Sermon
July 9, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran (with Linda Risberg on the synthesizer)
Write to Rev. Moran

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Scripture Readings

2 Kings 4:1-7      Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, "Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the LORD, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves." 2 Elisha said to her, "What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?" She answered, "Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil." 3 He said, "Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not just a few. 4 Then go in, and shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside." 5 So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring. 6 When the vessels were full, she said to her son, "Bring me another vessel." But he said to her, "There are no more." Then the oil stopped flowing. 7 She came and told the man of God, and he said, "Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest." (NRSV)

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 Sermon: A Cup of Faith

 Every summer we try and get some time at the ocean.  It’s not just the fun of the sand and the waves, but there is something about making a connection to the vastness and relentlessness of the sea that is good for the soul.  To walk on a quiet empty beach under a starry sky gives a sense of proportion and perspective that you can’t get in the hustle of the city or even in the shade tree quiet of the village green.  

 Psalm 104:24 - 25

O Lord, how manifold are your works!

In wisdom you have made them all;

the earth is full of your creatures.

Yonder is the sea, great and wide,

creeping things innumerable are there,

living things both small and great.

 

The waters were the stuff of God’s creation, existing even in the formless void before the word of God brought forth the heavens and the earth.  A sense of wonder in creation was the spiritual lesson the great ocean taught the children of the Hebrews.

 

But for me, for many years, the sea taught a different lesson.

 

I recall that when we first moved to New Milford our lives entered a phase which has colored all my thoughts, all my enthusiasms, all my plans and projects.  We arrived here in August of 1990, almost ten years ago, and in the first weeks of September that same year we had to bring my parents to live with us.   I say we had to because it was a medical emergency.  My mother had great difficulty in standing or walking and her mind was very confused.  My father, because of my mother’s condition, had not been able to get out of the house and to his doctor on a regular basis, and some prescribed medicine was causing internal bleeding.  Finally, after a particularly incoherent phone conversation, the police were called, my father rushed to an emergency room, and my mother left to sit with a neighbor until we could arrive. 

 

We brought her to New Milford and she entered a nursing home.  My father got an apartment here, but never really got his sea-legs back, and within four months was also in the nursing home.  Luckily, they were both only a block from the church, right next to the hospital, and I could get over there every day and visit. 

 

But between moving to a new town, beginning a new job, two young children trying to adjust to new schools and the sudden arrival of my parents, I felt like I’d just been hit by a big wave, and the undertow was pulling me out too deep.

 

The needs of everyone around me seemed vast and relentless, and I recall one day walking back from the nursing home that an image came into my mind: all those things I should do, all those needs I should try and address were like an ocean, and I was walking up to that great ocean with a little cup and scooping up what I could hold, and then turning my back on the ocean and walking away.

 

In many ways it was a useful image for me.  The needs of my children, my spouse, my parents, myself, my job and the people in the church, they were beyond counting.  I realized that what I could do was probably pretty small compared to what I couldn’t do.  I could get my mother a hair appointment.  I could not convince her that she was no longer living in her grandfather’s house.  I could bring my father a beer.  I could not return his capacity to walk to his tired legs.  But this image helped me realize that I couldn’t worry about that.  I could only afford to worry about the little cup of things I could do and not about the vast ocean of things I could not do.  The ocean was the needs of others.  The cup was the time and capability I brought to the task.

 

As I say, at the time it was a useful image.  It served me and when church members or friends who were under similar stresses would come and talk, I’d share the image with them, and it helped put into perspective what could be done and what had to be let go.  And sometimes very little could be done and a lot had to be let go.

 

But then, a few weeks ago, before I went on vacation this year at the ocean, there was a meeting where a young professor from Hartford Seminary led us through an exploration of the passage from Second Kings that we read this morning. 

 

2 Kings 4:1-7     Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, "Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the LORD, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves." 2 Elisha said to her, "What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?" She answered, "Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil." 3 He said, "Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not just a few. 4 Then go in, and shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside." 5 So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring. 6 When the vessels were full, she said to her son, "Bring me another vessel." But he said to her, "There are no more." Then the oil stopped flowing. 7 She came and told the man of God, and he said, "Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest."

 

Now I don’t remember everything the professor drew from the story, but I do recall that she made a point of saying that God provided for this woman to the extent that the woman was ready to receive.  The prophet had told her to borrow vessels, and as many as she had on hand or had borrowed, God filled them with oil.  But once the empty vessels had run out, the oil stopped flowing.  You can assume that if she had borrowed half as many empty cups, bowls, or jugs, she’d have received half as much oil.  If she had borrowed twice as many empty vessels, she’d have received twice as much oil.

 

The empty vessels, in a sense, represented her faith, her willingness to believe in the promise of God.  A little faith, or just a few vessels, would have resulted in a little blessing.  Lots of faith, lots of vessels, brought lots of blessings.

 

This teaching opened me to what I think is the other side of the coin of my previous thoughts on the sea of need and my cup of capability.  The new thought is that no longer is the vast depths of the sea the depths of human need, but now the boundless grace of God; no longer is the cup an assessment of what I think I can do, but an expression of faith in what God can do.    

 

The grace of God is greater than all the waters in the ocean.  The blessings of God roll in upon the shore like relentless tides and waves.  If I come to the sea with a single small empty cup of faith, grace will fill it.  If I come with an empty bucket, grace will fill it.  If I come with all the empty vessels I can beg and borrow from family, friends, and neighbors, God will fill those with grace and blessing as well.

 

As deep and broad and wide as human need may be, God’s grace is greater.   We receive grace in the measure we are prepared to receive it, according to the faith we can muster.

 

This image – the ocean as grace and faith as the cup - led to a question:   If the grace of God is overflowing like the grandeur of the sea, and faith is the cup, the empty vessel we bring to it, then what shape does this cup take?  How do we do this?

 

The answer, I think, is we do this through prayer.  Prayer is the shape our faith takes as we seek the grace of God.  And thinking of prayer this way leads to a couple of important points.

 

Like the woman in our story, we do not simply depend on our own prayers to receive in faith the blessing of God.  It ‘s not just the vessels of our own house.  We can borrow from our neighbors.  The prayers of others allow us to receive abundantly from the ocean depth of God’s grace.   That’s one point.

 

A second point is this – we must be careful that our prayers are empty.

 

What can this mean, empty prayers?

 

Think about it.  If the woman in our story had brought vessels, cups, bowls, and jugs that were already full or half full, then there would have been much less room for oil.  So too in our prayers, we must bring our emptiness before God and not fill the space up with ourselves.

 

You might recall the classic story Jesus taught about prayer – it gives a very good starting point for thinking about full prayer and empty prayer:

 

"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

 

The summer is a great time to get away to the ocean.  It’s also a good time to practice empty prayer – especially here in Sunday worship.

 

It seems to me that one danger we face as a congregation is that our worship is too full.  During the busy program year we have so many items we need to get through on a Sunday morning that we do not provide that empty time when a person can sit in God’s house of prayer and simply fill their cup of faith from the ocean of God’s grace in quiet prayer.  And I’m hoping that this morning I haven’t spoken so long that I’ve ruined the chance of that today.  But I believe we have time to not only hear about empty prayer, but to practice it.

 

So let us take a few minutes to walk down to the beach where we stand on the very edge of the boundless sea of God’s grace.  Let us look over it’s limitless horizon and know that this grace, this love, this blessing is there for us and for others if only we provide the empty vessel which God can fill.  A simple, heartfelt prayer is all that is needed.  We do not need to fill the time with worries, with plans, with distractions and words, but only open our hearts with a space that God can fill and receive abundant blessing from the depths of amazing grace. 

 

Let us quiet our hearts and minds in a time of empty prayer.

Amen

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