And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Hebrews 9:28
Whenever the story of the widow’s mite comes up in our Sunday lectionary it is always tempting to launch into a stewardship sermon. In the most obvious interpretation of Mark’s account of the poor widow who gave everything she had to God by donating it to the temple seems a morality tale of how one should view tithing to the Church. I am sure there are countless priests and preachers who cannot resist encouraging their parishioners to give sacrificially to the Church…to strive to be like the widow.
I have to admit having served all of my time as a priest in ministry to the poor and the marginalized…those who have been abused by, passed by, failed at or just never quite made it into our competitive economic system it makes me nervous to ask someone to give “everything he or she has to live on” to the Church when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed and an increasingly uncharitable political climate that doesn’t support the idea of an economic safety net for those in need.
Of course, there are many of us who could always give more than we do to the ongoing life of the Church as well as to the outreach ministries, as we try to alleviate some of the sufferings of those dear souls God has given into our care. Everyone knows that the Church like any institution needs money to sustain her work and I believe that if we, the members who actually constitute the body of Christ are diligently and faithfully seeing to the good work God has called us to do those who see those good works and can do so will financially support them. If our worship and our service are offered in spirit and truth God will prosper us in this place and every place where Christ is honored and served with love.
The deeper lesson for all of us, whether poor or otherwise, is that God honors our gifts, especially those given in sacrifice to God or to the greater good. It is easy to give out of one’s abundance but when giving to a good purpose requires a sacrifice of something else….something wanted or perhaps even needed…it calls us to a higher place within our minds and our souls. If that sacrificial gift is given with love and not out of misplaced duty or guilt the gift is even more beneficial to both the giver and the recipient.
Sometimes the gift is given in faith at the moment trusting that God will provide for future need if necessary. We do not know what the widow was thinking when she took her last bit of meal and oil and made the small cake and gave it to Elijah but we do know that she was willing to give her last bit in service to God. In her faith tradition, hospitality to the stranger was of the utmost importance so when this uninvited guest needed to be fed she did not hesitate to give him the very last morsel…the one she intended to be the last meal for her and her son before dying from her poverty. We read that God honored both the widow and Elijah and her meal and oil lasted for many days, enough to feed her and her household and the prophet whom God had sent. Whether one believes in miracles or not the point is that God honored her willingness to share what little she had and rewarded her with the means to sustain her family and to continue her good work of hospitality to the visiting prophet.
In the Gospel story, we do not know what happened in the widow’s life after she put her two mites into the temple treasury. We do not get to see how God’s grace was visited on the faithful woman. Jesus’ lesson for his disciples was in the juxtaposition of his warning to be wary of the scribes and his praise of the widow’s sacrificial gift. He tells his disciples to beware of religious leaders who like to be noticed…who make the signs of their profession large and flashy and who make sure to be seen doing holy things and heard saying holy things all the while greedily filling their own pockets and making a nice life for themselves while the widows and poor who should be their concern are left destitute trying to pay the temple taxes.
When I was in seminary my liturgy professor used to warn those of us who were studying to be priests to be careful that we did not turn our “vocations” into “professions”. Serving God was never supposed to be easy. How could one who has been called to serve the poor and the vulnerable justify living in luxury while working with and for those who struggle to have enough to feed themselves and their children?
Many of us have been given the opportunity to live in relative abundance. How we choose to manage those resources should be informed and directed by our faith in God and our commitment to following the way of Christ. Each of us is accountable to God for the choices we make. I don’t think anyone coming to the end of his or her life ever laments “I wish I had been less charitable.”
I do realize that it is difficult to be a generous and giving person in our current culture. Every day in a thousand ways we are inundated with messages to “buy this or that” to “invest in the future”…to “accumulate” …to “consume’’. We live in a culture that idolizes wealth and encourages greed…where competition is considered better than cooperation and where the goal is to have more than anyone else. We teach our children to be greedy and then wonder why they grow into adults who fight over our coffins for what we leave behind.
We are told to buy what we want even if the man sitting in the pew next to us doesn’t even have what he needs. Some of us have even lost the ability to discern the difference between “need” and “want” so we spend what little we have on frivolous things that we enjoy for the moment and then cannot pay rent…or buy medicine…or keep the lights on. Our global economy functions because people buy and consume…people have jobs because others buy and consume….but what about those people who do not have enough to eat…or clean water…or whose homes are destroyed because someone far away got rich selling the instruments of war and death to those who were only too happy to use them….to gain power…to buy and consume?
The most radical aspect of what Jesus came to teach us is that we do not have to participate in these systems…and if we do participate we do not have to be controlled by them. We can adjust our thinking to prioritize what really matters which then frees us from the bondage of the incessant need to accumulate. We can hold our wealth lightly realizing that none of us will take anything with us when we die and wealth is only as valuable as the good it can do in the lives of God’s children.
What is of true value in your life and how do you treat that which is most precious? If it is your loved ones…your family…your friends…your spouse…your children…your companions…human and otherwise….do you make time to enjoy their company? Do you let them know how dear they are to you? Do you listen when they talk?….are you careful not to hurt them unnecessarily?….are you kind? Do you treat them with respect?
What about God? Where does your relationship with God fall on your list of important things? Do you spend time with your loved ones talking about your faith? Do you pray together? Do you study Holy Scripture together? Does your Christian life extend beyond Sunday morning? Do you look for an opportunity to share your love of Christ with others? Do you look for an opportunity to do good works for the sake of the Gospel?
Jesus never said that wealth was a bad thing but he made it clear that there were other things that were much more important. He also made it clear that it could be a dangerous thing if not kept in the proper perspective. He said it was very difficult for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of heaven….difficult because greed is a subtle demon that can take over before you realize it….difficult because wealth shields us from the suffering of our neighbor which can lead to a lack of compassion and even to cruelty…difficult because wealth distracts us from what really matters…..love… relationships with other people….relationship with God.
Brother and sisters, it is good to be grateful for all of the gifts and blessings that God has given us but we need to always remind ourselves that everything that we have and everything we are belongs to God who created us and loves us. If we honor and nurture this first and most important relationship everything else will be in its proper perspective. It is never too late to reassess one’s priorities and to begin to set things right. Tell your spouse how much you love him or her….take time to check in on that old friend….….turn off the TV and the computer and have a conversation with your child…whether baby or grown… don’t text…talk. Sit in the sun and listen to the birds….if you don’t have birds at your home take a stroll on Grace’s labyrinth in the morning and you will hear birds. Read the Bible….say the morning or evening prayer office….count your blessings …make a list of people who need your prayers and then pray for them. These may seem like small acts but every great change begins with a small act….a turn of the head…a new perspective.
None of us knows how much time we have left but we do know that life is lived forward not backward. You do not have to be bound by what has come before. In Christ, we are continually being made new….new creatures with new ideas…new creatures with love to share and lives to change. It is a new day. Why not try a new way?