Drawing a Crowd
DRAWING A CROWD
1 Kings 17:1-16
It’s not hard people. It’s not hard to draw a crowd. Jesus shows us how to do it in today’s passage. The method is simple. Give the people what they want. In the case of our New Testament passage today what the people are looking for is healing. It’s not that these are the crazy Pentecostal types. There is no modern medical care. No understanding of germs and diseases. No hospitals. Jesus is literally their only hope, the difference between life and death, between a sound mind and demonic oppression. Jesus has the power to heal. So it is not difficult for him to draw a crowd. It is a basic principle of ministry I think that if you want to draw a crowd you should try to meet a pressing need. In other words, Give the people what they want. May it be Chicken Pie, remember Harvest Home is only six months away, or guitars and drums, or pipe organs and hymns, depending upon the age and makeup of the people you are trying to reach, you find the need of the people you are trying to meet and you tap into that. In a religious consumer culture you do your market research and you appeal to your part of the market. There is nothing hard about drawing a crowd if you have something that people want.
It is easy to draw a crowd. We know that. But it is harder to get people to stay. To make people part of our family. To feel like we are receiving as well as giving. In Luke 17:11-19, Luke tells the story of Ten Lepers come to Jesus asking him to heal them. Jesus tells them “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And they are all healed. But only one of them to turns back to praise God, to praise Jesus for his healing. And that man is a Samaritan. A man who is in the eyes of Jews a half breed and a heretic. Jesus is disappointed that only one man chose to turn around to recognize the gift that he had been given. Perhaps that is how we feel in ministry sometimes. We serve the community faithfully. People may come to our events but nobody ever stays to get to know us. Maybe that is how you feel sometimes if you have the spiritual gift of service. You don’t do it for the praise but it would be good every once and a while to hear the words, “job well done.”
As I have mentioned before Jesus wasn’t against healing people, he wasn’t against meeting people’s needs. But he was also not against saying the hard thing and loosing his following. In John 5:56, Jesus tells a largely Jewish crowd that to have eternal life they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Obviously he is talking in spiritual and metaphorical language about communion. But the Jews at the time didn’t know that. And the Law strictly forbid drinking blood, may it be human or animal. So not only was this statement weird, it was downright blasphemy. The scriptures record that, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” (verse 67). Jesus then asked the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (vs 69).
“The words of eternal life.” Isn’t that interesting. People will come when you offer what they want. But they will stay when you give them what they need, or more accurately when you give them what they were created for, that is life. We see that in the story of Elijah and the Widow as well. Notice that the widow doesn’t call Elijah a man of God until he raises her son back to life. This woman, by obeying Elijah, was able to keep her and her child alive for days on end with a handful of flower and oil, but apparently this didn’t convince the woman that Elijah was a man of God. Not until he demonstrated the power of giving life, a gift that she knows can only come from God, does she recognize he is a man of God.
So how can we move from drawing a crowd to offering people life? Because we know how to draw a crowd but perhaps we need to learn how to offer people life. I think our story of Elijah and the widow suggest to us several principles. First, we see that both Elijah and the Widow had a need. Elijah needed a place to stay to hide from the people who are persecuted him. The Widow needed food so her and her son will survive. To quote Christine Pohle, author of, “Making Room: Recovering the Tradition of Christian Hospitality; “ “The woman took him in as her guest and supplied him with food and shelter for a lengthy time. But, in fact, it was Elijah, through God, who supplied her and her household with food during that period .In the midst of his sojourn with her, Elijah restored life to her dead son. The prophet, in need, turned to a woman in need and together they received God’s provision.”
God didn’t necessarily need Elijah to keep this widow alive. The masses of hurting poor didn’t necessarily need to trek to where Jesus was to be healed. God is all powerful, He has no need of us to accomplish her Will. But God has allowed us to participate in his Will to such a point that if we choose to ignore God, perhaps that particular part of God’s Will won’t happen at that particular time. Perhaps God will find another. But it seems God is flexible to work with us, to empower us, to challenge us. God challenges us not only to give but to receive. He challenges us not only to wash the feet of the hurting but to allow the hurting to wash our feet. Perhaps we can actually do it better. Perhaps we can get the job done quicker and faster. But when we allow those we don’t know to come along side us and help us in our ministry, even when we don’t necessarily need the help, a bond is formed. A bond of grace, a bond of empowerment, a bond of mutual respect. People see that we love them and when they know that we love them, that we want nothing from them but to honor their person, their hearts open up to the words of eternal life. And when people taste and see that the Lord is good they can’t help but stay around and see what the Lord will do next.
The second thing we see in the story of Elijah and the Widow is that eternal life is released into this life by a willingness to obey the voice of the Lord, even when this may mean doing something nonsensical like asking for food from a widow and her son who are about to die themselves. So often we ask the cliché question, “What would Jesus do?” We have made bracelets “WWJD”. This phrase suggests that Jesus is more a moral example than the Lord of all creation. More a teacher who gives us principles to follow than a Savior who pours out His Holy Spirit who will guide us in all Truth. Many Christians view Christianity as a religion of conforming to certain rules and following the example of our founder Jesus. The problem with this is that life is so complicated that no moral teacher no matter how wise can produce a set of rules or philosophy that can lead us in every situation. I believe there is an eternal Truth, and the Bible expresses this Truth, but we must also learn how to apply Truth to particular circumstances, which the Bible calls wisdom. We may glean principles from the Bible and the teachings of Jesus but apply them with the wrong Spirit to the wrong situation. Instead of asking what would Jesus do we should ask what is Jesus doing? I have met many Christians who have said to me that they have never heard God speak to them in their lives. Certainly, God speaking in a clear inner voice is rare, and God speaking in an audible voice to people is even rarer. But I think the scriptures give us principles to help us discern God’s Will for our lives and for our communities. The key is to break down the wall between the spiritual and the practical. To give the Lord a chance to weigh in on every decision we make, to not assume that any decision is too small for the Lord to care about. We must balance reason and rational concerns with the faith that our Lord promised that his sheep would hear his voice, though he never said how that voice would be expressed.
Take for example the story of Daryl Watson, as reported on the “This American Life,” radio show episode, “self improvement kick.” Daryl Watson was a successful script writer working for a children’s T.V show. He had been raised in the church and was a passionate Christian in his teenage years, but he lost his faith. But while Daryl had a successful career he was bothered about his purpose in life. Night after night he would have dreams about people asking what his purpose was. Finally, Daryl couldn’t take it anymore. So he quit his job in New York City. According to the story Daryl, “tried the classics silent meditation and fasting for 40 days, a trip to Peru to study under a shaman, a holy trip to Jerusalem. He did this for a year. Nothing helped. Finally, when he was just about to give up, he came across the story of Peace Pilgrim. Peace Pilgrim was a woman named Mildred Norman, who became famous in the 1960s in certain circles for walking across the United States and Canada and Mexico with no money or possessions, just a shirt that said “Peace Pilgrim.” She followed Jesus’ advice, to be like the lilies of the field, to trust that God would provide. She walked for 28 years.
Peace Pilgrim’s story had the answers that Daryl was looking for. So in 2009 Daryl sent out this mass email;
“”Hello, everyone, I’m writing to let you know that tomorrow I will be undertaking a pilgrimage for peace, walking across the country from Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware to San Francisco, California. I’ll no longer be using this email address or the name ‘Daryl Watson.’ For the duration of this pilgrimage, I will carry the title carried by my predecessor, ‘Peace Pilgrim.’ My peace and love go out to you all.”
So Daryl sold everything he had. He made a shirt that said, “Peace Piligrim”, and put his last $2,000 in an envelop and dropped it in a mailbox. Mildred’s journey lasted for 28 years. But Daryl made it from Delaware to Maryland in three days before he gave up. Part of the problem might have been that Mildred was a nice little white woman walking in the 1960’s and Daryl was a tall and athletic 30 year old black man walking in 2009. But perhaps the greater problem is that Daryl saw following God’s Will was an act of imitation. It worked for peace pilgrim so why wouldn’t it work for him? But Mildred walked across North America not only because she knew the teachings of Jesus about selling everything you have, but because the Spirit of God had called her to take that teaching in a very literal way. As we explore the teachings of Jesus in Matthew we must beware of taking the teachings of Jesus as mere moral metaphors that Jesus never wanted us to apply to our lives. But we must also beware of thinking of Jesus teachings as moral and spiritual laws that are to be applied in the same way in every circumstance. The key to demonstrating the eternal life that Jesus promises us in this life is following the Holy Spirit which Jesus has given every believer.
All of you are probably familiar with the plot to 1989 film, “Field of Dreams.” Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, sarcastic and directionless Berkley English graduate, who like his Father before him had a love of baseball and the White Sox. At Berkley he meets Annie, his future wife. To quote Kinsella, “the only thing we had in common is that she came from Iowa and I had once heard of Iowa.” According to Kinsella his wife Annie, “got the crazy idea that she could talk me into buying a farm. I’m 36 years old, I love my family, I love baseball, and I am about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice I had never done a crazy thing in my whole life.” Perhaps you know the rest of the story. Ray hears a voice that tells him, “If you build it he will come.” There are no more instructions. No one else hears the voice. But Ray takes a leap of faith and interprets the voice to mean that he needs to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. He does, under the skeptical eyes of everyone around him. Amazingly, the ghost of shoeless Joe Jackson, a disgraced White Sox baseball player returns from the dead to play baseball on Ray’s baseball field. But no one can see Joe or any of his other disgraced baseball ghost friends besides Ray’s family. The town thinks Ray is crazy. They think Ray is going to loose his farm. They can’t see his vision.
Proverbs 29:18 declares, “without vision the people perish.” Jesus draws us in by showing his mercy to us. He heals us, he feeds us, he dishes out chicken pie. The scriptures say that the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous, the good and the bad. If any one of the laws of nature that the Lord sustains was slightly off we would not be able to exist on this Earth. But our Lord longs for us to recognize a deeper hunger. As Jesus said to the Devil in the Temptations, “Man does not live on bread alone.” We were not just meant to survive we were meant to thrive. We were not just meant to drink, eat, be merry, for tomorrow we die. There is a longing in our hearts for a love that knows no end a life eternal, a life with purpose, a life with meaning.
What is your vision today for your own life, for this church, for this community? Are you willing to receive as much as you are willing to give? Are you willing to listen to the voice of the Lord come through to you from unexpected places, in unexpected ways, leading you to an unexpected journey. I know its scary. I know you might have other plans. I am a city slicker from Virginia. I didn’t know what 4h camp was before I got here. I dreamed of starting a life of Urban Ministry. But I remember Lew telling me in the first sermon I preached here, “It’s okay you are with family now.” And I may not always know why I am here but I know in my heart that what Lew Collier said to me, and the promises I made to you as a congregation, are true. I didn’t hear a voice but I do have a dream. A dream of doing more than drawing a crowd. A dream of sharing life together. Because drawing crowds is great but sharing life together is what we are here for.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.