St. Elizabeth of Hungary: A Legacy of Active Love

SERMON St Elizabeth of Hungary

1st John 3: 14-18, Luke 12: 32-34

St. Elizabeth’s life modeled our scripture today from 1st John, which says, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Elizabeth was born a princess of Hungary in 1207. When she was 1 year old, she was betrothed to the future Landgrave of Thuringia in Germany, Ludwig IV, just a few years her senior, to solidify a political alliance between Hungary and Germany. When she was 4 years old, she was sent to the Royal Court of Thuringia in Wartburg Castle to be raised and educated alongside her future husband. She was a serious child who was deeply empathetic and deeply religious, always giving to those who had less than she. When she was 14, when Ludwig IV ascended the throne, she was married. The young couple shared a happy, loving marriage, and over the next few years they had 3 children together.

As the new Landgravine of Thuringia, Elizabeth had all of the wealth of the kingdom at her disposal, and dispose of it she did to the local poor. In 1225, while Ludwig was away, he left Elizabeth in charge of the kingdom. A severe famine struck the land and she gave away most of her own fortune and supply of grain to the poor of the area.  She even gave away state robes and ornaments from the castle to the poor. Her husband’s family criticized her for this radical act of charity, but upon Ludwig’s return he gave his approval of his wife’s outlandish generosity. She and her husband not only gave generously to the poor, but created job opportunities to lift the poor of Thuringia out of poverty.

Elizabeth founded two hospitals during this same time, one at the foot of the steep rock on which the Wartburg castle was located. Elizabeth was not just the financial patroness of these hospitals, but she herself regularly visited the hospital and tended the patients, feeding them and washing their wounds. In one famous story, she even welcomed a man with leprosy into her own home, making him comfortable in her own bed in the castle. When Ludwig came home to find a man with leprosy in their bed, he was appalled, this seemed to be a step of charity too far even for him, but when he pulled the sheet off of the suffering man he saw Jesus Christ himself lying in their bed. He realized that through Elizabeth’s radical service to the suffering, she was serving our crucified Lord.

In 1221, Franciscan brothers entered Thuringia, and Elizabeth was compelled by their preaching of simplicity and care for the poor. She placed herself under the spiritual direction of Brother Rodeger.

In 1227, when Elizabeth was just 20 years old, her husband died of the plague while travelling, just weeks before their 3rd child was born. Upon hearing this news, Elizabeth is reported to have said, “He is dead. He is dead. It is as if to me that the whole world died today.”

Following Ludwig’s death, Elizabeth officially became a Franciscan and took religious vows of obedience and celibacy under the guidance of her confessor, Conrad of Marburg. At Conrad’s insistence, Elizabeth sent away her three children to be raised by the royal court, and she left the castle. She left the royal court out of obedience to her confessor, but also out of necessity to uphold her vow of chastity. As a young widow, her family insisted that she remarry to solidify other political alliances. She refused, even threatening to cut her own nose off so that no one would find her attractive. She left the castle and used the last of her dowry money to build a small house for herself and a hospice for the sick, the aged, and the poor, and devoted the rest of her short life to their care. Elizabeth died just a few years later at the age of 24.

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

St. Elizabeth devoted her life to lifting up the poor and healing the sick. She stands as a faith hero for us all, and was a special inspiration to Martin Luther who some 300 years after her death spent a year in hiding living in her same Wartburg castle while translating the New Testament into German.

St. Elizabeth’s legacy of authentic love and care for the poor inspired Luther’s development of the Common Chest Ordinance for every community that accepted the teachings of the Reformation as a means of collectively caring for the poor because it was the right thing to do. Left on its own, the new theology of being saved by grace alone through faith alone created a problem for the poor. The Reformation introduced Germany to the freeing good news that God gives us salvation because of God’s love for us, not because of how many points we have earned through good works. Up to this point, however, those with means in the community would give to the poor generously, but only because they believed that generous giving to the poor secured their salvation. They cited scriptures such as our gospel text today, where Jesus urges his followers to store up their treasures in heaven. But, Jesus never intended for this teaching to be interpreted as the need to buy one’s way into heaven. Heaven is not something money can buy. Salvation is priceless, and as such is a free gift from God. Jesus expects us to put our whole selves and everything we have into following him, Jesus expects us to pour ourselves out for the sake of others, just like St. Elizabeth did.  But investing in God’s mission through generous giving to the poor, because it’s the right thing to do, is not the same thing as using the poor and our works of charity to make ourselves look good.

As Lutherans, our good works and acts of love are our joyful response to God’s goodness in our lives. Giving is integrally linked to our love of God and our relationship with God.

In the social welfare vacuum created by the reformation not requiring people to work their way into heaven, Luther insisted that in every town there be a Common Chest, in which those with means would contribute generously, and  from which the Church would distribute generously to those who had any need. Rather than just being the responsibility of the super wealthy, the whole community now had the responsibility and the privilege of caring for the needs of the poor and the sick.

Today, we Lutherans are still loving the world in truth and in action. Love is not just something we say, but it’s how we live out our faith in Jesus Christ. Our love is active! From the inspiring life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, to Luther’s development of the Common Chest, today Lutheran Services in America –the pan-Lutheran organization that oversees Lutheran Social Care agencies such as Spiritrust, touches the lives of 6 million people in the United States every year, that’s 1 in 50 people in the United States who are touched by this legacy of love and care for the sick and the poor every single year. And right here in York, almost every single one of our congregations is actively engaged in some kind of feeding ministry to provide for the needs of our local neighbors. Active love is always what it’s meant to be a follower of Jesus, and active love is what it looks like to be a Lutheran Christian today. Amen.

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