Back in March, we were looking at a healing story, and I mentioned one of my New Testament teachers who said that all healing stories – Old Testament, New Testament, throughout the ancient world – all healing stories have the same basic structure: (1) There is a need; (2) The need is voiced; (3) The need is met.
That is also true for stories that tell of miraculous provision – Jesus and the loaves and fishes; Moses and the manna in the desert; and this morning the widow and the miraculous abundance of oil.
(1) There is a need; (2) The need is voiced; (3) The need is met.
The structure of the story is always the same. What is interesting is how the story is told. What is the need? How is it voiced – who is speaking up? And how in the world does this miraculous provision come about?
As we enter this widow’s world this morning, the need is dire. Her husband has died; she has nothing; and they are about to come take her children. The need: Scarcity. Hunger. Loss. Debt, with no means to repay it. Creditors on the way. Real fear that she will lose her home and her family. And all this need – all this need hits her in a place where she is already grieving. She has already lost so much. She names that when she comes to Elisha, the man of God: “My husband, your servant, has died, and his creditors are coming to take my sons.” After all she’s lost, she may lose everything else.
It’s also important for us to notice that her whole situation – all of this need results, not only from life circumstances, but also from systems and structures that are working to keep her in need. Things don’t have to be like this – but there are systems at work – a patriarchal system where a woman – this woman – has little relative power, and no clear way within the system to make a living for her family. Deep loss, tangled up in oppressive systems. The need is dire.
And see how it is voiced. The woman voices it. She takes the initiative. Her husband has served Elisha, the prophet, the man of God – so she goes to Elisha and she lays it out. She makes her case. My husband, who served you, has died. And now, the creditors are coming to take away my children.
And in this world of power-over, we get this surprising conversation of mutuality. Elisha doesn’t command the fix. He doesn’t step in and take over. Instead, Elisha asks her, “How can I help you? What do I have on hand?” He recognizes her agency, her dignity, her ability to understand her own need and to articulate it better than anyone else – and her ability (as someone fully human) – to articulate how the need should be met and what she has to contribute. And the woman says, “I’ve got a little oil.” Together, they voice the need, and the first glimpse of provision.
And then, together, they meet the need. That’s how God provides here. They collaborate. They go to work. Elisha tells her to go around to the neighbors, collect their old, empty unused jars – as many as they can find. “Don’t ask for just a few.” Be bold. And then, go back to your home, behind closed doors, and start pouring oil, and don’t stop until you’re done.
The widow does just that, throughout her community, she knocks on doors – door after door. Each door, each neighbor offers a jar or two. And then, the woman and her sons, go back home, with this inventory of empty jars. They close the doors, and they get to work. They start pouring. The first jar. Taking that little bit of oil she had, and filling the jar with oil. She turns to her son, “Now hand me the next jar...” and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, until she asks for a jar, and her son says, “Mom, that’s it.” And she lifts her head from her work, and she sees this room, full of jars, full of oil. More than enough to feed her family, to pay her debts, to return to her neighbors, and to live off what is left.
What we have here is a story of real need, in real people, in real lives – a story of conversations that name that need plainly, honestly – the loss, the need, the systems and structures that are at work holding her back. And then there is this community – this community that the woman and her sons gather, each offering up what they have, until jar after jar overflows with oil. What we have here is a story that begins in scarcity – in deep hunger and dire need – and through the life of community – culminates in an experience God’s abundance – more than enough for everyone in the story, and beyond.
As I’ve been working with this Scripture, and thinking about the deep need of hunger and what we can do, I’ve also been reading this book written by Jo Gross – a member of this community – called “The Welcome Table.” I’ve mentioned this to a few of you, and by the reaction, I know that some of you have read the book too – or you’ve learned what’s in it directly from Jo.
In her book, Jo tells the story of the community in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that started a ministry called The Banquet, a ministry that over the years has fed – thousands. Back in 1985, the Catholic Bishop there gathered some folks in the community – including Jo – and invited them to think about the problem of hunger in Sioux Falls – so many who were suffering – and to think what they might do about it. They started to study the extent of it – they researched what others elsewhere were doing to help – and came to understand hunger and poverty – the need – as “not having enough money to eat and live decently.” 
To meet the need, they set out to create “an open table where the most vulnerable could come and be fed.” The Catholic Diocese took responsibility for the upkeep of a building, and they gathered a community of communities to do the work – churches and other community organizations – to prepare and serve the meals. Jo led that effort – to gather, train, and encourage a community of volunteers. The planners supported the ministry through donations from throughout the community, with each check, inviting the donor to come in and do the work – to experience the blessing of serving.
They understood their ministry as work undertaken in the name of Jesus – and so the guiding principles of their mission insisted on honoring the dignity of each person who walked through the doors. All were invited; no one was turned away. There were no strings attached.
And at the heart of it all, they insisted, as I have heard Jo say, that “the poor should never be treated poorly.”So The Banquet became a place where folks ate together – those who came to get a meal ate side by side with those who prepared the meal – all ate together at the same table – all sharing the experience of “hosting and being hosted.” They tended to the hospitality of the space – art on the walls, flowers for the table, real dishes and forks and spoons. And folks were fed. And folks kept coming back – to prepare the meal – to share the meal – to experience the abundance of community. In the face of dire need, God provided abundance in the collaborative power of community – as Jo would say, “with love as the main ingredient.”
The Banquet started with that conversation in 1985. Jo wrote her book in 1995. And the ministry in Sioux Falls is still going strong – they are now serving 600 people a night; they have a volunteer base of 20,000 volunteers. They’ve added programs to meet new needs; and during the pandemic, they’ve adapted programs, they’re serving meals to go during the pandemic.In the last few years, they’ve built a new facility on the West side of town. This year, they are naming that new center after Jo, in honor of the community of volunteers that she gathered and nurtured – a community of volunteers that still has life today.
Now some of those details may feel familiar in this community– because when this church decided to become part of the REST shelter program – and take a regular night to provide meals and a place to sleep – Jo brought these values to the welcome table here. The team that prepared the meal here ate with the guests who came; there were flowers on the table, real plates, no one was served poorly – a shared prayer, a shared meal. Do you remember? I do.
These are each stories of dire need – of hunger and displacement – met in the creative, collaborative power of community. We’ve told these stories of miraculous provision over thousands of years – from the days of Elisha and the woman on down to today. We tell these stories because, over the centuries – the need persists.
The need persists today – in our day – it has become part of our experience of pandemic. Earlier this month, our national unemployment rate exceeded 14%. Right now, there are 4.6 million Californians without jobs, and the State projects that unemployment might peak at 24%. And of course, loss of a job brings about loss of a living wage and loss of the ability to access sufficient food. We face a world where so many lack the money to eat and live decently. The need is all too familiar, and growing every day, even as the world continues to be unfamiliar and bewildering.
And here’s the thing – so many of the things that we would usually do to help – we can’t – or at least they come with limitations. The techniques that we would bring, the helping techniques that we know – we either can’t or shouldn’t do, for the good of those we would help. We can’t all sit at a table together right now. In the context of pandemic, that would not be life-giving, that would be life-risking. And that itself is a loss.
Allie talked last week, so lovingly, about the grief we have experienced in worship – the loss of being in person. That’s true too for the life we live together in service. And we should name that honestly – for an activist congregation like this – we grieve at the limitations of not being bodily present with each other, particularly sisters, brothers, and siblings in need.
But Jo’s book has wisdom for this. Toward the end of the book, Jo is reflecting on the origin and emergence of The Banquet community in the face of dire need, and she quotes Professor Henry Joel Cadbury – a biblical scholar and leader of the American Friends Service Committee. She quotes him saying that there are two types of people in the world. There are “therefore” people, and there are “however” people.
“However” people face a need and a limitation and say, “There is a dire need, however, we can’t do anything because...” “Therefore” people say, “There is a dire need, we understand the limitations, therefore, here is what we can do.” Something new. Something that adapts the things we know. Something that brings to life a way to meet the need that is right for this place, in our time. In the world of improvisation, we would call these “YES/AND” people.
We may not be able to bring some of the techniques of helping that are familiar to us – the ways that we have known to do what we do. But what we can do is bring the values of helping – in the name of Jesus – that have always been true – the dignity of each person, and the power of collaboration in community – to do what we can – and to remake and to learn new ways of doing what needs to be done.
And we have some of those things that we can do today:
· In just a few minutes, Barbara Rothkrug will tell us more about how we can write letters to support the work of Bread for the World to alleviate and end hunger. Bread for the World is an international advocacy group that targets the systems and structures that create hunger in the world. We can be a part of that advocacy.
· We participate in our Presbytery’s efforts to help end hunger locally through the Centsability Offering. We’ve noticed a drop in that offering – that’s not as easy to do, perhaps, without the reminder of a physical offering – but we can create new ways together and individually for regularizing and maintaining that commitment.
· For a while now, this congregation has brought forward canned goods to contribute to the food bank. Zach and Aiden Nelson have taken what was in the barrel to the food bank. I’ve heard folks talk about how to continue their donations – trying to figure out how to get the groceries – and ultimately deciding that it may be even more helpful these days just to make a direct contribution to the Food Bank. Fewer people have to go to the Safeway, and the food bank can use the money to get what is needed most.
· For some time now, this congregation has helped make a regular Tuesday hot meal for the Marin Street Chaplaincy. Nick Morris and Joy Snyder have adapted how that meal serves those who have been living outside – and the Conants and the Nelsons are helping do grocery runs.
· Our congregational reps to the Marin Organizing Committee are letting us know about ways to support the MOC’s emerging efforts to help our undocumented neighbors – including making sure that they have access to the same food and resources that everyone does.
We tell these stories of miraculous provision because two things have never stopped being true. First, for the widow and her sons and for these days of pandemic, far too many people experience the deep need of hunger. It is as human and persistent as our daily need for food and our imperfect inability to structure systems that distribute food justly. and the second thing – God empowers us to collaborate creatively to meet that need – to remake with God new ways, reformed ways, adapted ways to meet the need – to remake a world where everyone has enough.
I emailed with Jo this weekend, to let her know that I’d be sharing some of the story of the Banquet, and to thank her. And in one of her emails, always generous, she shared this poem, and lets it be the way we move towards prayer:
'Till morning comes, we'll embrace the dawn
as time to revise, reform, remake
let our imaginations reign, ideas spawn
'till morning comes, we'll embrace the dawn.
One day the virus will vanish, be gone
with a cry of desolation in its wake
'till morning comes, we'll embrace the dawn
as time to revise, reform, remake. -- by Jo Gross
 Antoinette Clark Wire, Holy Lives, Holy Deaths: A Close Hearing of Early Jewish Storytellers (Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA: 2002)  Jo Vaughn Gross, The Welcome Table: Reflections on The Banquet (Comaro Press: Ross, CA, 1995). Id. at 2. Id. at 12. Id. at 45. See https://www.argusleader.com/story/news/2020/03/13/banquet-sioux-falls-serves-meals-go-due-covid-19-concern/5044593002/
© 2020 Scott Clark
-- Poem by Jo Gross used with permission.