Proper 27, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

The widow’s mite.

We all know this story from The Gospel of Mark.  It is a sweet parable about sacrificial giving, right?  A little old lady gives all that she has to the Lord.  If only we were all so faithful.   The end.

But the story of the widow’s faithful giving is not a parable.  The story of the widow’s mite is the story of deep faithfulness in the midst of intense corruption, faithfulness in such stark contrast to the bankrupt morality of religious leaders that even Jesus himself notices.

Jesus comes into Jerusalem, heading toward his death.  He sees a temple full of people selling doves and banking, taking advantage of people in the holiest site of all of Jewish tradition.  The very presence of Jesus’ Father rests in this temple and instead of worshiping, the people try to profit.

Jesus is horrified.  Jesus is disgusted.  Jesus is furious.  He starts yelling and tossing tables around the room, and throwing people out of the temple.  His rage overcomes him.

This is no parable.  This is no calm teaching moment.  This is Jesus at his most real, most vulnerable.

Pharisees and Saducees come to him, trying to trip him up and catch him in a blasphemy or a lie so they can have them killed.  He tells them parables then, but not sweet parables about how to live into the Kingdom of God.  Oh no, these are parables about tenants who murder a landowner’s Son.  We are in a dark, dark place in this story.

Jesus has spent several days battling with these religious leaders, these men who were supposed to be upholding everything Jesus’ Father had started.  In our reading today, Jesus calls out the scribes for wanting the best of everything, and taking advantage of widows to do it.

Jesus must be completely deflated.  He has walked into what should be the heart of his Father’s kingdom of earth, the holiest of all holy places, and it is completely vacant of any virtue.

And so he sits.  Maybe he is tired, maybe he just needs to take it all in.  Maybe he needs to brace himself for what is to come.

But instead of seeing more corruption, instead of seeing more greed, instead of seeing yet another betrayal of his Father, he sees an ordinary woman make an ordinary decision to donate a few pennies to the treasury.

But in the larger context, in the middle of the giant mess the Temple had become, the woman’s act is revolutionary.  The corruption might have been everywhere, but this woman defied its pressures.  The widow faithfully donated to the treasury despite  the fact that scribes were taking advantage of women exactly like her.  The widow donated faithfully despite all the opportunities for scheming and money making all around her.  The woman donated faithfully, because it was the right thing to do.

And Jesus notices.  Think of all the people walking around the Temple.  Think of the hundreds of people going about their business.  In Jesus’ stressed state, it would have been easy for him to not really pay attention to what anyone was doing.  But this woman’s simple faithfulness jumps out at Jesus.

Jesus is no longer speaking to crowds.  Jesus is just talking to his disciples, those partners in ministry who have been following him for three years.  What if this little moment is remembered both in Mark and Luke because of the intensity of Jesus’ reaction to this moment of faithfulness?  What if he teared up and leaned forward and gripped Peter’s arm and said, “See that?  Over there?  That’s what gives me hope.  That’s what reminds me of why I came here.  That’s what gives me courage to face what I’m about to face.”

The widow somehow has a moral center, a faithful center that guides her even when external circumstances would bend the morality of the most straight laced person.  And the widow isn’t alone.  She is one of many people donating to the treasury.  She is one of many people willing to make a sacrifice to honor God.

The widow donating her two pennies is an ordinary act, in the midst of an extraordinary situation.  The God of the Universe is across a courtyard and she has no idea.  The God she is serving is actively watching her serve.  And he is not only approving of her, but he is moved by her.

We may not always realize it, but God is with us, too.  Even after a brutal election cycle when we watched obscene amounts of money spent and terrible vitriol spoken.  Even in the midst of the chaos caused by a storm so fierce many people still don’t have homes or power or their ordinary, faithful lives back.  Even in the midst of welcoming a new Archbishop of Canterbury and wondering what it means for our denomination.

Life is full of chaos and corruption and institutional sin.  But in the midst of all the yuck, there are still signs of hope, like a faithful widow giving her two last coins to God.  If you follow our Diocese’s Facebook page you’ll see all the ways faithful, ordinary Christians are stepping up to help one another after the storm. Every time someone donates a coat, loans a truck, houses someone without power, they are standing up for all that is right and good about our world.  They are choosing to live in the Kingdom of God, rather than the selfish and corrupt kingdoms of this world.

And every person who waited in line to vote, sometimes for hours, was a reminder that despite alleged attempts to suppress votes, people of every political philosophy care about this country, took responsibility, and took a small action that enabled our country to have another free and fair election.

We look for heroes.  We look for the people in power to show us how to live, what choices to make.  But the widow teaches us that even if we are in a situation where there are no heroes, God empowers each of us to retain our dignity, to live into Kingdom values, to offer the small things we can offer in order to honor God and one another.

And we may not feel like we are making much a difference and may feel overwhelmed and helpless by the corruption or destruction we see around us, but God is with us. God gives us the power to remember who we are and whose we are.  God gives us the power to be like the widow, a person of honor and integrity, regardless of circumstance.

And you never know when God will be just across the courtyard, watching in pleasure as you do the right thing.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 27, Year B, 2009

Whenever I start thinking about money, I start hearing lots of voices.

I hear my Grandmother Kinney’s voice.  She grew up in the coal mining town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania during the Depression.  She never overcame her fear of not having enough.

I hear my father’s voice.  He is a big saver and nearly every car he’s ever owned was purchased with cash.

I hear my mother’s voice.  I think she’d be a little appalled that I was telling you these personal details about my family’s relationship with money.  Money is not something one discusses in polite company.

I hear Suze Orman’s voice as she tells her audience over and over again to have a six-month emergency fund saved.

On the other hand, I hear Carrie Bradshaw’s voice, too, making $400 high heels seem like a reasonable investment.

I hear the voices of my husband, my friends, priests, stewardship directors, financial advisors, pundits, celebrities-and I am a total sucker for the voices of marketers. Yes, that $12 bottle of shampoo does make my hair shinier than a $3 bottle! Yes, that $70 pencil skirt would make me look just like a character on Mad Men!  Yes, a roomba would make housekeeping easier! Yes, a right hand diamond ring would symbolize that I respect myself!  (You can relax, I did not buy myself the ring or the roomba.)

We all have voices that run through our head when we think about our own relationship with money.  Whether we are tight fisted, extremely responsible, don’t know how to balance a checkbook, or compulsively shop-those behaviors have come from those voices and how we interpret them.  We can’t escape the voices, but we don’t have to be enslaved by them.

The widow in our story today seems to have found away to move past the voices of anxiety and fear in order to hear the voice of God.

I have to be honest; this story makes me very uncomfortable.  The widow’s actions are antithetical to everything I’ve been taught about money.  I want her to put those two coins in her savings account!  I want her to accrue interest!  I want her to have security for her future!  I want the scribes to get off their high horses and take her under their wing.

But my attitudes about money stem from the very modern idea that my money is mine.  All those voices I hear-whether they advocate responsible saving or wasteful spending-assume the money is mine to spend.

The widow teaches us a different way.  The widow comes from a long tradition of assuming all that we have actually belongs to God.  The widow assumes that whatever money she has is just a gift from God, passing through her life for a little while.  The widow comes from a long tradition of thanking God by returning to God a portion of what he has given.

In the Old Testament, believers are asked to sacrifice to God the fruits of their agricultural lives-grain, pigeons, cattle.  This must have made deep sense to them.  Agricultural life is so dependent on outside circumstances-rain and sun and insects and soil-that raising healthy crops must really have felt like partnering with the divine.  Without soaking rains or bright sun, all of their labor would have been for naught.  They understood that their labor was connected to the earth, which was created by God.

Michael Pollan and others who think about food and health and ethics are happy to remind us that we Americans are far, far, far removed from that agricultural life.  Many of our children have never seen a farm.  I did not know that brussel sprouts grew on that funny stalk until last year!  Any of us who have read Food, Inc. or The Omnivore’s Dilemma know how disconnected we are to the very ground that sustains us.

The thing is, no matter how our income is generated, all of us can trace back the source of our income to Creation.  Mine is a pretty short line.  I get my income my ministering to human beings, who were created by God.  Even though very few of are directly connected to nature in our work, all of us owe our very existence, and the existence of our jobs, homes, spouses, friends, children and yes, even iPods, to God.  In fact, we owe our own existence to God.

We acknowledge this during the Rite I service, in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, when we say:

And here we present and offer to thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee. (BCP 336)

One of my seminary professors, The Rev. Dr. Edward Kryder, taught us to leave the monetary offering on the altar when we celebrated the Eucharist, because when the collection of your money is brought up to the altar, it’s not just cold hard cash.  That money is a symbolic representation of our very selves-our souls and bodies.  When we put money into the offering plate, we’re putting the time and energy and passion we spent making the money.  We put our faith and our values and our belief in the plate.   If we just needed to raise money to keep the heat on, we would not collect the money in the middle of a Eucharist.

The church needs money, yes, but we as people also have a spiritual need to give.  We need to be reminded that we are not alone.  We need to be reminded that we were created and that our life is pure gift.  We need to be reminded that every dime that crosses our threshold is the direct result of the incredible decision of God to create this planet and all the abundance it has to offer us.

The theologian Paul Tillich describes God as the “Ground of our Being.”   I love this image, because it evokes a picture of God literally holding us up-of undergirding all that we are and all that we do.  Experiencing God as the “Ground of our Being” can be incredibly liberating.  I don’t know about you, but I find it all too easy to fall prey to our culture’s spirit of anxiety.  Our culture’s voice says that we aren’t complete persons until we are married with 2.5 kids enrolled in Ivy League schools, a big house in the suburbs, a vacation home at the beach, and at least one Lexus.  Our culture’s voice tells us that we should not be satisfied; we should not feel complete until our life is completely saturated by the material things that bring true happiness.  Our culture can even punish giving.  I have a friend who was audited several times because he gave too MUCH money away to charity!  The IRS was sure he was up to no good because he gave away more than they thought was rational.

We all know that our culture’s version of happiness is empty and fleeting.  By contrast, when we root ourselves in God as the “Ground of our being”, when we listen to God’s voice, we will hear God telling us that we do not need to be anxious.  We do not need to prove anything to anyone.  If we listen to God’s voice, we will hear that God loves us and wants to give us what we need.  If we listen to God’s voice, we will be able to look at our lives with new eyes, able to see the abundance all around us. Listening to God’s voice gives us such a sense of deep security, that we can open our hands and trust that what we give away does not diminish us.

Listening to the voice of God is what frees us from being enslaved by the other voices in our minds.  When we listen to the voice of God, we can understand more clearly which of our voices are destructive, and which of our voices are life giving.  When we are making decisions about money, and the voices are swirling all around us, making us anxious, we can take a deep breath and a moment of silence and listen for what God is saying to us.

God is not an afterthought when it comes to our decisions about money.  God is the very source -not only of our wealth-but also of our life and breath.  We can follow the sound of God’s voice, like sheep follow the sound of a shepherd’s voice-knowing the shepherd will lead safely through even the most difficult places.

Amen.