Some people say that they’re spiritual but not religious. In my college and graduate school days, you could have described me as cynical but, in spite of myself, still longing for something more.
My persistent yearning explains why I would from time to time slip into the early Mass at my old parish. Looking back from the perspective of nearly forty years, I realize that I was beginning my erratic journey from the Roman Catholic Church to the Episcopal Church. As a young man, all I knew was that I was looking for something and didn’t have a clue where to find it.
On one such Sunday morning the usual smattering of worshippers had sprinkled themselves around the mostly empty nave.
Normally, I would have staked myself out a spot respectfully distant from everyone else. An unwritten rule of early services requires maintaining appropriate personal space. But this time I caught sight of Mrs. Madison kneeling in prayer. She was Jack’s mother, one of my best friends from childhood and my teens.*
I slid onto the kneeler next to her. Once she and I were both seated, and with a few minutes left before the Mass was scheduled to start, I asked her, “How are things on the home front?”
On the home front? Where did that come from? Why couldn’t I have just said something normal, like, “How’s Jack? Or how’s Mr. Madison?” How about, “It’s nice to see you?”
But, no, I came off sounding to myself like I was trying to be her contemporary or a seasoned WWII veteran. I felt awkward and stupid.
Mrs. Madison didn’t seem to take it that way at all. Instead, with her habitual warmth and an unexpectedly intimate tone, she said, “Oh, you know. It’s been hard. But it’s going as well as you could expect. Things will be okay.”
In that moment Mrs. Madison was no longer merely Jack’s mom, a figure in the Norman Rockwell picture of motherhood I carried around in my head. She was a wounded, nurturing person who had long ago decided to get over herself.
Still imprisoned by my own wants and desires, resentments and grievances, I was driven to find some balm for myself in Gilead. I was looking for consolation and healing. For something that would make me feel whole and significant and lovable. I was desperately seeking a life.
And right there in the pew next to me sat a woman who was doing the exact opposite. Instead of getting a life, Janet Madison spent her very ordinary days giving her life away for the sake of those around her.
Paradoxically, in response to her self-offering Jesus gave her the new kind of life I was seeking. She was calm and hope-filled in even trying circumstances. She appeared never to feel defeated or small or unloved. And I dimly realized that as long as I pursued a life for myself, I could never inhabit the kind of life that only Jesus could give.
Mrs. Madison had four children. My friend Jack was the youngest. Mr. Madison was a kind, good-humored man. And he suffered from bipolar disorder and alcoholism.
I spent a lot of time at Jack’s house, so I saw his dad in the midst of benders. He never raged or grew violent. He just did and said embarrassing things, walked around half-clothed, and grew increasingly unreliable and unavailable emotionally.
Alternating with his binges were stretches in the psych ward. Back then psychiatrists commonly used electroshock therapy to rouse patients from deep depressive episodes.
Mr. Madison would languish in the ward for a while and then return home hollowed out. He wasn’t depressed, but neither was he emotionally responsive. His short-term memory recovered more slowly with each round of treatments.
Mrs. Madison worked as a nurse outside the home, and for the family she acted as chauffeur, housekeeper, and chef. Everybody in the home pitched in, and she served as their steady orchestra conductor. My own home was loving but dysfunctional and chaotic, and I enjoyed being at Jack’s house for its calm orderliness and ritual predictability.
Every breakfast was bacon and eggs, or at least that’s how it seemed. Christmastide was marked by tasteful decorations of the whole house, including candy dishes in every room filled with holiday treats. The Madisons never missed a holy day of obligation.
This wasn’t about keeping up appearances. Mrs. Madison was holding her family together with graceful strength and tender perseverance. She sought the best life for her husband and for her children.
With today’s more self-obsessed lenses some might say that Mrs. Madison threw her life away or that her circumstances had taken her life away. But that does not describe the woman I knew.
She freely and intentionally gave her life away for the sake of others, and she received greater life in return. This was not some sort of barter. She wasn’t looking for a reward. Instead, she understood that the pattern of life with Jesus is to give your life away as it actually is so that he can infuse you with the life that only he can give.
That is one of the lessons of the Gospel passage frequently called the Widow’s Mite. In contrast to the large gifts that rich donors give from their discretionary income, a poor widow gives her last two cents to the Temple. The rich kept whatever they needed to maintain their lifestyle. The widow held nothing back. She was all in. Jesus says that she has given the greater gift.
Now let’s be clear, Jesus in no way approves of the social circumstances that have impoverished this widow. And he makes it clear that some in the Temple leadership are exploiting poor people like this widow.
Nevertheless, he recognizes in her the spiritual dynamics that he seeks to impart to all of his followers. Jesus pours his greater life into us as we give ourselves away for the sake of others.
In Baptism we die to an old life and rise to new life. In the Holy Eucharist, we give Jesus our ruined and weary lives only to be given back to ourselves as the very Body of Christ.
Sometimes, our lives are taken away from us. And Jesus can and will give new life to those lives that have been shattered. For instance, Thistle Farms
is a ministry devoted to bringing Jesus’s resurrection to women whose lives have been shattered by addiction and prostitution.
One graduate of the remarkably successful ministry tells of being sold into sexual slavery for drugs when she was just a child. Battered by the cruelties of such a life she tumbled into addiction and the sex trade, living on the streets until the people of Thistle Farms found her.
Given a place to live and to recover, taught skills to support herself, and transformed by a community who doggedly reinforced her own value and dignity, this woman now tells of a life restored by Jesus. A life she now gives freely for the sake of others.
That’s what a Jesus life looks like. In Jesus, we can be all in. Because he is already all in for us.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Opelousas, Louisiana.
*Names and some circumstances are changed for the sake of anonymity.