Changing Lives Together
Preached by Betsy Malavet ~ A Stewardship Sermon
November 8, 2015
In both the Old and New Testament readings today widows feature prominently. In the first Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah goes to the city of Zaraphath and there meets a widow who is literally starving to death. She is gathering sticks to build a fire so that she can cook one last supper made of a little meal and oil for herself and her son to eat before they die. In the New Testament Jesus is at the temple in the final week before the Passion. He is watching the wealthy, privileged and learned scribes of the temple and other rich people placing their offerings into the treasury of the temple. He warns against such people, saying: “[T]hey have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Instead, Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to a poor widow who came and put in only two small coins, mites, which were the smallest coins at that time and looked just like these. In Jesus’ time, widows were truly on the margins of society. They could not inherit, they often lost their land when their husbands died and they were left to depend on other family members or charity. Indeed at that time, in what is called the Levirate tradition, a widow of a firstborn son who died without an heir was expected to marry the next brother in line in order to produce a son and if that brother could not marry her, for whatever reason, she was expected to continue down the line, something that sounds very odd to our modern ears. And as is often the case in the Bible we know nothing of either woman’s circumstances—what led them to their poverty and despair?
And yet both reached out and in leaps of faith, trusting in the Lord to provide. The widow in the Book of Kings went back into her house as Elijah instructed her and made a meal that was not only enough for all three, but lasted for days after. And the widow at the temple gave her last coins, trusting that God would provide.
So what do these Bible readings teach us? Should we take all of our possessions and give them away and trust in the Lord to provide? Well there are people that do that. But I don’t think that is what Jesus was telling us. Instead, I believe that we should realize that it is not just our monetary commitments that God expects but ourselves. It is not the size of our gifts but the size of our faith! And it is not just what we give, but how we give it, in gratitude, in thankfulness, in love. And also that we are never too poor to give something, we are never too impoverished to help someone else. There are countless examples of people in dire straits, in war, in concentration camps, in refugee camps, who reach out and help others, not because they had abundance from which to do so but because it was the right thing to do and from compassion they did so knowing what it felt like to suffer. One of my favorite books was written by a sociologist named Nechama Tec and is entitled When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi Occupied Poland. Tec, a survivor herself helped by Poles explores the reasons why simple men and women risked their lives to help—it most cases it was the Christian beliefs of these Poles that led them to do what they did, even though some were surprisingly anti-Semitic. These are people who could have sat out the war, while not necessarily comfortably, at least in relative safety or at the very least relative anonymity and yet they chose to step forward and help, in many cases, total strangers. This is the power of God’s love working in the darkness! It is when we can least “afford” to give that God values our gift the most.
The theme of this year’s Stewardship campaign is “Changing Lives Together,” the “Together” part being not only Christ Church as a community of caring and faith but changing lives together with the help of God and trusting in God to give us the strength not only to change but to move mountains, both small and large.
When I first came to this Church, my life was in shambles. It didn’t necessarily show on the surface, but then, it often doesn’t. And yet, I was searching for something, a way to help put the pieces back together. And I found it here in part at Christ Church. Not that I didn’t do a lot of hard work myself but I realized early on that I couldn’t do it alone. I need to take that leap of faith, to rediscover that simple faith of my childhood, to once again trust that if I put things in the hands of God, he would show me the way and give me answers. I have a sign on my living room wall that for me sums this up very nicely; it says: “Don’t tell God how big your storm is….Tell your storm how big God is!” So when I consider my pledge every year, I am reminded of where I was the first time I walked through the doors of this church, what I was looking for and what I found here.
We also had two wonderful testimonials from Keith Gallagher and Bob Kloss about how Christ Church has supported them not only in times of crisis but in their everyday lives. I for one look at what Bob does with cancer patients and think, well my job dealing with annoying investment bankers is a piece of cake in comparison. And Keith, your testimony brought me to tears, because I know how despairing it can be to be in the darkness and how finding the light of God can help to make you whole again.
And then there were our cardboard testimonials. When we first looked at the YouTube video, I thought, well interesting idea, but I hope we don’t cough out any super dramatics stories! Yet, I think our testimonials were a moving demonstration of how Christ Church has helped to change and grow the lives of many of its parishioners. And I am sure that there are others sitting here in the congregation who have similar stories of faith and growth. Sometimes we don’t realize these big changes until we look back and find that small steps in one direction turned into a different path, that God was leading us in a changed direction all the time but we didn’t realize it until we arrived there. Some of us still don’t realize it and that’s okay too.
Now since this is Celebration Sunday, as one of the co-chairpersons of the Stewardship Committee, I am going to make a soft pitch. One of Mother Teresa’s most famous sayings is this: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” To that I add, most people can’t change the world but they can change a small part of the world or they can help change someone’s world. So let us look at what we do here at Christ Church to change small parts of the world.
One of the most impressive things, I think, that we have done recently, is our Uganda well project, the first of which was completed 2 years and the second of now paid for—Hallelujah! In that small village of Kakoni, women used to routinely walk several kilometers every day with heavy jerry cans to get fresh water and then walk back with these even heavier jerry cans on their heads. I remember at a recent Shrove Tuesday Dinner I volunteered to carry a 20 lb jerry can of water from the fellowship hall through the hallway and back just to see how heavy it was, and boy was it heavy! Imagine carrying something like that kilometers every day just to get something that you and I take for granted every time we turned on the water faucet. And remember how annoyed we get when the power goes off and those of us without generators have to drive to the grocery store or the high school to get water, the operative term here being drive…and how much of our time gets taken up by just doing something as silly as getting water to drink and wash and flush the toilet. How glad we are when the power comes back on and how good that first hot shower feels afterwards! Know what I mean!
Now in the scheme of things, drilling one well in a village in Uganda is a great thing for us, no doubt, but it’s not as if we changed the world! But for those people in that village and for those children at that school we did change their world! And so we in this small town on the edge of CT reached out across the globe and changed the lives of hundreds of people in a village in Uganda and if that isn’t a sign of the love of God and changing lives together, than I don’t know what is. So perhaps this next generation of young girls at the school will be able to do more than worry about getting water for their families every day and can take time to learn and study and truly blossom!
So too are the other programs that are part of our Church: Messy Church, Kindness Cards, Dorothy Day, 5 Days with Mom at Bedford, Redding Rakes and our countless Mission Projects. Our Pledges don’t just support the bricks and mortar, the physical plant—although we in Vestry do spend a fair amount of time talking about the roof and the carpet and the eaves and electricity and price of heating oil. But through the support of this physical plant we sustain a living community in Christ Church Parish and from this living community we can go out into the world, be it near or far, large or small, and hope to make a difference with God’s help. And that is all that God expects us to do, to show his love in acts of Faith and Action. We must give not only of our time, talent and treasure but of ourselves, for that is what God expects of us. Not that we loudly pronounce our faith and our giving like the scribes but perhaps quietly and trusting in God like the widow with her two small mites.