Pastor Heidi Neumark
Trinity Lutheran Church, W. 100th St. Manhattan
2 Kings 4:1-7
Luke 6:20-31 (The Beatitudes)
Reading these words of Jesus has been like sinking into a pool of warm water in the midst of a fearful chill. For me, as for many here in NY, it was chilling to watch a wave of red engulf our nation while we showed up on the edge as a little blue island, surrounded by a few other blue islands. It is chilling to think of what this election might lead to here in NYC and around the globe. And I think what I find most chilling of all is that the election was evidently won on the basis of something called “moral values.” It has been bad enough to see the somewhat twisted use of expressions like “Clean Air Act,” “No Child Left Behind” and the “Patriot Act,” none of which do what their names imply, but to speak of moral values which has become the code for narrow concerns over marriage and abortion.... moral values which take no account of a debt growing so big that it threatens to swallow up our children’s future... moral values which take no account of 100,000 (and counting) dead Iraqi civilians whose blood is on our hands as a nation...moral values which show no concern for those being pushed off the edge of economic survival in our own community, not to mention millions of others...and to know that these moral values are being disguised as Biblical moral values, Christian moral values, as if the Jesus who spoke the words we read from the Bible a few moments ago would endorse moral values that exclude most of the human beings on planet earth, not to mention the health of the planet itself.The chill I feel is not so much because Kerry lost, but because of all else that I fear may be lost in the days and months and years ahead, including the public integrity of the Christian faith.
Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.
Here is a woman who has suffered grievous loss. The loss of her husband, but also the loss of her anticipated future, the loss of a safety net for her children, in fact, as she says: the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves. Chilling words describing what had become a commonplace event. The widow lived under the reign of the Omrid empire, begun with King Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel who served a greedy god named Baal. After consummating his marriage of convenience with a queen whose connections would increase his power, King Ahab embarked on a policy of trade and military expansion at the expense of the poor. Many women were left alone, with young men forced into the military to serve Ahab’s expansionist goals. Many failed to return from the battlefield. Land was taken from poor farmers to plant export crops. Hunger spread. Debts mounted, a situation familiar to many of our new Mexican members.
To get an idea of Ahab’s moral values, we need only hear these verses from the book of 1 Kings:
Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord than had all the kings of Israel who were before him. He erected and altar to Baal and In his days, Hiel of Bethel built Jericho; he laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub. ...
In other words, the two boys were buried alive in the foundation of the city as a sacrifice, a sacrifice typical of what the god Baal required. So the ancient, prosperous city of Jericho was built on the blood of these two expendable boys. An act that betrays the core values of Ahab’s empire.
During my Wednesday afternoon first communion class, I listened as a dozen children aged 7 to 13 gave voice to their feelings of expendability in light of the election. I have never, in 30 years of working with children in churches, heard children voicing passionate feelings about a presidential election. Never. Until now. Every child from the 7 year old on up had something passionate to say. The message they got was this country doesn’t care about African Americans, Mexicans, immigrants, the poor. That living in this city is dangerous because our policies are only fueling the anger of terrorists and that this country doesn’t care about them and their future. One girl said that she wanted to move, “before they come back to kill us.” I’m sure some of these concerns came from what they’d heard at home, from family members who felt like the widow ... your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.
The way our national debt is going, the way we are pouring resources into war, the creditor may be coming to take our children’s future away as well. They will then be enslaved to the service of a debt they had no voice in creating. Like so many millions around the globe are already forced to sacrifice their children’s future to pay off international debts with no foreseeable escape....
Out of this situation, we hear a voice crying out, crying out to one of God’s prophets...
Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha...
Amidst mounting waves of despair, the prophet was an beacon of hope, a person who represented a different God, a different sort of empire, a community where children were welcomed, the hungry fed, where the poor were uplifted and where the voiceless had a vote. Elisha hears the cry of the women in the name of the God who heard the cry of the suffering people in Egypt. Elisha hears her cry of misery and invites her to say more:
What shall I do for you? The prophet throws the question back at the widow. Not as a way of avoiding her, but as a way to shift the power into her court. This woman had been voiceless in the Omrid empire, like the millions upon millions who will be impacted by our election, but had no vote - children, the undocumented, the mentally ill, trees, rivers, birds, our extended global family.
But now someone is interested in what this widow has to say and to offer. Tell me, Elisha continues, what do you have in your house? What does she have? She has been encouraged to believe the lie that she has nothing, nothing of value to contribute, nothing that can make a difference. Nothing that can compete with the powers that be. I don’t blame her. I wasted a few days this week feeling like that too. I have nothing in the house she tells Elisha, except a jar of oil.
A jar of oil. It’s all about the oil, sisters and brothers, it’s all about the oil. Not only our war in Iraq, but our way out. Perhaps some are thinking that oil will pay for our way out of Iraq. And it very well could, but not the oil our present regime is thinking about. Elisha tells the widow that her way out of debt is going to be found in her jar of oil.
Oil is vital to interests in the Middle East today and oil was vital there in ancient times as well, only in those days, it was olive oil. Olive oil was used in cooking, in cleaning, in healing and in anointing political and spiritual leaders, kings, priests and prophets. Elisha himself had been anointed with oil. Back then, such anointing was only for a tiny elite just as the profits of todays oil in the middle east is only for the benefit of a tiny elite, but just last Sunday, we used the oil of anointing in baptism. We used it generously, because we have been taught that it is not for a tiny elite but for every child of God, beloved, holy, set apart as one of God’s new saints...
in the beautiful words we heard read from Ephesians this morning:
we are marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, the pledge of our inheritance as God’s people. so that you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.
Power far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named...in other words, power that surpasses the empire of Omrid and the regimes of Bush, Bin Laden, Arafat, Sharon and any earthly ruler, any man or any woman who tries to manipulate or control our lives. It is however power entrusted to our care, power extended to us through the anointing of our baptism, holy power that we exercise through the communion of saints, a community that has inherited the immeasurable greatness of God’s power.
Go outside says Elisha to the widow, borrow vessels of all your neighbors, empty vessels... Empty vessels? What good can come from empty vessels? What good can come when you are scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for some sign of hope?
According to St. Paul:
Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart...but we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
It is important to note that Paul uses the plural...we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart, we have this treasure...It’s not only about each of one alone gazing into an empty vessel, it’s about gathering the vessels together. The widow goes out and gathers the empty vessels of her neighbors and follows Elisha’s instructions to begin filling them with oil, pouring the oil from her own small jar. And the oil keeps flowing and it keeps flowing until every last jar is filled to the brim. Go, sell the oil and pay your debts and you and your sons can live on the rest.
Lifesaving oil in the gathered empty vessels, hope flowing in the congregated clay jars of the communion of saints. And the widow who took this step, who followed the prophetic word, bears witness to us of these moral values, these Biblical values calling us to humility and to community. We don’t know her name, but her story has been handed down to us.
It is part of our inheritance in the communion of saints. A story of faith, hope and love. A story of one woman’s resistance to an overpowering regime that threatened to swallow up her children’s future, a resistance made possible through the power of a community offering what it had, offering what appeared to be nothing, empty jars and a little oil. A community willing to join her in hope for that which was not yet seen, hope that began to flow like oil from the one who forgives debts and calls us to do the same, doing to others as we would have them do to us.
The nameless widow is joined by a company greater than her original neighbors, People whose names are wellknown... Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day. Marian White Edelman. Names known by millions and names known only to us, names we will name this morning of some who have breathed life and love into our hearts.
As I was preparing for today, there were many things to consider. It is the Sunday after our election. A date not listed in the church’s liturgical calendar, but clearly a reality in our hearts and minds today in church. It is All Saints Sunday when we remember those dear to us and our part in what we call the communion of saints, and it is also the beginning of Trinity’s Stewardship emphasis during November. How do all these things fit together? I wondered. Well, they fit together perfectly through the power and poetry of God’s holy Word.
Like the widow, there were times when Trinity has felt that the creditor was coming to take our children’s future away. What did we have? Only a little oil, it seemed. Only a little faith, a little hope, a little love, a little community. And yet, the oil, the faith, the hope, the love, the community have continued to flow. One of the reasons that this communion of saints has been able to continue on has been because of the inheritances we have received at key moments. I say inheritances because our glorious inheritance through the grace of God in Jesus Christ has inspired some of our members to share a portion of their earthly treasure with Trinity by way of bequests, or monies that the church has inherited. It was before my time here as your pastor, but I know that the bequest Trinity received from Marie Bantelman was a gift that supported this congregations ongoing ministry and mission and a time when the future was very much at risk.
Recently Alice Middleton died and her sister told me that she had left a bequest to Trinity. We have not received it yet, and I don’t expect it to be huge. Alice was not a wealthy woman. She was an elementary school teacher, but she was a faithful, devoted member of this communion of saints who wanted to help God’s children into the future, extending her stewardship beyond her lifetime, something that I would encourage more of us to consider. Alice and Marie are just two people, two out of thousands, because the reality is that thousands of people, thousands of offerings given through the communion of saints, have made it possible for us to be gathered here this morning.
From the very beginning of Trinity, which was not begun by rich people, folks have looked at their resources and said, in some cases, there’s nothing in the house, except a jar of oil. But because of that oil, because of that connection to the communion of saints, they brought their offerings together, some small, some large, and it was enough for the oil of the Spirit to keep flowing.
I visited a member of our church family, not an official member yet, but the mother of some very active children here. She opened the door and invited me to sit down at her kitchen table and burst into tears. “No soy terrorista” she sobbed. “I am not a terrorist.”
She’s a small woman, with a lovely smile and 5 wonderful daughters. A loving, protective mother who walks the girls back and forth to school and church. A woman who works hard, cleaning houses whenever she can to put food on the table. But she was terribly shaken by the election and by the war. Having lived through one war in El Salvador, a war that took her mother and sister and 11 year old brother as well as a chunk of her leg, she sees little hope in the outcomes of our present war. As an immigrant who came to escape war, she’s afraid for her future.Our fight against terror is terrifying to her. I went to see her to check how a recent medical test had gone and she told me that she was unable to get the test because it she would have to pay for it in cash, $335 (a discount from $1000). She’s afraid to try to get Medicaid, afraid of deportation and separation from her children. And the clinic doctor told her that the test is essential for her to get proper treatment. And yet, because Trinity is here, because of the communion of saints from the past who gave offerings and bequests and because of you who continue to give your offerings, this woman is not alone with her fear and her problems. She knows that this church is a community where she can find support and help for herself and her children. She knows that Trinity is a place where she and her children are valued
Only one election is over. Every time that we and those who came before us, put an offering into the plate, we are participating in an election. We are voting for the moral values of Jesus. We are casting a ballot for the communion of saints. That’s an election that’s not over yet. That’s an election that we are certain to win.
Tell me, what do you have in the house?
Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil.
A jar of oil. and empty vessels from all the neighbors.
In the hands of the One who comes to wipe away every tear, it is enough.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
you anoint my head with oil
and my cup overflows.
Sermon for Nov. 7th, 2004, All Saints Sunday