Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 2012

Fr. Steve suggested that I post this.
— Bruce


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

So. Here we are. Tuesday night was the culmination of a national frenzy — one we go through every four years when we elect our leaders. You may have been happy about the results, or you may have been unhappy about the results; I’m not here to address that directly, but I can’t help wondering whether the makers of the lectionary had it in mind when they selected for today’s reading Psalm 146, which contains the trenchant little verse, “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.” That seemed particularly resonant to me under the circumstances. Maybe I’m just getting old, though I confess that I long ago settled into an established skepticism about the political processes of this or any other country, now or at any other time in history. Perhaps part of that’s because I was a history major in college; there’s nothing like studying history to make you aware of the fact that human institutions are remarkably mutable, typically irrational, and really quite short-lived, however unchangeable, coherent, and enduring they may seem at the time.

Our culture is not very historically conscious, overall. What’s newest and cutting-edge is the only thing that matters to many people. One of the things that’s lacking in our contemporary culture, I think, is the concomitant sense of perspective and proportion. But even where there is some sense of historical movement, we are still often afflicted with what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. Most people in the modern era — going back at least to the early nineteenth century, and perhaps further — seem to think that they are living at the culmination of history, and that everything humanity has done up to this point has been done chiefly for the purpose of getting here. As a subjective phenomenon, I suppose it’s what one might expect from the largely subjectivist worldview that has overtaken our discourse both inside and outside the church; at the same time, it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to realize that nobody in the past even remotely envisioned our current society as the goal of their existence. If your memory runs back to a time fifty years ago (and many of ours do), surely you weren’t at the time thinking of today as where you were headed. By the same token, those who come fifty or a hundred years down the road probably aren’t going to be under the impression that it’s all been downhill from 2012 (at least not unless all those end-of-the-world predictions are true: if they are, all bets are off). It’s entirely possible that they will think of us as mere stepping stones to where they are themselves. If so, they won’t have learned much, but that won’t be surprising either.

What’s missing from all this, of course, is a real sense of perspective and proportion — which doesn’t so much reject the subjective for a completely cold objectivism, as balance it against all those other equally valid subjective points of view out there. Perspective is what largely seems to have gone missing through the weeks leading up to the election. Certainly the campaigns brought out egregiously disproportionate behavior and low-minded discourse from people who usually seem to know better. It sufficiently rankled me that I actually voted for one candidate I wouldn’t have otherwise, based entirely on the absurd attack ads that had been ranged against him on television. My impression was that it was worse than usual this time: how about you? Maybe it was, but maybe it’s wasn’t. I always think that the most recent election was the worst ever. Perhaps my memory is casting a rosy glow over the more distant past. If my impression is correct, though, we really are caught in a downward spiral of public discourse in general.

And so I’ve remarked to my classes all week that, irrespective of results, it was just good to have the election over, and they all seem to have agreed. Friday night, at the opening Eucharist for the diocesan convention, Bishop Rickel preached what I thought was a remarkably good sermon (arguably two or maybe two and a half sermons…but that was okay), where he took this perception a little farther. He hasn’t yet posted it online, but when he does, I hope you’ll take a look (or a listen, if he’s recorded it). One of the observations he brought from the experience — and I’m paraphrasing broadly, because I don’t have his text — is that we need to model new ways of listening to each other across these fierce dogmatic divides — of doing so with charity and humility. He’s not the only other person I’ve seen talk about this in the Christian context. I read a blog entry from another Christian voter — this time a relatively conservative one. He had been somewhat more dismayed by the outcome of the election, but also so by the degradation of our ability to listen to each other. He too suggested that if there’s one thing we can all genuinely collaborate on, despite our political affiliations or preferences, it might well be listening to one another in humility — not caving in on strongly-held points of belief, but also not letting those take over who we are essentially as people. And I think that’s something to which adherents of either party could legitimately subscribe.

Humility and perspective. That’s what today’s readings are all about. The Psalm, as noted, has something to say about not putting our trust in human resources at all, but trusting instead in the Lord. It’s good advice to follow at any time, but in particular we need to hear this when we least want to hear it. We need have the perspective to realize that even those political issues that most divide us are not, on the eternal view of things, terribly consequential, and we also need to have the humility to admit that, however well we think we’re in command of the facts, we probably don’t know them all, and probably don’t fully understand why the other guy thinks what he thinks, and the proper course there is to interpret his motives charitably. We ourselves are limited, in other words — and we need to acknowledge that.

Today’s Old Testament reading is the familiar tale of Elijah and the widow. The country is suffering a drought and famine. Elijah is hungry, so he comes to the widow asking for a meal. She’s probably more than a little bit exasperated at the request, since she’s already at the end of her tether. She tells him, “Look — you’re barking up the wrong tree here. We have almost nothing. I just have this little bit of meal in the bottom of a jar, and half an ounce of oil; my current plan is to mix it all together, bake it, and eat it. And then we’re going to lie down and die, since there is really nothing else left for us to do.” Elijah, however, is insistent in that pesky way that only prophets really can be, and he prevails upon her to share it with him.

What happens, of course, is that this little bit of meal and this little trickle of oil somehow lasts until the drought and famine are over. The widow shares her meal, and it doesn’t actually run out. The widow and her son, together with Elijah, stick around quite a while. Admittedly, a steady diet of something like Scottish oat-cakes may not be the most appealing way to stay alive, but it’s better than the alternative.

There are several ways of looking at this story. Mediaeval biblical exegetes were inclined to see it as a figure at least in part of the inexhaustible nature of divine grace, especially as manifested in the Eucharist. That’s really not such a bad way of looking at it. In that respect, it also prefigures the stories of the feeding of the five thousand (and, if you think of it as a different event, the feeding of the four thousand as well). I’m all in favor of that, since we need to remind ourselves frequently that God’s supply is not ours, and that even when we’re at our best, the way we look at things is never really God’s way.

Of more immediate concern, however, I think there’s an important moral or behavioral kernel to this story, and it’s one we ought not overlook. The widow did have Elijah’s assurances that things would turn out well for if she complied with his request; at the same time, it must have sounded a bit nutty to her. We aren’t told, unless I’ve missed it, whether or not she was fully persuaded of his prophet’s credentials. Maybe she just thought, “Well, we’re going to die anyway, so I might as well be nice. There is, I suppose the remote chance that this guy is not just a wacko. Long odds are better than no odds.” Whatever she thought, however, what she did was important. Out of the little she had, she made an offering to this person who was in need. In consequence she herself was fed. This is worth bearing in mind.

The Gospel lesson for today brings us the equally well-known story of another widow, who goes into the temple and offers two little coins. We’re told here that together they make up about a penny. That’s about right. I’ve seen an ancient coin that was identified as a widow’s mite, and it’s a wee sliver of copper not quite as big as your little fingernail, and not much thicker. Its buying power was trivial. The evangelist tells us that she tossed her coins into the box along with the large and ostentatious gifts of the very wealthy. No doubt some people regarded her offering with contempt. Jesus doesn’t change the facts of her offering, but encourages us to look at the whole matter from a different perspective — from a divine perspective — and with humility. He points out that, whereas the very wealthy were giving out of their abundance, and doubtless were keeping plenty back for themselves, this poor woman was offering all she had, much like the widow who fed Elijah. It’s not clear whether she knew that she had another meal coming, or whether, like the widow of Zarephath, she also was just expecting to lie down and die. But she made the gift nevertheless, with the end result that at least Jesus tells us that she has given more, in the sight of heaven, then all the rest of them combined. She went, in the gambler’s terminology, “all in”.

Okay. I’m sure there are some political parallels to be drawn from this. But I’m not going to make them. The problem is that such parallels tend to trip all over each other. You can use a story like this to prove almost anything, if you have an axe to grind. I will leave that as an exercise to you, if it’s one you want to pursue. If you’re as tired of politics as I am, however, feel free to ignore the whole business.

I think the bigger lesson to be drawn here is not a political one or even a social one — though issues of social justice are intertwined here — but a personal and spiritual one, which is (in a sense) about the virtue of going “all in” — committing ourselves unreservedly — with everything we’ve got. Don’t worry: this is not a stewardship sermon in disguise. I’m not advising you to drain your bank accounts to the last farthing. I don’t think that would be wise for you or for us. But I think it does tell us something about how we ourselves should respond to need. It says more about our obligations than about our entitlements, and it says virtually nothing about our apparent capacities. Note that Elijah didn’t go to people with abundant resources. There probably were a few. Instead he went to the widow. He gives her the assurance — pretty hard to believe, under the circumstances — that the food and oil would not run out, and then expects from her a leap of faith. The widow in the Temple received no such guarantee, as far as we know; but both of them gave freely of what they had without regarding the long-term benefits to themselves, or the probable costs.

As the Psalmist tells us, the princes and institutions of this world, select and fine-tune them however we like, cannot guarantee us justice, comfort, or even survival. The resources of this world are only so useful, as well. You can have a million dollars in the bank, but if the bank fails and the FDIC fails, you have nothing. You can have a thousand pounds of gold, but if nobody’s buying gold, you can starve to death surrounded by it. Your candidate may win the election — but that doesn’t really guarantee results either.

Please understand that this doesn’t free us from the obligation to try to make our choices and our institutions as just and charitable as we can. It does, however, free us from the terrible burden of being measured and justified entirely by our success. That may be the way the world judges; it’s not the way we must judge. That is to say, our obligations remain our obligations, whether they produce the desired outcome or not. Feeding the starving man may or may not save him. Giving to the widow may not be enough to help her. Providing medical care to someone who’s about to die may not be the best use of resources in the worldly calculus of such things, either — but in the sight of heaven, these are the people we’re given to feed, support, and care for. Our duty to love one another, and to reach out to those in need, is nonnegotiable, and it’s not bounded by any kind of practical boundary. This is because everyone you can minister to is dying. And those who do the ministering are dying too. We’re all heading there sooner or later. That’s okay.

In the divine economy, our spiritual wealth, so to speak, is not measured by the buying power we can bring to the table, but by the faithfulness with which we bring what we can. The Lord has given us no guarantees — effectively all ministry is extended from the dying to the dying. But I think we can say that God looks rather more kindly upon those who shoulder their obligations even in the midst of uncertainty and inevitable death than upon those who to carve a carefully adequate piece of charity out of their abundance.

In the history of this congregation, we have been advised by many voices from many different directions at several different stages that we were a dying congregation — that we were on the brink of insolvency, and that the only rational course to pursue would be to lie down and die. Well, at some level, yes. We’re a dying congregation. But here’s the secret: so are all congregations. We all have only a finite time on this earth. That goes for us individually, and it goes for our constructions and our institutions. Our tenure of humanity is not measured by how long we can stretch it out, but by what we do with it while we have it.

I’m sorry to say that some people seem to have taken the idea that we’re dying too much to heart, and have left without really considering the fact that there’s nowhere else to go, where that won’t be true. Rather than choosing to lie down and die, we’ve chosen to continue to focus largely on our outreach. I say that not to boast for myself or for us collectively, but that seems to me to be consistent with scriptural models, too. We’re feeding homeless men, we’re feeding the youth at The Landing, we’re making hats, we’re supporting the Mission to Seafarers, we’re contributing to Northwest Harvest, raising funds for breast cancer and other charitable causes, and trying to welcome people to the Lord’s table right here at All Saints. And in every one of those activities, like the widow of Zarephath, we ourselves are fed. Can it last forever? Probably not. What of it? For today, it feeds someone, keeps someone warm, helps someone battle disease. And it feeds us.

What’s almost funny, in addition, is the fact that, while I can’t absolutely guarantee that those who manage the Diocesan Investment Fund are directly inspired by God, its resemblance to the inexhaustible jar of meal and jug of oil for this congregation has been slightly uncanny. We keep taking money out of it to close the gaps in our budget, and when we return, most of what we have taken out has reappeared. Whether that will continue to be the case, of course, we don’t know. God is not allowing us room to grow smug or self-satisfied about it. Fair enough. He’s never given many worldly guarantees — he’s telling us to follow him — to go “all in”. Our job is not necessarily to know the consequences. Our job is to act in faithfulness.

If one takes a worldly perspective out far enough, all human endeavor is marked with a certain profound futility. Every institution we’ve created, with the possible exception of the Church (by which I mean the Church Universal, and not this particular arm of it) will similarly pass away. Every business, state, nation, corporation, non-profit foundation, or movement that’s appeared on the face of the earth is of finite duration. We may like that or not, but it’s the fact, so we might as well face it. People are eternal — but they also will pass away from this part of existence. Every person you save, even with the best means and the most charitable of intentions, from starvation or some other unfortunate demise, is someone who will nevertheless eventually die.

But in the meanwhile it is up to us to be faithful, and if we look beyond the dreary perspective of this world to the perspective of the eternal and unchanging God, we see that what we do here in love and faithfulness is projected onto a different future that doesn’t look so dim.

Amen.

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