Homily preached by the Reverend Malinda Johnson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 11, 2012
There have been lots of stories in the news lately about people trying to hoard gas. I saw one about a guy being arrested here in Norwalk, actually, for trying to leave a gas station with a 50 gallon drum of gas jostling about in the backseat of his truck. I never knew that was illegal — just greedy perhaps; but I’m not throwing any stones, especially after this last storm.
We have a portable generator we use to keep our sump pumps running when we lose power. Without them, our basement floods but fortunately, this time around, we lost power but somehow the basement stayed bone-dry. So when we heard an acquaintance needed a generator, we were happy not only to lend her ours but also to give her the 10 gallons of gas we had on hand…that was, however, before I heard about the gas rationing in New Jersey and the next storm queuing up, the impending nor’easter. At that point, I thought we might end up needing what little gas we had — CL&P crews were still nowhere in sight — so I decided not to give her the gas after all. This friend of a friend totally understood and didn’t have any trouble at all getting gas herself; but I still felt kind of bad.
Now, I suppose one could argue that I was being prudent more than stingy, but the truth was, I was being fearful and anxious. I was worried the nor’easter would come with all sorts of rain and our basement would start filling up like a bathtub; I was worried that we’d lose our furnace again which we could ill afford to replace; I was worried there’d be no gas left on the entire eastern seaboard…well, maybe you know how it goes, anxiety tends to snowball, at least with me; and it seemed a bit uncanny that so soon after this anxiety-fest I should come up against the perfect equanimity of the two widows in today’s readings.
The first widow, who shows up in the story from 1 Kings, is on the brink of starving to death along with her son, yet she takes their very last morsel of food, their one, last meal, and with only a moment’s hesitation, gives it to the prophet Elijah. We’re told her faith as much as her generosity is rewarded: her near-empty jar of meal and jug of oil remain full from thereon in for quite some time.
Likewise the second widow in Mark’s gospel gives away all her money and while it’s unclear if she gets any similar reward — a magically full coffer jar of coins, let’s say, or some other means to ease her extreme poverty — her faith doesn’t go unnoticed and Jesus commends her to his disciples saying: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her need has put in everything she had, all that she had to live on.”
It’s worth noting that there are many references to widows and orphans in scripture; to their helplessness and the responsibility of the community to care for them. Widows and orphans are among the most vulnerable citizens in any male-dominated society, which makes the self-sacrificing generosity of these two widows, the ones in today’s lessons, all the more striking.
There was a Divinity professor at Harvard named Arthur McGill who suggested many years ago (well before plastic surgery and crushing debt became the norm) that Americans’ obsession with good looks, fitness and material success was, in fact, a flight from death, or what he liked to call “the bronze dream”.
His larger concern was that this mind-set, or fantasy, had seeped into the culture of the church such that we too seem to care far more about image than substance, far more about our slippery survival as an institution that we do about the bracing truth.
To this end, McGill argued, the church routinely glosses over the outcome of love, lending the impression that when we love God and neighbor as ourselves, that it’s some sort of feel-good cornucopia that just keeps on giving and giving without creating any vulnerability or neediness for the giver in turn.
Yet, the kind of giving, or love, that Jesus models (much like the kind of giving the two widows model, and for that matter so many veterans in our own day and age model) this kind of giving involves sacrificing precisely what we need too: our last meal, our last coin, life and limb even; not our surplus food or blood, not our unbudgeted time or money, not just our leftovers and extras. This is what Jesus means when he speaks of the difference between giving out of one’s poverty rather than abundance.
Now, this is a message of tough love if ever I’ve heard one and it’s as likely to induce guilt or despair as much as resolve. I mean, how many of us trust God or each other enough to give away our family’s last meal, or our last dollar? And with or without any sobering reminders, I’m guessing most of us who even bother these days to self-identify as Christians – we probably know deep down that we could always love better and more fully. But the good news, I’d like to suggest, is this: knowing our shortcomings is half the battle; and getting love right for most of us anyway, is the work of a lifetime and not a single gesture.
One of my favorite gospel stories is the one about the Rich, Young Ruler who asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Though he’s kept all the commandments since he was little, he knew there was more to it than that, only to have this suspicion confirmed by Jesus who tells him, in effect, well, that’s a good, solid start, you’re only lacking one thing: go sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.
All we know from the text is that this was not the answer that he was looking for at the time, and he went away sorrowful, but I’d like to believe that that wasn’t the end of his story. He was young after all and who knows, maybe it just took him a while to follow through; because my hope for his sake and for ours, is that the Rich, Young Ruler finally found what he was looking for in sacrifice rather than security; and that his longing to get love right even when he didn’t was another lesson in faith, especially for those of us on the slower, or more tentative road to salvation. Amen