You may listen to Fr. Mullen's sermon here.
A widow haunts my dreams these days. But she is not the widow of Zarephath who we heard about this morning, who although she was about to starve to death herself, fed the prophet Elijah her last morsels of food, and found that God supplied sustenance to keep her and her son and the prophet alive. And she is not the widow who puts her two cents into the treasury – what we used to call the widow’s mite – who we heard about in Mark’s Gospel this morning. Neither of these is the widow that haunts me.
She’s a widow about whom I have not told you before today, although I imagine that some of you have harbored suspicions about her, others have wondered, but been afraid to guess, afraid to hope. You have thought it rude to wonder too much about her circumstances. There is this widow, you see, who lived a simple life. She’d been a widow so long that no one could even remember her husband; we just assumed she’d had one long ago, because she was always referred to as a “widow.” She was never well-known. You are struggling to remember her name, even now, but I think you know where she sat in church – nowhere obvious, always off on one of the side aisles. She had not many friends, but she was a faithful church-goer. And you would have supposed (if you stopped to suppose such things) that she was a faithful, if not extravagant, supporter of the church. She made the kind of financial contribution that will be missed, but will not be a disastrous loss. This makes sense, since you and I always believed that she had enough, but not too much, if you know what I mean. We have heard about widows like this before: gentle, quiet, unassuming women in their communities. Almost entirely un-remarkable while they are alive. But in death their great secret is revealed – and it is always the same secret, although the details may vary.
Have you guessed who the widow is, yet? Can you picture her in your mind’s eye? Do you remember now if she sat on your side of the church or the other side? Have you remembered her name? Do you remember wondering if she was childless, too. No heirs to consider. Or was she? Wasn’t there someone sitting next to her at Christmas and Easter? A child, home for the holidays? Or a nephew, a niece? Maybe there was a family and they were just kept at bay? Or stayed at bay of their own accord? Hard to say. Hard to know the details of the life of someone so private, so quiet, so nearly anonymous.
When she began to invade my dreams, I looked for stories about women like her, because I knew I had come across them before. Here is what a simple search uncovered:
In the Pacific Northwest, in a coastal town in Washington state, a 98-year-old woman died, and directed that the small fortune of $4.5 million she had amassed all be spent to improve her little seaside town.
In Lake Lillian, Minnesota, a 97-year-old woman left in her will, the sum of about $6 million to be spent in her community of 238 people. (That’s more than $25,000 per person, if they just divvied it up!)
In Lake Forest, Illinois, a 100-year-old woman died and left $7 million to her alma mater, a little, local college.
In Scotland, an 83-year-old spinster (as the Scots insisted on calling her) left 1.8 million pounds sterling the SPCA.
Back in California, a 96-year-old woman left $1.7 million to the Salvation Army.
Now do you remember the widow who has been so much on my mind?
We have all heard these stories. And some of us have heard the stories that never make it into the papers – stories about churches just like Saint Mark’s that are the beneficiaries of the largesse of these secret millionaires, these little old ladies who have been preparing a surprise for their lucky churches. What church doesn’t dream that such a secret millionaire will shower her generosity on it?
When such a widow has been in your own midst, and on your mind, you start to wonder about her. What made her the way she is?
Widows, of course, have been hurt by loss. They are defined by something missing in their lives, by a relationship they once had but now they can only long for. Widows have suffered. They know something of pain and brokenness. They know loneliness, too. And they know what it is like to plead with God for mercy, to beg God to make things turn out differently, to fix something that is beyond their own ability to fix, even though they have fixed a great deal in their lives before. Widows know what it feels like to be weak, and at the end of their rope. They know what it feels like to run out of hope. They know what it feels like to consider the possibility that God has deserted them, along with everybody else. Widows know what it feels like to conclude that they must now get on with something – with life – on their own, without any help, with the possibility of much joy, without much hope of promise. They know resignation, maybe despair. Virtue is often attributed to widows – a characteristic they do not always think they deserve. It is earned, I suppose, through acceptance, which is sometimes manifest in a kind of wisdom.
And some widows, apparently, are shrewd investors, or careful savers, or maybe just cheapskates – but by whatever means they reach a certain age with a certain fortune. Some widows are these secret millionaires, who keep their wealth a secret, but whose generosity is eventually revealed.
Boy, do we love those widows! Everyone dreams that such a widow inhabits their small town, their little college, or the church they belong to.
Have you ever dreamt that such a widow was a part of the congregation here at Saint Mark’s?
And when you have noticed that there are things that need to be done, work you imagine we could accomplish – whether it’s tending to the buildings, or establishing new programs, or caring for the needy – have you hoped, as I have, that there was among us a secret millionaire: a widow whose name you don’t know, but who is probably sitting over there on the side aisle, under her hat or her veil, whose generosity will eventually provide for all that we need as a parish?
Oh, I have had those dreams!
I have wondered about one or two of you. But, of course, the secret wealth was to be found where I least expected it. I thought she had barely two nickels to rub together – two pennies, like the widow in the Gospel. But how I underestimated her!
Have you guessed at the identity of the widow in our midst?
My friends, my dear ones, you know the widow yourselves, for you are the widow.
I know you lead a straightforward life; not a lot of extravagances. Some of you feel un-known, or un-noticed; some of you want to stay that way. You are not old, but you have lived enough of life to learn a thing or two. Some of you have families, but it has been a long time since your kids were in church with you except on holidays. You wonder if they will ever find their way back to the church. You are a faithful church-goer – as faithful as you can be with all the other demands on your time. And you are not here for recognition or attention; you simply don’t require them. And you know pain and loss in your life, don’t you? You know suffering, brokenness and loneliness. You know what it is like to plead with God for mercy, to make things turn out differently – whatever it is that drove you to your knees. You know what it feels like to be weak and at the end of your rope. You know what it feels like to run out of hope. Maybe you know what it feels like to suspect that God has deserted you. Maybe you know resignation; maybe despair. Maybe you know that people attribute virtues to you that you do not think you deserve.
So it’s not that things have always been peachy for you. You know this, and I know it , too. You are the widow.
But – I hear you objecting - you are not wealthy, you have enough, generally speaking, but not too much. You cannot afford to be extravagant. You are happy to put in your two pennies – even more – but let’s be reasonable; you are no secret millionaire.
Maybe, maybe not. I have no way of knowing. Nor does it especially matter to me.
For here is the truth that Jesus is getting at when he points to a widow with her two pennies as an example, for “she, out of her poverty has put in everything she had.” The wealth of the church lies in the generosity of those who give, and most of us have more to give than we are prepared to.
Interestingly, Jesus does not pull the widow aside and offer her a seminar in estate planning – though I am sure this would have been useful to her. But he praises her for her generosity in the here and now. He does not eye her quietly as the potential donor of a planned gift – though I’m sure he would be glad to help her fill out the paperwork to establish a deferred annuity trust (as I would be glad to help any of you do). But he celebrates her generosity in the moment.
Jesus and the widow know the same thing: that she can afford to give as much as she wants, because everything she has came from God and everything she is going to have comes from God. And God will provide. So, sometimes, you just have to feel free in giving it away.
Most of us are relatively stingy, we are the wrong kind of widow – the kinds who hoard it for another day, willing to be praised in death for our careful planning, but not willing to risk being generous in life.
Don’t get me wrong, God accepts both kinds of generosity (and several kinds of credit cards). But let me ask you this – what is going on with these secret millionaires? What are they waiting for? They were never going to use the money for themselves anyway. It’s only a kind of neurosis that leaves them so rich at the end of their lives.
It is, of course, a lovely thing to be able to leave a generous fortune to your town, your school, your favorite charity… even your church, when you die. But how much better to also be giving while you are alive.
What a shame that the widows who were secret millionaires never knew the feeling that the widow of Zarephath knew, or the widow with her two pennies in the Gospel. What a shame they never knew the lightness in your step that you get from giving; never knew how tall they’d stand despite the toll that age had taken on their bones and their stature.
What a shame to sleep on a proverbial mattress full of money, nursing the secret suspicion that God doesn’t care about you, and would never provide for you.
You and I are widows, whose lives have known loss and pain and misery. And by the grace of God we have also known healing and comfort and love. Maybe we are secret millionaires, maybe not. Maybe that remains to be seen. Maybe we have plans to leave a small or a great fortune to the church – that’s OK, I’m not trying to talk you out of it! But let’s not be the wrong kind of widows. Let’s not let our planning for death out-do our generosity in life.
And let’s not assume that all will be well when some other widow leaves her fortune to the church.
For you have a fortune, too, maybe smaller than the person next to you, maybe not. And I have a fortune, too, by the grace of God. And we can do a lot better than putting two pennies in, but we can’t do any better than that wonderful, anonymous widow who put in everything she had, and then went back to her pew, over in one of the side aisles, and said her prayers quietly, and thanked God for all that he had given her, and determined that next week she’d be back to do the same again, because doing so she felt better, more fully alive, when she gave away more than anyone thought she could afford. And after all, everything she had came from God, and everything she was going to have would come from God. And God will provide. Why not give a goodly portion of it back to the One who gave it to us in the first place?
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
11 November 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia