Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Elizabeth of Hungary

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

Have you ever seen the film Schindler’s List? One part of the film (among many) that will always stick with me is that at the end, the people attempt to honor Oskar Schindler for saving so many Jews from certain death in the Holocaust. But all Schindler can do is obsess over the millions of people whose lives he did not manage to save. All he can do is wish that he had done more.

I thought about Oskar Schindler when I read about Princess Elizabeth of Hungary. Born in 1207 as the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary in what is now Slovakia, Elizabeth was married at the age of 14 to King Louis IV of Thuringia in modern-day Germany. She became a mother of three. Her lifelong concern for the poor and sick attracted her to the order of Franciscans she met in 1223, from whom she received spiritual direction.

Elizabeth’s husband Ludwig allowed her to use her dowry money for almsgiving. She even sold all her jewelry to establish a hospital, and she fed the sick from the royal grain reserves. One story has it that Elizabeth placed a leper in the bed she shared with her husband. Ludwig was prepared to be furious about this, but when he pulled back the sheets, he saw a vision of the crucified Christ lying there instead.

Only six years into their marriage, Ludwig died, and the royal court, aggravated by Elizabeth’s record of extravagantly giving away the royal treasure, sent her and her children away. Elizabeth became the first of the third-order Franciscans and spent the rest of her short life caring for the sick and needy. She died at the tender age of 24, having exhausted herself to death.

So Elizabeth was a master at caring for others while failing to care for herself. Is this the sort of behavior for which we canonize people as saints? Well … yes, so it would seem.

Our readings today encourage us to give generously to those who have less. You will hear our text from Matthew again in church this coming Sunday. It is, for Matthew, the culmination of Jesus’ teaching: whatever kindness you do for another person is kindness you do to Christ. In fact, those who are saved on the last day are precisely those who have done the work of caring for others. Elizabeth took that teaching so seriously that she died for it.

The Book of Tobit raises almsgiving to a status higher than prayer and fasting, and it counsels that those who give alms will live “a full life.” Well, Elizabeth of Hungary lived a full life and died at 24.

Meanwhile, today’s psalm credits God with caring for widows and orphans. This is just what God does. So to what degree is the work up to us? We may say, “If we don’t take care of the poor and sick, nobody will.” This is true, for we are to be Christ’s hands and heart in the world. But is it up to each one of us to care for all the poor and the sick? Even Jesus didn’t cure everybody he encountered.

Did Elizabeth need to work so hard to secure her salvation? No. But in a medieval world that gave women so few options for personal fulfillment, Elizabeth’s actions could only be seen as heroic. I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and urge Elizabeth to take a vacation.

Oskar Schindler wished he had worked harder; how many more might he have saved then? Elizabeth worked too hard. How many more might she had saved if only she had stepped away to take care of herself every now and then? We can see that playing either game is fruitless. One of our post-Eucharistic prayers asks God to “send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”

The idea of self-preservation as a condition for service to God might not have made any sense to Elizabeth. It may well be that she worked herself to death simply because she could do no other. So today we honor Elizabeth of Hungary for her single-minded dedication to living the gospel: to feeding, clothing, and welcoming all the people God placed under her care. Amen.

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