The below sermon was preached on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost – 2018 at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church. An outline and interpretation of today’s Biblical readings relied heavily upon the sermon, “A Tale of Two Widows” by Bishop Robert Barron. Here’s a link to his sermon for further reference.
When I was going through the formal discernment process for the priesthood, my fellow discernment candidates and I were asked to spend one night out on the streets of Atlanta. We spent the day walking the streets, talking to our homeless brothers, sisters, and siblings. We had Holy Eucharist at a local shelter, then we gathered up sleeping bags found an abandoned parking lot in downtown Atlanta and slept – or at least tried to sleep. I wish I could say it was a humbling experience in that I learned an important lesson in humility and poverty and charity. Perhaps I can lift up those virtuous things in hindsight to a certain degree, but in that moment, it simply was not pleasant to say the least. The parking lot that was chosen for us was beside a MARTA station whose trains came in and out of the terminal at all hours of the night. Sounds of sirens from nearby Grady Hospital would interrupt any chances of sleep. Trash, drug paraphernalia, and smells so rank littered the parking lot as well as our senses. Late night drug deals and possible prostitution were openly witnessed. Even though our bodies were worn out and our feet aching from walking all day, sleep simply did not come. Two weeks later I would find myself becoming extremely ill from a deadly bacterium strand I picked up that night. I was hospitalized twice, lost 10 pounds, and it took me one whole year to regain the weight back. I remember being frustrated and angry with the Diocese of Atlanta for my illness. I wrote a hostile letter to one of the Canons in the Bishop’s Office expressing my anxiety, hostility, and anger towards the ordination process, and blamed them for my illness that was still inflicting my body. More on that later…
Today’s first reading from the Book of Kings sets up a similar tone in power dynamics. The context is this: We’re in Sidon in the 9th century BCE. The notorious Ahab and Jezebel sit on the thrones. Famine and draught are in the land, which the prophet Elijah attributes to the sins of the King and Queen. There is a lowly widow, and she (as well as her son) are down to their last meal. She has no future. She sees no hope. Then Elijah comes to her and says, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she walks away in order to fill his request, he further orders her to bring him something to eat as well. He is asking for something she cannot give. Upon first glance the beginning of this story strikes me as cold. It was Elijah himself who ordered others to take care of the widow and the orphan. Why, then, would he kick this widow while she was down not following his own advice? I find no comfort in his words; and yet, the story continues with a miracle. She acquiesces, gets him his water as well as makes the cake, and her family is fed (and continues to be fed) from the abundance it produces even as the land remains stricken with famine.
Perhaps the lesson is this: When we are down to our last meal, and have hit rock bottom, God (like Elijah) comes in. But did you notice what happened? Elijah did not comfort the widow; instead he asked her for something. She’s in dire straits, has nothing to give, and yet is still asked to do so. Why give something when in reality she needs to receive? And yet: Reality isn’t all what we see is it? The further lesson is this: Elijah asks her to give, and in doing so she receives Divine grace. Abundance comes from the willing gift.
Turning to today’s Gospel we discover the scribes and the Pharisees milling around the Temple. Bishop Robert Barron describes them as being in a hording mode. They are hording and garnering for attention, honor, privilege, titles, etc. Mark’s Gospel contrasts the professional religious with the widow. She gives the last thing she has for the gift and glory of God. Unlike the widow in Elijah’s story, however, we do not know what happened to her. We do know that in the very next chapter, Jesus predicted the Temple’s destruction. This was telling in that the widow gave all she had for a building that (historically) would not be there in a few decades. Put differently, she gave out of her poverty to what would one day be an impoverished place; and yet, we know God received her gift with pleasure for he knew her heart, and would give her grace in His Son whose Body became a grace-filled temple for all.
The great spiritual truth from both of these stories is one of paradox; that is, we have and obtain love by giving love away. Want more love, give it away? Want more faith, share it? Want more joy in your life, make other people joyful. It’s not about clinging to power, but contributing out of our abundance as well as our poverty. It’s not about holding on, but letting go. It’s not about hoarding but sharing.
It was these hard lessons that I personally learned in another street encounter in downtown Atlanta. Discernment candidates were at a local homeless shelter celebrating Holy Eucharist again. After the service, a homeless man came up to one of the deacons, shared a bit of his story with him, then asked the deacon to pray over him and bless him. The deacon laid hands on him, prayed, then pronounced a blessing upon him. Just as the man was turning to walk away, the deacon grabs him by the shoulders and orders the man, “Now it’s your turn. Give me a blessing.” The man (as well as myself) was shocked. Worlds collided. Heaven was awakened. I was humbled. Here was a man who spent his days walking the streets. He got to experience Holy Eucharist that day, but where I was able to go home, he (later that evening would have to) gather up a sleeping bag (if he had one) find an abandoned parking lot in downtown Atlanta and sleep – or at least, try to sleep. It would not be pleasant to say the least. The parking lot would be beside a MARTA station whose trains come in and out of the terminal at all hours of the night. Sounds of sirens from nearby Grady Hospital would interrupt any chances of sleep. Trash, drug paraphernalia, and smells so rank would litter the parking lot as well as his senses. Late night drug deals and possible prostitution would be openly witnessed by him. Even though his body would be worn out and his feet aching from walking all day-everyday, sleep simply would not come. He had no status in society to write hostile letters to his representatives, expressing his anxiety, hostility, and anger towards his situation. He had hit rock bottom; and yet, the deacon (like Jesus) asked him to give. “Give me a blessing.” And he did.
At that moment, all my anger towards the diocese left me. I understood that I was hording title, power, privilege and prestige. In that man’s blessing I was broken and in my newfound brokenness I was asked to give. Later, my gift would be to humbly apologize to my elders, not complain about my illness, and pray that one day I would become the priest that God (not myself) had in mind. This morning, I wonder what your rock bottom is? I wonder where you find yourself impoverished. Perhaps Elijah and Jesus get to experience your weakness, and yet ask you for something you think you can’t give, but hope to discover that you can. Give away a blessing today, perhaps out of your abundance, perhaps out of your poverty.