SJF • Proper 27b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
All of them have contributed from their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.+
Those of you who attended the Investiture ceremony yesterday at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, probably know that it took more than two pennies to build it! It stands today in large part as testimony to the lavish gifts of some of the wealthiest families in 19th and 20th century New York: the Fiskes, the Vanderbilts and the Astors among others. Close to home, we can say the same about our own church building, especially its beautiful windows. And you might also note that it is relatively easy for the wealthy to be generous.
Now, I’m not about to criticize the wealthy — at least no more than Jesus did. Jesus honored the wealthy when they gave openly in generosity. But in today’s Gospel Jesus is critical of the wealthy, on two counts. First, he condemns those whose wealth comes from “devouring widows’ houses” — the slumlords of the ancient Middle East, whose wealth came from squeezing money from the poor. Secondly, he is critical of those whose giving is out of proportion to their wealth. He criticizes those whose contributions, while presented with great fanfare, are only a tiny fraction of their assets, only a small part of what they could give if they were truly generous.
You’re probably thinking, this could turn into a stewardship sermon! As you know, I believe in proportional giving: giving a percentage, a tithe, of my income to the church’s work for the world and for God, rather than a fixed amount. This helps me keep my giving proportionate with the gifts with which God has blessed me. Otherwise I might get stuck at what I gave as a child, when I thought, reasoned, and contributed as a child, being so proud of what I put in the plate in Sunday School! And believe me, a quarter went a lot further back then! But that’s another sermon for another time. For though I suspect that those who chose this Gospel did so to coincide with stewardship drives — as important as stewardship is, this Gospel is about something much, much more.
+ + +
The key to that lies in the example of the widow. This widow doesn’t just pledge; she doesn’t just give proportionately, she doesn’t just tithe. She puts everything she has into the basket, everything she has to live on. When old Mother Hubbard got home, the cupboard was bare indeed! You might well say, that’s crazy! How would she pay her rent when the landlord showed up on the first of the month? If she put in everything she had to live on, where would her next meal come from?
To find the answer we need to look to that other widow we heard about today: that widow from Zarephath, down to her last handful of flour, her last few teaspoons of oil. In the midst of a famine, she has just enough to cook one last meal before she and her son starve to death. And along comes Elijah, and what does he ask from this starving woman? He asks for something to eat!
At first she shows understandable reluctance to share her last meal with this wild-eyed prophet. But for some reason she believes him, and does as he says: first feeding him, then making something for herself and her son. And she discovers that however much flour she takes from the jar, however much oil she pours from the jug, there is always more left! Though it looks like there’s only enough for two small cakes, every time she goes to the jar there is enough for three — enough for Elijah, for her, and for her son — and always a little left over.
It’s important to note the exact nature of this miracle. God does not grant that the woman would go to her cupboard and find it full of sacks of flour. God does not surprise her with a tub of oil in the corner of her kitchen. No, every day it is from the same old flour-jar and the same old oil-jug — each of which looks like it’s just about empty — that she is able to find just what is needed for the day — that daily bread — to receive it, and to give it, and to share it. She discovers in her need, just what she needs, and still she gives it up and shares it. Out of her poverty, out of her faith, generosity is called forth without end, an unending supply of johnny-cake in the midst of a famine — and that is more than enough and to live on!
+ + +
In the same way another widow walked up one day to the offering box in Jerusalem, and she put into it all she had. Though all she had was two small copper coins, she put them into the treasury, knowing and trusting that the Lord and God who had brought her that far would not abandon her — for in God was her trust, risking everything of value for the one who alone can give us anything of value — including life itself.
This Wednesday is the feast day of an early saint of the church, and his story is also one of generosity in the risky way of these two widows. Martin was a Roman soldier, and his feast coincides with Veterans’ Day. He lived not very long after the Emperor had first issued that edict permitting Christianity. The memory of persecutions was still vivid: so people were looked at very carefully before being admitted into the church. Preparation for baptism took many months, and candidates were literally scrutinized. Martin applied himself to becoming a Christian, working towards the day when he would be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter.
One cold winter day a poor beggar called out to him, as Martin was riding through town. Martin looked down from his horse at this poor skinny man, threadbare and shivering. The problem was that Martin had no money to give the poor man. What could he do? Suddenly he had an idea. Perhaps he remembered the story he’d learned in his catechism class about Saint Peter and the man who begged at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem — it’s portrayed right there in the stained glass window at the south of our sanctuary. So, echoing Peter, Martin said, “I have no money to give you, but I will share with you what I have.” And with that, he took off his big military cloak and pulled out his sword. and neatly cut his that cloak in two, and half was more than enough to cover the skinny beggar. He draped the other half over his own broad shoulders, and rode on his way, wondering how he was going to explain this violation of the military code to his centurion!
Later that night, as Martin lay in the barracks wrapped in half of his cloak against the cold, he had a dream. Heaven opened to him, and he saw angels gathered around a figure he couldn’t quite make out. Then, as if aware of his presence, the angels turned to see him, and then stepped aside to reveal who it was in their midst. It was Jesus, wearing half of a Roman soldier’s cloak. And Jesus said to the angels, “This is my servant Martin, who while not yet even baptized, gave me this to wear.”
+ + +
When we give what we have with that kind of trust, with that kind of risk, without counting the cost, we come close to the kingdom of heaven. Giving that costs us nothing, that risks nothing, isn’t really giving at all. Selfless, loving self-sacrifice, giving that risks losing what you have to live on, finds renewal and replenishment, and abundant life itself.
And I want to close, if you will bear with me, with one last story, an example closer to home, and it relates to that stained glass window I mentioned a just moment ago, the one that portrays Saint Peter healing the man who begged at the Beautiful Gate. For that window commemorates both healing and generosity.
It was given in memory of Doctor George Cammann. He was a New York City physician who at the end of a long life of service retired here to the Bronx, and became an active member of Saint James Church, in its original modest wood frame building; he died a year before work on this building began.
He was famous in his day as the inventor of the first practical modern stethoscope, the one that connects to both ears. That binaural experience gave him the ability to hear things doctors had never heard before and he wrote the first instruction manual on diagnosing diseases of the heart and lungs based on what could be heard with this marvelous new invention.
Now, you might wonder why I’m mentioning him in this context of giving what you have to live on. It is because of a choice that Dr. Cammann made based in part on the kind of man he was and also what he knew; for, you see, he had used his new invention on himself. He had accurately diagnosed his own condition, and knew that he didn’t have long to live due to a calcified valve in his heart. He knew that every evening as he lay down to sleep, he might die in the night, and he lived each day in the consciousness of that fact.
The choice he made concerned his invention, too: he could have ended his few remaining years in far greater luxury and passed along a vast fortune to his children if he had patented his invention. But he listened to his heart and his heart told him what to do. He gave the stethoscope as a gift to the world, a gift of healing from which he refused to make a fortune. Because of that most people know the name Tiemann (the manufacturer) rather than Cammann (the inventor). Tiemann’s still in business — believe me. As I said last week, though, God knows — and that’s what counts.
+ + +
Each of us is called to give from what we have — not from what we wish we had. And when all is said and done, God doesn’t need our money, our flour, our oil; God doesn’t need our warm coats; God doesn’t need a stethoscope. We need these things, the church needs these things, the world needs these things, Elijah and the widow and her son needed these things; Martin needed these things, the beggar needed these things; sick and suffering people all over the world need these things — and it is because of human need that we humans need to be generous towards each other. It is only by giving up what we have, that we show ourselves to be truly generous. It is by giving up what we have to live on that we show our lives are worth living.
If we cannot give of what we have, of what we value, of what we need, how can we expect to give of our selves? For ultimately that is what God wants, not the money, not the time, talent and treasure, that you hear about in stewardship sermons that stop short of the kingdom of heaven. What God wants is us, our souls and bodies as a reasonable and holy offering. What God wants is us — our hearts most especially. Our wealth and our work are needed here on earth for the spread of God’s realm and the welfare of humanity, and God wants that realm spread, and humanity well cared for — you better believe it! God wants our hands to be at work to build up the world God loved so much that the Son of God himself came to save it; God wants us to lift up our brothers and sisters when they fall, to be generous in giving to the church and to each other; but most importantly God wants our hearts, and believe you me, God needs no stethoscope to hear the rhythm by which they beat, and knows the number of beats allotted to each!
When we have given away all we can to each other, everything we have to live on so that all might live; all the flour and oil, all the cloaks and medical equipment, all the millions in philanthropy, all the small copper coins thrown into the treasury — only when we have given away all of what we think belongs to us and discover thereby that it really all belongs to all of us — only then can we be free to hand ourselves, heart, body and soul, over to God as a final offering, and know the pure and unadulterated grace of God that has sustained us thus far, sustains us now, and carries us forth into the life of the world to come, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+