C.S. Lewis said “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.” The prophet Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath reminds us that each person has God-given gifts to offer the world. Sometimes those gifts are found in unlikeliest people and situations, so we need to act as “detectives of divinity” to look for clues of those gifts among us and around us.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: 1 Kings 17:8-16
This past Wednesday night I went to the movie theater for the first time since the pandemic began. The movie I saw is called “C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert” and it was about the early life of that great 20th century British lay theologian and author of many beloved books for both children and adults.
The film tells the story of Lewis’ younger years, leading up to his conversion to Christianity, from his childhood church upbringing, to becoming an atheist, then a theist, and then finally his acceptance of Jesus Christ as God and Lord of his life.
If you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, I definitely recommend seeing the movie.
I discovered C.S. Lewis while I was in college, and read several of his books including Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and his classic children’s collection, The Chronicles of Narnia.
In fact, during college I was part of a leadership training team one summer through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and one thing that we did was a street theater outreach skit in a plaza at UC Berkeley, based on a passage from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader from The Chronicles of Narnia.
C.S. Lewis has many memorable quotes, and one quote is from his classic sermon during WWII “The Weight of Glory”. In that sermon, Lewis is talking about the value and worth of each human being in the eyes of God, and he says
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal”.
We live in a world where so often we are reminded of our mortality—the frailty of our bodies, the forgetfulness of our minds, our limitations, our shortcomings, and our failures.
Karen and I were talking with Glen and Marilyn Denlinger the other night, swapping stories about recent surgeries that each of us has had, and lamenting how long the healing process takes! It was an exercise in mortality.
When our mortality seems so real to us, sometimes a survival mentality is the best outlook we can muster up. And sometimes we can’t even get that optimistic.
Such is the reality of the woman in our story today. Her life is pretty much at rock bottom—she’s a widow, so she has no one to provide for her and her family.
The town she lives in Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, is a dry place that’s in the midst of a terrible drought. Water is scarce, firewood is scarce, and food is scarce. And she has another mouth to feed in her house, her son. So her hope is not even scarce, it’s completely dried up, like the stream that is near her home.
And then God leads a hungry and thirsty prophet Elijah to this destitute widow’s house, saying that she is going to feed him. Doesn’t God have a great sense of humor? You think God could have made a better choice, right?
And so Elijah shows up at the woman’s place, asking for water, and also for a little morsel of bread. I can imagine the woman laughing in his face—huh!
And this is what I hear her telling him, “Look Mister, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m just a mere mortal. All I’ve got is a handful of flour in a jar and a few drops of oil in a jug.
And so right now I’m going to find a couple of sticks to make a little fire, then I’m going to mix that bread and oil and bake it up, then my son and I are going to eat our last meal on this earth together, and then we’re going to die.”
But Elijah is not deterred; he gets a word from God, and says to the widow,
“Don’t be afraid, go ahead and make that bread, but first give it to me, and then just make some more for you and your son to eat. For God is telling me that the jar and the jug won’t run out, all the way up until the drought is over.”
So that’s what the woman did, and sure enough, the jar of flour never ran out, and the jug of oil never ran dry.
The other day I watched a sermon on YouTube by Christine Caine, an Australian woman who’s the founder of the A21 anti-human trafficking organization. The sermon was titled “Highly unlikely”, and Caine said this:
“God always goes to unlikely places, finds unlikely people, asks them to do unlikely things, and then ends up with a highly unlikely result.”
This quote could have come right out of the script of this encounter between Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
And so often the unlikely people God uses are those who are poor by the world’s standards, those who are painfully aware of their own mortality, like the widow of Zarephath.
But in God’s economy there are no mere mortals, and where there seems to be scarcity and stinginess, abundance and generosity are just waiting to burst forth.
Karen and I experienced this abundance and generosity and time and time again when we lived in Bolivia serving with Mennonite Mission Network.
At the time, Bolivia was the second poorest country in Latin America. And most of the people that we related to were from families who were originally connected with Mennonite Central Committee,
whose work was largely in small rural villages outside the city of Santa Cruz, and where the people were subsistence farmers.
One of my roles was to support and train leaders in the small Mennonite churches that had begun in these villages as a result of MCC’s work. In the village of Los Tajibos, one of these leaders was Nicolas Opimi and his wife’s name was Amalia. They had a big family, so there were a lot of hungry mouths to feed.
Nicolas and Amalia were farmers, and their main two crops were pineapples and yucca, otherwise known as manioc root. When I was in Los Tajibos, I often stopped by their house.
And always, I mean always, they sat me down and offered me something to eat. That’s just what people do in Bolivia, even when they don’t have much to offer.
Most often Nicolas and Amalia offered me pineapples, because that’s what they had on hand. They’d call one of their sons and say, “go out to the field and pick a big pineapple for hermano Tig.”
And in about 10 minutes he’d come back with a big, fresh pineapple. I mean one that was bright yellow, not green, like the ones we find at our stores because they are picked two months too early.
And Amalia would take that pineapple, get a big knife, cut off the rind, slice that pineapple up and put that entire pineapple on a plate for me to eat. And usually I ate the whole thing right then and there. It was sooo good!
And then they would often give me a couple more to take home to my family, along with some yucca and some homemade cookies.
The British priest Sam Wells has said, “Poverty is a mask we put on people to hide their true wealth” But when we insist on looking behind that mask, we do indeed find untold wealth. P. 114
That’s the kind of wealth I found during our time in Bolivia. And it’s the kind of wealth that a pastor named Michael Mather found when he became pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in inner city Indianapolis.
I recently read his book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, and in the book he says that when he first began his ministry there, his strategy was to bring in resources and programs from the outside to meet the needs of the residents of the community around the church, who he thought had nothing of their own to give.
The church used donated goods from groups outside of the community to start a food pantry, they got grant money to set up a program to help people pay their utility bills.
The church also received a grant to start a garden at the church, and provided their own staff to work the garden—they’d plant and harvest the vegetables, then they would hand out the produce to people in the community.
But as time went on, Mather came to a realization. He realized that he and his church were overlooking the resources that were already available in the lives of their neighbors, the very people they had come to serve.
He realized that people were the best resource they had—their experiences, their skills, their gifts, their passions, their generosity, and the network of relationships they had built with one another.
So Mather and those around him looked behind the masks of their neighbors, and found untold wealth. For example, their garden project was struggling.
But as they built relationships with people in the community, they discovered that many of them already had their own garden plots on their property and were very good gardeners themselves.
So all the gardeners of the community came together and brainstormed how they could best use their gardens to serve their neighbors. And they ended up working with a local hospital to set up a farmer’s market in the hospital parking lot. And that farmer’s market thrived, meeting a big need in the community.
Mather and his neighbors were learning to see with new eyes. He said, “our streets aren’t dark and dangerous…they’re bright and imaginative. We are discovering, We are like “detectives on the track of the holy” (Donna Schaper) p. 125
Or as the song we sang says, like detectives of divinity.
Mather’s ministry became like a lesson in economics 101—or maybe 202–an economy, where people who are discounted by the world are seen for the gifts they have to offer.
Wendell Berry, the American novelist, farmer, and environmental activist was once asked “What kind of economy is best?” Berry said “the best economy is the kingdom of God. That isn’t a capitalist economy or a socialist economy.
It’s an economy where attention is paid to every hair on our head, to the ways in which the flowers of the field are dressed, and to God’s abundance in the most surprising places.” (P. 132)
I would say that it’s an economy that sees people as C.S. Lewis described us, people who are far from ordinary, each one of us is no mere mortal, but it’s like we’ve been stamped by God with immortality,
With each one of us having incredible gifts from God to share with the world around us.
In the relatively short time I’ve been here at Daniels Run Peace Church, I’ve gotten a glimpse of the giftedness of the people here and how so many of you generously share your gifts with our congregation and with our community.
We are a small church, but we know how to do “more with less”—we make a big impact with the our relatively small size. And I believe that there is still so much more to be discovered and deployed among us,
As new people join this community and as we open ourselves up more to be used by God in new ways.
So, like Michael Mather, let’s remember that people—all of us– are the best resource we have. Yes, we have a great facility here which is being used in so many ways. But it’s us right here who is our best resource—our gifts, our passions, our skills, our experiences, our optimistic and hopeful spirit.
And that gives us motivation to discover the gifts that are waiting to be used among us. Let’s be “detectives of divinity” with each other, looking for those God-given gifts, calling them out, encouraging them to be used, and opening ourselves to be blessed by them.
I’m going to end with a few questions that I’ll give you a moment to reflect on each one as I read it:
* Like Elijah, how have you been nourished and blessed by a gift that someone has shared with you?
* Who is someone who has seen you as more than a mere mortal, who has believed in you and encouraged you to use a gift to serve the Church and those around you?
* Is there a gift in someone in our church or in your life that you see and can affirm or call out?