Homily for Pentecost 23, November 8, 2009
The threat posed by the H1N1 virus has revealed a lot of interesting things. It has brought to mind the sobering reality of serious illness and death. It has revealed cracks and failings in our medical response system. It has revealed the way the media can generate a public response bordering on hysteria. And it has revealed the human instinct for self-interest, as have seen clinics, intended for the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions, being swamped by mostly healthy people jumping the queue.
A Calgary health region manager was fired last week for allowing members of the Calgary Flames hockey team, their families and coaches, to be given the vaccine ahead of people in critical need of it. The firing suggests we don’t want to send the message that certain people like seniors and those with health conditions don’t count! We don’t want to be perceived as thinking, “What are the lives of 30 or 40 old and sick people compared to important people like hockey players?”
One of the things that the Christian Church has taught from the beginning is that there are no Second Class citizens in life. As the early Christians experienced and proclaimed the new life which they called “the kingdom of God,” “koinonia,” and “ekklesia,” it was a life that was big enough to include everyone, including the poor, the elderly, the sick, and even social outcasts like prostitutes and Roman collaborators. A rich person had no more “rights” per se than a poor person. This was a radical way to view things.
Jesus astounded and offended people by suggesting that prostitutes, beggars, people of other faiths, etc. (see Matt. 8: 11,12; Matt.21:31) would enter the kingdom ahead of the people who thought they deserved it, and that people like Roman centurions and Canaanites and divorced people were also deserving of the blessing and mercy of God.
Today’s Gospel is a perfect illustration of Christ’s teaching. Jesus is in the vicinity of the Temple, a huge and impressive institution, constantly busy, crowded with people and animals. As the Gospel says, Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd.” Like any good spiritual guide, he asks his disciples to pay attention to what they are seeing. We all have a “vantage point.” The question is: what do you see from there? Without vision, you look at things and often don’t perceive what’s going on. Jesus gets his disciples to see things they might have just taken for granted as the normal scheme of life: important people like lawyers and religious officials being deferred to, given special treatment, and rich people being applauded for their donations. He saw people obviously enjoying their status, and the fact that other people would have thought they deserved/earned it. We’ve all seen examples of that kind of behaviour, not just from people like lawyers, but also doctors, the wealthy, athletes, and clergy — people who should know better!
But then he gets them to notice something that would normally not catch their attention. He points to an older woman, obviously poor — a widow – someone on her own and therefore without status or income. Ignoring the big hoopla that would accompany a rich person dropping in a cheque that perhaps amounted to one millionth of their total wealth, and wouldn’t be missed, Jesus lets his disciples know this woman is putting in everything she has. It’s only two cents, so who would notice, or think that was a big deal. But it actually represented a much more sacrificial act of faith, than much large donations.
Jesus always seems to reveal what is hidden, so as he gets them to look at the scene before their eyes, she is the one who becomes the truly faithful one in the midst – she is the one people should be looking at, and celebrating, not the blowhards strutting around wearing their robes of office in public, or letting everyone know how big a donation they are making, so that everyone will cater to them.
There are other examples of that kind of approach in the Bible, as in today’s first reading, where Ruth, the unlikely person, a marginal person, a woman, and a foreigner, becomes the hero of the story – the one who is celebrated. The Good News, as Jesus tells it, IS good news partly because it is full of surprises, because it turns things upside down, so that the last are first. The unexpected person, the person you are likely to overlook and not even notice, is often the truly godly figure, while the ones you might expect to be praised are the ones whom Jesus portrays as missing the point, and dwelling in darkness.
But there’s another side to Jesus’ story, that’s often overlooked, which has to do with everyone pulling their weight, and not abdicating responsibility. There are no Second Class citizens in the kingdom, therefore the poor are no less responsible than the rich. Some people, when things aren’t going well for them, begin to see themselves as victims, as though some conspiracy were keeping them down, and so they become angry and bitter and start thinking that the world owes them a living – that they are no longer responsible in any way to do anything for anyone but themselves.
And there is a tendency of the “little ones,” those who perceive themselves as insignificant, to assume that it’s up to the great ones, the important ones, to do all the work, instead of offering their own gifts. “Let them carry the load, they can afford it,” such a person might say. But languishing and doing nothing is a sign of abdication, and a loss of our own autonomy and will – it’s a choice to allow ourselves to be less of a person than we could be. People tend to let themselves off the hook by assuming “THEY” will do something about it, but in the story, the poor widow doesn’t say to herself, “the rich and powerful are the ones who really make a difference, what can I do by comparison.” In just the same way, people can start thinking, “What does my vote matter?” “What can I do?” or “What difference does it make?” Before she sat down at the front of the bus, no one noticed Rosa Parks – she was just a nobody. But her “little” gesture was a catalyst for monumental transformation in American society.
Jesus suggests to us that there is never a point when we don’t have something we can contribute to make the world a better place; no time when we are totally out of the loop, or off the hook, in terms of giving and not just receiving. We are never to think of ourselves as powerless — as victims – because even the poorest have choices and options. Everyone has something to contribute, something to offer. No one is useless, and it feels good to know that you have been part of something you believe in, as the widow obviously did with the Temple.
I think Jesus is pointing his followers toward the realization that even the smallest faithful effort matters, and is necessary, not just for the cause, but for the one doing the giving. You have no doubt encountered people who expect favours but never give any, and they are not a joy to be around. Life is meant to flow through us, not just TO us. The story suggests that generosity is a blessing to US – to those who give. Giving empowers us, so that somehow, by being generous and gracious, we get closer to God, and therefore closer to who we truly are.
If you were playing on a team, and one player was giving 100% effort, while another was giving a tiny fraction of what they could do, how would you feel? Thoreau said that most people die with their music still in them – not ventured, not shared, and so they do not become to the world – to those who encounter them – the gift they are meant to be.
Sacrifice and commitment and duty are words we generally keep on the back burner. Every now and again, like on Remembrance Day, we may recall that, once upon a time, some enormous moment in history was decided because people made sacrifices, or committed themselves to a cause. Of course we lament the tragedy that is war, but we can celebrate the way people responded to such a massive challenge, and we can be thankful for their example, and we can honour them by being stand-up people ourselves – people who can be counted on. It’s good to feel responsible, to care for someone else – ask any parent. It’s good to be part of something and contribute to something you think is important.
I am tired of talking to people who moan and groan about how terrible things are now, as though that gives them an excuse to do nothing. I want to know: what are you choosing to DO about it? When the scriptures say “It is better to give than to receive” they are pointing to something very true. Ultimately the woman in the story is an example of faith, because she trusts that her faithful actions are important, even though small. There is joy and satisfaction in being a contributor. Giving blesses us. Our generosity is the expression of the power of our compassion, and a sign of the reality of our relationship with God. It is a sign of responsibility and maturity to say, “I believe the world could be THIS way, and not so much THAT way,” and DO something about it.
Even in the church, we often try to cater to people by showing what’s in it for them – “Here’s what you get ….” That’s nice (and it’s true in many ways) but it’s backwards. A church is certainly a place where you receive many blessings, but the Church primarily exists to teach you how to be a disciple – how to become a bearer of good news to a broken and disordered world; how to offer yourself in the world as Christ would have you do.
When you look at the life of some beautiful person like Mother Teresa, you could you say to yourself – “Wow, what a caring person! I wish someone like Mother Teresa would take care of ME” or you could say: “I’d like to be more like Mother Teresa?” As Mother Teresa herself said, “Don’t just give until it hurts. Give until it feels good.” That is the spirit of generosity and sacrifice that motivated Jesus, who, setting aside his “special status,” was among us as one who serves.
The lesson of the story of the poor widow seems to be: never stop being a giving person – never stop believing that you not only can make a difference but that you have an obligation to make a difference, and you won’t know what the reward of that will be until you step out in faith and do so!
(The Rev.) Grant Rodgers