Meditation on 1 Kings 17:8–16
Pastor Karen Crawford
Nov. 7, 2021
Link to live-streamed worship service with adult and children’s messages: https://fb.watch/97ZL_5iVT-/
Hattie May Wiatt wanted to go to Sabbath School in the early 1880s, but the building was too crowded for her and other children like her to get in. What did you think of the story I shared with the children about Hattie May’s gift?
Russell H. Conwell was the young pastor.
The church was Grace Baptist in Philadelphia, located, at the time, at Berks and Mervine streets. Russell saw the little girl waiting outside the church one Sunday morning, and he carried her on his shoulders to the back of a crowded, Sabbath school classroom.
Russell met the girl on the street later that week and told her that the church would raise the money to have a Sabbath school building someday for all the children of the community who wanted to come. Hattie was excited and began to save her pennies, without the pastor knowing.
About two years later, when Hattie was about 8, she was sick and the pastor was called to her home to pray for her. Sadly, she didn’t recover. After she passed away in 1886, her mother gave to Russell Hattie’s purse with 57 cents that she had been saving for the new Sabbath school building.
Russell would later admit that when he told Hattie about the plan for the Sabbath School, it was just a dream. He didn’t have plans to raise the money and hadn’t told anyone about it. For the church was in a poor, working-class, neighborhood. People didn’t have hardly enough money on which to live, let alone to give to the church.
But to honor Hattie’s wishes, Russell took the 57 cents and shared her desire for a Sabbath School where the children didn’t have to wait in line or have a ticket to get in. He offered for sale to the congregation her 57 cents. They raised $250 plus the return of 54 of the 57 cents from the people who bought them. Russell mounted the 54 cents in a frame and hung them on the wall of the church for everyone to see Hattie’s gift.
The Wiatt Mite Society was organized, and they took the $250 raised by the sale of Hattie’s pennies and bought the house next door to the church for the Primary Department of the Sunday school. The church and Sabbath school continued to grow and became so crowded that one day they decided they needed more space for the church and the Sabbath School. They had faith and the 54 cents left from Hattie May Wiatt’s gift—and that was it.
Russell approached a local businessman about buying a lot on which to build a new, larger church. “Mr. Baird said: ‘I have been thinking this matter over and have made up my mind I will sell you that lot for $25,000, taking $5,000 less than I think it is worth, and I will take the 54 cents as the first payment and you may give me a mortgage for the rest at 5%.”
“…Mr. Baird afterwards returned the 54 cents as another gift. Thus we bought the lot,” said Russell in a 1912 sermon, “and thus encouraged of God step by step, we went on constructing this building. We owed $109,000 when it was done, but we had courage and faith in God… We could hardly have dreamed then that in the number of years that followed this people, without wealth, each giving only as he could afford from his earnings, could have paid off so great a debt without any outside help.”
But there was one extraordinary gift of $10,000—if the church would change its name from Grace Baptist to “The Baptist Temple.” The church agreed.
This is a drawing of the first church building at the corner of Berks and Mervine Streets in Philadelphia in the 1880s.
And this is a Broad Street view of the new Baptist Temple, around 1900.
And this is Russell Conwell, around 1921, with some of the children and youth at the church.
Are you wondering what became of the house at 1913 North Mervine Street, next to the church, bought by the Hattie May Wiatt Mite Society to be used for the Primary Department of the Sunday school?
That house would become the start of what is now Temple University. Pastor Russell would be the first teacher of the college, founded to prepare men for ministry.
Here is one of the graduations held at The Baptist Temple.
All because of Hattie’s gift.
Our readings in 1 Kings and in Mark are about extraordinary gifts from people so ordinary that they are practically invisible. Unlike Hattie May Wiatt, we will never know the names of these women, only that they are widows and they are poor.
The widow in our gospel reading is an Israelite woman who contributes the smallest but most generous gift to the temple treasury—two copper coins worth a penny. Jesus calls his disciples and says to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
But the widow of which Jesus speaks in his first sermon in Luke 4 in his hometown of Nazareth, is the widow of Zarephath of I Kings. When the synagogue of his childhood responds in disbelief, Jesus warns them that he would do no miracles in his hometown and that his ministry would extend to Gentiles and foreigners. “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.”
This unnamed widow at Zarephath is not a follower of the God of Israel. Yet she is the one whom God chooses to feed the great Israelite prophet, Elijah.
Zarephath is a small Phoenician town, a mile from the coast, about 8 and ½ miles south of Sidon and 14 miles north of Tyre. This is the homeland of Israel’s Queen Jezebel, a worshiper of Baal, married to Israel’s King Ahab, who built altars to Baal and “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.”
Elijah meets the widow at the town’s gate, and asks for a little water to drink, much like Jesus will do in John 4 when he meets the Samaritan woman at the well.
As the widow goes to bring Elijah water, he asks for bread. “As the Lord your God lives,” she says, in respect to Elijah’s faith, she has nothing baked—only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug. She conveys her sense of hopelessness and acceptance of a cruel fate for herself and her child, when she says, “I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son,” she says, “that we mat eat it, and die.”
“Do not be afraid,” Elijah says. She obeys his instructions to make a little cake of the meal for him first—and then something for herself and her son. “The jar of meal will not be emptied, “he says, “and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
The words of the Prophet come to pass.The love and compassion of the God of the Exodus who fed the Israelites daily bread in the wilderness goes beyond worldly boundaries and divisions: Nation and politics. Race and gender. Wealth and poverty. Religion, language, and culture. Marital status. Age, education, and occupation to reach a poor, foreign widow and her son, fed for many days by a jar of meal and jug of oil that never run out.
The widow will forever be remembered for her welcome and generosity to a stranger and foreigner, someone distinctly Other to her—the great Israelite prophet Elijah.
Friends, in a moment, we will celebrate our Communion with Christ and one another—and drink deeply from a spiritual well that never runs dry. As we seek to satisfy our hunger for the bread of heaven, and see Christ and ourselves more clearly, let us give thanks to the God who uses ordinary people for His glorious purposes.
Ordinary people like little Hattie and her gift of 57 cents for a Sabbath School—and it was all she had. Ordinary people like the unnamed widow who gave a couple of coins to the temple treasury—and it was all she had. Ordinary people like the unnamed, foreign widow who shared her last meal with God’s prophet—and it was all that she had for her and her son. Ordinary people—like you and me!
Let us offer all that we are, all that we have—for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom.
As we ask God to cleanse our hearts, heal our hurts, and nourish us to eternal life, let us remember: there are NO SMALL GIFTS when we give of ourselves wholeheartedly. Like manna from heaven, loaves and fishes for a mountain multitude, meal in a jug and oil in a jar, let us remember that God’s provision—for body, mind, and soul—will never end.
Remembering this and more, giving thanks with grateful hearts, let us break bread together.
Let us pray. Holy One, we thank you for your loving provision for us and for choosing us to be Christ’s followers. Thank you for your promise to use us—ordinary people—for your glorious purposes and for the examples of little faithful Hattie May and her kind pastor, and the two unnamed widows of Old Testament and New—who humbly offered all that they had and held nothing back. Gracious God, build up our faith and lead us to give generously from all that we have—and all that we will become, by the power of the Sprit so that your Kingdom and this congregation will grow. Loving Lord, let us see you and ourselves more clearly as we gather at your table, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, seeking faith, hope, peace, and love as we break bread together. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.