Thursday, November 12, 2009

Good advice or good news?

William Inge, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1911 to 1934 said, “The gospel is good news, not good advice… we can find no economic principles in the gospel.” I think Dean Inge was correct and today’s readings give us a great illustration of his observation.

The readings from First Kings, Psalm 146, and Mark all tell us about widows. The widows in First Kings and Mark literally give their entire life’s savings to what they believe to be good causes. Psalm 146 tells us that God sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.”

Let’s update the story of the widows in First Kings and Mark. Imagine that you are a priest and that a woman who is neither quite young any more nor very elderly comes to you for advice. She says, “God has told me to empty my bank account and give it all to Episcopal Relief and Development.”

If you went to one of our Episcopal seminaries, then you had to take Counseling 101 and there you learned the technique of reflective listening, so you try that first, “So, I hear you saying that God has told you to give all your money to Episcopal Relief and Development?” Clever opening, huh? And she says, “Yes, that’s right.”

Then you decide that you need more information. “How much money do you have? What are your sources of income? What are your obligations?” She goes on to say that she is on disability and has a small monthly pension from the company her late husband worked for and has about $3000 in the bank. She pays $400 a month for an apartment that is subsidized for low income persons. And she has a son with medical problems whom she helps financially whenever she can.

Counseling 101 never prepared you for this.

Frankly, if she were my parishioner I would probably begin by telling her that God never tells us to undermine our economic well-being. God certainly never tells us to empty our bank accounts and give it all to Episcopal Relief and Development or Green Springs’ Ministries or even to our parish church. I would tell her that God’s will for us is to be prudent about our financial needs; I would suggest that she talk to someone in the parish who can help her maximize her return on her money and perhaps help her find a better paying job. And I might suggest that she see a good therapist who could help her work through that business about hearing God tell her to give away all she has. After all, we’re Episcopalians and our God doesn’t do things like that.

But then there are those troublesome stories in the Bible. God sends the prophet Elijah to a woman and her child who are only one meal away from starvation and commands her to feed Elijah rather than herself and her child. Elijah reassures her, “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” Jesus commends another woman for putting “every thing she had to live on” into the Temple treasury.

I have a feeling that Counseling 101 did not prepare me too well for dealing with someone whom God has told to empty their bank account. It certainly did not prepare me to deal with someone who takes Psalm 146 literally.

For the most part, I have put my trust in rulers and children of earth. I have believed and still believe that we live in a world that works pretty well most of the time. I believe that people who work hard and play by the rules will usually experience at least modest success; that our market-driven economy maximizes opportunities for most of us; that our political system provides a stable framework within which people can exercise initiative and reap great economic benefits. Then, a little over a year ago, the international banking system imploded. The pillars of finance, the giants of banking, began to topple. In other words, current events began to resemble the words of Psalm 146.

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

Every year at commencement Harvard University bestows honorary degrees upon a dozen or so men and women for their achievements in scholarship, business, politics and other fields. In 1996 Harvard honored philanthropist Walter Annenberg, the founder of TV Guide. It may only have been a coincidence that Annenberg had just given Harvard $25 million but be that as it may, it was probably more significant that Annenberg at that time held the record for money given to American institutions of higher education. However, immediately after honoring Annenberg, the university marshal said, “Mr. President, we have with us today another philanthropist…” The other philanthropist was Osceola McCarty, a black laundry woman from rural Mississippi who had given her entire life’s savings, some $300,000, to an historically black college to be used as scholarships for its students. Annenberg may have given more dollars to American universities but Osceola McCarty gave everything she had. “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on…”

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying: It is probably not a good idea to empty your bank account and give it to any cause, however worthy, even St. Alban’s! But sometimes prudence and faithfulness are at odds. Sometimes we are called to make some wildly extravagant gesture, rather than to live our lives within the parameters of prudence. The gospel after all is not good advice, it is good news.