Monday, November 12, 2012

Sermon: B 24 Pentecost 27 Proper 11 November 2012

Ruth 3: 1-5, 4: 13-17; Ps 127; Heb 9: 24-28; MARK 12: 38-44

On this Remembrance Day, For those who were killed in battle,
For those who gave up their lives to save others
For those who fought because they were forced to,
For those who died standing up for a just cause
For those who said war was wrong,
For those who tried to make the peace
For those who prayed when others had no time to pray
For those creatures who needlessly die
For those trees that needlessly are slaughtered
For all of mankind Let us quietly pray:
May [your] God hold them in peace/ May Love flow over the Earth and cleanse us all/ This day and for always. AMEN.

This is Marianne Griffin’s poem for Remembrance Day. I’ve been in England around this time several times recently, and in buying and wearing a poppy, I’ve mused about Remembrance, Armistice, or Veterans’ Day, our anti-war climate, and our virtual ignoring the 11th, whatever it’s called. This year, its observance gives many people a welcome recovery from politics, however we as individuals, a state, or nation, felt about the results. In having tomorrow off, not as a day off for voting, but to observe this occasion we’d rather omit, we also see the darkening chilling of our days. We also hear about the widow’s mite, her giving two coins, all she had, and know too stewardship is in the wind.

In one of the commentaries I skim through as preparation, I read this story. In a poor Mexican community where the narrator had lived, she noticed that every week every person or family brought a spoonful of rice to church and put it in an empty coffee can. Some were scrunched in a piece of paper, some brought by hand, but everyone brought a spoonful somehow. No one had anything to spare, so the narrator was puzzled and asked. Villagers replied that there are occasions when even in a very poor community, there’s an unexpected, immediate need—a death, a flood, or some other disaster unprepared for, and then at least the church would have a can or two of spare rice to bring to help. No one had extra, so it was hard for everyone, making it a genuine gift. Pretty standard story, I thought as I read along. The surprise was the point: what was being done about the acute poverty of that town, and so many like it all over Mexico. Rather than glorifying the gift, why not work to alleviate poverty there—more useful work perhaps.

That sent me to the widow’s mite, November 11th, stewardship (parish giving,) and self-sacrifice. As we slide along towards Advent, the tone of the readings becomes increasingly shrill and aimed at gloom, doom, sacrifice, sin, and the need for a Savior.

Why, if God is good, are we to be giving to the point of misery and life-ending sacrifice? And God is good. (All the time—good, you remember, both that God is good—all the time, and to respond.) That drove me back to the lessons. Of course, the reading at this season from Ruth is to begin showing the family tree for Advent from David, to Joseph, and so to Jesus. That surely, however, was not the point of the wonderful account of Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Each woman, in her generation, was a widow, bereft of financial or other sort of family support. Only by linking to someone’s family, specifically Naomi’s husband’s family could these two women find any security. Widows were treated as the dregs of their society, and their only safety net was the husband/father’s family, and, in this story, that family lived far off. They did trek there; they did follow the law, and gather up the leftovers of the crop, always free for the taking. They did meet the relative required under the law to be responsible for his brother’s family, and he did both help Ruth produce a son, and then promised to be the guarantor of that son. It was unlikely to work out, given the time, distance, and unfamiliarity of the various people to each other, and so demonstrated that God is good—all the time. Aside from the truly loving relationship shown between the two women, that’s the point. Ruth did not make a noble sacrifice— she followed the rules, and God is good—all the time. That’s a better preview for Advent. The Psalm underscores that point, “Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain, who build it.” The Lord builds the house, and God is good. (All the time.) It had seemed unlikely that there’d be any good end for Naomi or Ruth.

The thinking about the widow’s mite has changed, since I used to hear this story preached on. It used to be preached as two separate stories, the one where Jesus verbally attacks the scribes who devour widows’ houses and go around claiming respect, saying long prayers, and doing these things for appearances’ sake. Then Jesus watches the cash box as people give their coins for the upkeep of the temple, and sees people put in differing amounts, told as a bridge to the second narrative. In it, the widow puts in her last two tiny coins. It’s important to notice that Jesus does not commend her for generosity or faith. He observes she spends the last cash she has. That is to prove the wickedness of the religious authorities, whether scribes or priests, for essentially bullying her out of her last money to help support a temple—which will be destroyed anyway. As one story, it’s all about the bad behavior of the scribes and priests, even to the extent of futilely, but effectively, bullying a poor widow. They should not have required her to give up her only money.

This story then is not about sacrificial giving, either to make her noble to the point of bankruptcy, or to suggest that the Lord would value her destitution. Other people who had enough gave money, but she didn’t. Jesus doesn’t call her generous or noble. He says, “She gave all she had.” The scribes and priests “destroyed the widow’s house.”

If the Lord is good, all the time, surely the Lord wouldn’t value or be party to destroying her house. The scribes and the priests were wrong to do that.

This view of her action and their causing it, immediately precedes Jesus’ predicting the destruction of the temple. He is criticizing the system for requiring her destitution, and predicting its futility. This cannot be his model for ideal servanthood, or a way for a religious system to bring about God’s reign. Additionally it cannot be a preview of his sacrificial giving. It could be a preview of a wicked and bankrupt system destroying rather than protecting that which it was created and charged to build. That could be a preview of Jesus’ death by a vicious system. Then he would not be sacrificing his life to the extent possible, but as required evilly. What then of the widow’s servanthood or his own? Is sacrificial giving to make the giver miserable or is there another possible point in giving? She shows herself to be virtuous and follows what is required. He follows the Law, too, rather than breaking it. Each of them though holds to the value of building up the God’s kingdom. That is something more important to both than their own comfort. That’s like giving up the spoonful of rice, as a value, in the face of a bad system.

Somehow each of these stories tells about using what they give, or even give up, to protect and insure their own identity as faithful servants of God. The goal is not to give to the point of self-sacrificing self-destruction.  Their goal is to further the reign of God, as each believes is the right way to do that. Jesus  “was eager to save those eagerly waiting for him.” “He did not aim to remove all sin by the sacrifice of himself.” His goal was to save all, not to sacrifice himself, participating in suicide. The widow also was not trying to lose all, but to persevere as a righteous person.

How here do we proceed to follow our personal and corporate identity? Whether we give generously or give and give some more, our value is to build up God’s reign. Those we remember on Remembrance Day for their self-sacrifice did not aim to die, but to keep alive something they cared about, their valued world for themselves and for others. Somehow Armistice Day doesn’t focus on what they did do. Veterans’ Day recalls some of the people involved, but doesn’t really show the image of all involved. People who do these bold kinds of giving are proud to claim the work they did, even given the expense and costs. The best version of this is from Henry the Vth, “But we in it shall be remembered-/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother;” Their pride was their work towards bringing about something good, not plunging in with their lives however dire the situation. The goal of God’s realm, or here England’s, made the work valued. The systems requiring the widow, soldiers, and rice givers to act against their own interests was not good, yet their work did win something memorable. To work for peace, justice, and just peace is to work for God’s realm, whether as Occupiers, liturgists, politicians elected this week, and those working to support St John’s identity—all work for God’s reign. That’s our goal and it is: Good News.

© Katharine C. Black              B 24 Pent.         11 Nov 2012