Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In whom can I trust?

Proper 27, Year B, 2012, All Saints’

Someone recently gave some me some advice on how to avoid embarrassment when you don’t have any money to put in the offertory plate.  He said, “If you don’t have anything, then just thump the bottom of the plate with your finger and people will think you gave something.”  My initial reaction was, “Well that’s kind of silly, that will just draw more attention to the problem!”  It’s been a while since anybody said, “Excuse me while I dig this hunk of gold out of my wallet.”
However silly this advice sounds today, this kind of advice would have come in handy during Jesus’ day.  Today’s lesson tells of a time when Jesus and his disciples sat around and watched people come forward to make their offering at the treasury.  Apparently, it was easy to discern how much money was put in the plate based on the sound of the clank; the louder the clank the more substantial the gift.
But Jesus wasn’t impressed with the loud clanks.  He wasn’t impressed by the ones who wore the finest clothes and who were greeted with respect.  Instead, Jesus noticed the poor widow who put all she had in the plate, and she only had two small coins.  She had a couple of pennies to her name, but she gave 100%.  You can hold onto your wallets, this won’t be your traditional stewardship sermon.
While the scribes gave much more money than this widow, Jesus said, “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 gave out of her poverty.” Jesus notes that giving out of abundance is not worth nearly as much as giving out of poverty.
He seems to be saying that a true measure of a gift is given when one gives over all that they are and all that they have. As the Eucharistic Prayer says, at the Lord’s Table we are asked to present to God ourselves, our souls, and our bodies-not just 10% but 100%.   In Jesus’ eyes, true value is not found in how much money one has but in how much one gives of themself.  
Jesus is telling us of a Gospel truth that goes beyond the traditional tithing model.  Jesus is teaching about a spiritual practice that is much more radical than giving 10% of our income to the church.  This passage speaks to the true value of what it means to put all of our trust in God. 
For starters, learning how to trust in anything or anybody is not easy.  At some point in our life we have all been disappointed by someone we love and trust.  Or maybe the church or some other organization has let you down.  Maybe you have even experienced what it is like to feel rejected by God.
I think we all know what it feels like to be let down.  These feelings of disappointment are very painful and have the power to linger for a long time.  In some cases, these feelings prevent us from ever really trusting again.  They might even prevent us from ever giving of ourselves to anything again.
I look at the widow in the story today as the ultimate example of someone who has every reason not to trust again.  Her husband is dead.  The people who were charged with taking care of her have either abandoned her or died.  The people who are supposed to be taking care of her are more concerned with their long flowing robes and seats of honor.  And these same people watch idly by while she puts into the treasury all that she has.  Nobody bothers to tell her that she doesn’t have to give away all that she has.
This whole scene is made even more ridiculous if you think about the fact that Jesus just visited this Temple and turned it upside down for being corrupt.  I wonder if she knew that the Temple leaders were mishandling the money.  Even if she didn’t, the passage suggests that this widow was taken advantage of.  “The scribes devour widows’ houses.”  In other words, they took advantage of the widows’ generosity.   But for whatever reason the widow trusted that giving her money in this way was what God was calling her to do. 
Maybe she believed that giving away these last two coins would finally free her from all her trust issues.  Or maybe she trusted that God could work through any circumstance and system, no matter how bleak and uncertain the situation.  Or maybe this was simply a case of her following the Temple tax code.  Whatever the case, she believed that giving over these two coins was her only option.  Even at the end of her rope, this poor widow trusted down to her last penny that with God much more is possible.
Perhaps you are more like the widow than most.  Perhaps you have lost many of these things.  What has sustained you?  What calls you back to church each Sunday?  How has God noticed you in your loss? 
I wonder how I might respond if I were in her situation.  What would happen if all the things I trusted would take care of me were taken away?  My house, my job, my car, my savings account, my pension plan?  Even worse, what would happen if all the people in my life that I trusted where gone?  What then?  What would keep hope alive?  How could I trust again?
At first glance, the lesson does not seem to radiate hope for those of us stuck with these seemingly impossible questions.  There is no evidence that Jesus goes into the treasury and gives this widow her money back.  Like in other passages, Jesus does not say that this woman will find her true reward in heaven.  It does not appear that the scribes repent of their evil ways, have a change of heart, and take care of this widow.  What glimmer of hope is God offering? 
I learned some time ago that when a Gospel lesson fails to make a whole lot of sense or seems to be devoid of hope, that I should ask myself a question.  How does this lesson make sense in light of the cross and the empty tomb?  In other words, how does Jesus’ death and resurrection reveal hope in this passage?
First of all, we can trust that God notices us in our suffering.  Like the widow, Jesus was abandoned by just about everyone in his life and given over to death.  Jesus had every reason to feel rejected and despised, every reason to not trust the world.  When nobody else seems to notice us in our loss, we have a Savoir who does because he gave all of himself for us.  He lost himself for our sake.
In addition, Jesus is calling us to life through death.  That means we have to put to death the illusion that these temporal things (our houses, our savings accounts, even our families) will sustain us and take care of us forever.  None of these things, no matter how good, will  last.  By giving these things a proper burial so to say, we can let go of them as our primary source for hope and salvation.  In letting go of these things, in the same way the widow let go of her two pennies, we can put our whole life and trust in the hand of God.
We can put our trust in God in this way because through Jesus’ resurrection God is making all things new, all things last, all things possible including even victory over death.  The resurrection of Christ tells us that dying to our possessions and the ways of the world is where life begins.  Dying to our possessions and all of our stuff will open us up to true abundance, not the abundance of things that end up just weighing us down but to the abundance of everlasting hope.
God is trying to show you that even when you think all hope is lost, there will always be hope through God in Christ.  Even when you think there is nothing left to give, God is saying, “just give me you, all of your frustrations and failures, all of your broken dreams and disappointments, and I will give you a life worth living.”
  In my experience, when I thought the world was taking away from me all the things I thought I needed, God gave me what I really needed.  God gave me a relationship with Christ.  God gave me a church community that loved me and noticed me when I was hurting.  God gave me work to do in his kingdom.  I came to realize that God is in control of my true health and salvation. 
All of this boils down to letting God be in charge of what you have or even of what you don’t have.  When you let God be in charge by giving to Him all that you are, you set yourself on a wonderful and sacred journey where hope and life abounds even when all else seems lost.  Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The End of the World

The end times are not on my mind because I am anxious about the Mayan calendar running out sometime next month.  I am tuned into this theme because our lectionary text for Sunday focuses on Mark's "Little Apocalypse" (Mark 13:1-8).  In case you are still worried, this text or a version of this text appears every year at this time so don't automatically assume this is a story of things to come.  Our Men's Bible Study asked an important question regarding this lesson.  "If this lesson isn't meant to be used to predict the end of the world, then what does Jesus hope we learn?"

For starters, we have to understand that Mark was written during the Jewish-Roman war (around 65-70 AD, before or after the destruction of the Temple).  Therefore, the first audience of this text might have assumed the world was coming to an end due to war and political unrest.  But what else is new?  Political unrest and war are almost as certain as death and taxes!  Given the state of affairs, this question about end times was on everyone's mind. 

However, Jesus issues a warning to the disciples not to focus to much on these signs.  He further claims that people who are too focused on predicting the end times are most likely false prophets.  Jesus goes on to say that when these signs do appear, we should not be alarmed.  Jesus closes his speak by saying, "This is but the beginning of the brithpangs."

I don't know what birthpangs feel like and will never know (my wife will very shortly-please keep her and Baby Alvey in prayer!).  However, I imagine that it must feel like the end of the world.  There must be the thought of, how can this possibly end well!  In much the same way, political unrest, natural disaster, persecution must feel like the end of the world for all who experience such things and on an individual level such things do mean the end of life in this world.

By using the imagery of birthpangs, Jesus is giving us a clue of things to come.  In most cases, birthpangs lead to new life and joy.  The imagery of birthpangs is an image of hope for the life to come.

If you think about it too hard, you have to wonder, what did Jesus' death and resurrection really change?  We still see political unrest.  We still see natural disasters.  We still see persecution.  So what did Jesus really come to do?  What hope is there of things to come?

Jesus came to reveal the future hope for things to come in the present.  Jesus' resurrection from the grave shows us that with God all things are possible even victory over death.  Jesus did something in this world that was previously thought to have been impossible.  He rose from the dead.

Therefore, the imagery of birthpangs and then ultimately the reality of Christ's victory over death reveal God's final hope for his creation.  God is telling us that when all else seems to be destroyed (temples, cities, people, etc.) there is still reason to hope now and forever because Jesus has achieved the final victory already.

The gift of Jesus gives us reason to continue onward, reason to never give up because the best is still yet to come.  Jesus is teaching us to always be alert and ready for the not yet that is our final hope.  However, we must stay present to the moment and witness to the future hope of things to come today, no matter how dark the scene may seem.