2 Kings 4:1-7
Delivered on August 15, 2021 at Myers Park Baptist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina
I am a child of Grey’s Anatomy. No, not the human anatomy book by Henry Gray; the hit medical television drama. It’s safe to say that because of my obsession with the show, I am who am I, today. Between Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, writer and producer Shonda Rhimes was basically my 3rd parent. In Grey’s Anatomy, so many life lessons were taught and learned. I saw so much of myself in the various groundbreaking characters she made room for on primetime television, and Shonda’s theologies and ideologies are on clear display in many of the landmark scenes. One scene, in particular, has had a lasting effect on me.
In the 2nd episode of season 2, a trauma patient comes in who the paramedics have been working on for almost a half hour with no improvement in his condition. The paramedic tells the Chief Resident, Dr. Miranda Bailey, that the patient is practically gone. Dr. Bailey snaps back, “He’s not gone until we say he’s gone,” and she assigns the case to Intern George O’Malley. Now George, like many eager surgical interns, wants to be in the OR—he wants to get in on a cool surgery or an experimental procedure, not babysit what he perceives to be a corpse.
Throughout the day, it seems like Bailey is punishing George—having him perform life-saving procedures on a patient whose injuries have given way to multiple organ failure. George grows increasingly frustrated and in one tense moment, Dr. Bailey asks him, “If they’re dead or dying when they come through those doors, you hump and hump hard, why?” George responds, “for the experience?” That is the wrong answer and Bailey leaves him to ponder his ignorance while continuing to save this dead man’s life.
By the end of the day—after every test and procedure is done, after the family of the man arrives to say their goodbyes—George finally comes to an answer. A nurse questions George about what he’s going to say to the grieving family. George replies, “Why do we hump on every dead or dying patient that comes through those doors?” “For the experience?” the nurse says. “So that we can tell the family we did everything we could.”
There are some of you in this room who have heard those words before. Some of you have uttered those words before to bereaved families. It is the most devastating of phrases and nothing truly prepares you to hear those words.
“We did everything we could.”
There is no upside. There is no comfort in those words. There is only a knowing—a trust, hopefully, that the folks who were with your loved one in their final moments exhausted every possibility. They experimented. They tried new things. They collaborated; and not just “for the experience”—but for the sake of life, or the potential of life, and if not for life, for the sake of doing what is just.
The past 17 months have felt like one long stint of us exhausting possibilities. Many of us have been pivoting so much our legs are sore. We have been adjusting our modes of being and doing in the world since March 2020. We have been trying new things for the sake of survival—zoom bible studies, virtual court hearings. Our kids and their teachers have been exhausting possibilities. Medical professionals have been exhausting possibilities. Non-profit agencies addressing the needs of our housing and food insecure neighbors have been exhausting possibilities, picking up the balls dropped by governments that have failed large portions of the population. Organizers around Black voting rights have been exhausting possibilities, finding new ways of getting people to the polls and advocating for policies to expand voting access.
Exhausting possibilities—humping hard for the sake of life.
It is not merely a global pandemic that has led us to this exhausting moment in this country, but the brutal socio-economic reality that was completely stripped of its veil in the wake of racial justice uprisings. This brutal socio-economic reality has been further uncovered due to ongoing death and disparity, evictions, starvation, and governmental negligence; and it is in this brutal socio-economic reality that we meet an unnamed widow in this chapter of 2 Kings today—a woman who is fighting to find possibility for the survival of her and her sons.
I don’t believe in leaving women unnamed so for that sake of this sermon, we’ll call this woman Olive. Olive’s husband, who was a servant of Elisha, has died. They were in debt at the time of her husband’s death. Unable to pay the lender back, he threatens to take her sons as slaves. Desperate, Olive approaches Elisha, begging for his help so that she can save her boys and keep a roof over their heads. I imagine that she had thought of every possibility before running to him for help. If she was anything like the women in my family, there was a sense of pride and asking for help—airing your dirty laundry in a society where you have no rights or security outside of your connection to men—was no easy decision.
Olive is no different from the many Americans currently facing evictions, today. She is not unlike the millions of folks who are one paycheck away from sleeping in their cars and having their children taken away by Child Protective Services. The socio-economic precarity was and is as steady as the sun rises and sets. It seems as if there is no amount of outreach or advocacy work that can solve all the problems facing many of us and our neighbors. There are days when I see the fear in the eyes of those who come to me hungry and embarrassed to ask for food, those who are homeless, those who don’t know if they have enough gas in their cars to make it to work, and I wonder, “have I exhausted the possibilities?”
Before we call the cops on the man sleeping in his car in the Cornwell parking lot, have we exhausted the possibilities?
Before we say, “no, you can’t shower here. You’re not about member of our private fitness center,” have we exhausted the possibilities?
I imagine that Elisha sees Olive’s fear. Maybe he hears her stomach growling from across the room because any food that she’s come by has gone to feeding her boys. Perhaps, he knows he can’t solve the issue of economic instability alone and, feeling partially responsible for her family, he begins to search for possibilities. “What do you have in the house?” he asks. “Nothing,” she replies. I imagine a pause—a breath of sorts—as Olive utters, “Well, I do have a little oil.”
Oil was and still is a precious commodity. It was used for food, for skin and hair care, to keep those lamps trimmed and burning, and as medicine. In some parts of the bible, oil is regarded as a symbol of honor, something you might use to anoint a person in need of spiritual or physical covering. Based on the Hebrew words used in this passage, the particular oil in Olive’s house was rubbing oil, used to cleanse and keep evil spirits away. I suppose it hadn’t crossed her mind as a possibility because oil was so common. But Elisha takes what is common and sees an opportunity, saying, “Here’s what you do: Go up and down the street and borrow jugs and bowls from all your neighbors. Then come home, lock the door behind you, and pour oil into each container.”
Elisha demands that she let go of the thing she’s been holding on to—the one thing she almost forgot she had because it was so ordinary—the thing that was not in her immediate realm of possibility but would become her salvation. In this moment, he helps her turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.
I’ve always heard it said that two heads are better than one. In this case, it wasn’t just two heads, but it was the materials from her community that also made the difference. Elisha knows that he, alone, can’t solve the problem of injustice that got Olive in the predicament she’s in. He knows that standing up to creditors and corporations who are in bed with political leaders is lifelong work that can get you run out of town and this woman needs help now, so he activates the community. He leans on a communal theology that, as theologian Monica Coleman reminds us, helps us “make a way outta no way.” When Olive’s back was against the wall—when she thought she had nothing left to give—Elisha exhausts possibilities. When Olive was one moment away from losing everything and everyone that she had, Elisha opens her eyes to the very piece of salvation that she had overlooked.
When the jugs were all full, Elisha instructs her to go sell the oil in the marketplace, settle her debts, and live off the rest. Life and justice find a way outta no way.
It is hard to follow Elisha’s journey. Philip Satterthwaite suggests that “[Elisha] is found engaged in a range of different activities in which it is hard to see a unifying theme, on the one hand engaging in the politics of his day, on the other performing a number of striking…irrelevant-seeming miracles.”
Satterthwaite argues that the seemingly unrelated narratives make it difficult to get a clear sense of God’s dealings with the people and Elisha’s mission. However, I’d like to argue that in the case of Olive, this widow, everything that Elisha does is preparing him for his next assignments. If you read on, you’ll see that after he has saved Olive and her sons from a precarious economic situation, he goes on to not only prophesy that a woman will conceive a son, but when that child falls ill and dies, he raises him from the dead.
After that miracle, Elisha goes on the purify a pot of stew in the time of a famine, he goes on to feed hundreds of hungry people with 20 loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain, and, in chapter 5, he heals a commander of the army. His interaction with Olive is only the beginning of Elisha exhausting possibilities. It is only the beginning of him making ways outta no ways. Perhaps, this text isn’t merely a miracle of oil overflowing but a training ground for Elisha to learn—just as George O’Malley learned—how to hump and hump hard so that he could know that he did everything he could, not for the experience, but for the sake of life.
There are days when the fights for life and justice seem never-ending. There are times when we feel that all is lost, death is imminent, there is no reason to keep trying—to keep pushing—to keep brainstorming. Fighting carceral and capitalist institutions that were created to kill many of us seems like a futile effort. But just when it feels like we’ve exhausted an issue, we are called to hump and hump hard. Just when it feels like we can’t go any deeper into racial justice work or gender justice work, that is the moment we have to ask ourselves, “have we exhausted every possibility?” “Have we tapped into our community?” “Have we let go of our prized yet ordinary possessions and transformed them into extraordinary salvation?”
We will never be done brainstorming what is possible. We will never be done talking about injustice until every system of oppression has been annihilated. We will never be done brainstorming methods of liberation of the economically oppressed until we’ve exhausted every possibility; and there’s always another possibility. When communities come together, there’s always another way. If we all bring a jug or a jar to the table, miracles can happen. Lives are transformed. Captives of economic imprisonment are released.
And so, we shall not stop talking about black and brown lives mattering until we’ve exhausted every possibility. We shall not stop calling out transgender and non-binary erasure until we’ve exhausted every possibility. We shall not turn away the hungry, naked, and houseless person who knocks on our door asking for help until we’ve exhausted every possibility.
And I know there are some of you in here and online who are disgruntled and tired of us exhausting possibilities. You’re tired of us trying new ways to approach the necessary work for racial justice. You’re tired of hearing about oppression and inequality. “Can’t they just move on? Can’t they talk about something else?” “Isn’t what we did 20 and 30 years ago enough?”
I’m so glad that when the widow’s money ran out, and her cupboard was empty, and the people were about to take her children away, she didn’t have our pessimism and pettiness keeping her from seeing the possibilities that lay within the oil. I’m so glad that in some of our seasons of despair and devastation, Elishas have shown up and not some of us who whisper in the living rooms of our discontent. I’m so glad that I believe in a God who doesn’t say, “Haven’t we done enough, already?!”
I don’t know about you, but I need some folk who are going to show up and exhaust possibilities with me. I need some folk who are going to resuscitate and help restore the years that the locusts have eaten. I need some folk who, when I see nothing, they see oil that runs over—when I see a glass half empty, they see possibility in that emptiness. I need some folks who see how we can make ways out of no way—not for the experience, not so we can pat ourselves on the back (some of us toxic charity church folk like to be patted on the back for every sandwich we make), but folks who can say “we did everything we could”—not just the bare minimum—"we did everything we could” and mean it!
When I’m on my death bed, I want to look around and know I did everything I could, even when it was unpopular—even when it was protested, and I got angry emails. I did everything I could. I didn’t just do the same ole same ole because “tradition.” I exhausted every possibility, not for my own glory and gratification—not so I could get a building named after me or a plaque to hang in my office—but for the sake of communal salvation.
That is the call. This is the demand. A bare minimum, unimaginative faith is no faith at all; it is fallacy. Unfortunately, we live in a time where popular brands of Christianity are really a bare minimum faith—a faith that is about personal success instead of helping neighbors make ways out of no way, even when it’s unpopular, even if it means parting with old ways of thinking and doing.
But, a faith that exhausts possibilities—that follows in the ways of righteousness—is a prophetic faith—the faith of Elisha. It is a faith that says, I will not rest until the gospel has not only been preached to the poor but lived out with the poor. I will not rest until every heart broken by brutal economic systems have been healed. I will not rest until the captives of racial, gender, and sexual marginalization have been set free. Will you have that kind of faith with me? A prophetic faith?—a faith that says, “I was here. I lived. I loved. I humped hard. I exhausted possibilities.
There is yet work to be done. Will you join me?