Sunday, November 11, 2012

Proper 27 B - Nov 11, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Julian Mizelle, OHC
Proper 27 B - Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ruth 3: 1-5; 4:13-17
1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

The Public Face of God’s Purpose

Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz
In the past I have been quick to note my puzzlement over the choices of scripture readings our Lectionary makes, but this week I marvel at how they collide with our news headlines. As Americans elected not only a President for a new term, but men and women for Congress, Senators, and officials at every level of our government, scripture speaks prophetically to the Church. Psalm 146, our appointed Psalm for today, (which we chanted at Matins this morning) says “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” I think it very wise for us to remember, on this first Sunday after a national election, that in the entire canon of scripture there is only one reference to God laughing. In Psalm 2:4 God laughs at the pretensions of political power. 

I would like to share with you Walter Brueggemann’s poem titled “Post Election Day.”

You creator God
who has ordered us
in families and communities,
in clans and tribes,
in states and nations.

You creator God
who enacts your governance
in ways overt and
in ways hidden.
You exercise your will for
peace and for justice and for freedom.

We give you thanks for the peaceable order of
our nation and for the chance of choosing—
all the manipulative money notwithstanding.

We pray now for new governance
that your will and purpose may prevail,
that our leaders may have a sense
of justice and goodness,
that we as citizens may care about the
public face of your purpose.

We pray in the name of Jesus who was executed
by the authorities.

I proudly joined with my Brothers this past Tuesday in making a pilgrimage to our local poll to exercise the great freedom of casting my vote. And in doing so I give thanks to all of those who have answered a Godly vocational call to public service; from local school boards to Capital Hill I stand with them all in prayer. But I am also reminded by the Apostle Paul that as a Christian we each hold dual citizenship: we are citizens of this world and we are citizens of heaven. Our very Baptismal Covenant calls us to unconditional allegiance to the Gospel. And in the political arena this calls us to stand for what Walter Brueggemann calls “the public face of God’s purpose.” Our Lectionary readings this morning point us to just that public face of God’s purpose.

Psalm 146 continues in telling us “the Maker of heaven and earth” is biased on behalf of the oppressed: He feeds the hungry, frees prisoners, and heals the blind. He lifts up those who are weighed down, he defends foreigners (and I read that as immigrants), protects the orphans, and sustains the widow. Seven categories of people who each face very different challenges yet hold one thing in common. They each are vulnerable to forces beyond their control. 

If we include today’s assigned reading from 1 Kings (our alternate reading from the OT) our lectionary readings tell the stories of 5 widows. 

The book of Ruth is a story of 3 widows -- the Israelite Naomi who fled Israel to Moab to escape famine and her two immigrant daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. After ten years in Moab, and despite Naomi’s protests, Ruth returned with her to Israel. In Bethlehem, Ruth was the foreigner from an enemy country. She was childless. She was widowed from a mixed marriage. In her culture she was one who had run out of options. Yet she vowed to cling to Naomi, to Naomi’s Hebrew people, and to their God. Ruth secured an economic livelihood for Naomi by gleaning fields among the hired hands. She ingratiated herself to Boaz, the owner of those fields she gleaned. In spite of her status as an “outcast immigrant” all of Bethlehem knew this foreign widow as a “woman of excellence.” 

Our optional reading from 1 Kings tells the story the widow Zarephath who lived at a pivotal juncture in Israel’s history. In Daniel Berrigan’s book, The Kings and Their Gods, he interprets the OT books of 1st and 2nd Kings as self-serving imperial records that portray Israel’s kings as they saw themselves and as they wanted others to see them. The unifying theme running through 1st and 2nd Kings is God favors my regime over your and God hates my enemies. To this end the Kings employ “many pathological means of political retaliation with absolute impunity, military might, revisionist history, manipulation of memory and time, grandiose agendas, economic exploitation, virulent nationalism, sanctioning it all with divine approval, legitimation by religious sycophants.” Sound familiar?

The prophet Elijah was the dissenting voice to this imperial power. But the tactic employed to dissenting voices was to silence them as unpatriotic and seditious. But that didn’t stop Elijah from facing down the political powers of his day. Elijah’s story begins with the widow Zarephath who, at great personal sacrifice, cares for him during a severe drought. This narrative of an alien widow and a Hebrew prophet offering each other mutual care accross nationalistic boundaries assumed such sacred importance in Israel’s story-telling that Jesus Himself repeated the story a 1000 years later. This story occurs in Luke’s gospel but this is the important part--the reaction of the people in the synagogue was one of outrage and furious anger. 

That God cares for widows, and that God’s people should too, is one of the most prominent themes throughout the Bible. The Greek word for widow occurs about 25 times in the New Testament alone. 

The widow in today’s Gospel reading from Mark is nameless. She dared to give an offering to the temple treasury that amounted to a fraction of a penny in the presence of many wealthy benefactors making large donations. But whereas the rich gave out of their convenience and surplus, Jesus said this poor widow has given more than all the others. Can’t Jesus add? Doesn’t Jesus know the value of two copper coins? He absolutely does. But he saw her heart and knew she had given out of her poverty. She put in all she had to live on. It was her grocery money, her rent, her gas money, her little bit of security for all of the necessities of life.

I must be honest with you in that this Gospel story has always caused me to struggle. Every time I read it, its most fundamental message seems to be saying if you really love God, if you have really given your life to God, if you are serious about being a Christ follower you will give up all financial security. I’ve never gone to Church and emptied my bank account. I never put an entire paycheck into the offering plate as it went by trusting that somehow God would work everything out. And since I find the notion of doing so just too fearful this story has always left me feeling that my righteousness is not good enough, my piety falls short. It left me feeling inadequate as a Christian. And herein lies the danger of this text.

So I’m asking some hard questions--does Jesus point to the poor widow who gives her last two coins to the temple as a model for how we should give? Or does Jesus point to her because she is a tragic example of how religious institutions can suck the life out of people? There is also a bit of irony here. If we were to keep reading the narrative of the Gospel of Mark we would read that Jesus walks out of this temple with His disciples and almost immediately tells them that this temple is about to be destroyed. “Not one stone will be left.” This poor widow has given her last cent to a doomed religious institution. The larger narrative of Mark puts Jesus at constant odds with Scribes and Pharisees, with all of temple leadership. And here He condemns them for “devouring widows houses.” The institution of the Jerusalem temple had become perverted. While the leadership leads privileged lives, widows, the poor and vulnerable go unprotected. The teachable moment between Jesus and His disciples is that when the widow dropped her last two coins in the treasury box, temple leaders should have run over and taken those two coins and given them back. Then they should have reached in for a larger sum and said “here, you need this. Let us help you out!” 

It is completely true that the widow gave from her heart. Her gift was far greater than a gift of just two copper coins. She gave the whole of her life. And I beleive that Mark uses the story of this poor widow to point us theologically to the Cross, where Jesus is heading and where He will give the whole of His life. It is also true that the Jerusalem temple represents an unjust system that harmed the very people they were called to serve. Today, this Gospel text calls to you and to me to give the whole of our lives to facing down unjust social, political and economic systems. We are called to give the whole of our lives to stand with the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the blind, prisoners, immigrants, and widows. The national election has finally ended but our call to put the public face of God’s purpose on this world has only just begun. 


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