Preaching is always an intimidating task, but seldom more than on a day like today when we hear Jesus criticizing those “who like to walk around in long robes.” For a monk, that strikes pretty close to home.
That being said, I truly believe that today’s gospel lesson is about something more substantive than the wearing of robes. But it does begin there. Jesus criticizes the ‘scribes,’ important religious leaders of his day, for “liking to walk around” in long robes, for enjoying the respect they received when greeted in the marketplaces, and for relishing the privilege of having the best seats in the synagogue and the places of honor at banquets. For them, Jesus suggests, it’s all about being seen, honored and admired by ‘ordinary folk.’ They delight in this kind of attention.
This, of course, is exactly what Jesus has already warned us about in the Sermon on the Mount. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;” he cautions, “for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.” (Mt 6:1-2a) Did you catch those two important phrases: “in order to be seen by them,” and “so that they may be praised by others”? Jesus expects that we will share what we have and give generously to the work of God in the world, but he asks us to consider why and how we offer alms or do good deeds. Whenever we posture and pose in order to impress others with our holiness or our goodness or our generosity and selflessness, whenever we actively court their flattery and praise, we sacrifice the good favor of our Father in heaven for the cheap and fickle praise of human beings.
1 Kings 17:8-16
In our Old Testament lesson we read of Elijah’s encounter with the widow at Zarephath. She lives in the face of imminent starvation. She pours out her heart to the prophet Elijah. She has only a handful of meal and little more than a drop of oil which will form the last supper for her and her son. And you know what happens. She shares her paltry rations with Elijah, and the meal jar and oil never thereafter give out. It’s a beautiful story. I’m not sure, though, that it literally happened. I mean, if we could somehow bring a CNN camera crew back some thousands of years to this particular incident, I have doubts whether this exact story, as it’s been told to us in the scriptures, could be captured on film. This particular encounter between Elijah and the widow at Zarephath, as it’s recorded in the First Book of the Kings, is too isolated, too exceptional a story to “make history,” to be remembered down through the centuries… and to show up in the Canon of Holy Scripture and in our Sunday lectionary every three years or so.
The reason the story about the widow’s oil has been passed down, generation to generation, is not because it literally happened. Maybe so; maybe not. The story has been remembered because it’s true. I suspect most every one of us here has our own version of this story: that when you don’t have what is required, you are given what you need.
What might be your version of this story? I think you have one. When you’ve come to your end. When the cupboard of your imagination is empty and you cannot, for the life of you, figure out how you can make it, how you will make it, given where things are with you financially, or emotionally, or spiritually, or physically; given where things are for you in relationship to your spouse, or partner, or employer, or children, or neighbor, or relative. When it all seems a dead end preceding a kind of death. Death, literally, or simply the death of hope, the death of a dream, the death of a possibility or of a chance. I don’t know how your story has come out… but it surely has come out, and in some amazing ways, because you’re here. You’ve made it to today… which is probably nothing short of a miracle. (It probably is a miracle.) The reason this story about the widow’s little jug of oil has been saved and shared down through the centuries is because it’s our story. It’s a true story, and on two levels.
On the one level there is the reminder about the miracle of provision. When what is absolutely essential for you to live, when what is crucial for your surviving the day (literally or metaphorically), provision somehow happens. It’s maybe in the form of finances or food. Sometimes it’s no more than almost crumbs of attention and care. This past week, one day I was having a particularly tough day. I found myself on kind of a roll… downhill. I mean, I was not about to literally die… but the day was really killing me. It may sound a little melodramatic, but there was a line from Psalm 116 floating through my brain at the time:
“The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me;
I came to grief and sorrow….”
And then late in the afternoon I passed one of my Brothers in a hallway here in the monastery. He spoke to me, just as we were passing one another. He said a few words to me that were exceedingly kind, and he smiled at me. And we parted … And I was a new man. Absolutely transformed. In the instant. From that moment the whole day – what had already transpired and what was to come – the whole day looked different. I could now see the day’s being the most amazing series of events, for which I was almost immediately given the grace to be thankful. That’s a word for it: grace. When you absolutely haven’t got what it takes, and you’re given what you need.
If your life is anything like mine, I suspect you have had a lifetime of experiences – big and small, so many they are without number – where provision and goodness, God’s provision and goodness, have come out of both the surest and the sorriest of situations. That sorrowful Psalm 146 about “grief and sorrow” that was on my mind the other day takes a turn for the better. The psalm continues:
“…Then I called upon the Name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I pray you, save my life.’
Gracious is the Lord and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.”
Recently I was listening to someone who was talking about how bad things are in so many places around the world, and in our own country, and their own town, and – some days, because of it all – in their own heart. Bad stuff. This person asked for my “take” on things. I could not find any argument with what they were saying. But I had to add that what amazes me even more, with each passing day, is how good things are, and often times in the most unexpected and unpredictable of ways: where you discover abject goodness, greatness, beauty, nobility, provision in ways which you could never have even asked for or imagined. Like being surprised by joy. The widow at Zarephath would not have known the word, “grace,” but we do. We as Christians do, and grace is amazing. That’s one thing about this story of the widow’s bottomless vial of oil that is worth saving and savoring: life is positively amazing. When you think you’ve come to the end there is more.
Another reason why this story about the widow at Zarephath is true is because it’s a kaon about generosity. There is a risky principle about life which may seem counter-intuitive until you’ve tested it: what you give away seems to be in direct proportion to what you receive. And I don’t even mean one-for-one. It’s much more than that; it’s like a hundred-fold. There’s a de facto principle in life that in giving you receive. As if to say the one makes the space for the other. St. Catherine’s Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia, has as its motto: “What we keep we lose; only what we give remains our own.” Marvelous! There is something about participating in life as a gift, not clinging to it, not hoarding it, but cherishing it, participating in it, then sharing it with a kind of reckless abandon that is the real deal, because that’s like God. It’s for us to be generous with the things in life to which we’ve been entrusted. But it’s deeper than just about things. It’s to be exceedingly generous with our kindness, attentiveness, gratitude, gentleness, and interest for others.
This generous predisposition certainly can have an effect on our custody of things – on our stewardship of money and property and other things; however the a priori principle is that life gives us the invitation to participate in God’s generosity. We have been created in the image of God, whose opening act in creation in the Book of Genesis is generosity. The words “genesis” and “generosity” spring from the same etymological source.[i] We have been created in the image of God, who, from the beginning, is generous. Long before death pulls from our grip what you cannot take to the grave, acknowledge it all as gift, and gift it back to God as an offering for God’s use. Collaborate with God. It’s a prayer that we re-present God in all that we are, and in all that we have: God, who from the beginning is generous.
The scriptures appointed for today herald widows. There is this wonderful story about the widow at Zarephath in the First Book of the Kings. There’s also a tender remembrance of widows in Psalm 146, appointed for today: “the Lord sustains the orphan and widow.” And then today’s Gospel lesson recalls the poor widow who shares two pennies, “the widow’s mite.” This, too, is a story that is bigger than life and, it’s also a true story. Jesus’ point is not that this poor widow, in giving her two pennies, gave a better gift than the rich person who gives large sums. They both are benefactors, and both are giving from their personal treasury. What’s distinctive about the widow’s mite is simply in her willingness to give her gift, her little gift.
Life is not so much big events; life is a lot of little events which can become profoundly significant. The story of the widow’s mite is quite similar to the story of the widow’s vial of oil in terms of a generous availability in even the smallest of ways. From these widows’ stories, we are reminded about the greatness in small things, which we also see lived out in Jesus Christ who, as we read, “… emptied and humbled himself….”[ii] I recall Mother Teresa’s saying, “We cannot do great things on this earth. We can only do little things with great love.”
There’s a moral in these wonderful and true stories about the widow’s oil and the other widow’s mite:
- In the beginning, from the genesis of life, we witness God’s generosity. We have been created in the image of God whose essence is generosity.
- Giving opens the door to receiving… beyond what we might imagine.
- There is no such thing as a small gift. All gifts are great.
- There will be provision. God will provide. God will provide for you, and God intends provide through you. We are an answer to God’s prayer.
[i]The root gene-means “give birth, beget,” which forms both the Greek and Latin words, genesis, yielding engender, generation, genetic, genuine…
[ii]See Philippians 2:1-11.
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B)
1 Kings 17: 8-16
Hebrews 9: 24-28
Mark 12: 38-44
Several years ago, in fact the summer of 1991, the whole community packed up, and we went on pilgrimage to Britain. Some of you might remember. It was the summer of our 125th anniversary, and we went to Britain to visit some of the places the community had been associated with. We went to, and stayed in, the old Mission House in Oxford. We met sisters at the Fairacres convent, a community we had helped to found in the early days of the twentieth century. We had our annual retreat at Bishop’s House on Iona, which had once been a house of the Society. It was a great time, and for the most part the weather was spectacular. Whenever I am in Britain, I am struck buy two things. I am struck by just how small the country is and how close everything is to everything else. And I am struck by the fact that I lose all sense of direction. I am struck by the fact that I have absolutely no sense of where things are in relation to one another. Now that’s fine if you are not driving, but if you are driving … and alone …without a map, that’s a recipe for disaster. I mean, how hard can it really be to get from Heathrow to Oxford, especially when you have just come from Oxford? It’s just over there. Or was it there. Or maybe it was that way. I guess I didn’t know after all. Boy did I get lost that day. I am surprised I ever made it back to Oxford because after a while it became really clear, I wasn’t anywhere near Oxford.
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.
38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.
The Widow’s Mite, the story of the poor woman who gave all that she had to the Temple Treasury is a lesson about openhanded generosity and placing one’s trust fully in God. It is a story we need to hear, an encouragement to live fully and generously. The widow’s contribution in monetary terms was tiny, only a penny and yet her gift would place her high in the roster of true philanthropy because she gave out of her poverty, rather than her abundance.