“From a Little Bit of Oil”
Prayer for Understanding
As we read your Word let us hear your voice, and in hearing, let our lives be changed and your world transformed.
Sermon: Using your gifts
I have worked for the Presbyterian Church in Canada for the past 27 years. My first job when I graduated from International Development Studies at the University of Toronto was Communications Coordinator for PWS&D. I thought it might be a job for a year or two before going on to do a master's degree, but after 11 years, I was still there.
Things were going well. I had helped the church respond to disasters like Hurricane Mitch, a tsunami, and the Pakistan earthquake and had visited long-term development projects helping people transform their lives in Malawi, India, Central America, and more.
So no one was more surprised than I when the stewardship and planned giving job came up and I had this nudge.
Loved my job and when I wasn’t working, I was spending time on my farm, raising sheep and horses with my husband. I was already working a hybrid job, and had the best job in the world: why would I look for change?
Stewardship – had to do with asking for $ - no one likes the money person and Presbyterians Sharing – was “that big black hole”. However, I looked into it more.
The Anglo-Saxon word for steward was stygwaeden ‘keeper of the pig sty’. That didn’t really convince me, I’m more of a sheep person than pig.
In the bible the Greek word that refers to a steward is economos. (The word economy comes from it.) The economos was the person who served the owner of the estate and knew the owner’s plans, deepest intentions, and highest hopes. They would see to it that the work was done properly and well, often when the Owner was away.
When we understand the word steward in this way, we see that stewardship invites us to live out the will of God, as revealed in scripture and especially in the life of Jesus. We are the hands and feet of God, acting for God in this world, caring for the creation that God loves.
This is exciting. Love. Faith. Hope. Compassion. Teaching. Equipping – it’s all part of it. It’s what I had been already doing at PWS&D and I thought I could apply the lessons I had learned there to the rest of the church. That’s why I took the job, and why I think the stewardship committee should be one of the most exciting committees in the church!
STEWARDSHIP is really the way we put our faith into action. And that was something that I could do - and in fact, had been doing.
The Widow’s Oil
I learned a lot about stewardship in my work at PWS&D. One lesson came early in my career when I had taken a group of farmers to visit projects in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch had devastated crops and communities there.
A group of us sat in a circle under a tree, while the director of one of the programs read II Kings 4:1-11 and then told us why this scripture was important to her. She said that Nicaragua is a poor country.
In Nicaragua, there are many women, like the widows, raising families on their own. Too many partners and husbands had left Nicaragua to go to other countries to look for work – sending remittances back when they could.
Like the widow, who was about to lose her two sons as slaves to pay off her debts – many of them felt like they were losing their children to despair, drugs, poverty, and gangs.
Who knows what the widow was expecting when she went to Elisha for help – maybe some charity so she could pay off the creditor, maybe Elisha would talk to the creditors and ask them to have compassion on her.
I don’t think she was expecting Elisha’s question: What do you have in your house?
She might have been a bit confused. If she had very much, she wouldn’t be there!
But she thinks for a bit and says she has a little bit of oil.
We can work with that, Elisha says.
And he gives her instructions: Go to your neighbours. Borrow some vessels – and not just a few.
His instructions require the widow to take her faith and put it into action. She has gathered her strength and is encouraged to trust Elisha. I don’t think it was easy, going to her neighbours. Maybe they would ask her “What are you going to do with my vessels?” “When am I going to get them back?” they probably knew she was in tough circumstances and maybe they judged her – or her late husband – for getting themselves into that situation.
But, she takes her faith and her courage and strength and gathers the vessels, locks herself in a room with her children, and starts to pour the oil. And then, with a smile, Anna Maria said to us, this is where the miracle happens: the oil keeps flowing and flowing until all the vessels are full, and then it stops.
The widow takes the oil back to Elisha and asks what to do. And I think he surprises her again. He tells her she can sell it, pay the debts, and live off the rest.
And that, Anna Maria said, is the first ‘income generating’ project in the bible.
Elisha took care of her needs, not just for today, but for the future. More than that, he gives her HOPE. And he does so by using what she already has.
This story teaches us about how God gives –in a way that cares for and nurtures the recipient. It helps us see that God has given everyone gifts. It helps us think about how we can give in a way that restores dignity, that walks with people in their journey, that empowers them to use their gifts, in a way that shares hope.
But the director also said it taught her something as one who gives. This scripture reminded her to see the gifts she had – what God had given her, even when she thought she had nothing and to see how she could use those gifts to respond to the needs around her.
She was a poor pastor, in a poor barrio in Managua, how could she make a difference with all the poverty she saw?
She was the first ordained Mennonite pastor in Nicaragua, so she had a strong faith and knew how to articulate it. She had the gifts – of organization, inspiration, and advocacy. And she saw a need: kids going to school hungry. And so she had a dream: to start breakfast programs for youth. She asked the congregation, but they were reluctant to get involved. They didn’t really want to risk sharing the church they so carefully cared for – a place of peace, where they could escape the chaos of the barrio. Would the children respect it or would it get messy?
Anna-Maria didn’t give up. She went to the local bodegas and got donations of food. She talked to other churches in the area. And opened their first program. Finally, her church agreed to use the patio they had there. And the program grew. The oil kept flowing and flowing.
Eventually, she began to talk to the woman bringing their children and realized they also had skills. She helped them start saving groups and open small businesses – even when people thought these uneducated unskilled women couldn’t have a savings account. And they began to earn incomes themselves – not only meeting their immediate needs but giving them hope for the future.
And what does this mean today?
In times of oppression, poverty, and injustice, it’s even more important that we use the gifts God has given us to shine our light.
We’ve just come through a pandemic that has changed the way we look at and experience the world.
Three years of isolation and uncertainty have brought a mix of anxiety, grief, fear, and anger – alongside community, joy, reflection, and hope.
We are facing changing economic times where costs are rising faster than wages, companies too often put profits before and the news is full of warnings of a coming recession.
We live in an age where lying and deceit have become acceptable traits in politics people and where people are afraid of “the other”.
We are seeing more and more catastrophic weather events: fires, floods, hurricanes, and unpredictable weather – the consequences of years of exploitation and neglect of God’s creation.
War and conflict in Ukraine, Syria, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, and South Sudan – to name a few – have high numbers of casualties and are displacing populations.
We’ve seen how gangs and economic decline in Latin America forced people to leave for the prospect of brighter futures, only to be met by closed borders and hostile welcomes.
And that’s just the big picture. In our own communities, individuals are hurting. Some are struggling with finances. Some are stuck in painful relationships. Some struggle with mental health. Some are struggling with physical health. Some feel they can check off “all of the above.”
The number of people who come together to worship and follow Christ in communities and congregations across Canada has declined and those of us who remain often wonder how we can continue to be faithful followers of Christ in a world we don’t understand.
In hard times, it can be difficult to see where God is.
HOW IN THE WORLD ARE WE SUPPOSED TO SHINE GOD’s LIGHT? Well, what do we have in the house?
Still, it’s not easy. We sometimes don’t feel we have the ability to shine God’s light. Sometimes we can’t even see the light at all.
Sometimes, I know that I’ve felt like a widow.
2019 I began plans to take intermission – 3 months off work to work on a project close to my heart.
I had plans. Writing. Hanging out with my m-i-l during winter (hardest months). Travel: friends in Hamilton, another in the US, and a trip to Paris . . . Submitted proposal, Accepted Sept 2019.
Finished year-end and January craziness closing the books. My m-i-l had a shoulder replaced in Dec- 6 weeks in a nursing home. Brought her home and began my intermission in February 2020.
Well, we all know what happened.
But it hit me hard. More than just a pandemic. Thoughts slipped into my head: I would have loved to take an intermission or been stuck at home in a pandemic when John was alive – instead of taking it, looking after my m-i-l who was needing more care. All the people who I counted on to come visit and help me with farm jobs – particularly my parents (now in their 80s still exhaust me trying to keep up with them.)
It was coming up to 10 years without John.
And I was turning 50.
Once these thoughts began to invade my mind and they were hard to get out . . .
Infected everything. My health. I lost 50 lbs. I went to the doctors who said they couldn’t see what was wrong: I had none of the big things.
Time passed. I returned to work in April 2020 and people from congregations were asking ‘What do we do NOW?’
‘how do we run a capital campaign? How do we collect offerings when we don’t meet for worship? How do we reach the marginal and vulnerable?
Everything was overwhelming.
I had no answers. But I watched.
I saw churches pivot: xoom services, drive-in, porch visits, and online summer camps. Some came out stronger than before. Many were able to weather the challenges that were thrown out of them.
The oil kept flowing.
Taking risks isn’t easy. We might not always feel like it. We might not feel like we have the strength to do anything. It can take a long time.
It took almost 2 years to come out of my depression.
It wasn’t easy. Many times I wanted to quit my job. I felt I didn’t know how to do it anymore. I wanted to sell the farm. I wanted to walk away from everything I had known and loved.
Instead, I kept on moving and kept living my life, even when I didn’t believe it would make a difference. A therapist said something to me that made sense: I needed to retrain my brain to believe again.
Every day got out of bed, I thought I was killing my sheep and horses, but went to the barn and did what I always did, 2 squares of bales for the horses, and one for the sheep.
When the babies came, I called the neighbours and with masks, we helped deliver them.
I kept cooking and paying all the bills. Got my vaccinations.
Replied to all those emails that asked me about raising funds in churches and said we had to do the same things as we were doing before: Tell your story. Share what God is doing. Ask for gifts. Make it easy for people to give.
And I began, once again, to believe that there are things I can do. I have gifts. God hasn’t abandoned me – been here all along – even when I didn’t believe.
At the end of COVID, I had a passport saying I was vaccinated and was able to go out for dinner IN a RESTAURANT with a friend who had also lost her husband, a couple of years before I lost John. When I got there she said another friend was joining us for dinner – he and his friend were going to a concert in TO and wanted to save money and park at her condo.
So, it was then that I reconnected with David, who had also lost his wife to cancer, and his friend who had lost his husband to cancer, Smudge and I who had lost our partners to AIDS.
9 months later I had the courage to ask him out. And 2 weeks ago we were married on a lovely service on the farm.
And my m-i-l? When she asked what about her? I said I told him before our 2nd date I told David that I “Came with a farm and a m-i-l and he replied, “No problem, I’m all in".
Supporting Future Ministry
Stewardship is about more than just giving money. It’s how we put our faith into action and use the gifts we’ve been given to fulfill God’s mission. However, giving financial gifts IS part of it.
Planned gifts are a way for people to keep moving forward in faith – to put their faith into action into the future. They come from accumulated resources (savings accounts, securities, real estate) and often have special tax benefits which both require planning to give.
The most common type of legacy gift comes to the church when a person dies: money left in a will, a gift of life insurance or a charitable gift annuity or personal investments like stocks, bonds or mutual funds, or a valuable piece of property (can be given alive or through an estate) all be used to support ministry into the future.
And they generally support ministry that is forward-thinking – it’s big – it’s about the future of the church. It’s an investment.
Planned gifts can have a big impact on communities and allow a church to go ahead with a ministry or special project that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. The legacy of that investment in ministry may be felt for generations to come. The oil keeps flowing.
After the service, I’m going to share practical ways people can use planned gifts to transform ministry and share stories of REAL people who have used planned gifts to support the church.
People like Mary Hobley.
Mary was passionate about music. She was still singing in her church choir and taking weekly voice lessons into her 90s. She wanted to pass the gift of music on to future generations, so she left a gift in her will for St. Columba by the Lake Presbyterian Church in Pointe-Claire, Que. This gift was used to create The Hobley Fund, and the interest allows St. Columba to support music ministry in Mary’s name.
Half of the money provides two music scholarships annually for high school students in the community who have graduated and are going on to study music. The second half provides funds annually to support St Columba’s ministry, which the session can designate as it sees fit. For some years it has been used to enhance the music ministry, like organ maintenance, but it has also been used to help fund equipment for the kitchen, sanctuary renovations, and a new Food Ministry Coordinator at St. Columba. Mary’s gift continues to bless both St. Columba and the community of Pointe-Claire. Through her planned gift, Mary’s love of God, neighbour, and music lives far into the future. And the oil keeps flowing.
Risk and Investment
Jesus’ teachings and stories remind us that everyone is blessed, valued, and entrusted with resources—money, talents, time, life, and families. We are given these resources by God and it is up to us how we use them. The ministry we do, and the impact of gift looks different in each congregation.
As a church—and especially as Presbyterians—we are known to be a thinking people. We think carefully before we do things. We assess and reassess; we pray and we ponder. We look at the big picture, the long-range goals. We create budgets and prepare reports.
But even with all that planning, there are things we don’t know about how ministry and our lives will unfold.
Planned Giving is risky! And yet, we keep moving forward in faith. We pledge from our resources, make use of our gifts and strengths, and invest in what will enable us to serve God and make our community better.
Giving a planned gift can be risky, as none of us can predict the future. People of faith have always taken risks, in the generous use of their lives and financial resources.
I like the passage in II Corinthians 8 – the GIFT IS ACCORDING WHAT YOU HAVE _ NOT WHAT YOU DON'T. You are enough. God has given you gifts – give out of that. You don’t have to go into debt. You don’t have to become someone you aren’t. Jesus invested in the lives of fishermen and tax collectors!
We need to take our courage and faith and take risks.
Now more than ever.
We may risk a new relationship, help others, or share our faith or our life story.
Sometimes it fails, but when it works, we see where God is at work – surprising us – as the oil keeps flowing and flowing.
So by these gifts, we give by the way we choose to live our lives through this pandemic and beyond, taking risks, being vulnerable, through imperfection, and dirty and messiness of this life with God’s grace and never-ending love we will share HOPE. And we are promised:
God can accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask for or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20) And the oil keeps flowing.
Thanks be to God!