Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Promise He Keeps

A Meditation on Mark 12:38-44
Sunday, November 11, 2012

Maybe there’s a widow like this one inside every one of us, some part of you and me that’s lost something precious; some part of us that’s reached the bottom of the well and found it dry, dry, dry; some part of us that knows what it’s like to have nothing left.  Maybe there’s a widow like this one inside every one of us, and that’s why this morning’s gospel seems inescapably personal.  It speaks to you and me, and how we give, and how much we give, and how generous we are with our lives.  This widow’s a lot like you and me.  In her vulnerability, in her poverty perhaps.  She’s living on the edge.  Hanging on for dear life.  And showing up anyway.

And Jesus says, Pay attention.

Because here’s the thing.  At least, here’s my thing.  I can come up with all kinds of excuses, all kinds of reasons why I’m not the one Jesus needs, all kinds of reasons why I’m not gifted enough, or daring enough, or wealthy enough.  You know what I mean?  I’m good with excuses.  I’m an ordinary guy, a mediocre preacher, with all the usual anxieties and a pretty average grasp on my life.  Oh, I’m good with excuses.  I’ve got kids to raise, bills to pay, a job to keep.  A lot of us are good with excuses.  But this gospel, this story, this widow grabs hold and won’t let go.  Shakes us free, I think, of every excuse. 

You’ve heard how it goes.  In the temple precincts of Jerusalem, Jesus is doing what he does, telling stories and teaching crowds.  And in the markets around the temple, he notices scribes, priests, preachers, all looking fine and dressed up proper and turning all kinds of heads.  And Jesus is never one to pass up a teachable moment, right?  So he points out these pastors and preachers, all robed up and convinced of their own importance; and he says to his friends: “Look out!  They wear long robes and they say long prayers.  They get good seats at banquets and all the perks of power.  But look out!  They’re not at all what they seem.”  [Station break!]  Forget Jesus meek and mild.  This is Jesus at his provocative best.  Insisting we take another look at accepted norms and conventional values.  Question everything! 

“So don’t you get sucked in!” he insists.  “They’re in it for ego and recognition, these preachers, they’re in it for privilege and prestige.  And that’ll get them nowhere.  Nowhere fast.”  Now there’s that pregnant pause in Jesus’ teaching, always that pregnant pause as his lesson sinks in, as the dots get connected.  Jesus takes a seat and lets the rest of us think it over.  Now I can’t speak for you—but I can sure identify with this bit about ego and recognition.  I get it all mixed up sometimes, like those scribes in the market place, looking for recognition in my spiritual life and living off the strokes my ego gets, rather than the grace that God gives.

And that’s when Jesus sees the widow come in.  Who knows what her story is?  But it has something to do with loss, right, with her having lost something precious, someone precious.  It has something to do with emptiness and raw vulnerability, with her reaching the end of some kind of line and finding nothing much left.  But this same widow—living on the edge, hanging on for dear life—she comes to the temple that day and opens her purse and her heart and all that’s sacred inside her—and she finds two copper coins, two very small copper coins, and she puts these happily into the treasury. 

Now all around her folks are coming up with more.  All kinds of more.  Big givers tossing in big coins and huge sums and making sure that everyone knows.  Making sure everyone knows who’s calling the shots, who’s got things in control.  You’ve got those Karl Roves out there, those Sheldon Adelsons and George Soros’—and they’re throwing their weight around, tossing their money around.  Playing the game the way players play the game.

But Jesus pulls his disciples in tight, and he says, “Look here!  This poor widow is giving all that she can, all that she is, all that’s in her heart.  The rest are just tossing around sums, looking for extra credit; but this lovely widow is giving everything, offering the true gift of her spirit, all that she has and all that she is.”  Pay attention, Jesus says.  Pay attention.

What I hear Jesus saying this morning is actually pretty simple and shockingly hard to hear: God needs your gift, your life, whatever it is that makes you YOU.  Pretty simple and shockingly hard to hear.  God needs your gift, your life, whatever it is that makes you YOU.  No matter how puny you think it might be.  No matter how insignificant you imagine your life.  No matter how ordinary.  God needs your gift.  Your heart may well be broken.  Your bank account may well be drained dry.  Your confidence may well be shattered.  But the God whose hand holds all history, all evolution, all galaxies, all life:  this God needs and desires and hungers for your gift.  That’s what I hear Jesus saying this morning.  This poor widow—she gets it.  God needs her offering.  The universe needs her two copper coins.  And it’s that way for you and me too.  It’s that way for every one of us.  Your life matters.  Beyond any measure you can imagine.  Your life matters.  So give it away.  Offer it to the universe.  And the universe becomes a better place, a richer place, a sacred place. 


Isn’t it odd that the other story I keep thinking about this week is the story Daoud Nasser told us in worship two weeks ago.  How traveling home late one night in the militarized West Bank, he and his family were pulled over by heavily armed Israeli soldiers.  Anyone remember how that story went?  Anyone remember how Daoud had to think quickly, and patiently, and creatively—to diffuse a confrontation and protect his children and insist on respect from his adversaries?  I keep thinking about Daoud and how he cultivates self-respect and Christian generosity and a fierce hope that refuses to accept cruelty as an answer to the world’s hurt.  Daoud gets it.  Like the widow in Jesus’ story, he gets it.  He knows that God needs him—with all his brokenness, with all his doubt, with all his courage—that God needs him to be some kind of answer to fear and hostility.  He’s not the biggest personality on the Palestinian scene.  And he’s not the most connected and influential peacemaker out there.  And his family lives with the possibility of eviction, on the edge of despair, almost every day.  But Daoud knows that God needs his gift, his life, his witness.  So he gives it all away.  Offers his life to the universe.  And his offering makes his world, our world, a holy place, a better place.     

This morning, I want to call this—what Daoud Nasser embodies, what the widow in our story manifests—I want to call this “evangelical courage.”    Evangelical courage is the courage born in the faith that we are God’s and nothing can change that.  Evangelical courage is the courage born in the love that sees every human being as a beloved child of that same God.  Evangelical courage is the courage Jesus taps into—when he touches the scandalized woman no one else will touch, and when he stands in the way of a mob ready to stone another for adultery, and when he feeds five thousand in the wilderness, and when he forgives his executioners on the cross.

Evangelical courage.  It has to do with trusting God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s vision, in every situation and in every moment of our lives.  If we belong to Jesus, as the old creed says, if we are brothers and sisters in Christ as our UCC insists, then that same courage belongs to us.  Like it belongs to Daoud Nasser.  Like it belongs to the poor widow.  Evangelical courage is our inheritance—yours and mine—in the body of Christ. 


Now the point of this message is not to browbeat you—and it’s not to beg you—and it’s not to guilt trip you into giving more, being more, digging deeper for the kingdom of God.  Haven’t we all had enough of that?!  The point is instead to open up for you the possibility that God needs you exactly as you are, exactly for who you are.  Your own mix of wonder and doubt.  Your special brew of curiosity and compassion.  Your wounds and the tenderness where they scar you.  Are you hearing all this?  The point here is to open up for you the possibility that God needs you exactly as you are, exactly for who you are.  God needs you, and whatever it is that makes you YOU.  No matter how puny you think it might be.  No matter how insignificant you imagine your life.  No matter how ordinary.  God needs your gift.  Your life matters in a way that no other life can. 

Which isn’t to say that the spiritual path is an easy one, or that we can take it for granted and go through the motions.  A couple Hail Marys and everything’s cool.  A ‘thank you Jesus’ on Sunday morning and everything falls into place.  Cherishing your life means taking time to cherish your life.  Appreciating your gift means cultivating gratitude and mindfulness, every minute of every day.  All the way back to the 13th century—the mystic Meister Eckhart said: “The outward work will never be puny if the inward work is great!”  Take that to heart.  Because that’s what today’s teaching is really all about.  “The outward work will never be puny if the inward work is great.” 

I reserve the right to say something entirely different next week—but today, right now, I want to say this.  It really doesn’t matter WHAT you do with your life.  But it matters a lot—HOW you do what you do with your life.  If you’re going to sing songs this week, sing songs with love and passion and gratitude for the music that rises up in your flesh.  If you’re cooking dinner for the homeless tonight, slice every carrot with love, knead every loaf of bread with tenderness, and look every guest in the eye with kindness and respect.  Cherish your life.  Cultivate gratitude.  Celebrate relationships.  Seek peace in all things.  “The outward work will never be puny if the inward work is great.”      

So DO the inward work.  Invest your time, your energy, your heart in the steady work of daily prayer, the quiet disciplines of meditation and mindfulness.  Develop your own capacity to give thanks—for every minute of every hour of every day.  Choose every day to offer your two precious coins BECAUSE they are YOURS, because there are no coins quite like them, and because God needs you and what makes you YOU.  When you do the inward work with gusto and gratitude, the outward work will always be great, never ever insignificant.  And your life will bring light to the darkness, joy to the weary, and peace to the broken.  That’s the promise Jesus makes today.    


So here’s something the think about.  Give some thought this week to evangelical courage: and what that means for you, what it means day to day, what it means in the way you live your life.  Remember that evangelical courage is your inheritance in the body of Christ.  You belong to Jesus, and his spirit belongs to you.

I have a hunch, you see, that situations will arise, and soon, situations calling for this evangelical courage, calling for you to live out of a profound sense of gratitude and compassion.  Something will happen in the neighborhood.  The phone will ring late into the night.  A friend will arrive weeping, broken at your door.  And when she does, you will be there where she needs you to be.  You’ll be the answer to her tender, desperate prayer.  Because you belong to Jesus.  Your heart may well be broken.  Your confidence may indeed be shattered.  But you belong to Jesus; and you will be the answer to her desperate prayer.  That’s evangelical courage. 

For the promise Jesus makes to you is a promise Jesus will keep.  You will be filled with the same peace that made it possible for him to be still on the stormy seas of Galilee.  You will be moved by the same compassion that moved him to feed the hungry and dance among the lost.  You don’t have to muster this evangelical courage all by yourself.  You don’t have to gather all this light, all this joy—and hold on as if it could all be taken from you.  Jesus makes you a promise, a promise of peace, a promise of courage, a promise of love.  And it’s a promise he intends to keep.  Amen.