Sheepscott Community Church November 8, 2009
Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17
Mark 12: 38-44
Walking the Walk
After I had gotten Jon and the kids off to school and had finished the housework on my 44th birthday, I knelt in the kitchen, where I was at the time, to pray. I had a secret joy, the one that most of us, some of us? feel on our birthdays: this is my special day. I also felt an even greater joy because after 15 years of working on personal historical matters where inner healing was needed, I knew that that period of healing was finished, over. I could feel it in my body, my mind and my spirit. I could move on in my life.
I had a sense of great anticipation, a sense of earned freedom whereby I could begin to do those things I had previously felt constrained about. Maybe I would go back to school and finish my degree. Maybe I would simply immerse myself in poetry. Maybe I would finally learn to knit a sock, to study French, to plant long-wished for flower gardens, be a literacy volunteer. It was a heady moment in my life, and I felt exhilarated.
It was in that moment, filled with joy and gratitude, that I knelt to pray. I thanked God for my life and all he had done for me––the usual sentiments of beginning prayer. Hardly was I underway than I began to sense the “Approach,” I ‘ll call it, of the Presence of God in a question, “Now that you have a life, are you willing to give it up?” I should note that every day, from the time I was a sophomore in high school, where I was taught this prayer by my favorite nun, Sister Henry Marie, who began her day with it,––every day since that I had said, “O my God, I offer thee all my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day, in union with Jesus for the intentions of his Sacred Heart.” Another I intoned, “All that I am, all that I do, all that I’ll ever be, I offer to you. Amen.”
I note these prayers, with their language of surrender, of offering, to get across that I had talked the talk for most of my life up to that point. At that point, however, God was drawing up for my attention, that yes, I had verbally offered my life. Now that all of the obstacles, the big obstacles to realizing that life were removed, now that I had a life, would I give it up. No, was my first response. And my second: No. My reasoning as I desperately tried to hang on to the life I felt I had recovered was that this is my life. I finally have it back. I’ve worked hard to get it back, and now you want it? I have to give it up? No.
But the relentlessness of the approach of God was a reproach to my clinging to what I saw and understood as my life. With my words every day over so many years, I had indeed created forms for the foundation of God’s use of me as an agent of change in the world. Now here he had backed up the cement truck to those forms and was ready to tip out the cement to make a foundation for the future of my usefulness.
Could I have said no and followed through with it? Theoretically, yes, but given the consistent choices I had made for God over those years, those choices would have given the lie to a different choice on my part. And there was this relentlessness of the approach of God in the place of prayer. So, with a heavy heart and no small amount of resentment, I said yes, thinking, well, there goes the life I had hoped for and didn’t even have time to plan. It took me about three days to recover my equilibrium. I was not pleased with God.
So, what does this have to do with today’s gospel? Everything, at least I think so. The widow who tosses everything she has into the temple treasury––two small copper coins worth only a fraction of a penny, as the scripture tells us––this widow has made everything possible because of her generosity of spirit. It’s a reckless thing she does with an apparent inherent faith in and coincident trust in God for the future.
Do you think she should maybe have saved out one of the coins? Would that have been more prudent and responsible, making her less likely to become as completely dependent on the Jewish society she was part of? Not according to Jesus’s lights. In her recklessness she does not withhold anything she has from God. I can’t claim that same generosity of spirit in my birthday prayer because I wanted to hold back this and this and that, but I finally acquiesced for God’s purposes and reasons, because at that point it didn’t really seem like I hd a choice, and the juggernaut that is God was about to roll over me anyway. I think the widow is a model for us all that real giving must be sacrificial, the amount of the gift never mattering so much as the cost to the giver, not the size of the gift, but the sacrifice that that gift is.
We may feel that we don’t have much by way of material gifts or personal gifts to offer to God in Christ, but if we do put all we have and are at God’s disposal, God can do things with it and with us that are beyond our imaginings. And I do stand here as a witness to that. Being willing to and then trying to carry out God’s will and purpose for our lives is the centerpiece of our lives, not a side issue. It is the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner, not the vegetables or the dessert, that with apologies to the vegetarians among us. I think you get my point. That being willing to, and trying to walk the walk is in fact creating the path to holiness or sainthood, which I was talking about last Sunday on All Saints Day. We create the path by walking the way. That is the path to holiness, which is to say, God.
On the day I was working on a first draft of the sermon, in the reading for the day in Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, the writer asks whether we have broken our independence with our own hand and surrendered to Christ. “Has that break come?” he asks. “All the rest is pious fraud,” he continues. Strong language. “The one point to decide is––Will I give up, will I surrender to Jesus and make no conditions whatever as to how that break comes? I must be broken from my self-realization”––or the more fashionable term in these times, self-actualization––”and immediately that point is reached, the reality of supernatural identification takes place at once, and the witness of the spirit of God is unmistakable––’I have been crucified with Christ.’” Galatians 2: 20.
“The passion of Christianity is that I deliberately sign away my own rights and become a bond-slave of Christ. Until I do that, I do not begin to be a saint,” he concludes.
That’s so distasteful to us, isn’t it? Really giving it up to God? At least from my perspective, everything in me rails against it. This is my life, the one life I get––as far as I know––and the Western model of individual self-actualization bridles at the idea, the prospect of giving it all up to an unseen God, which brings us back to the widow tossing her coins in the temple treasury. Little did she know who was watching her, the One for whom all of creation existed. She was simply being herself, acting out of her own principles and conviction, out of the truth of who she was. It is in those private moments, when we are being ourselves unselfconsciously that the truth of our character is revealed. By grace we may be shown in one of those moments that we have need of repentance, or, as likely, that by grace we may be shown we have cause to rejoice. Repentance or rejoicing, both before God, who sees who we are through any attempt at pretense. What a relief, huh? To be known that way? And loved.
Back to the widow of the moment. It was through her acting out that Jesus provided an example for all of us. It was a teachable moment. It’s also reminiscent of the parable of the mustard seed, wherein Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a grain of mustard seed. “When it is sown upon the ground, it is the least of all the seeds upon the earth. But when it is sown, it springs up and becomes greater than all the herbs,” and the birds can nest in its branches.
Indeed in Palestine, the mustard seed stood proverbially for the smallest possible thing, which did in fact grow into something very like a tree. The message of the parable is to never be daunted by small beginnings. We often feel that for all we can do it is hardly worthwhile starting a thing at all. But we must remember that everything must have a beginning. Nothing emerges full grown. It is our duty to do what we can , and the cumulative effect of all the small efforts can in the end produce an amazing result.
Both the widow’s coin story and the parable of the mustard seed are both based in a God who will use whatever we offer, no matter how small or seemingly useless in the eyes of the world. God will use that smallest of coins to bring about the greatest of good, will use that smallest seed to bring about the largest shrub. Specific to the widow’s mite or coin is that it is given with generosity. In God’s economy, that generosity has nothing to do with an amount but everything to do with the spirit in which that small amount is given. In a way we don’t understand with our minds, things are transmuted in God.
The humility of the widow’s attitude is completely contrasted with that of the scribes and pharisees whose attitude Jesus speaks sharply against when he addresses the people gathered in the temple courts, where he was teaching. Right there in that site, the place of the visible expressions of power of the scribes and pharisees, Jesus makes a series of charges against them, who I remind you are the experts in Jewish Law. As he points out to the people, they like to walk around in flowing robes. A long robe, which swept the ground, was the sign of a notable person. It was the kind of a robe in which a person could neither hurry nor work, so the message such a robe communicated was that the wearer was a man of leisure and therefore honor.
On these robes were sown tassels, in obedience to a directive in Numbers 15: 38. The tassels were meant to remind the wearers that they were the people of God, and it’s probable that these legal experts wore large tassels to communicate special prominence. An example of that tendency among human beings is a story of how members of the Shaker sect came to have mirrors. Initially the Shakers forbade the possession and use of mirrors because of vanity. However, it became clear after not too much time had passed, that the Shakers, who valued order and cleanliness in their work and lives, had a need of mirrors. And so, the community’s law was changed. Mirrors were allowed but only up to a certain size, the stipulations of measurement exactly laid out. Very Shaker. What’s endearing in its humanity is that all of the Shaker mirrors were made the maximum size. I won’t call the scribes’ wearing of very large tassels particularly endearing or admirable, especially when small ones would have done just fine, but even there, the sheer humanity is understandable and something we can’t help identifying with.
Besides wearing flowing robes, the scribes coveted greetings of honor and respect. And they liked the highest places at feasts, which places were carefully socially orchestrated, just as they are now at dinner parties, the place of greatest honor at the right hand of the host, the second greatest at the left hand of the host and so on, right along the table. Who does not hear in his or her mind at this point an echo of Jesus’ exhortation, “When you are invited [to a feast] take the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ ... For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Also, I hear an echo of the gospel of several weeks ago when the disciples James and John were asking if, when Jesus came into his kingdom, they could be seated at his right and left hands. Places of honor.
Flowing robes, places of honor, and then the last charge against the scribes and pharisees concerning the devouring of widows’ houses. The idea behind this was that these experts in the religious laws were able to convince widows, often vulnerable socially and economically, that they would have a high place in the heavenlies if they would support them, men singled out by God, who would in turn pray for them. These experts in the Law could receive no pay for their teaching; they were supposed to support themselves with other work. I think all of us have read in the newspapers and seen on television and the Internet that the temptations to exploit positions of power in the field of religion have not abated and neither have the numbers of ministers of religion who succumb to such temptations abated.
In this scripture, Jesus warns clearly against the desire for prominence, for deference, and against the attempt to make a traffic of religion. The contrast of these men of the Law with the unselfconscious humility of the widow with her copper coins could not be greater, and there is no question about Jesus’ position on the matter. Every day he is inviting us to give all of what we have, to surrender who we are to God. We ourselves are those few coins tossed into the temple treasury, but if we think of ourselves as both the tossed coins and the tosser––the small coins and the poor widow––and we do it without holding back anything of or for ourselves, as with the mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, God will make something great out of our offering. Not perhaps in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of Jesus, which is finally all that matters. Amen.