Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, November 08 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

If you have been a regular church-goer for a while, you know what I am meant to do now. The story of the widow’s mite is meant to be the cue for the annual stewardship sermon, in which I explain how the parish is supported largely by the offerings of the congregation, and how we’re all supposed to “give sacrificially” like the widow, and have I mentioned pre-authorized giving this week? And honestly, it might be great if I could do that, because it is, on a mundane level, kind of true. But for good or ill, it is not even a little bit like what Jesus was actually talking about.

Because the widow is donating her two small coins, the offering of all she can, to the Temple. The Temple with which Jesus had a deeply conflicted, ambiguous relationship, the Temple which was tied up with the Roman occupation and with both religious and political oppression. The Temple where Jesus, only a short time earlier, has knocked over the tables of the moneychangers, the Temple which he has called, loosely quoting the prophets, both “God’s house” and a “den of thieves.” The Temple which was the centre of concern for the scribes he attacks, and in fact attacks precisely for “devouring widows’ houses”, for taking financial advantage of the vulnerable and marginal. And if we read on from this story, as we will next week, we will see Jesus predicting the destruction of this Temple, no stone left standing upon another, the people scattered.

The widow, in short, is giving the last of her resources to an insitution which is corrupt, exploitative, in bed with colonial power, self-interested, short-sighted, and soon to be wholly destroyed. So if we are to think of her as an example of how we should be giving to the church, we need to think about what we are saying about ourselves as church. Are we—more precisely, do we want to be—that institution?

And yet Jesus praises her, that widow, praises her offering despite all the ambiguity; praises not so much the gift to the Temple as such, I think, as that deep impulse to give. The impulse we may have no way to channel sometimes except through money, because our society has taught us to think of all things in terms of money, but which is truly a desire to give much more than that, to give ourselves, to give our lives. What matters the completeness, the entirety of it. Whether or not the widow is giving to the right place, she is giving everything. The Greek literally says that she has given “her whole life,” and while this could be translated as “her entire livelihood,” it didn’t have to be said in that way. The point is that this is an offering that is everything she can give.

And she is giving because she wants to, because she needs to, because she knows that she needs to. Because one of our fundamental needs as human beings is the need to give, to give our selves, our souls and bodies, a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice; and when that need is lost or frustrated or denied, we are not whole. We cannot entirely do it, we can never really accomplish that absolutely free, complete, unconditional gift, but our humanity depends on the wanting, on the trying. And the scribes have cut themselves off from this basic need. They can receive, at least in a superficial way—respect, honour, position, all those good things—but they give nothing, really. Nothing that matters. No part of themselves is engaged as gift, to other people or to the Temple or to the God whose worship they enact.

So what can we say about self-giving, about becoming the gift, the offering, about shaping our whole lives as gift? An offering to the world, this whole lovely suffering world, to God’s creation, and through God’s creation to God.

First of all, it is not abstracted from the material world. How we dispose of our selves is not actually separate from how we dispose of our material resources. I’ve tried not to make this all about money, because it certainly isn’t, but putting your money where your mouth is does matter, and if we are not up to the requirement to sell all we have and give to the poor, that’s still the standard against which we are measured and, we hope, forgiven. It is about work and time as well, about giving our whole hearts to whatever it is that we are called to, about ensuring that we give our hearts to callings that are worthy of our selves and the hunger of the world. These things, the basic conditions of our lives, are, if not the whole of it, at least a very substantial beginning; and our work in the world may be a very large part of who we are as gift, if we live it rightly.

What most of us know about the self as gift, of course, we tend to learn first in the context of family and intimate relationships. To some extent, this is the pattern which runs through the book of Ruth, from which today’s first reading was taken. The book of Ruth is best-known, of course, for one of the most beautiful avowals of personal commitment in the Bible—“whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge, and thy people will be my people, and thy God will be my God”—an avowal made in the rather unexpected circumstance of a young widow, a foreigner and alone, speaking to, of all people, her mother-in-law. Today we see a small part of Ruth’s rather more mundane and desperate offering of herself to Boaz in an attempt to protect herself and Naomi, an offering met with a degree of honour and respect from Boaz which is perhaps also an unexpected gift; and we conclude with the striking image of Naomi nursing Ruth’s child—that most immediate bodily form of self-giving—and being called that child’s mother.

It is in such relationships with people we love that most of us experience most or all of what we will know of self-giving. And I do not think this is wrong, in fact it is very right in many ways; but we don’t need to be limited to this, not this only. It is taking whatever we learn in this context, and beginning to make it a way of living; it is about love and care and attention most of all. There may be in some real sense nothing more important we can offer to creation than our attention, our genuine recognition of existence and beauty and need. The turn to the other and the emptying of ourselves to their reality. Coins for the Temple because in all its corruption the Temple is still a human attempt to adore and honour God. The action of care in the political world, the work we need to do to ensure that men don’t need to sit in doorways in the cold; but also the grace to bend down before those men and receive their care too, to let them care for us too, unworthy as we are.

For it is not only giving we need to learn, but receiving, not as the scribes receive praise and honour and good seats, but humbly, simply, admitting our mutual helplessness, our need of each other. I have been given pieces of bread, candy, life advice, blessings, by needy strangers, and part of my own life has been about learning to receive this. We try to learn to receive love for no reason, to receive the grace and forgiveness and acceptance which confuses us because it is never deserved or earned, to be vulnerable to its pain and strange demands.

Because giving and receiving at its cleanest, or the cleanest we can manage, makes all the parties more like equals, the widow in her donation making herself the equal of any high priest, the sacrifice of all that there is to give.

On our own we cannot do this; it is the action of grace purely, and even in grace we are not capable of much, we are not capable of giving or receiving pure gift, the philosophers are right about that. But we can want to. We can try to. We make ourselves as empty as we can, and hope for gift to live within us, and let us live as gift to the strange beloved world. For that, finally, is one of the truest realizations we will ever have of the image of God within us, our truest participation in the self-giving, self-realizing, triune life of God.