Sermon November 8, 2009
Proper 27 Year B
Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
This morning’s gospel is a familiar one to many, and for that reason, I invite you to consider it with fresh eyes. It’s not about what you might think. A lot of people call this passage (the widow’s mite) the perfect example of Christian stewardship. The interpretation is something like the widow being better than the rest because she not only gave to the church, she sacrificed all she had, down to her last two coins… she gave till it hurt. The implication is that in order to be good, we must give until we are brought to our knees, give ‘till we’re exhausted. Anything less falls short of the mark. Now, all due respect to the stewardship campaign, but Really?! Do you really think that God would want us exhausted by our love for him…to be broken by our giving? No way. That’s not what God’s love is all about. So this is why I need you to have fresh eyes, because the widow’s mite is not about money at all, it is actually about salvation. More specifically it is about what your soul needs.
One morning, shortly before he dies, Jesus is sitting in the temple, watching the people make sacrifices. And, being Jesus, he can see they’re hungry. Some hunger for healing, some love, others forgiveness. And he also sees that almost all of have hidden their hunger behind fine garments, pretending everything was fine. I say “almost” because through the midst of all that hidden hunger Jesus sees a widow. She cannot hide her need, she is poor and unashamed. Out of her absolute desperation the widow does something that no financial planner would ever recommend. She offers to God her last 2 coins, all she had. Without shame or apology she displays her poverty before the world, offering her hunger to God. That is why Jesus says that she gave more than anyone else because she offered her greatest burden, she gave God her need.
A few years ago I was visiting my cousins who were missionaries in Belize. I was paddling through a thick mangrove I saw something hanging above me. I couldn’t believe my eyes…there were orchids everywhere suspended on the twisted vines and branches. They had no soil, no water, no nourishment source, except for the air surrounding them. Against all logic those beautiful purple blossoms thrived. Absurd…that nature would leave such a delicate creature upon so precarious a perch! The brush of a bird’s wing, a thoughtless breeze, a pouring rain, and they would have been done for. Yet, as I moved through the mangrove, I found thousands more orchids! I remember getting back to my cousins that night, and in the midst of describing it, I realized something. I realized that their vulnerability is just like the human soul.
So many imagine the soul as a perfect, untouched package of divine wrapping; an otherworldly seed in an otherwise human vessel. But, of course, nothing that God creates (a seed even less so) is without life.
No, your soul is actually a living seed and takes its nourishment from the life we give it. They feed on our experiences of love, grace, pain, patience and wisdom just as the orchid does the mangrove’s breeze. The soul does not judge or moralize or evaluate. It simply experiences… in as raw and unfiltered a form as the orchid does the air it breathes. The soul feasts on fine music, a well told story, love. It is sated by a sweeping landscape, an act of superhuman proportions, a child. Imagine the impact of Jesus Christ’s resurrection upon the soul of one who believes!…it is profound…Likewise, the soul naturally withers when we suffer, when we are touched by sin, it is like poison to the soul. Yes, The soul takes it all in, the good and the bad.
Though it may seem that way, no soul hungers alone. That mangrove in Belize was absolutely full of orchids. And every one of them needed food and water in order to thrive. God knows the hungers of the orchids, how much more he cares for our souls! And so we congregate here because we hunger together. We hunger for love, for forgiveness, for a chance to make a fresh start. We come here because this is our soul’s mangrove. It is a perfect place in which we can thrive, if only we let down our guard and let God feed us.
Now back to the temple sacrifices. The word Sacrifice comes from the latin sacrificium and literally means “to be made sacred”. To sacrifice means to take something, anything and offer it to God in order to make it sacred. Ancient cultures understood the importance of sacrifice. Instead of linens and silks, their altars were covered with sacrifices, whether they were piles of grain or the spilled blood of fatted calves, the offerings were often so plentiful that ancient temples had gutters that ran through them so the blood pouring from the alter had somewhere to go. Can you imagine the mess? It is the stuff of altar guild nightmares!
Now don’t be fooled by the tidiness of our church, we still make sacrifices here. Take this wafer (holding up a communion wafer), it is worth nothing but the pennies spent to buy it. If I eat this now, it’s just a plain piece of thin bread. But when we offer it to God and invite his transformative blessing, then it becomes sacred. When sacrificed, it is made sacred, sacred food for our souls. Whenever we make an offering, God takes what we give him and he transforms it into sacred stuff. The key is that it must be offered. Our sacrifices must be offered for God to turn it into food for our souls.
So often when we come to church, we come offering out of our bounty. Whatever we have in spades, be it money, time or kindness. Whatever we have a surplus of, we share it with eachother. And that is good to share from our bounty, it is honorable and important. But Jesus is saying in this morning’s gospel, that’s he wants more. He wants our need. He cares about our hunger. Like the courageous widow offering her poverty to God, shamelessly, he wants us to come into this sacred space and offer him our own poverty. Whatever it is. That is the stuff he can really work with, the stuff he needs in order to feed and grow our souls into something beautiful. Jesus says “come to me, all you that are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).
One of my prayer teachers is a joyful woman in West Point named Peg. Every morning Peg wakes up and immediately leans over her bed in prayer, before she can be distracted by her husband or her 6 children. And she prays some variation of the following: “God, today is yours. It is my sacrifice to you. Every need I have, I offer to you. Every life I touch, every thought I have, they are yours. Take them, take the entirety of this day, God, and make it sacred. Today is my sacrifice to you because I know you can make something amazing with it.”
Peggy has said that prayer every day…Whether they are the days filled with household chores and errands for her family. Or the days she has to watch her career navy husband off to another deployment. The days she bore her children. The day she was given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Peg knows that that her days are not her own any more than the gifts we are given within them. She gets to hold onto days for just a little while, whether they be filled family, church, wealth or possessions. But ultimately, she holds on them loosely, knowing it all belongs to God.
Though we are no longer in the business of sacrificing goats and sheep Christians are a sacrificial people. So what is your offering today? What would you place on that ancient alter? For the widow, it was her absolute poverty, that was a burden she could no longer carry. For Jesus it was the sins of those whom he loved. So what would you offer?
When I first came across those orchids in Belize, I was confused as to why God would put such a beautiful thing on so precarious a perch. But in these years since then, I have realized that the world is replete with such vulnerability. It is how God intended for the world to be. Creation, humanity, community, God intends for our world to be weak so that we could be made strong in him. Just like those orchids, our fragility is what makes us beautiful.
You see, the widow’s mite is not about money. It isn’t about giving till it hurts. The widow’s mite is about how God wants to love us, by transforming our needs into food for our souls. Our Christian life is not about whether we are good enough, whether we give enough, whether we’re “doers” enough. It’s about living close to God and sacrificing whatever it is that gets in the way of that, body and soul.
Thanks be to God.