(Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Ps. 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)
There are events in our lives that change the way we see things, and therefore change how we live. Sometimes these events, and the changes they cause, are big and obvious, sometimes they’re small and subtle. I’m sure we can all come up with examples of both kinds from our own lives. Certainly a big and obvious event in my life was when our first child was born; and, among the many changes in my life that happened as a result of that, I’m thinking of a relatively small and subtle one. Betty was born in 1986, I’d been living in New York City for thirteen years, and for all those years I’d ridden a bike to get around town. I used to ride my bike fast – not to say recklessly - and this was before you were required by law to wear a helmet (so why bother, right?), and I’d taken my share of spills.
But about a month after Betty was born I stopped riding my bike in the city, for good. And this was mostly because I faced the fact that there was now someone who I was responsible for taking care of and providing for, in some ways for the rest of my life, so I couldn’t be quite so cavalier about staying in one piece. But it was also that as soon as she was born, it was suddenly and surprisingly clear to me that I myself had a new life, that I was seeing new things about the world, and discovering things about myself, every day, doors were flying open. So I decided to get smarter about taking unnecessary risks. It was a new world, and I wanted to stick around.
That kind of life-changing transformation is what Christian faith calls us to: a different way of seeing things, and all the changes in how we live, big and small, that grow out of that. And just as with a new baby, life in Christ is always new, doors are always flying open, and the changes are surprising – sometimes shocking – but always life-giving, and breathing freedom, and joy.
I’m thinking about all this because of something in today’s gospel story, which I’ll get to in a minute; but by the grace of God it was also lifted up in a fresh way in an experience I had last week.
This past Tuesday was one of the Clergy Days the ECCT holds every year. These are little one-day retreats, they do three of them a year, they’re not required, so attendance varies. The program for this one was titled “Grace in an Age of Anxiety” (peculiarly appropriate, as it happened to be Election Day); and evidently that touched a nerve, because the number of clergy attending this one was about 50% higher than usual.
The program leader was a 40-year-old man named David Zahl, who is one of the founders of an organization called Mockingbird. To quote its website, Mockingbird is “a ministry that seeks to connect the Christian faith with the realities of life in fresh and down-to-earth ways” (music to my ears.) They do this by means of various publications, a couple of big conferences they organize every year, and rich online resources they provide through their website. It’s called “Mockingbird” because a mockingbird mimics what it’s heard, and in Christian faith that’s what we do: we repeat the message of God’s grace, of God’s love and forgiveness, that we have heard.
Zahl began by talking about what he called “enoughness”. One of the great sources of anxiety in human life is produced by the belief that we’re not enough: we’re not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, happy enough, successful enough - name your own favorite shortcoming. There’s not much really new in this: longing for “enoughness”: knowing we’re not enough comes with being part of a broken world (Christianity 101). What’s new about it these days is that our current secular culture has abandoned the truth which we have always known in faith: that in fact, of course, we are enough: but that’s not because of who we are; it’s because of who God is.
That knowledge is not part of common currency now, because the credibility, and therefore the relevance, of organized religion, has been collapsing for decades. (And it’s not masochistic to talk this way, it’s common sense, this is the world we live in.) So this is Jack talking now: people have lost their connection with the good news, they don’t go to church, mostly because they have a mistaken understanding of what we’re really doing in here. They think they know, and (whatever that is) they don’t buy it. I’ve told the story many times of my friend who, soon after I was ordained, asked me, Jack, how could you possibly subscribe to a reward and punishment system of belief? Of course I said, I don’t. None of us are here for that. And that certainly has nothing to do with what Jesus was talking about, but that’s the perception. And organized religion does have to accept a large part of the responsibility for allowing that kind of misunderstanding to arise, and to flourish.
One proof that it’s a misunderstanding, a missed connection, is that people are still looking for the same answers which authentic Christian teaching has always provided (like its answer about enoughness); but they’re looking for them elsewhere: in the workplace, on their cellphones, at the health club, in the kitchen. As Zahl says (and he’s right), these places have their own rituals, just as we do here in church. What they don’t have is the mercy; the forgiveness; the grace; which can only come from God. So the transformation into enoughness cannot really happen.
And here’s where we get to today’s gospel story of the widow’s offering. Most people hear this as a story about stewardship. It’s not. Jesus plops himself down across the street from the treasury – the place where people bring their contributions to the temple – and watches as they do that. It’s a well-known observation that Jesus spends more time in the gospels talking about money than anything other single subject in human life, because he knows that how people handle their money – what they do with the value they create – is a good barometer of the life of the spirit. (It’s in the Sermon on the Mount: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.)
So Jesus sits there, watching. He sees rich people putting in lots of money, and then he sees a poor widow put in a couple of coins that amount to one penny; and he calls the disciples over, because this is a teaching moment. He tells them, This woman’s given more than all those rich guys, because they have lots more, but she has nothing, she’s given everything she has. (How does Jesus know this? Just by looking at her. This happens many times in the gospels, it’s one of the things about Jesus that stupefied people, his ability to look at someone and see the whole story.)
Jesus wants the disciples – and us – to look at this woman because she is the epitome of enoughness. Having given away the two coins that were all she had, in the eyes of the world, not only does she not have enough, she has nothing. And she’s a widow, so she doesn’t have the security of a male earner in the house, so there’s no safety net.
What she does have is trust in God’s grace, she has knowledge of God’s goodness and mercy, she knows that it’s infinite. And that it’s all she needs. Jesus sees that her offering is not an expression of poverty, but of wealth: of treasures in heaven. This is a person whose faith has truly transformed her. This is a portrait of true enoughness, which comes only from God., and which God wants us all to know is ours. Thanks be to God.