If you have ever been repelling then you know what a frightening and at the same time exhilarating experience it can be. Perched on the edge of a cliff or a wall it is at first very counter-intuitive to think that you are going to climb down from a height supported by a single rope secured by someone else. The harness you wear around your body looks much too flimsy and the clamps (called carabiners) that hold all the various ropes together look more like big paper clips than anything else. And once you get all this gear on, the people in charge tell you that you don t even get to go down face first, no, you have to approach the edge backwards and literally step off unable to see where you re going. The amazing thing is, if you can go along with all these instructions and actually step off that cliff – it is an astonishing feeling to realize this system does in fact work and you re not going to fall.
If I had to pick an analogy that best describes how life actually is, as opposed to how we might like it to be, I would have to say that life is like repelling. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, we pass through this life tethered to existence by only a thin (but immensely strong) cord of love that extends from God to each of us. Like a divine umbilical cord, we are in fact dangling here, completely dependent on someone else for our survival. But most of us fail to realize this truth, that is, until the false bottom we think we are safely perched on gets ripped away.
You see, if you ask most people they might well use a very different analogy for life. Most people will say that life is more like building a great structure that lifts us up than it s like a single strand that keeps us from falling. It s the idea that God gives us life, places us on solid ground and it is up to us to build our way to the top.
Using this analogy, life is the process of working our way up brick by brick, level by level until we reach the top. We work hard and get our education and in so doing add a stone to our structure, a stone we can then stand on. We work even harder at our careers, land a good job and add another brick raising us a little higher. We accumulate wealth; we save wealth and add more bricks to our rising monument. We build relationships, create a network for ourselves, find a good place within the community and rise a little higher. We create a family, a legacy, children who will carry on after we are gone and we find ourselves lifted up a little more. The harder you work, the more you build, the more you build the closer you get to the top.
It s a great analogy except, as anyone knows who has seen their bricks disappear before their eyes it doesn t work. Because in truth, we aren t standing on what we ve built, we are dangling by a thread, kept in life by the grace of God, and all those good things education, wealth, relationships, family are like beads of water running down a string they aren t things we make for ourselves, but gifts from God.
The widows in our two lessons for this morning they understood this truth. They understood that they were completely dependent on God. Widows in ancient Palestine had few if any legal rights. They could not inherit from their spouses and women rarely worked, so if their husbands died they were totally dependent on the charity of their extended families or the pity of others. Moreover, the fact that they were widows was seen as God s punishment for the sin of their families. These widows couldn t fool themselves into thinking they were building their way to the top because they knew quite clearly that they had absolutely nothing they could stand on. That is why Jesus says blessed are the poor, not because it s good to be poor but because when you are poor you can see life for what it is a gift. Both of these widows knew that everything they had and all that they were, as little as it was, had been given them by God above. And when you understand this fact, it is easy to give back to the one who creates the harness, provides the rope, and keeps you from falling.
The Scribes, on the other hand, they didn t get it at all. As Jesus said, they liked 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 thought these perks were only their due. They had worked hard, studied long, built for themselves an impressive structure and worked their way up. They believed they deserved everything that came their way. They might give generously to the Temple treasury, while the widow gave only two small copper coins, but Jesus thought little of such gifts. He thought little of them because the givers believed their offerings were gifts of their own making. The widows, on the other hand, understood correctly that none of it was theirs; all of it came from God and so they were only giving back to God something that didn t belong to them in the first place.
Make no mistake about it, you and I are repelling our way through life. We aren t the builders; we are only the beneficiaries of a God who pours great blessings down upon us. There is no solid ground that God doesn t giveus, no bricks of our own making to build with, only a precious love to cling to. We dangle in existence because God makes it so and the sooner we grab a hold of this truth the sooner we will see our lives for the miracle they really are. Everything we have is a gift the harness, the cord, and all that travels down it. We have nothing really to boast about and everything to be thankful for. Amen.