There was a young man who wanted to be a newspaper writer. He quit college to get right at it. He got a job and was immediately put on the city desk. The city desk was shaped like a huge horseshoe, with the city editor at the apex, and all the other writers sitting along the sides, down to the foot of the left leg, which is where they put this young writer.
He wrote whatever they gave him to write, but mostly it was obituaries. The mortuaries phoned in the name of the deceased and the reporter called the family to get the facts. The obituaries for prominent people went to other writers. He got all the “little people”, the people no one ever heard of.
The obituaries were always written by a standard formula, sort of like painting by numbers. But this reporter didn’t see it that way. He saw it as writing a sonnet. The form was always the same: Services would be held at (put in the place), for (put in the name), then the address and the date. That corresponded to what is called the “octave” in a sonnet. Then came the “sestet”. That would be where he or she worked. What organizations they belonged to. Then the “quatrain”, which consisted of the names of relatives. And finally, the “triad” ending with a “couplet”, just like a sonnet.
The newspaper thought obituary writing was lowly work, but he saw it differently. He was writing sonnets to “little people”. As he put it, “I felt useful. Someone had died, the family wanted the world to pay attention so they were glad to talk to me. They would say things like, “I don’t know if you can get this in, but one thing dad did was swim across the lake and back every summer until he was eighty-two. It would be great if you could include that’.”
The editor at the top of the horseshoe-desk took exception to most of what he wrote. One day the reporter handed in a piece in which he mentioned the person’s great accomplishment was the zinnias in her garden. The editor wouldn’t allow that. Or that another woman was known for her rhubarb cake. But he did let him write that an employee of the Northern Pacific for thirty-seven years was known for his skill as an electrician and for taking good care of his tools.
The big obituaries of prominent people always mention their legacies, “They will be remembered for this or that…” This reporter wrote sonnets to the legacies of “little people,” about whom it is said, “It is nothing very important, but if you could mention it.”
I wonder if you noticed that our lessons for this Sunday are about two women who would be classified by the world as unimportant, as “little people”, but the biblical writers lift them up and celebrate them.
The first is from the Old Testament Book of I Kings and is about someone called “The Widow of Zarephath.” She lived in a little town out in the desert. Elijah, the prophet, happened to stumble upon her as he entered the town. She was gathering sticks for a cooking fire.
Elijah was running away from King Ahab and his crazy queen, Jezebel. Elijah was a prophet and he did what prophets do, he confronted power, and told King Ahab that the famine in their land was the fault of the king. The king and queen had established Baal worship in the land, which was an abomination to those who worshiped Yahweh, the God of the Jews. In fact, Elijah told King Ahab that Baal worship was the reason for the famine.
People in power do not take kindly to others telling them how to run their business. So, Elijah now becomes a refugee fleeing violence in his native land. God directs him to a woman in a desert village named Zarephath where there is even less flood and no water. She is called “The Widow of Zarephath.” That is all we know about her, no name, just a little person in a remote village.
Elijah asks her for a drink of water. She gives it to him. Then he asks for a piece of bread. She says, “All I have is barley meal and a cruse of oil. I am about to bake it for my children.” Elijah asks if he can have some. She agrees. She shares all that she had with someone in need, a refugee, a stranger, and behold, there is more than enough for all. It is a miracle. It is the miracle that happens when you give.
I notice some commentators on the passage are uncomfortable with that and feel they have to explain it in natural terms. For instance, the widow’s example must have motivated her neighbors to share what they had, and together, each doing their part, there was enough for everybody. But that is not what it says. All it says is a poor woman with only enough to feed her family still helped someone else in need, and it was more than enough for God to use.
I can imagine old Elijah in later years, victorious over Ahab and Jezebel. He is now a national hero, telling the story of his career as a prophet. “It all began years ago in Zarephath. I was a fugitive, hiding out there. No food, near starving. And there was an old woman out there, a widow, poor as everyone else, and she fed me. I think back on that and wonder, “Would I have found the courage to do what God had called me to do if she hadn’t done what she did?” It wasn’t much. Just barley cakes and water. And I am sure Elijah didn’t think much about it until it was long passed, and he was a national hero telling others how God guided his life. And that’s when he remembered, and that’s how we know about it. A poor woman gave what she had, and a little thing became a big thing.
Then in the New Testament lesson, the famous story of “The Widow’s Mite.” Jesus sets it up with a description of important people. In this instance, scribes, who make a show of themselves. “Beware of the scribes who like to go about in long robes and have salutations in the market place.” You know what that means? A “salutation” is a salute. They like to wear their robes of office and have people recognize their status. He goes on: “They like to have the best seats in the synagogue and the place of honor at feasts. They devour widow’s houses and cover it up with their piety.” So they are religious not to serve God or their neighbors, but to serve themselves. Being religious helps them get ahead in the world. Jesus condemns all that phoniness.
Then comes the widow’s mite. A poor woman enters the temple to worship. It must be in the middle of the annual financial campaign because there are a lot of people there putting money in the coffers. Everyone notices the large contributions. No one notices the woman put in two coins, which were worth a penny. No one notices, except Jesus, who calls over the disciples. “Did you see that. That woman gave the greatest gift. The others contributed out of their abundance. She gave out of her poverty. She gave everything.”
You combine that with the Old Testament lesson of the Widow of Zarephath, and it says, miracles happen when you give. Which also means, they won’t happen if you don’t. I suppose God rears back and creates miracles all by himself. But most of the time God waits until we do something, then God uses what we do to do an even greater thing.
Christians ought to believe that. But I am afraid that many of us are tempted by the same malaise that affects so many in our time; the idea that we can’t do anything to change things in this world. The problems are so enormous, our efforts so small in comparison. What difference can one person possibly make? All I’ve got is a few barley loaves, or just a few dollars. So, we do nothing, and doing nothing is a failure of faith.
Years ago now Robert Bellah and other sociologists wrote a book entitled Habits of the Heart.
It was a diagnosis of America’s malaise back in the last century when it was just beginning. They point out that America used to be known for community participation, or what is called “volunteerism”. The title of the book, “Habits of the Heart”, comes from Alexis De Tocqueville, who visited America in the 1830’s to find out why, fifty years after the founding of the country, America was still here. Because it was generally believed around the world that common people could not rule themselves. But De Tocqueville concluded that what made America work was what he called , “habits of the heart,” by which he meant ideals and values that guide a people, what they deeply believe. So, to live by the “habits of the heart” means to act on your ideals. Do something about what you believe.
What De Tocqueville noticed was that Americans volunteer to build community wherever they live. He was amazed at this. Wherever he went, in whatever town he visited, there were charities and civic organizations, schools, hospitals, and churches, all founded, organized and supported by volunteers.
In the world at that time, the beginning of the 19th century, that was unique, this outpouring of voluntary service motivated by habits of the heart. Bellah, in the twentieth century, observed by and large that has passed. Americans have moved from a sense of social responsibility to seeking personal fulfillment. The highest goal now for Americans is not social service but personal fulfillment.
So what happened? There are many reasons, at least many theories. But the most obvious difference is that in the world today it is much harder to feel that my little contribution will do any good. I mean in 1830 America was made up of a lot of villages. Today we live in a global village, with global size problems, which is why cynicism rather than idealism characterize so many today. But the one place where those values have not changed, the one place where the habits of the heart ought to be visible, is the Church. Not because we are naïve, or optimistic, about human nature. We have the most realistic evaluation of human nature; we say we are all sinners. We are all turned in upon the self. We don’t get disillusioned, because we have no illusions about what human beings are capable of. But our hope is not in human beings. It is in God.
We believe God can take what a widow does for a stranger and use it to turn around an empire. We believe God has revealed that it is not the size of our contribution that counts, but the faith that motivates it. Your giving, or your witness, is a measure of your faith in God.
There is one more “little person” I want to tell you about. Working on this sermon I thought of Oceola McCarty. Years ago I came across a small article in the paper about a poor African American woman in Hattiesburg Mississippi, who had established a scholarship fund at the University of Southern Mississippi, which is also in Hattiesburg.
She was born in. Hattiesburg in 1901 and lived with her mother and aunt in a tiny house until her grandmother became ill, then she quit school and moved in with her grandmother to care for her.
When her grandmother died she moved back home. She didn’t go back to school though. She went to work with her mother taking in other people’s laundry, washing clothes by hand, and ironing them with an iron heated on a stove.
She did that all her life, in that same house. Almost every dollar she earned went to the bank. In 1995, when she was 94, she went to the banker in Hattiesburg and said that before she died she wanted to give a scholarship to an African American student. So, in 1995, this little woman gave the university $150,000, which was her life savings, except for the few dollars that her banker set aside in a trust to meet her needs for the rest of her life. Every penny she had, she earned by taking in other people’s laundry.
She established the scholarship fund in 1995. She said she wanted to live long enough to see the first recipient graduate. She made it. She died in 1999 shortly after Stephanie Bullock, the first recipient of the Oceola McCarty scholarship, graduated. Incidentally the McCarty scholarship fund is now estimated to be worth $750,000.
She was like the widow of Zarephath, and the widow in the Jerusalem Templ; a little person whom God used mightily.
I would like to end with a sonnet, like that reporter. But instead I will end with a poem about little people written by Bonaro Overstreet, but it could have been written by any of the three women.
You say the little efforts that I make will do no good,
They will never prevail to tip the hovering scale
Where justice hangs in the balance.
I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debatev
In favor of my right to choose which side
Shall feel the stubborn ounces of my wright.
Sermon preached November 11, 2018
25th Sunday After Pentecost
I Kings 178-16 Mark 12:38-44
St. Paul Cathedral, San Diego, CA
The Rev Mark Trotter