They do not act for themselves. This widow at Zarephath. This widow in the temple. Neither of these two women we encounter today acts for themselves. If the widow at Zarephath were to act for herself, she would have ignored Elijah, gone back to her kitchen, and prepared the meal of death she intended to make. Ended her life in misery. And her son's life, as well. If the widow in the Temple were to act for herself, she would have kept the coins she deposited in the treasury in her own change purse. To use for food. Or to pay rent. Kept them for the basic necessities of life, certainly not for any luxuries.
Had the widow at Zarephath acted for herself, no doubt Elijah would have found food and drink on his own. Had the widow in the Temple acted for herself, no doubt no one would notice her coins' absence. Their value made no significant difference in the vast needs for upkeep or the expansive ministry of the temple. Had these two we encounter today chosen to act for themselves, their choice would be of little consequence. There are other sources of food. Other sources of revenue.
Yet, these two women act not for themselves, but for others. Act for the wellbeing of Elijah.
And for the wellbeing of the temple, which is to say for the wellbeing of society. They choose to participate in relationship with others. As fully as they are able. As joyfully as they are able. Even thought the stakes are high, and as consequential, as their own deaths.
My hunch is the reason these stories find their way to Scripture is because this sort of selflessness was exceptional, rare. If rare then, rarer still today. In our own day and age, the most prominent notion of acting for others is summed up in three words: "pay it forward." The motivator in acting for others in this way is that someday we might find ourselves in need of such goodness, and in "paying it forward" our own goodness to others might ultimately come back as a benefit to us. The obvious problem is that the motivator behind all this is fear. Fear of what might happen if we don't pay it forward. And motivation by fear ought always be suspect, because fear is always troublesome. More troublesome still is whether doing good unto others, with hopes that we might have something good happen unto us, is in essence "good" at all.
You and I would see this sort of giving as a turn inward on ourselves. But ever-increasing segments of our society are structuring life by paying it forward.
I wonder why more and more people think about themselves in this "turned back in on yourself" sort of way, rather than thinking about others. Is it because we have the ability to self-fund anything and everything we need? We no longer have to rely on the goodness or the skill of a local purveyor, we simply order it on the internet. We no longer have to cultivate or value talent in those closest to us, because we know we can just pay for it. When you think of it this way, you begin to see that "pay it forward" points to the distressing truth that we've turned so much in our lives into a commodity. For us to consume. Or for us not to consume. Whichever is our pleasure.
Social commentators would say we've forgotten about human capital. Which sounds like a fine critique. Except, the critique ought be that we're talking about humans as capital at all. One of the most astute observers of our time is Diane Rehm. On her radio program the other day, she wondered if we "have replaced connectedness with connectivity." Paying it forward
â€”acting for ourselvesâ€” may give us connectivity to another. But it does not give us connectedness with another.
Connectedness comes only when we offer ourselves expecting nothing in return. Only when we enter into relationship with another selflessly. Only when we give into, rather than take from. Society is formed. Community is formed. Church is formed. When we act not for ourselves. But, act truly for others.
This week we launch Giving Together 2016, With it we celebrate the gifts God has given us. For the work of ministry. For the building up of the body of christ. In this community we call Saint Peter's Church. Giving Together invites us to be like these two women we encounter today. To act not for ourselves, but for others.
Over the course of the next several weeks we will hear stories of people who give to Saint Peter's like these women give. Not for their own gain. But for the good of others. Their stories emerge from the conviction that we are stronger, more built up, more fully connected, in giving together. And that this way of giving, this way of ministry, this way of being the body
of Christ, is a vital public witness to the "pay it forward" society in which we live. Connectedness in a world dissolving into connectivity.
Giving Together is not about funding a budget. It is about doing ministry. And being. Being with and for others. In fact, Giving Together is not ultimately about money at all.
It is about this meal. This meal that truly holds us together. Holds the whole creation together. This meal of brokenness. This meal of betrayal and abandonment. This meal of death. Which becomes, by God's own action, a meal of healing. a meal of fidelity. A meal of life.
Here's the thing about this meal â€”this body of Christ â€”this cup of blessing: We cannot have this feast without God, and without each other. And our participation in this meal, is more lively and more life-giving the more diverse we are, the more we encounter one another, and the more we take and eat. Which is why God considers the giving our our very selves, our time and our possessions the finest of gifts. For giving them not to ourselves, but to God and to one another, is truly a sign of God's gracious love alive and thriving among us.
And God's gracious love alive and thriving among us means this way of giving, this way of living, is not simply our duty, it is our joy.
Jared R. Stahler
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York