. Diabetes is 3% higher. Depression rates are approaching 10%.”
See what I mean. The Shunammite woman offers Elisha Extravagant Generosity that goes beyond food and how much money to cost her to renovate the house, her offering, requires, encourages Elisha to take Sabbath seriously. She refuses to stand back and watch the prophet self-destruct because of his refusal to take Sabbath. Elisha’s fast paced and consuming ministry has him headed toward “prophetic burnout” or health crises. If that were not so, why did Elisha stop at eh woman’s house continually for food and fellowship? Why did he constantly accept the woman’s invitation for free room and board as he passed through Shunem? Support for a true Sabbath especially when taken is not short of Extravagant Generosity.
It was during one of his Sabbath times that Elisha started thinking about all the good deeds the Shunammite woman had done for him. He wanted to return the favor. So, Elisha sent his servant Gehazi to the woman. She said no. If she needed anything from the King or the commander of the army, her wealth and influence provided all the contacts she needed to get things done. Undeterred, Elisha asked Gehazi if the woman had other needs. Gehazi noticed the woman had no children, especially no son. And her old man was an old man. Elisha called the woman to his room and informed her that she would be with child in due season. Elisha raised her hopes. And she begged him not to dash them. Disappointment had been her sister far too long. Her heart, mind, spirit and couldn’t deal with one more hope deferred. Miraculously, the young woman conceived and bore a son in due season. When nothing else could help, God intervened with a miracle of life. God is good.
In Elisha’s world, women without children were stigmatized. Some critics suggested it was God’s punishment. Famous biblical women like Elizabeth, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother and Hannah suffered the indignities of barrenness for years before God blessed them extravagantly with a child. The Shunammite knew what it was to live with barrenness.
In passing, the state of being barren refers to more situations than women who can bear no children. Barren: no love in a marriage, potential divorce and/or physical abuse. Barren: no civil relations between parents and children-may lead to prodigal sons and daughters or ever seeing one’s parents again. Barren: no food, distended stomachs and starvation-waterborne diseases like cholera, salmonella and typhoid fever running wild. Barren-families in third world countries decimated by malaria; not enough meds, blankets or knowledge to knock it out like America knocked out polio in the fifties and sixties. Barren- too few churches doing Disciple Bible Study in prisons or halfway houses; welcoming former inmates into worship, church membership or visiting them in jail or a correctional institution in the neighborhood. Barren: no disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in 10 years-dying churches and deferred hopes. Barren: no radical hospitality no prayer-no power. No ability to see in the dark. Barrenness is a fact of life. Sometimes, we can pray our way through. Inevitably, God has to step in and do God’s thing.
Look at God. A wealthy woman provides food and shelter for a man of God and ends up benefitting from the relationship personally. One of the greatest stigmas is lifted from her shoulders. And the prophet Elisha is the instrument. Furthermore, this wealthy woman learns more about Elisha’s God. First, her power, prestige and money do not turn God away. Rich folks can get a prayer through. God makes real what money cannot buy. Second, God makes real in her life prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and amazing grace. She was spared a life time of barrenness. She has a son. Undoubtedly, the Shunammite cannot help thinking about the extravagant generosity of God every time she sees her son. Third, the woman becomes a firm believer in Elisha’s God. Fourth, every time Elisha visits her house, he has to contend with a child following behind him, maybe jumping on his bed. Glory, Hallelujah!
When a four person delegation attended the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Africa University in Zimbabwe, I witnessed an unplanned act of extravagant generosity. Our travel group visited Old Mutare, an orphanage. Children young and old poured out of their community houses to observe us. Moved by the bedraggled conditions of the children and their circumstances, someone suggested that I pass the hat. $550 was given from a bus of 30 plus persons. When we got back on the bus, one man said he had decided to sponsor one of the children. Later, we learned that our gift represented a kairos moment. The cupboards of the orphanage were bare. And the monthly allotment of 10 bars a month had been cut to 3. Our gift from America arrived at the most propitious moment. April 11, 2013, Natalie Kale, the representative from Educational Opportunities that accompanied us the Zimbabwe trip added another capstone to our group story. Natalie says, “A huge thank you to all of you for your spontaneous generosity. Between our group members, we ended up donating upwards of $800 to the Fairfield Children’s Home.”
Ironically, Natalie Kale’s comment about “spontaneous generosity” anticipated the last chapter of our story. One day, the woman’s son visits his father reaping grain in the field. His head starts hurting. So, he complains to his dad, His father sends him home to his mother. After a few hours, the boy dies in his mother’s arms as she holds him on her lap. In shock, the Shunammite woman takes her dead son up to Elisha’s room and lays him on his bed. Then, she sets out post haste to find Elisha. He is on Mt. Carmel. When Elisha spots her and sends his servant to ascertain if all is well with her, her husband and their son. Though she knows it is not true, she says to Gehazi “It is well!!” But it’s not well. Distraught, this wealthy Shunammite woman grabs hold of the prophet’s ankle complaining “I told not to deceive me.” Perhaps, her complaint can be understood in these terms “My son is gone already. My barren state has returned with a funeral to plan. Elisha, I begged you not to deceive me-not to play with my vulnerabilities.” In any case, the woman insists that Elisha come back to the house. Elisha sends Gehazi ahead him with his staff to heal the boy. But Gehazi cannot resurrect him. When the prophet and his mother arrive at the house, Elisha goes up to his room and shuts the door. Then, he prays fervently. I imagine him praying something real simple. “Lord, send him back to his Mama. She is heartsick. And I’m torn up myself. Spare her from this new episode of barrenness just a while longer.” After praying, Elisha stretches over the boy. His cold body warms up. Then, Elisha paces around the room and nervously bends over the child. He sneezes seven times and opens his eyes. Elisha calls his mother and says “take your son.” She falls at the feet of Elisha rejoicing over a son that was dead and is now alive. Mother and son go downstairs hugging, laughing, kissing and talking. You can’t beat God giving no matter how hard you try.”
Equally amazing, the Shunammite woman had no idea when she built an addition for the stranger who turned out to be the Prophet Elisha that his room would be the very room where her only son would get up from the grave. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? I cannot help but think that the room the woman built for Elisha became the ultimate example and symbol of Extravagant Generosity in her life. Amen.