Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sermon for Year C Christmas 2

…I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers…

I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers…
Those are the words Paul uses
in his letter to his friends in Ephesus.
Hold on to those words as I tell you this story.

The time was the depression.
Her husband had gone off to try to find work.
He had left his wife and his children
with the hope
that he could find a job
and send back some money.

The days turned into weeks, the weeks turned into a month.
And still, there was no word and no money and no husband.
Soon there was no food.
She did not know what to do.
Her children were hungry.
She was hungry.

Finally she swallowed her pride—as hard to do in those days as it is today—
and walked the three miles to the general store.
She waited until no one else was around
before she approached the store manager.

Her husband knew him.
They had gone to school together--
grew up in these mountains together,
just one holler apart.
But they had never been friends.

Hard times seem to soften the hearts of some--
but not so with this man.
His heart had seemed to harden even more as times got harder.

He hadn’t built this general store’s business by giving credit.
That’s for sure.

Even as a boy he had taken some pride,
joking at the school Christmas party one year,
that his hero Ebenezer Scrooge—
the BEFORE version of Scrooge—he boasted.

He had one goal in life: to make money.
He had done pretty well with that goal.

She was a little afraid of him—
his face wore a sour scowl
and his words were usually sharp and mean.

But she had no choice.
She had hungry children and no food and no money.
That morning when she sat down to read her Bible,
she took a piece of paper and wrote a prayer.
She folded the paper and put it in the pocket of her sweater.
She knew what she had to do.

She made her way down the road to the store
and when the store was empty
except for her and the sour faced manager,
she timidly approached the old wooden counter where he stood.

“Excuse me, could you…”

“Speak up, woman! I can’t hear you if you mumble!”

She swallowed hard and began again.

“Could you give me some food on credit? My children are hun…”

But before she got the words out, he snapped,
“I don’t give credit. Never have. Never will.”

She was silent. Normally, she would have turned and fled.

But something inside her gave her strength and she retorted,
“Okay. Fine.
Then will you please just GIVE me some food for my children.”

His mouth dropped open and he stared at her.
Had he heard correctly?
GIVE her some food? Was she asking him to give her food—for free?!!!

She reached into her sweater pocket, fumbling for a piece of folded paper.

“I wrote out this prayer this morning and…”

He snorted and snatched the piece of paper from her hand.

“A prayer,” he replied.
“ I tell you what. I’ll put your prayer on this side of the scale
and then I’ll GIVE you the same amount of food
that prayer weighs. A prayer!” he scoffed.

He still used an old balancing scale at the general store
You wanted 5 pounds of sugar?
He’d set a five pound weight on the one side,
and measure out the sugar in a sack on the other side
until the scale balanced.

He took all the weights off
and laid her crumpled prayer on one side of the balance scale.

Her heart sank. She knew a piece of paper would hardly weigh anything.

Just to be cruel, the store manager grabbed a five pound sack of flour
and laid it on the balance scale across from the prayer.

I’ll show this beggar, he thought.

He couldn’t believe his eyes.
The scale was showing that the piece of paper with her scribbled prayer
was heavier than a 5 pound bag of flour.
He laid on a piece of fatback, then a small sack of sugar.

Still, the scale did not budge.
The crumpled paper with the prayer still showed that it was heavier.

The store manager shook and jiggled the scale.
The results were the same.
He grabbed a dozen eggs and balanced them
on top of the flour, the sugar, the fatback.

This must be a trick. he thought.
But when he glanced at the woman
she seemed as astounded as he was.
He piled on a small sack of dried beans—
carefully so as not to break the eggs.

He couldn’t take it any longer.
He grabbed a box from beneath the counter and loaded up all the food into the box.

“Here,” he said gruffly. “Just take this and get out.”

She started to say something but hesitated.
She took the box and started toward the door.
Thank you, she said.
Thank you.

He scowled and motioned her to leave.
She did. She left with her box of food.

He just didn’t understand it.
That scale had worked just fine all morning.
What was going on?

He shook it again—
and then realized the scale was broken.
Well, no wonder he thought.

He grabbed the piece of paper ,
walked over to the pot belly stove that heated the store,
opened the door to toss the scrap of paper in to burn—
but stopped.

He unfolded the paper and read the prayer the woman had written—
“Please Lord,
give us this day our daily bread.”

He read the words again.
He closed the door of the stove.
He sat down on a wooden bench next to the stove
and read the prayer again.
Give us this day our daily bread.

It had been a long long time since he had heard those words.
What a strange coincidence that the scales had broken
right when he began to weigh out the food.

He folded the paper and tucked it in the pocket of his work apron.

Give us this day our daily bread.
Who would believe
that God would work through such a despicable old man?
Who would believe
that God would work through someone so selfish
to feed someone who was hungry?
Who would believe
that God would use him
to answer a prayer?

Who would believe?

Paul writes to the Ephesians:

…I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers…

The woman and her children gave thanks for the store manager every day—
long after the box of food was emptied,
long after her husband, their father returned home.

And the store manager?
He never ceased giving thanks for the woman
and her crumbled piece of paper
showing up in his store that day.
He kept that prayer tucked in his work apron pocket.
He never ceased giving thanks
for God showing him
how much doing one good thing—even accidentally—
could change you
and the way you chose to live your life.

The woman and the store manager
never ceased giving thanks
for God teaching them
how much prayer weighs.

…I do not cease to give thanks for you..
to give thanks for you
as I remember you in my prayers.

+ + +
Note: I rarely preach on the epistle but could not get away from this line this week. The basis for the story I tell appears in many forms--much shorter--on the internet and on several preaching aids sites. I never could find the origin and I shaped the story to fit the mountains and some people and stories I know. I'm not sure anything is more important than prayer.

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