1 Kings 17: 8-16;
Hebrews 9: 24-28;
Mark 12: 38-44
One of the most brilliant and talented of the first generation of Father Benson’s spiritual sons, Arthur Hall, who later served as Episcopal Bishop of Vermont for 38 years, was also a gifted spiritual director. When Jack and Isabella Gardner moved their membership to the Church of the Advent on Bowdoin Street in 1873, Mrs. Gardner sought him out for counsel and Hall very shortly assumed the responsibility for her spiritual formation. At the time Hall was 25, attractive and a recent graduate of Christ Church, Oxford. Mrs. Gardner was mourning the death of her only child. Theirs was to be a frank and fruitful relationship that lasted many years. Fr. Hall did not let her wealth or social position influence his direction. As one would expect, except for a few notes that survive, we know little of his actual direction of her, but we do know he sometimes asked her to pay the expenses for paupers buried by the Advent and on at least one occasion sent her to nurse the sick. Rosa Manning, a child of a poor family living in the North End, had been run over by a produce wagon and was severely injured. Hall knew that her mother would lose her job if she took time off to attend the child and she was the sole support of her large family. He sent Mrs. Gardner to Massachusetts General Hospital, dressed in old clothes to hide her identity, to take care of the girl over many weeks until she recovered. Hall knew this errand of mercy would be a sacrifice for the young socialite. The heir of A.T. Stewart, the multi-millionaire who had developed the first department store in New York, Isabella Gardner could have easily used her money to hire a nurse substitute. Her director insisted that she give of herself instead, which was much harder. And so each day she arrived at the hospital ward dutifully to do whatever was needed for the child. It is likely that acting as a substitute mother for that young girl helped heal her grieving heart as well.
Today is the Sunday parishes traditionally kick off their stewardship drives. The subject of financial support for the Church will not be my focus this morning, Instead, I wish us to consider one related to it that is not restricted to a season of the year. We are all called as followers of Christ and as his disciples in training to give of ourselves beyond the limits of comfort. To give all if necessary just as God gave all for us, for if we do, through the experience we meet God and are changed.
The Old Testament lesson is a good example of this. The prophet Elijah in the wilderness near Zarephath on the Phoenician coast meets a mother and child who are facing starvation. The woman, expecting to die soon, has barely enough meal and oil to make a little bread. Even so, Elijah asks to be fed. She hesitates and considers refusing his request, because if she feeds him first there will be nothing left for her son and herself. Elijah convinces her God will see to it that there is enough for them all. She gives him all she had, and, as he prophesied, the meal and oil did not run out and there was food for many days. By the time it does the famine has ended and their lives are no longer endangered.
I suspect that many of us have been in similar situations, though probably ones that are less dire. The truth about sacrificial giving came home to me one day many years ago while I was living at our retreat house in North Carolina. I remember being under great pressure from my seminary studies and the needs of our little monastic community there and feeling overwhelmed. I felt like if anything more were asked of me I would fall apart. I was at the breaking point. Then the doorbell rang. On our doorstep was someone in crisis and I was alone in the house. I would have to try to help. So I invited the person in and offered what hospitality I could, and in doing so something remarkable happened. I did not fall under a burden too heavy to carry. Instead in reaching out I instinctively knew I was meeting Christ in the one needing help, and from the encounter the rest of my day was blessed.
Christ calls us into situations of need and invites us to give from our treasure, and to give all that we have. Each of us has treasure, what we value most, and for each of us it is uniquely ours. For many treasure will be equated with our material wealth because money is power, and while we pretend we worship God and we say God has first place in our lives, we live and act as if this is not really so. It is easier to put our trust in money which is tangible that to trust in God whom we cannot see and may suspect as being only a convenient abstract idea. If wealth really is your God, notice how threatened you feel when asked to tithe a part of it. However, if God has first place in our lives and we fully trust in God to take care of us, we can give of our treasure liberally. Rather than exhausting what we have our treasure is enhanced by giving. It never runs out. Like the oil and meal of the widow of Zarephath there is always enough. In the sacrificial giving Christ asks of us we face down our fears of insecurity and discover how little we actually need. We also discover that the treasure God has for us is better than anything we have or can imagine.
All of us will find ourselves at some point in situations where others need our help, sometimes life and death crises that ask more of us than we think we have to give. But if we respond and do whatever is needed, rather than being broken by the sacrifice, we find we are given new energy for life. If we have never experienced what it is to give sacrificially, we may approach it like our first dive from the high diving board, a major moment at the time but really ordinary after that, a new and richer way to approach life.
What is your treasure, what is it you value most and feel you have to have to live? Maybe it is money, maybe it is time, maybe it is knowledge, maybe it is love that needs to be squandered on those who have none, who lack hope and need help.
Are you being challenged at this time to give all that you have? Maybe you are at a crossroads in your life and feel the tug of commitment and vocation and have been reluctant to do anything about it. Maybe someone has asked for your help in a major way. Giving all that we have is what God asks of us. God wants us to empty ourselves by giving so that God can replenish us with much more. And God comes to us in those seeking our help. We sometimes welcome God in the perfect stranger, and sometimes in someone we know well, a family member or friend. When we open our hands this way to others we discover our own need as well. In doing so all are satisfied.
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