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The Widow's Mite – Br. Eldridge Pendleton

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1 Kings 17: 8-16;
Psalm 146;
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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13 Comments

  1. Pam on December 1, 2015 at 10:41

    Chores are work; ministry is not. The distinction is amazing actually, and it has nothing to do with the time and energy involved. The first involves something we have to do; the second involves something we feel called to do and want to do. The results of finishing chores may be the satisfaction of, for the moment at least, eliminating all the items on a to-do list. The results of ministry are blessings for both parties.

  2. Dee Dee on July 2, 2015 at 08:52

    A few years ago, God answered my most fervent prayers by giving me someone to love. That love became my greatest treasure, and I was so thankful to God for that gift. But recently I have been required to give up my greatest treasure. I do feel so very empty, and some days I find it hard to be thankful. However, I am thankful for these words this morning because they offer a glimmer of hope that I may someday be filled again. I will try to carry that hope with me today.

  3. Sallie on July 2, 2015 at 07:55

    The church as a whole does not know how to relate to wealthy people. Some of that comes from a fear of angering them and losing their pledges. But a lot of it comes from unresolved feelings around money. It is very unpleasant. I know a very wealthy man- whose name you would recognize who who has faithfully attended a church, had babptisms, marriahges and funerals in the family- but not once has a minster asked him about his spiritual life.

    • CMAC on July 2, 2015 at 09:37

      How little we know about what goes on in one another’s lives. Much as I have loved the churches I have attended, I don’t think, on the whole, they know how to relate to people in general. Broken people – where are the Isabella Gardners?

      • Sallie on July 2, 2015 at 22:21

        yoiu’re right..and indeed we are all broken and fail to relate as might be best…..

  4. Ed Nilson on July 2, 2015 at 06:48

    There is a verse in Luke 12:33 where Jesus says, “Make yourselves purses that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in Heaven.” A few nights ago I was able to help two strangers with a bit of help. I had to choose what to give out of the $16 in my pocket. I saved the dollar bill for myself and found it was sufficient for a few bananas which unbeknownst to me weighed out at 97 cents. God is in the details and it is a joy to give what we have away. God is a reckless spendthrift when He gives away His love to us — and as Mother Teresa said, we too can love everyone we meet “who is Jesus in a distressing disguise.”

  5. Ruth West on December 28, 2014 at 17:01

    Br. Eldridge, thank you for this good eye-opening sermon. It says to me that my service is not one of sacrifice. These good examples inspire me to do more for the spread of the Kingdom.

  6. Kerry on December 17, 2012 at 05:31

    Thank you so much. This is exactly the message I needed to hear today: “In the sacrificial giving Christ asks of us we face down our fears of insecurity and discover how little we actually need.”

  7. Janice Schuyler on December 27, 2011 at 08:27

    While doing remote preparation for a Quiet Day with the theme “Awakenings,” I received through “Brother, Give Us a Word” lines from your writing “The Widow’s Mite.” Since I had decided to use a passage from 1 Kings about Solomon and the two mothers coming for justice in their dispute over who was the mother of the child, I was very moved to read what you wrote about Isabella Gardner’s loss of her child and her subsequent going anonymously to visit an injured child.
    What you wrote, the story in 1 Kings, and the preparation I was doing on the “Awakenings” Quiet Day all seemed to flow together. The ways graced moments do.
    Thank you, Brother Eldridge, and thanks to your community for thinking of this way of using technology in your ministries.
    It is especially helpful that I know that when I get the email the message will be brief, and I am free to go to the longer text if I am drawn to do so, or if I simply have the time to do so that day.
    God’s peace.

  8. Polly Chatfield on December 13, 2011 at 11:56

    I have had an experience akin to what you describe. As my husband grew more and more incapacitated with cancer I found i had to do more and more for him including getting up with him several times in the night. I became tired to the point of exhaustion and thought I couldn’t bear doing all that was asked of me. But the Holy Spirit put it in my mind that this was Christ is was helping to dress and for whom i was getting up in the night, and suddenly, it seemed, i could keep going. There was strength enough somehow and a kind joy of service. Thank you for reminding me of that huge gift of grace.

  9. Fr.Terry Lynberg on December 12, 2011 at 21:33

    God’s holiness is Love, using the English word that, as the rhetorician suggests ‘weighs a thousand’. Others appearing in our sphere personally- humans, animals, Nature, life expressing itself in forms surprising, familiar, wounded, merry, imperfect- awaiting anew – Others invite and, in ways sometimes immeasureable, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, sometimes clear, sometimes mysterious, sometimes welcome gifts of the Other.

    Holy God’s Spirit is Love bursting free freshly procreating new life, restored life, healed life, wholesome life, fulfilled life, blessed Life fulfilled even as George Herbert once prayed, with “hearts whose pulse may be Thy praise.”

  10. Liz McCarthy on December 12, 2011 at 18:25

    One day within the last month, you posted a sermon the theme of which was the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer. I’ve searched my old e-mails as well as sermons on your site and can’t find it anywhere.
    I need it for a friend who has just returned from treatment. Can you help me, please?
    thank you –
    Liz McCarthy

    • DLa Rue on December 17, 2012 at 07:58

      That prayer is part of a larger one by Reinhold Neibhur:

      God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
      The courage to change the things I can,
      And the wisdom to know the difference.

      The whole is at this site:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

      There is also a local connection: Reinhold’s brother Richard taught at the Harvard Divinity School for many years.

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