By Dr. Robert Zielinski
Today's Gospel is another of the times when Jesus speaks about money. He does this rather often, but usually when he does, the message isn't really about money. At least not entirely.
Jesus praises a poor widow for her contribution to the Temple because although the amount was tiny, to her, it represented a true sacrifice. She had nothing to spare, but she gave anyway. He contrasts this to the many others who gave far more, but who could also afford it. They weren't really going to suffer at all for the lack of the money they put in. The widow, on the other hand, wasn't sure where her next meal was going to come from. The amount in her hands wouldn't make any difference for the Temple, but it might for her. She could easily have put the coins back in her pocket, given nothing, and no one would have condemned her. She could have stayed home, kept her meager offering that was pocket change for the others in the story, and tried to eke out another day, like always. She had a readymade excuse....why didn't she take it? Why was Jesus so impressed that we are still talking about it 2000 years later?
I believe it is because of the larger message in this story. The money is not the point, it is the willingness of this poor widow to step out in faith to an uncertain conclusion. That is the absolute definition of faith...to step outside what you know for sure and follow what you believe instead. If you know what is going to happen, that isn't faith.
But when faced with uncertainty, we all often choose to stick with what we know, even if we secretly know it isn't a good option. The usual is comfortable. The unusual is not. And the unknown is downright terrifying.
But Jesus didn't come to make us comfortable. His message was not to reinforce our human instincts to follow the path of least resistance. Very often, his message is exactly the opposite of that. Show love to those who show you hate. Forgive those who do you wrong. The comfortable choice is hardly ever the one Jesus wants us to take. He pushes us to leave our comfort zone and get out there, with him, on the edges.
And that what the poor widow does today. She truly doesn't know how she will survive with no money in her purse, but she gives anyway because she believes she should. She steps away from her last possession and trusts that faith will find a way.
I am one of those big givers in the Gospel today. Linda and I have been blessed with excellent resources, and we give accordingly. But for me, writing a check has always been the easy part. The right thing to do? Sure. Helpful, yes, and it felt good to inch up the ladder to a 10% tithing level over the years. But I still felt like the people in the story who were throwing big amounts in the coffer. I was giving from my riches. I was safely inside my comfort zone with my checkbook in hand.
What I was not so good at, what was outside my comfort zone, was getting out there and getting my hands dirty.
So finally last year, I decided to do something about it. Zion has sent groups to a pair of missionaries in Haiti for three years now. Nora and Leon are a husband and wife team, and Leon is a native. He grew up on the little island of Ile a Vache (literally, the Island of Cows) off the southwestern coast of the main island. He took the education he was fortunate enough to receive and felt called to give back to his home. He has returned with his degree and built a school and an orphanage where there was none, where everyone told him he couldn't. He says I didn't build it, the grace of God did, and they call it Grace School because of that. The locals used to call him "crazy". Now they call him "Papa Grace".
Nora and Leon are two of the most inspirational people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
Many others have contributed to the trips from outside this church, but most of the people who have gone are members here or have connections to members here. And your Council has offered financial support to all three trips.
When the third Haiti trip came up, I thought, why not me? If not now, when? Linda couldn't do it for health reasons, but she understood my desire to go, understood the need, and though it was outside her comfort zone, she supported me the whole time. It would be a sacrifice for her, too, just holding down the homefront alone. In the last 30 years, we had not gone two days, much less eight without contact, without conversation.
It was a little scary. It was ridiculously hot. The water was scarce and what bathing we could do was ridiculously cold. The toilets didn't always work. There were many periods without electricity.
For the Haitians, this is normal. This is their comfort zone, because it is all they have known their whole lives. But to our eyes, the hunger and poverty were devastating. Gutwrenching.
We ate three times a day. Most of the people we came to serve eat about three times a week. I may feel hungry at some point today, but I have vowed to never again toss casually toss about the phrase "I am starving". Because once you have really seen "starving", you know that you have never been there.
Many of the children wore shirts with no pants because they don't own any. No shoes. With no sanitation or storm sewers in place, you can imagine what they are walking around barefoot in.
Most of them, including the pastor at The Church of Jerusalem where we ran the first two medical clinics ever in that neighborhood, live in hovels that we wouldn't deem fit to use as storage sheds for our lawn mowers.
What passes as medical care for human beings there would get you arrested for animal cruelty if you treated your pets that way here.
Hunger and poverty are no longer just words or abstract concepts to me.
As Lee Lindeman, one of my companions so chillingly put it, we saw things we will never forget, and things we wish we could.
It wasn't Clarence. It was anything but comfortable. It was miles outside my comfort zone.
But it was life changing.
And I have to go back. There is no end to the misery there, and we are only putting band-aids on gaping wounds. Like the widow from the Gospel today, our little week of contribution won't make a dent in much of anything.
But I have to go back.
I have to go back to see the progress that Nora and Leon are making, the aggregate of all the groups, ours and others like them, plus the day-to-day efforts of these two amazing people. The progress that was obvious to me the day I saw my first patient at the Church of Jerusalem, where there had never been a medical clinic, and realized that these people were much worse off than those in the community around Grace School on Ile a Vache. Because they hadn't had Nora and Leon taking care of them for these years.
Leon tells us that we needn't worry that we couldn't do enough while there, because no human or numbers of humans can fix this world. Only God can do that. Have a little faith, he would say.
The people there, in all that misery and squalor, have a faith that humbles you. You ask yourself all the time, could I maintain my faith in the face of this? They have a vague sense of what we have left behind in the States, even for only a week, and they know we are there in His name.
"Our hands, his work" became an unofficial motto of our trip. Trying to let Him fix it.
On my last day there, I sat in the early morning reading a devotional, as is my near daily habit. The Bible reading rang vaguely familiar, and as I got farther into it, I realized it was because I was mistakenly a week off in the devotional book. I was reading the prior Tuesday over again, the one I read the morning we arrived.
But this was no accident. It was a "God wink", if you are familiar with that term....a "coincidence" that isn't really that, but God throwing just what you need to see or hear in your path at just the right time.
Though I read it the week before, it meant so much less to me then than it did just seven days later.
The scriptural reading for the devotional was Revelation, chapter 7, verses 15-17:
He who sits on the throne will spread out his tent over them.
Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eye.
I sat in the pre-dawn darkness, listening to the arriving tropical storm we would come to call Sandy when it rocked our East Coast.
I cried as I read the words in the Bible.
And I knew at that moment, I had to come back.
It may not be Haiti for you, but trust me when I tell you that you must get outside your comfort zone once in a while. Maybe for you, it is writing that check a little bigger each month or year than the time before. Maybe it's joining Jeff Allan at Habitat for Humanity, or Kristen Arends at Friends of Night People, or Jan Diver and Sue Jarrett at Family Promise . All are fine ways to shed your comfortable exterior and get out there, like Jesus would. The author of Hebrews says "let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds."
We each have different gifts, and different comfort zones. Jesus calls us, he compels us to use those gifts to their fullest potential, not just where we find it comfortable or easy. If you say you follow Jesus, you simply have to push yourself to do what is hard for you but what you know in your heart is right.
I went to Haiti.
I'm going back.
This week, ask yourself what it is you have been avoiding. And then do it instead.