Every Three Seconds

SJF • Proper 27b • Tobias Haller BSG
The widow said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
In the midst of a terrible famine, God sent the prophet Elijah to a widow, with the promise that she would feed him. When he arrived, she greeted him with the words I’ve just quoted — a testimony to her dire condition, resigned to cook one last meal before she and her son starved to death. Of course, this story had a happy ending, because God kept his promise to Elijah, and the widow found that she never lacked for flour or oil.

It’s a wonderful story; wonderful because exceptional. As Jesus himself would later point out, many widows suffered during that famine, but it was only to this one that Elijah was sent. And the sad truth is, there are many widows still: many widows and many men and women, and many, many more children who will either lay themselves down tonight in hunger — to find, in sleep, a temporary escape from the gnawing pain in their stomachs’ pit — or who will, as the widow expected, die.

It is a sobering thought, so sobering I scarcely dare to think it. So let’s try to snap out of it. I’d like you to snap your fingers with me — every three seconds. Snap two three, snap two three... and as we keep snapping our fingers, I want to bear in mind that every hour 1200 children under the age of five die somewhere in the world, die from preventable causes like hunger or disease. Snap two three, snap two three... Every time we snap our fingers a child somewhere dies who didn’t have to die. Someone’s son or daughter dies whose life could have been saved by some food or some medicine. Snap two three, snap two three...

I told you it was a sobering thought, and we didn’t snap out of it, but deeper into it. It is a waltz of death — this finger-snapping in three-quarters time — and the dance of death goes on and on. And Elijah doesn’t come.

But someone else can come instead. I said these deaths were preventable — deaths due to lack of food or medicine — if only “someone” will act. And I will be even bolder still: there are lots of other problems facing this world that are preventable if only “someone” will act. But aren’t we someone? What could we do if we only set our hearts and minds and hands to action?

At the beginning of this new millennium, the United Nations established a series of audacious goals for the world: The Millennium Development Goals. They were eight in number:

1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
2) Achieve universal primary education;
3) Promote gender equality and empower women;
4) Reduce child mortality;
5) Improve maternal health;
6) Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;
7) Ensure environmental stability; and
8) Develop a global partnership for development.
Eight steps to a new world; and as a further audacious step, the United Nations said, we will accomplish all of this by the year 2015.

Now you might well feel like that widow of Zarephath, confronted by Elijah asking for supper, when you know all you’ve got is a handful of flour and a few drops of oil. How in the world can we accomplish this by 2015?

Well, the United Nations has an answer. It will take about $178 billion each year. That is a lot of money. But if it is spread out, and everyone does their fair share, it can be done. And what is that fair share? If all of the developed countries would just dedicate seven-tenths of one percent of their gross income to this cause it would be enough to accomplish the goals. Seven-tenths of one percent — that’s less than three quarters out of $100; if you make $25,000 a year you could set aside seven-tenths of one percent just by putting a quarter in a jar when you left your house in the morning and another quarter when you got home at night every day. No one is asking anyone to be like that other widow whose two pennies amounted to everything she had! We are literally talking about nickels and dimes: and the amazing thing is that if every Episcopalian did this, set aside just seven-tenths of a percent of his or her income, Episcopalians alone could nationally raise $354 million a year!

We have to ask ourselves what value we place on human life — not just our own lives, but the lives of so many others. What after all is the value of a human life?

You may have seen the old thriller The Third Man with Orson Welles. He plays the ultimately selfish man: an affable man with the sour name of Harry Lime, who makes his living by selling watered-down penicillin in post-war Europe, watered-down medicine that kills those whom the real thing might save. In a climactic scene, Harry’s friend Holly Martin finally tracks him down, and confronts him in the bus-sized gondola of a huge Ferris wheel, high above the city of Vienna, looking down on the people below who look like just so many dots. Martin asks Lime, “Have you ever seen any of your victims?” As the gondola rocks in the autumn breeze, Harry Lime responds, “You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax...”

What a chilling and cynical view of human life! To tally up each death not as a loss to the world but in terms of personal gain. And yet, if we simply hold back all that we have when we could afford to help save a life — if we stand idle when it is in our power to help another even at some cost to ourselves — do we not engage in the same kind of self-serving bookkeeping? If we hold on to our handful of meal and few drops of oil — we may have our last meal; but what then?

Just last week we talked about us spending some money on ourselves — spending about $40 apiece to refurnish our parish hall. And we still want to do that — if for no other reason than that we use that parish hall as a part of our ministry — including feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving Day.

But I would like to suggest to you today that there is something else we can do to stop that finger snapping dance of death — and isn’t that more important than almost anything else you could imagine? To save a child’s life — and even more, to provide for their education — not just a life but a good life?

Our bishop has presented us an opportunity to enter into a partnership with the Anglican Church in Tanganyika through a program called The Carpenter’s Kids. I don’t need to tell you much of Africa has been devastated by the AIDS pandemic — villages have been wiped out and families destroyed. And among those who suffer most are the AIDS orphans, of whom thereare over 2.5 million in Tanzania alone. Our diocese has entered into a cooperative venture with the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, a venture that partners parishes in New York with parishes there. Each parish in partnership finds 50 people willing to contribute $50 a year each for five years. And you might ask, What can $50 do. Well, I’m very glad to say, that like that handful of meal, or those few drops of oil, or those two pennies tossed into the treasury by a faithful widow — $50 can do all whole lot more in Tanganyika than it can in New York! $50 a year — that’s less than a nickel and a dime a day — will send a child to school, buy them shoes and two school uniforms, and books and school supplies, and provide breakfast every day for the whole year. That one life that will be changed — one life that could have been another finger snap — changed forever literally by nickels and dimes. If we as a parish can find fifty people willing to support this project, the fifty neediest children in a parish in Tanzania will receive that aid. Fifty of us here will change fifty lives there.

I’m not asking you to make this decision today — but I am asking us all to think about it in the context of our overall stewardship — what we spend on our own families, what we spend to support our church, and what we might spend to join in reaching those Millennium Development Goals, by focusing our effort on The Carpenter’s Kids. The pledge forms for the Carpenter’s Kids program are at the back of the church. I invite you today, if you’re moved to do so, to take one away with you and read through it. If you want to participate, to be one of the fifty, bring the form back and give it to me and I will hold it — along with mine — until there are fifty — and if there are more than fifty so much the better. But when we have reached fifty, I will send our joint application to the Bishop to enroll us as a parish in partnership, and then receive the first year’s offering at a special ingathering.

The problems of the world can seem overwhelming — yet even the greatest problems can be solved by people of goodwill doing what they can. I won’t say it’s as easy as snapping your finger. I will say it is as easy as nickels and dimes, and I will say it is something I know that I can do; it is something I know that most of you can do. The question is, will we do it?+