My Cup Runs Over
What do we do with the overflow? This summer we have been looking at Psalm 23, a study we will be wrapping up in the next few weeks. We have already shifted from being sheep under the care of Yahweh the shepherd to being guests in the home of Yahweh the host. We have been welcomed with a feast spread before us, our heads have been anointed with oil, and we have been elevated into places of honor. And now, our cups overflow with more than enough.
In part, today we receive a lesson in hospitality. And that theme of hospitality is one that runs throughout Scripture. When we read lessons about welcoming the stranger or feeding the hungry, we are reminded that the cultures and times of the Bible are very different from our own. Hospitality plays a bigger role in much of the world than it seems to in our own. And those of you who have been fortunate enough to travel to the two-thirds world probably have some sense of what I’m talking about.
My own experience in that regard first came as a teenager. The youth of First Presbyterian traveled to the Dominican Republic to work along side a youth group there. We painted churches and health clinics, we dug cisterns, we played basketball and ran along the beach together. One night, after a long day of work at a Presbyterian camp deep in the countryside, we piled into our vans and drove out even further into the heart of the D.R. The pavement eventually gave way to dirt, and the dirt gave way to mud. Soon, the deep ruts in the road became impassible. We walked the last little way up a hill to a simple, candlelit village church. After worshiping together, the villagers invited us to sit out under the trees, where they brought huge plates of food to us.
I was embarrassed. We were wealthy American teenagers, and these dirt poor villagers had prepared a feast for us. I didn’t want to eat, as it felt like I was taking food out of the mouths of those who needed it most. But my new Dominican friends encouraged me, leading by example. What I learned was that to turn the plates away would be an insult to village hospitality. I could best show my gratitude by being a good guest, by enjoying the meal and showing my appreciation for my hosts.
That story in my own life is what comes to mind when I read the lesson of Elijah and the widow. And the message at its heart is the one that echoes forth from Psalm 23: God gives us more than enough; indeed, more than we deserve.
Elijah is sent north, out of the land of Israel, beyond the Galilee, into Sidon, a Gentile region. In terms of modern day geography, that would be along the coast of southern Lebanon. And there, in the midst of a region-wide drought, he meets a starving widow. He pleads with her to bring him a little bread to eat, and we learn how truly horrible her situation is. She had only come out of her home to gather enough sticks to build a fire. Once that’s done, she’ll use up the rest of what she has so that she and her son can eat their final meal, and then die of starvation. And that’s when Elijah asks the unthinkable: “Give me that bread instead. And when you do, then you will never run out of food to eat until the drought ends and rain quenches the earth again.”
I don’t know what the unnamed widow must have been thinking, but she does exactly as Elijah says. Maybe she figured that she had nothing left to lose, so why not take a chance…or perhaps she was so low on hope that she really didn’t care any more…or maybe she actually did take Elijah at his word.
There’s actually a clue in the story itself as to why she agreed so easily. When Elijah first asks her for that bread, her response is, “As surely as Yahweh your God lives.” In other words, she recognized him as a worshiper of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. The Israelites who first read this story would have been shocked to hear that this woman, an outsider, a Gentile, someone not even worthy of being named, had more faith in God than most of them did. She may have been so far beyond desperate as to be resigned to her fate; and yet, she somehow still had more faith than many of the so-called faithful. Her faith leads to a surplus, a jar that never empties, a jug that never finishes, a cup that runs over.
The lesson is clear: trust in the Lord, and we will have enough, in fact, more than enough.
And yet, I want to be sure we are grasping that lesson in its broader meaning. The trick is that we can get so caught up in the details of the story that we begin to think that this is all there is. Very quickly, this lesson about God’s provision can become one about God’s material provision. But the message to the faithful is never that narrow. It’s like when we begin to think that “stewardship” is just a way for the church to talk about “money” without using the “m-word”. If that happens, then we have fallen into the trap of narrowing our focus.
This lesson, the lesson of Elijah and the Gentile widow, the lesson of Psalm 23, is the lesson of abundance. God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s blessings are extravagant! They are like an overflowing cup, reminders that there is more than enough to go around. And yet, if we get too caught up in the idea of material blessings alone, we miss the true grace and gift for us today.
Every one of us here has something through which we struggle. None of us has a perfect life; if we do, then we don’t really need to be here, do we? The gift in those struggles, however faint it may feel at the time, is that we do not travel through them alone. When Paul describes the church as the body of Christ, he goes on to say, “When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.” When we lift up our prayers as a community of faith, when we honestly share our challenges with one another, we are reminded that we are knit together in community, in love, in support and caring. We are not alone.
And at the same time, each one of us has something for which we are thankful. There are times when those things might seem faint, but they are there nonetheless. We could very well be grateful for material blessings, a wealth of goods, a comfortable way of life. But wealth comes in many forms. It could also be the wealth of relationships, the blessings of health. Maybe you have free time on your hands, or unique skills and knowledge that are in short supply. You sing, you play an instrument, you pray, you teach, you listen, you love…
In short, the question before each of us today is this: where is your wealth? What is your cup that runs over? Where in your life are you most grateful right now? Where do you see the outrageous, overflowing blessings of God? Where is it that you can most clearly see God’s abundance in your life, your reason to rejoice and give thanks?
I don’t know how you might answer that question, but I know that each of you has an answer. Deep down, we know where our gratitude lies. And that’s the beginning of our prayer today, of our thanksgiving and celebration.
But wait: there’s more.
We are grateful people. What do we do with that gratitude? When we experience the overflowing of God’s amazing gifts, what do we do with what’s left over?
In our brief lesson from Matthew this morning, Jesus reminds us of the purpose of hospitality. When we share even a simple cup of cold water with the children of God, we are quenching God’s own thirst for compassion and mercy. When we share what we have, we welcome Christ himself into our midst. When we share the blessings that overflow in our lives, we allow those blessings to flow through us, out into the world that suffers from drought, as they wait for the rain to fall.
What would that look like? What does it look like to you to share your gratitude with a world in need? If relationships are your blessing, what would it mean to share them with the lonely? If you have time, where could you spend some that would make the world a better place? Could you listen to those who need to be heard? Could you teach those who hunger to learn? Could you sing out praise to the God who first gave you voice? Could you care for those who feel like the world couldn’t care less about them?
Does your cup run over? Where will the overflow go: to satisfy thirst, or will it go to waste?