Jesus asks us to give all of ourselves to God and neighbor. Yet, our gifts often do not live up to this call because often we give out of inspiration or guilt. Only by receiving faith through the Holy Spirit can we give as the Triune God calls us to give.
Vicar Neal Cannon, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 32, year B; text: I Kings, 17:8-16, Mark 12:38-44, Psalm 146
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Our readings today are about two widows. One widow gave her last two coins to the church and one who gave her last bit of bread to Elijah. Our lessons are about two incredible women, who gave everything they had to God.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article in the Olive Branch about how these sorts of lessons make us aware of our own guiltiness and sin. They drive us to fall on our knees before God and seek the grace and forgiveness that Jesus Christ offers on the cross. To respond with grace is the right instinct to have and true to the Gospel. But after writing this article a question lingered in my mind: Does Jesus really ask us to give everything like the two widows in our readings?
I have to answer yes because Jesus is clear in Gospel. Our call is to give everything to God.
Just before our story today, Jesus proclaims the two greatest commandments are to love the LORD your God with ALL your heart and with ALL your soul and with ALL your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. This is tantamount to Jesus saying love God and your neighbor fully.
In the gospel today, Jesus addresses wealthy people who are making a big show of giving large sums of money in church. And even though their gifts are large, their only giving a small portion of their earnings. So Jesus lifts up the example of a widow who gives two small copper coins, practically nothing in comparison, and says the widow has given more than the rest of them combined.
Now, just to be clear, through Jesus, we are given grace and forgiveness whether we give 1%, 10%, or 99% of money, and time, and gifts to God. So our generosity is not a matter of salvation. But still, it’s clear that the scriptures are always calling us to fully give our hearts to the Triune God and to our neighbor.
And I wonder if we can actually do it.
Sometimes as wealthy Christians in a wealthy nation we give out of guilt. We give because we feel bad about having more than others. But that never causes us to give what Jesus is asking us to give. It causes us to give just enough to feel better about ourselves afterwards.
For example, have you ever walked past a homeless person and then felt guilty about it? Think about how much that really inspired you to give, and how long that feeling lasted. If you’re like me, you feel guilty for awhile, and that might inspire you to do something, but not much and afterwards nothing has really changed in your life. So often we tell ourselves that giving everything we have like the two widows in our stories is impossible.
Yet, we know that all throughout history people have given up everything to follow Jesus. A few weeks ago we remembered St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was once a rich young man, who is not altogether unlike the rich young man in the gospel. The main difference between the two was when St. Francis encountered the gospel, he gave away everything he had to the poor and followed Jesus.
Mother Theresa is another who believed that we could give all of ourselves to God. She once famously said, “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”
One of my heroes of faith is a man named Shane Claiborne who wrote the book Irresistible Revolution. Shane is a person who gave up everything to follow God.
One day I heard Shane was going to be in Minnesota, so I went to see him speak. He had a really great presentation, so afterwards I went to talk to him and I was really excited and said, “Hey Shane, my name is Neal, thanks so much for that talk. It was really great.” Shane smiled politely and said the usual courtesy, “thanks for coming.”
And I stood there for a second, and after an awkward pause I said, “Your book really changed my life.”
I thought about this afterward and I realized, “well, that’s not true… my life wasn’t changed.” I was inspired to write a small check to the Simple Way and then go hear him speak, but my life wasn’t really changed.
Inspiration, like guilt, is only a passing feeling. And just like guilt, giving out of inspiration doesn’t move us towards giving in the way that Jesus calls us to give.
These heroes of the faith inspire us, but there is a disconnect in our lives where we’re inspired by our heroes, but we really don’t think we can be like them. And whenever we pause to consider giving all of ourselves to God and neighbor like our heroes of faith, what we end up experiencing is either inspiration or guilt, and ultimately we say that we can’t do it.
Giving is not difficult because we don’t care; I believe we care immensely for our neighbors. We feel guilty because we do care. So when I look at our gospel today and reading from I Kings, I wonder what keeps us from being the people we want to be and how the Gospel drives us towards great acts of love?
In I Kings Elijah has just proclaimed that a drought will come over the land because the Israelites are worshipping other gods. And so the drought comes, and Elijah is affected by this drought along with the people. In order to survive, God tells Elijah to go to a widow in Zarephath of Sidon and she will give him bread and water. Now, Sidon is an area in the Middle East that worshipped other gods. This is important because it tells us that the widow is not an Israelite.
So God commands Elijah to go to the widow. He does but there are two problems. First, the widow doesn’t seem to recognize she’s been called by God to feed Elijah, and second, the widow and her family are dying from the drought.
You can hear the anguish of the woman’s voice when she speaks. “As the LORD your God (notice how she says your God, not my 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.”
Her pain and fear and anger are palpable. It’s like she’s asking “Who are Elijah and his God to ask me to give everything when I have nothing?” Because she knows that if she gives up her last bits of food she will be staring into pure emptiness and death.
Still, Elijah persists in asking for bread, telling the woman that she will not go hungry. To me this is shocking and incredibly bold because I would be ashamed to ask someone in this situation for food. But Elijah trusts God, so he persists saying that God has said the meal and oil used to make the bread would not go empty until it rains again.
Then two incredible things happen that I want to lift up. First, is that it works. The meal and oil multiply. But the second amazing thing that happens in this story is that the widow says yes. She looks at her meager portions, contemplates having nothing, contemplates death for her and her family, and says yes to Elijah and thereby yes to the God of Israel. She gives everything to him.
What makes this incredible is that we know the widow doesn’t do it out of guilt, because she is the one who is starving. If anything, Elijah should feel guilty for asking her for bread. What’s more, we know that this pagan widow had no faith in the God of Israel to begin with, yet by a miracle she was given faith in God’s word, and God’s word did not come back empty.
True, it is a miracle that her rations increased but to me the greater miracle is that this pagan woman in a terrible situation said yes to God.
I think what helps me understand both miracles better is a phrase I learned in seminary, creatio ex nihilo. This is a Latin phrase and what this means is that God is constantly creating (creatio) something out of nothing (ex nihilo). There are tons of examples of this all over the Bible. In Genesis the story of Sarah and Abraham teaches us that God gives Sarah a child in barren womb. In Exodus, God gives manna and water and quail to his people in the desert. And in the Gospel, Jesus is raised from death to life. In all these stories God takes something that looks like nothing and through faith and trust creates something incredible.
And this idea of creatio ex nihilo helps us understand how the saints are able to give everything they have to God. These people were given faith by God so much that when they face poverty and death and destruction they see emptiness, but they believe, and hope, and trust that God is at work – that God is doing something in empty places.
To have this kind of faith is difficult in America because we are a consumerist culture and we’re told every day to have faith in things, not in God.
In college I was a business communications major, and one of the things we learned is that businesses don’t sell you products anymore. They try to sell you love and community and freedom because these are things the human heart actually desires. Next time you turn on the TV during commercials hit the mute button and try to guess what they are actually selling you, or what they are actually wanting you to believe.
For example Best Buy’s logo awhile back (maybe still?) was, “You Happier.” Think about what that’s telling us. It’s promising the emptiness in our lives can be filled by cool electronics. I’m not picking on Best Buy because nearly every company does this these days. And this message is so pervasive that sometimes without knowing it we believe the message that things do make us happier.
And when we start trusting in things, there is not a lot of room to trust in God.
And its not just things that we trust in, sometimes we trust ideas and politicians and a number of other things. But as often as not, they let us down. I don’t know if this past week’s election was good or bad for you, but at the end of the day as Christians we have to claim that the government is not where we put our trust. Politicians make endless promises, but I think we know that whether they are well intentioned or not, they can’t fulfill them all.
As our Psalm tells us today, “put not your trust in rulers, in mortals in whom there is no help.”
The world makes lots of promises, but the Triune God tells us they are empty promises.
This week Mount Olive is sending out pledge cards in the mail to all its members. And I hope when we are called to give to Mount Olive, or to the poor, or to the widow, or whatever ways we are called to give, that it is not out of guilt, but out of trust that when God calls us to give of ourselves we trust that the Triune God is at work doing incredible things like turning our emptiness into community and love and freedom and grace and forgiveness.
And I pray that like the widow of Zarephath, the Holy Spirit comes to each of us, so that we may receive this faith and say yes to God and then believe that God is at work in our lives calling us even now to do things that we don’t expect. Let us say yes to God’s word and respond, not out of inspiration or guilt, but out of the faith we are given by the Holy Spirit. Let us give our whole heart to Jesus.