Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached at Executive Council's opening Eucharist November 12 at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Chicago. The full text of her sermon follows:
Proper 27, Year B
12 November 2006
All Saints Church, Chicago, 11 a.m.
Beware of the folks who like long robes, respectful greetings, and the seats of privilege. Oh - who might that be?
They devour widows' houses and say long prayers for the sake of appearances. Ouch.
Surely that cannot have anything to do with us. Who devours widows' homes and prays for appearance's sake?
I knew a woman twenty years ago who, every year at stewardship season, used to tell the story of what had happened to her in college. She'd joined a somewhat fundamentalist religious group, and been strongly encouraged to tithe her income. She got into deep trouble because she put that pledge first, and it challenged her ability to feed herself and keep going to school. She may not have been a widow, but her living was being devoured.
There's a piece of most of us that would like to say - oh, just give ten percent, and you've done your duty. Whew. Check that one off. On to the next item. (And the implicit expectation is that everybody else should do the same.)
But there seems to be something rather more complex going on here - both in the gospel and in the reading about Elijah and the widow. Elijah has been in hiding from King Ahab, being fed by the ravens until even the stream of Cherith dried up. God has sent him off to beg food from a widow in Zarephath. He's been learning how to be dependent, to live on what God provides, (and one presumes, to be thankful for whatever the crows turn up with). But when he finds the widow he's been sent to look for, she is willing to give him water, but she balks when he asks for food. She's got one meager meal left, and intends it for herself and her child. You can almost hear her, "we'll have one last morsel, and then we'll lie down to die."
Elijah asks for the last of her food, and the last of her child's food, and promises that God will provide food for her until the drought has ended. That's a heart-rending request, and a pretty wild bet she's being asked to take. We tend to see this as a simple matter of trusting in God to provide, but it is a remarkable gamble nevertheless. She doesn't know this God Elijah promises will care for her, and it becomes that much more of a courageous act to trust the word of a stranger. After all, no one else has turned up to help, not since her husband died.
We don't get to see the underlying motivations in the immediate context of the gospel story, but the setting implies that gifts to the Temple are involved in a proper religious life. The wealthy give liberally, and the poor widow gives two small coins. We have to notice, however, that Jesus does not judge either act - he merely watches. And then points out that the widow has given all she had to live on. There is something highly intriguing going on here, something that's not evident in the translation. The word that's translated "poverty" is in Greek the word hustereseos, from husteresis. It's related to the English word hysteria, and they all have their root in the word for womb. It probably reflects the kind of abject poverty a widow was likely to have experienced in that culture, but the reality is that the desperation known by the terribly poor knows no gender. Hysteria seems like a pretty predictable and understandable response to not knowing where the next meal will come from, or knowing that your child is almost certainly going to die. Even today, widows and mothers of dependent children are the likeliest to know the most desperate poverty, both here and across the globe.
These widows are willing to bet their all in the hope that somebody, even a God they haven't met, will respond. It is much the same motivation that leads the poorest to buy endless lottery tickets, or lonely widows and widowers to send back every invitation from Publisher's Clearing House. It is the same motivation that leads the somewhat better off to visit Las Vegas, gambling away every penny in their pockets, as well as a chunk of next month's paycheck. People who understand that hysteria often prey on the hungry - and lots of us have probably received emails purportedly from African widows promising a major payoff if we will assist with a funds transfer. I received a slyer one in October, apparently from a bishop I know in Kenya, saying that his wife was very ill in Uganda, and he needed funds for an emergency heart operation for her - cash only. It took several rounds of emails before I got suspicious.
And yet, that desperate, hysterical, even foolish hope for deliverance ends in salvation. Happy and blessed are those who trust in God. You and I have to be willing to be foolish enough to believe that God will feed the hungry and set the prisoners free, and open the eyes of the blind. We have to be willing to make that last desperate bet - and bet it all - if we're going to follow this Jesus.
The widows know they haven't got any other recourse.
But the long-robed ones, those of us who have the leisure to wear our party clothes once in a while, tend to stand and point our fingers at that ridiculous gamble. Oh, we've done our part, whether it's ten percent or some other figure, and we assume it's enough. We're much more interested in playing it safe than risking it all.
Maybe you've heard that old story about the three clergy who are discussing how to divide up the weekend's collection. One of them says, "well, I go out in the back yard and draw a circle on the ground. I throw the money up in the air, and what comes down inside the circle goes for God's work. I keep what falls outside." Another one says, "well, you have it almost right - I go out in the yard and draw a circle and throw the money up, but I keep what comes down inside the circle, and give the rest to God." The third one says, "you guys have it all wrong. I take the money outside and throw it up in the air. If God wants it, he can take it while it's up there." Somehow, I think we're invited to throw it up in the air and pick it up off the ground and put it all to work - to feed the hungry, and heal the blind, and get justice for the oppressed, and care for the stranger, and sustain all widows and orphans.
The long-robed ones can stand around and point fingers, or calculate percentages, or we can figure out how to cure the hysterical desperation of poverty.
Let's go back to that strange word one more time. The widows are hysterical in their desperate poverty because the fruit of their wombs is in danger. In Hebrew, the word for compassion (rahamim), most often used of God's merciful compassion, is the plural of the word for womb. God is merciful toward the fruit of all wombs. And Jesus reminds us to be compassionate and merciful in the same way God is compassionate and merciful.
Be merciful, join the hysterical, companion the friendless.
And all it takes is all we have. The invitation is to ante up, and bet it all, just like Jesus.
The whole thing, every bit - mind, body, and soul. It's not our money or our life - it's the whole thing.
The Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church