It’s almost Thanksgiving now, the season when we think of harvests, overflowing bounty, and gratitude. This has also traditionally been what churches have called stewardship season, and today we have one of the greatest of all stories of giving—the story of a poor woman who quietly gives everything she has to God. It’s enough to make you wonder what this business of giving is all about.
Some years ago I took a group of parish leaders away on a retreat to explore what it means to give, and we began by asking each person to talk about someone who has been a model of giving in their lives. We heard moving stories that night—of a grandfather who every Friday would lay out his week’s cash earnings on the kitchen table and put 10% of his pay in an envelope marked “church”; of a wealthy, prominent businessman whose passion was giving his money away and persuading others that there is nothing more important or rewarding than doing the same; of aunts, mothers-in-law, and friends who helped when the bills were piling too high and someone was in trouble.
I remember especially two phrases from that evening. One was the comment made by someone’s favorite uncle, who had grown up poor: “If you’ve got your happiness, you’re rich as Rockefeller.” And the other from someone’s father, a blue collar construction worker his whole life: “Penniless you own the world.” Both phrases seemed to speak of a strange peace that people living close to the financial edge often seem to know.
We went on to ask ourselves where that kind of generosity comes from. And while none of us knew for sure, we sensed that it had something to do with gratitude, with an awareness that everything we have and own and is given to us, whether it is the air we breathe, or the talents, family upbringing, and lucky breaks that have given us the life we have had. Generous people seem to know that they are part of a great chain of giving and receiving, and that their part is to continue to pass on what they’ve been given.
A few years ago writer Susan Schnur in an essay in the New York Times described the intense gratitude that has shaped her life. In her late teens and twenties she had suffered from a spine disease that caused intense pain, especially in the night. For years after she was well again she still woke in the night, and expected pain, and finding it gone, fell back to sleep in relief. In time, though, she says, it was the relief itself that woke her, a gratitude so sharp it felt almost physical. Now, she says, “I wake…overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude…a reckless feeling, unbidden as tears, with nothing specific as its object…”
She described sleeping on a sofa bed one night years earlier, in the living room of a boyfriend’s parents’ house. In the middle of the night she was awakened by her friend’s father padding down the stairs and into the kitchen, where he cut himself a slab of rye bread with a butcher knife, and then stood with it in the dining room under the street shadows.
“Chleb!” he blurted out, thrusting the bread into the air. “Broit,” he cried as he held the bread against his pajama pocket. “Pan,” as he shook it. “Lechem,” as he kissed it. “Bread,” as he took a bite. And he continued, using more languages than she knew existed—thrusting, hugging, shaking, kissing, biting—until he finished and went back up to bed.
This man, for all she knew, lived an ordinary, decent life, but he would sometimes, in the middle of the night be almost stunned by the fierceness of his happiness. He was a holocaust survivor, she learned. “The contrast woke him in the night.”
And she tells of a grandmother who would accept no gifts. “I have everything,” she had taken to saying, probably, Schnur says, while still starving in Russia under the Czar. If you gave her a book she gave it back. “I already have a book,” she would say. But, Schnur says, “There was nothing she wanted on this planet that she didn’t already have, and nothing she had that she didn’t want.”
“Penniless you own the world.” “If you have your happiness, you’re rich as Rockefeller.” If you don’t have to cling and possess, the whole world is there for you to admire and enjoy. What matters is your attitude, your soul.
In the gospel this morning we see two ways of approaching life. First, we see the proud scribes, people who take prestige and power for granted, sitting at the head of every table. And then Jesus notices the rich givers as they put their large sums of money in the collection. They give publicly and proudly from what Jesus calls their abundance, from what they can offer without risking themselves.
But then Jesus sees what no one else would notice—a poor, insignificant widow making her way into the temple. A widow had no place in that society; without a husband widows tended to be the poorest of the poor. But Jesus points her out to the disciples as she goes up and puts her two coins in the treasury, and something about the way she does that convinces him that this was it for her, the last of everything, and after that there was nothing left, just her and God.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
What do you make of this widow giving her last hope of a decent meal away? Should we admire or pity her? Was she hopelessly irresponsible and imprudent, or does she know something we don’t?
I asked myself that during the years my family received the help and care of a woman who was the babysitter to our children but minister to us all. She was always running out of money, often enough having to borrow to make it to the next payday, but it was always because she was sending money to her grandchildren in Los Angeles, or helping out her aging parents, or paying medical bills for another relative when she couldn’t afford to pay for her own. We were much more responsible with our money, much more careful; we planned ahead. And we were also less generous, not just with our money, but with our lives.
Who is to be admired? What does it mean that those at the poorer end of the income spectrum are far more generous proportionally than the wealthy? Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest states in the country, has the lowest giving rate as a percentage of income in the country, and Mississippi, the poorest state, the highest.
“Penniless you own the world.” Even to say that is almost to utter an obscenity, when we think of all the penniless, desperate poverty there is in the world. But to those of us who have wealth, and by the world’s standards, every one of us here today is wealthy, Jesus is inviting us to imagine what a life of simple trust in God might look like, and what a life of gratitude might be.
Nowhere in this story does Jesus criticize wealthy donors for giving their large sums. (Thank God, I would say, for people who give churches and cathedrals large sums!) He just watches, and notices. And what he notices is that the prominent ones seem to take few risks and play it safe with their giving. But this marginal character, a poor widow, puts it all on the line.
Isn’t this widow getting a little carried away? you might think. She’s being excessive, profligate, out of control. Maybe that’s what happens when you begin really to see what has been given to you—that everything, absolutely everything in our lives is given, that to have been born is to have won the New York State Lottery. And so our only response is to give back.
Most of us give a little here and a little there. Someone once called it “Goodwill Industries” giving—we give what we don’t really want or need. Churches urge us to give proportionately, a percentage of our income, off the top, back to God and God’s work in the church and in serving those in need. And the tithe has been the norm and goal—giving 10%, off the top, back to God.
But in today’s gospel Jesus points to a woman who is giving a percentage all right—100%. She seemed to know something about gratitude and generosity and freedom that is hard for us to imagine. She must have heard Jesus talk about the great commandment—“You shall love the Lord your God with ALL your heart and soul and mind and strength.”
Here you are at the nation’s Cathedral this morning, ready to hear about the great public issues of our country today. What you’re getting instead is a stewardship sermon—a lot of money talk! But in fact, just about every other time Jesus talked he was saying something about money and possessions. Well, I hope you’ll take it to heart, not just because your church needs your support, and the poor and struggling need your support, and this Cathedral needs your support, but because to give and give extravagantly is what makes us deeper, more alive, and draws us closer to God.
And in fact we are addressing the great public issues of our day. Because lives of gratitude lead to a politics of compassion. If we know that everything has been given to us, we can’t rest until everyone has a fair chance at a decent life, and so we work for a just minimum wage and for fair wages for everyone, for a fair and responsible welcome of immigrant worker into this nation of immigrants, we work for a responsible tax burden that can make possible the schools and health care that should be everyone’s birthright, we work to fund the programs that can care for our most desperate brothers and sisters around the globe.
This Veterans Day weekend we are celebrating those people who have been givers—who risked their lives in military service for the sake of defending their country and protecting lives around the world. This is a day to notice and give thanks for them.
It isn’t surprising that Jesus had to point out the widow to his disciples. It’s easy to miss that kind of giving. Because to see her is to see our lives differently, it’s to see where we put our values, and to see what our lives can be. And Jesus himself, four days after seeing this widow, is going to put in everything himself. He won’t be giving a tithe, he won’t be a proportionate giver, stretching out his arms on a cross. He will be giving it all.
To give away, in gratitude and generosity, is to place ourselves within the deepest current of the universe—the flow of love and giving that comes straight from the heart of God.
I never can read the story of the poor widow without thinking of a fellow Mississippian, a woman named Oseola McCarty, who had spent her life earning just enough to scrape by taking in washing and ironing from home. Her home was tiny, and she never owned a car. Then at 87 years old she decided to give away a lifetime of savings, some $200,000—some to her church, and the largest part to the University of Southern Mississippi, to provide scholarships for poor students. Several years ago this poor, modest woman stood with the nation’s proud elite at Harvard University’s Commencement, receiving her own honorary degree. A friend who was there at the dinner in her honor said there was barely a dry eye in the house.
“I can’t do everything,” she said, “but I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do. I wish I could do more.”
“For all of them contributed out of their abundance,” Jesus said. “But this woman out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”