Year B, Proper 27 November 11, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid…’”
Sometimes a sermon just writes itself. Ideas resonate, one thought or feeling leads to another, the words just flow along the path of least resistance, not the lazy kind, but the good kind, like the path a river takes to the sea. Sometimes it does not. This one was less a leaf floating down a river than a 30-ton block of stone being dragged over rolling logs by Pharaoh’s slaves.
I went to bed on Friday night with a sermon nearly complete; which was good because we had painting on Saturday (it looks great! And meetings and Mass at 5:30). It was almost done, but it lacked on thing: a point! It was a pretty interesting history of the book of Kings. The story of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath is from the mid-9th century BCE. That’s the Iron Age. That’s old. But several pages of that, while interesting, did not particularly matter.
I lay there, thinking about what I was trying to say; what God is trying to say to me, to us; thinking about why writing this sermon felt like walking uphill against the wind and it became startlingly clear: I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t want to wrestle with the texts staring me in the face. Not that I don’t understand them, not that I struggle theologically with the exegesis, but that the clear center of the texts points us in a direction that I am not ready for, that I don’t think most of us are ready for. And those texts are unified and clear. The ancient story of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath in 1st Kings and the slightly less ancient one from St Mark’s gospel about the widow and her mite at the treasury are about exactly the same thing: giving out of poverty, that is giving of what you need to live, not from what you have to spare.
The story of the widow in Zarephath is a miracle story, but not just the miracle of the never-failing jar of meal and jug of oil. That is a great supernatural miracle, followed directly after by Elijah miraculously raising her son from the dead. But that is just one miracle going on here. The other miracle is a human scale miracle: she shared her last morsel of food. It is not clear that she did it because she believed that God was going to do anything here; she’d been starving for a while now, she had no reason to believe that that was going to change, certainly the word of some stranger, a foreigner no less, wasn’t going to convince her to give away her last meal. No, she offered the kindness of hospitality out of her poverty. With as little as she had, as one commentator put it, in this deep North Carolina accent, “What’s one more biscuit?” They were going to starve to death anyway… Giving out of poverty. She gave of what she needed to live, not what she had to spare. Pretty miraculous!
Now is this a great text for pledge in-gathering Sunday or what? We need to raise $50k more than we did last year. We need a miracle, as folks on the Grateful Dead tour would say. Actually these are terrible texts for pledge ingathering, at least Mark’s is. The first part there is about how awful the temple is! He takes long robes to task. Ouch. And long prayers!!! Not the long prayers! That is pretty close to home. She’s putting her last mite to support the institution that devours widows’ houses? That is not something to emulate, that is like asking older folks to sign over their Social Security checks to the millionaire televangelist.
No, this is not about what we give to the church. It is not about giving what is meaningful to you. That is a common interpretation, one I said last week at the end of Mass, but that is not what the text is about. In any case, spiritually, religiously, that is not how the vast majority of Episcopalians give. That same commentator with the North Carolina accent recalled someone asking, “Ten percent? We really have to give ten percent?” to which the pastor replied, ‘It’s not that you have to give ten percent, it’s that you get to keep 90 percent!” But again, that is not how most of us think about it.
You see, that kind of thinking is saying that it all comes from God! Everything we have. Not like we are on God’s payroll, but that who we are, to whom we are born (the biggest indicator of future financial status), what skills we are blessed with that enable us to gather wealth… that all comes from God, therefore we need to share it as such. Anyone thinking that way? That’s not even really pushing the idea of giving out of our poverty, it is just giving to God first, giving back to God first. No, that is not our way of thinking about money in relation to the church, not most of our way.
Giving to the church, to this church is a good thing to do, not only good because it keeps this place alive, helps us do all the good things we do and pays for the benefits that you gain from that, but also because it is good for you to sacrifice for something larger than yourself, sacrifice of your own free will. There are spiritual benefits to giving to the point that you notice. Tangible spiritual benefits. But again, that is not lesson these two widows are teaching.
This is where I quailed in writing this sermon. I wavered because giving out of our poverty, giving from what we need to survive not from what we have extra lying around, giving on faith… That is a tall order. Digging deep into our physical and moral reserves for the sake of another, preaching that as a Christian duty, a religious ideal… Because that’s the deal right? That is what Jesus is asking of us; for everything. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Seriously, where do we do that in our lives? I had trouble thinking of one, where I give everything to anyone or anything. Can you think of an example in yoru life?
The past few weeks we have had a class called “Parents as the First Catechists.” The children have 45 minutes of Sunday school per week. Is that enough to be formed and reformed in the image of Christ? No. That happens at the breakfast table. On the drive to church. In resolving the issue of whomever punched whomever for whatever reason. That’s where Christians are formed, here we mostly give vocabulary and context for those conversations.
In last week’s class we talked about raising moral people. A simple one. We started with the very basic question, “what does it mean to be a moral person?” (A Christian moral person). We looked at the 10 commandments and then we went to St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chapters 5 – 7. Anyone know what is there? The Sermon on the Mount. That is the primary source document for Christian morality. There we get The Beatitudes. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Practice your religion for God’s sake, not for human appearances. Store your riches in heaven. Do not judge. Do not hold grudges. You cannot serve God and money. And maybe the confounding of them all: do not worry. Remember that one? “Look at the birds of the air… Consider the lilies of the field…” Do not worry. This is what it means to follow Jesus. And so does giving out of our poverty. That actually sort of sums it all up, giving of what you need, not what you have to spare. That is what it means to be Christian.
This is the super-hero nature of Christianity and it is all about faith. This is all about trusting God. God’s will is that it be better, it, the world, and by better I mean more graceful and beautiful, more peaceful and joyous, less suffering, more love… you know, better. That is God’s will for the world and for us Christians, God’s children adopted and ordained in Baptism, that Divine will wills that we do whatever we can to make it better. Maybe it will not be better for us, maybe not, but it will be better. That’s what Christ calls us to in the Sermon on the mount, that is what those two widows from ages past are teaching in giving from their poverty. That is God’s will, that it be better, that those of us who have something to give give it to those who need it, no matter what. It might be mercy that is needed. It might be a blanket from the bottom of a chest you haven’t opened in years. It might be the last bit of food you have in the house. Or, as Jesus showed us on the Cross, it might be our lives. That is the lesson for today.
See why I might have struggled in writing this? We’re supposed to preach from knowledge, and as I said before, I don’t know where I give everything I have. I’ve never been asked for that at church. My family life growing up was comfortable and un-traumatic, no deep calls there. In the Marines we were theoretically asked for everything. (I was in in peacetime, so it remained theoretical). Where do you give everything? Do you give everything?
As I prayed on this, and was feeling pretty weak as a Christian in my lack of real sacrifice, I remembered seeing our two children being born. Giving birth is giving everything, everything to that child as she emerges, everything to the species as it continues to propagate, everything to the universe, to God as one more spark of life enters existence. I witnessed everything being given, that’s something. Where have you given everything?
Then I remembered a book that I listened to as I drove from Massachusetts to Oregon 7 years ago; David Foster Wallace’s last novel The Pale King. It is a book about boredom (it was set in an IRS service center in Peoria, IL in 1985 – boring). In it, a Jesuit professor of accountancy delivers this amazing lecture/sermon on the heroism of the mundane. He said, “True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year after year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.” Spending a lifetime in a thankless job to support a family. Doing another infernal load of laundry, your 300th this month, and folding it, and putting it away, and not being thanked. Weeding the carrots, again. Mowing the lawn, again. We can’t always be in martyrs-with-the-lions mode, but cumulatively, we can give, even from our poverty. We give our bodies. Our youth. Our strength. Of course we do. We all do that in some form. What does it feel like for you? What does that cumulative giving of your very being to others, to another feel like?
Now can you imagine applying that sort of strength, that sort of heroic strength one layer out? Not just for family or intimate friends, but maybe a neighbor? Now, imagine that sort of giving of what you need to live another layer out, maybe to a neighbor as Jesus defines neighbor, (meaning whomever you encounter who is in need). That’s challenging. But it is just a step or two past your child. Now, if you want saint level giving from poverty, imagine doing that, giving of your life’s principal to an enemy? Giving it to someone before they have a chance to take it from you? Offering to carry the occupying soldier’s pack for two miles, not just the one mile that by law they are allowed to conscript you. Can you imagine that? What would the world look like if Christians actually behaved that way? The theological term for it is Commonwealth of God.
So here is your heart experiment: Think about somewhere that you give, have given all. Then imagine giving that same thing, that same level of self-sacrifice to a neighbor? What does that feel like? And then widen your imagination out to a Jesus neighbor. Where is the static? What is in the way? Then an enemy. Why is that harder? Like the specifics, what sticks in your craw? I’m not suggesting make plan, I’m just asking you to imagine what you might feel giving the way Jesus Christ asks us to give.
This is an issue of faith. That God is there, is here, holding it all together. But just don’t forget, God holds it all together through us holding it all together. The creation is not a zero sum game. As Elijah said a very, very long time ago, “Do not be afraid.” AMEN