Generous Hearts

Elijah Gets Bread through the Generosity of a Widow

Elijah Gets Bread through the Generosity of a Widow

A sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2015.  The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146 , Hebrews 9:24-28, and Mark 12:38-44.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Our new presiding bishop has called for more “crazy Christians” in the world—people of faith who do wild things for the love of God. Today’s scriptures show us a couple of these people. And they are especially crazy-looking in their generosity.

In the first reading, there in a widow who lives in a small town. She’s poor and hungry and out of options for herself and for her son. She’s just about to give up completely, when Elijah the prophet comes by. When Elijah sees her and asks her for something to eat, she responds (perhaps sarcastically? perhaps despairingly?) “As the Lord lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of dough and a tiny bit of oil, and so I’m just going to get a couple of sticks to keep me and my son warm ….. while we starve.” But Elijah, with faith in his heart, with that kind of hopeful persistence that can be irritating when we’re at our wit’s end, Elijah pushes on, “Don’t be afraid. Go ahead and make some bread for me and you and your son, and you’ll find that God will provide.” The widow puts it all on the line.

The widow at Zarephath shows generosity to a stranger. It makes no sense. She seems to forget about her own hunger, and even the hunger of her son. She sacrifices for the stranger, for this wandering prophet who someone conveys to her a sense of God, of God’s presence, and (perhaps) of God’s promise. She gambles, really. She guesses and she risks, not really having any reason to expect receiving anything in return. But perhaps she’s at that needy place of real hunger where she sees the hunger in Elijah and knows so well what it’s like, that she figures she has very little to lose. She might as well help him. But an amazing thing happens. A miracle happens. God provides. There’s enough meal and And God does provide. God makes a miracle out of very little and they all are fed. They stay warm. And they grow in their belief and reliance upon God.

In some ways, the second part of today’s Gospel parallels this story of the widow at Zarephath. In the first part of the story, Jesus has been teaching and pointing out the hypocrisy and show of the Serious Faithful, in this case, the scribes. The long robes meant to be a means of modesty were being used as a means of pride. Instead of doing their important work – keeping the written documents of the temple, preserving sacred texts, working as lawyers, judges, helping to convey the law of God to the people of God—these scribes were taking advantage. Jesus uses the scribes as an example how NOT to be. And then he points out the poor widow across the way.

Jesus notices how she appears to be poor, but still manages to put in a few coins as an offering. She uses her little bit to help others who may be less fortunate than she is. Many would say she’s crazy. After all, why should the temple need her few coins? Perhaps she even sees some of the indifference and hypocrisy of the scribes. She’s probably all too familiar with the corruption in the temple system that Jesus questions when he overturns the tables, in the story we hear during Holy Week. But even though this widow might know all of this, even though she seems the religious officials looking down at her, she decides to let God deal with them. She puts her faith in God, and she does what she thinks is right. The widow is crazy for God in such a way that the other crazy aspects of the world don’t keep her from being generous.

Being crazy in generosity is not always easy for me—I tend to let a lot of incidentals get into the way. There are times when I’ve been to churches or cathedrals and I admire the beautiful music and liturgical vestments, the nice buildings, and all the seemingly thriving programs. And when the collection plate comes around, I would rather not give anything, saying to myself, “Well, they clearly have plenty of money. Just look around.” Or perhaps I think my money won’t be spent correctly, or I don’t like the person in charge. There are any number of reasons for me to be stingy.

But when I’m most faithful, I realize that giving on behalf of others is not so much about those churches, or cathedrals, or programs. Giving has to do with my own faithfulness. Am I willing to sacrifice for others? Am I willing at least to begin to put my body and soul in a place where I can be used by God for greater good? If I remain stingy and judgmental in every situation, I close myself off not only to those who could be helped through me, but I also close myself off to God.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us of a sacrifice we can never repay, never fully imitate, and perhaps (this side of heaven) never fully appreciate. It is a sacrifice made not out of human striving or working or trying to be good. Rather, it’s the very sacrifice of God. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross has worked to take away the power of sin in our lives and in our world. His sacrifice makes the way for us to see God. It makes the way in which God reaches out for us.

In the life of Jesus Christ, God gives us himself. In the death of Jesus on the cross, God gives us himself. In the resurrection from the dead, the full life of God is given to a dying world, in order to show us the power of sacrifice, the power of God to bring us “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”

God invites us to know the grace of sacrificial generosity. Sometimes that might mean going without particular things, while we put our money aside for someone else. It might mean fasting—giving up food—while we use that money to help the hungry, or try to listen to our soul and notice our own hunger, opening ourselves up to God more fully. Living and working in community, especially Christian community, we’re sometimes called upon to sacrifice our ideas or our solutions or our desires for a particular direction or ministry—it might be that the Holy Spirit is putting energy behind someone else’s idea for now, and it’s my turn to wait, to trust, and to pray sacrificially.

The widow at Zarephath and the widow outside the temple with just a few coins show us what it looks like to be truly generous, to be crazy in generosity. But these are simply reminders for what we already know about ourselves. We already know what it means to be ready to give on behalf of others. We already know that feeling in the pit of our stomach when we sometimes choose not to help someone else, and then we regret it later. We already know what following Jesus looks like, and we have examples in our own parish.

One crazy Christian was Suzanne Eyman. Sue worked for many years downtown at First American Bank. She loved All Souls, she loved to travel, and she loved to laugh. Because she had lived in the Philippines for a time, whenever I would visit, we would compare stories about Filipino foods and customs. Her best friend and sidekick at church was Anne Cleary, and when Ann died, Sue lost some of her spark. Her other great friend was a woman named Dorothea. Dorothea’s daughter Becky, was like a goddaughter to Sue, and especially in Sue’s last couple of years, Becky was always with her. We would talk about All Souls and she was interested in our hopes for an elevator, even though she knew she probably wouldn’t be able to use it. Sue eventually slowed down and she died at home, in peace. We had a good memorial for her here—some of you were there, and Becky and I talked a couple of times after Sue’s death.

About a year and a half later, Becky called to make an appointment. I assumed she was missing Sue, and so I was ready to talk about grief and how it works through us over time, and whatever else she might want to talk about. We sat in my office and we remembered Sue. We talked about grief. And then Becky asked how the construction project was going. At that point, we could look out my office window and see site work beginning. Having used the ladies room when she arrived, Becky delicately asked if any work would be done on the existing facilities, and I explained that our focus was on the new wing.

Becky listened carefully and asked a few more questions. And then, with operatic drama, she reached into her purse and handed me a check. She said, “Perhaps this will help with some of the projects. Sue would really like that.” I opened the envelope and the check was for $479, 473.07. A mighty mite, indeed.

Sue could have left money to any number of things or people, but she chose All Souls. She was generous to God and to the place where she had experienced God. She knew there would be good times and bad in the congregation. She knew clergy would come and go, vestries would change, and leaders move away while others stepped up. Like the widow at Zarephath, like the widow in the temple, Sue Eymon shows us what it looks like to be crazy in generosity—crazy in a way that helps others for years to come.

The Right Reverend Richard Grein, retired bishop of New York, always says, “preaching about stewardship and giving should be easy. Just ask is anyone has ever seen a generous person who wasn’t happy?”

May God help us to be happy today and tomorrow.

In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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