St Thomas', Glen Carbon--Mark 12:38-44, I Kings 17:8-16
Some of you who have heard me talk about my spiritual and religious past are aware that I was raised in a devoutly active Christian home, and that I had a conscious awareness of being a Christian from a very early age. I don’t know that anybody would have said this to me in so many words, but I somehow picked up the notion, when I was a child, that there are basically two classes of Christians, two levels of Christian faith.
The first level is what we might cynically call “fire insurance”—that is, if we’re sorry for our sins, and trust that fact that Christ died to save us from their eternal consequences, and invite him into our heart, then, when we die, we’ll go to heaven and not to hell. A Level One Christian goes to church most Sundays and puts a fair amount into the offering plate and says grace before meals and tries to live a generally upright life. But beyond those norms, no excessive commitment is necessary. One can go about life in a pretty much normal way.
Level Two Christians, on the other hand, are those who decide to commit themselves totally to Christ. They promise to seek and follow the will of God in whatever they do. No major decision is made without earnest prayer. When God asks, “Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?”, a Level Two Christian snaps to attention and says, “Here I am, Lord; send me.” This is total and unreserved commitment, nothing held back, the total surrender of one’s own ambition to the will and purpose of God.
Over the years I was growing up, it felt like there was a constant stream of messages from the pastor, from guest preachers, from visiting missionaries, Sunday School teachers, and youth group leaders that I should consider taking the step into Level Two Christian faith. It was very tempting. It seemed quite the noble and heroic thing to do, and as some of my friends indicated that this was the direction they were leaning, there was some peer pressure as well. But I held back, and I held back for one very good reason: I was afraid that if I told God I was willing to do whatever he wanted me to do, he would say, “OK, get your malaria shots and pack your mosquito netting, because I’m sending you to be a missionary to the people of the African jungle for the rest of your life.” (Back then, I didn’t realize that there was anything in Africa except jungle.)
Well, I didn’t want to be a missionary to Africa—thank-you very much—so I just kept my fire-insurance faith in force, and let others deal with the complications of total commitment. Now, I was not a stupid kid. I was on to something that seemed to make a lot of sense. As far as I could tell, I was getting all the major advantages of being a Christian—Christ was in my life, and looked out for me; I could pray to him whenever I needed anything, and, best of all, when everything was said and done, I would end up in heaven—I could have all the advantages, but without the major disadvantages, like malaria and mosquito netting. All that was required of me was a little bit of faith, and a willingness to go to church and say my prayers, and even those last two things were pretty much optional.
By contrast, if I were to commit myself completely to Christ, I didn’t really stand to gain that much—maybe a little more prestige among Christians here on earth, and a few more perks eventually in heaven—but I exposed myself to a virtually infinite risk of an utterly miserable life. It seemed like a no-brainer. Why take the risk?
In that line of reasoning, I had much in common with an unnamed widow in the Phoenician port city of Zarephath some 900 years before Christ. She was among the poorest of the poor during economic bad times. The Hebrew prophet Elijah walks into town and spies her gathering firewood. It must a be cultural thing, because with what seems like incredible gall to you and me, he strolls up to this woman as says, “Good day, madam. Please get me something to eat.” Only it’s not recorded that he actually said “please.” But she nonetheless manages to take no offense, and simply responds that she has barely a handful of cornmeal and a few drops of oil, which she’s going to use to cook a couple of hush puppies for herself and her son, and then they’re going to both lie down and die.
We might expect, I suppose, that Elijah would immediately feel guilty for even asking, reach into his backpack and pull out a couple of twenties and press them into the widow’s hand. But he doesn’t. It’s like he doesn’t even hear her. “Just go, and make me a couple of corn cakes, and then make some for yourself and your son.” She is, understandably, reluctant to do so. As things stand, she at least has enough food for one more meal. If she complies with Elijah’s request, he’ll get something to eat, but she and her son will just die all that much sooner. Why take the risk?
Indeed, why take the risk? We are, if anything, a risk-averse society. We try to immunize ourselves from as many risks as we can. In the case of smallpox and measles, we vaccinate our children, which means we actually expose them to minute amounts of the diseases we’re trying to protect them from. This stimulates their immune systems to produce antibodies, which protects them from coming down with the disease itself. Why take the risk of getting smallpox or measles when you can become immune? I fear, however, that this is precisely what we do when we hear the invitation to commit ourselves unreservedly to Christ and the gospel of Christ and the people of Christ. We allow just a little bit of the gospel under our skin, but just enough to immunize us, not enough to actually infect us.
The church is full of Christians who are functionally immune to the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why take the risk? Why take the risk of using your last little bit of corn meal and olive oil to show hospitality to a stranger who looks like he’s better off than you are? Why take the risk of total commitment to Christ when you’re going to go to heaven anyway, and in the meantime he might send you to the African jungle? So we immunize ourselves from these risks by coming to church 20 or 30 or 40 Sundays a year, making a pledge that feels significant to us, agreeing to help teach Sunday School while our own children are that age, and maybe even serving a term or two on the Vestry or Bishop’s Committee, since it’s such an honor to be asked. This lukewarm level of involvement serves to protect us from having our lives affected too drastically. None of the neighbors will think we’re fanatics. We’ll be pretty normal.
But that’s just it. In a world like this, why would we want to be normal? In a world where dysfunction and depression and divorce are the norm, why be normal? In a world where exploitation and violence are the norm, why be normal? In a world where cosmic alienation and quiet despair are the norm, why be normal? Among all times and all places of human history, why would we want to be normal here and now? Why would we chose here and now to shield ourselves from the boundless love of the Father, the healing grace of His Son, and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit? It doesn’t make sense, yet we continue to do it.
Jesus goes on to tell us, “I gave everything for you, now I want everything from you. Go and make me a couple of corn cakes.” And we say, “No, Lord, there isn’t enough. I haven’t got anything to give you. Please ask somebody else.” So he does. Our strategy worked. We’re immune.
As the author of I Kings tells us, of course, the widow of Zarephath eventually decides to comply with Elijah’s strange request. She risks everything she has, and is rewarded with more than she could ask for. She surrenders herself, and she gets back her “self” in a way she could not have previously imagined. The more she dips into her supply of corn meal and olive oil, the more there is available to her. By giving away all she has, she receives all she needs, and then some. This is the strange economy of the Kingdom of God.
Many centuries later, in the time of Jesus—in fact, as Jesus and his disciples looked on—there was another widow who must have had the widow of Zarephath as a model, because she, too, gave everything she had. She gave her all. She was totally committed. She placed two coins in the offering box of the temple in Jerusalem. The monetary value of her gift was too small to even be considered paltry—less than two pennies of U.S. currency would be worth today. But the fact that there were two coins involved in this transaction is terribly significant. You see, she could have given only one, and kept the other back for herself. It still would have been half of everything she had, and no one would have begrudged her hanging on to the other coin. But she didn’t. She gave everything. Both coins. She was, in effect, placing her own life in that offering box, and giving it to the Lord. Nothing reserved. Nothing held back. No strings attached.
Jesus, watching from a distance, commends this woman’s action. He holds it up to us as an example to follow. You see, Jesus wants it all. Just as Elijah asked for everything from the widow of Zarephath, so Jesus asks for everything from us. He dares us to cast our faithless caution to the winds. He dares us to refuse to be vaccinated against the gospel, and, rather, to allow ourselves to be infected, possessed, totally surrendered to him and his loving will for us.
Why take the risk? Quite honestly, if you have to ask, I’m not sure I can explain it to you! All I can say is, that’s where life really is. As I grew in my childhood faith, I eventually abandoned the Level One and Level Two model of Christian life. I believe now that Jesus calls each and every one of us to only one level of commitment, and that is total commitment—body, soul, and spirit yielded to God. If we’re Christian at all, we’re either immune to this invitation, or we’re infected with it. Those are the only choices. If we decide to take the risk and accept that invitation, it may mean big changes are in store.
Surrendering to the will of Christ may mean a new job or a new career or a new direction in our educational pursuits. It might mean a rather difficult change in your lifestyle—learning some new habits and unlearning some old ones.Or it might mean staying put, right where we are, doing what we’re already doing, only with a different perspective, new priorities, and a clearer sense of vocation. I can’t tell you what it will look like, but I can guarantee you it will be an adventure! And I can also guarantee you that it’s never too late. If you’re young, and it feels like you have your whole life ahead of you, now is a great time to give your life to Christ. If you’re middle aged, and maybe have a few regrets, there is no better time than the present to turn control of your life over to One who knows the road and knows your heart, and wants nothing more than for you to experience lasting joy. If you’re on in years, and have more memories than ambitions, there is still a wonderful opportunity to overtly acknowledge the One who has been trying to guide you and lead you all along, even if you haven’t realized it. It’s never too late. Won’t you do it? Won’t you accept that invitation? Go ahead. Put both coins in the offering box. Make those corn cakes. Make that total commitment. Do it today. And tell somebody about it—tell me about it. Tell Father Tony about it. We want to pray with you and for you. As we offer the Eucharist, let that act of surrender be the intention of your heart. And as you come forward to receive the sacrament, know that it will contain all the grace you need to act on that intention.
You know, the most critical and risky moment in the life of any human being happens a few seconds after we emerge from our mother’s womb. The umbilical cord, the lifeline through which we are even in that moment still getting oxygen and nutrition, is yet intact. It represents the wonderful security of the last nine months. If a newborn in that moment had the capacity for intelligent reasoning, he or she might well say, “Why take the risk? Let me stay attached!” But we know, of course, that if we are to truly live as human beings, that cord needs to be cut. We need to risk everything, and cut the cord, and begin to breathe. If you are still intentionally holding back a part of your heart and will from God, you are like a newborn who is still breathing through his belly button! It may feel safe and secure, but it’s no way to live. And when you cut the cord and draw into your soul the life-changing breath—literally the Holy Spirit—of God, you’ll wonder why you waited so long. Cut the cord, my beloved in Christ, cut the cord.