Proper 6, Year C
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
I once heard a story -- and was told it actually happened -- about a very rich man who was both Christian and deeply religious. He was deeply troubled by the thought of his wealth, as he remembered Jesus' saying that it's harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle (and he also knew, presumably, that there's no such thing as a gate called "The Eye of the Needle," through which a camel get through on its knees if its pack is removed -- that's an invention born of wishful thinking). He decided to do something about it. He redid his will, leaving all of his vast wealth to a single person, the richest person he knew. He didn't want to doom the soul of a poor person by bestowing all of this wealth that could keep him or her from God's kingdom.
This was a very, very silly man.
He wasn't silly to worry about the state of his soul when he was living with such riches in a society in which many don't have enough to eat. That much is a natural and potentially healthy response to reading what Jesus had to say to and about the rich. He was silly in what he thought he was called to do about it. What he did exacerbated rather than diminished the chasm between the rich and the poor, and as I've blogged about before, whenever we're widening such chasms, we can be sure that we're on the wrong side of them.
The Gospel According to Luke emphasizes this particularly, and Luke-Acts strongly and repeatedly condemns behavior widening the divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" in language that should make those of us who live in the wealthiest nations in the world think and pray long and hard about how we might respond. The Christ presented by Luke is no "Buddy Jesus" who just wants you to have the right attitude toward your wealth; he has very strong words about the proper use of it.
Luke-Acts also presents numerous positive examples of Christians who use their resources -- their their power, and their voice as well as their money -- to narrow or bridge those chasms and to further Christ's mission on earth. We get several of them in a single story this Sunday.
And as a bonus, we get several clear affirmations of women's status as disciples of Jesus whose gifts are vital in the life of the community. Let me start at the end of this Sunday's gospel reading with a passage often overlooked by those who think we need noncanonical sources to see women portrayed as leaders in early Christianity. In Luke 8:1-3, we find out quite a few important things in a little bit of text:
One is that it's not appropriate to say "the twelve disciples," as if Jesus only had twelve disciples, all of them male. The opening verses of Luke 8 clearly indicate that Jesus traveled not only with "the twelve" (who don't have any particular function in Luke or Acts other than existing as a group of twelve, thereby symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel and Jesus' authority to reconstitute Israel; other than that, the twelve function as do the other disciples in Jesus' inner circle), but also with other disciples, and a number of those disciples were women. Luke names three -- Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna -- and says there were also "many others."
Another thing we see in this little bit of text is that Jesus' disciples, both men and women, were freed by following Jesus from behaving according to gender roles their culture prescribed for them. Men did not have to act conventionally as males by competing with one another for honor, retaliating when attacked, working in their fathers' trade, or proving their masculinity by sexual conquests or even begetting children. All of that is shocking in Jesus' culture. It may have been even more scandalous, though, for the gospels to commend how Jesus' female disciples behave. It's weird enough in the first-century Mediterranean world for men to adopt an itinerant lifestyle; Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures alike would have held that the family honor demands men staying with their extended family to care for their parents and give them an honorable burial, to protect the honor of the women of the family, and to have sons to carry on the family name. But it's even more weird in the cultures in which Christianity was born for women to travel as Luke depicts. Women traveling without their male kin would be seen as unattached or "loose women"; these women are behaving in a still more shocking manner by traveling with men who are not their kin -- or at least, not by blood or marriage. Furthermore, they are women of means who are deciding for themselves how to spend their money; Jesus' followers have set up a society among themselves in which there are no patriarchs to make such decisions, as all act as sisters and brothers to one another.
That leads to a third thing we observe in this Sunday's gospel: that, especially in light of Jesus' ministry forming all God's people as a single family of sisters and brothers, we are called to make use of our resources in particular ways. We are called to use our resources to care for the poor among us in the human family as for our own flesh and blood, exercising a radical hospitality and generosity with one another. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna are portrayed by Luke as honored patrons of the community of Jesus' followers because they do that, providing for the whole community out of their means. And the woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7 similarly is commended for providing hospitality for Jesus, in contrast to Jesus' supposed host, who is too busy testing Jesus to see whether he is truly an equal to care for him as an honored guest.
Is the radical impact of this passage dulled by Luke's referring to the woman who anoints Jesus as "a sinner" and noting that Jesus' female patrons had been healed by Jesus? I don't think so. Jesus not only announces that the anointing woman has been forgiven (and therefore she is fit for polite society, although she clearly prefers Jesus' company), but he also commends her faith. Similarly, noting that the women who traveled with Jesus and served as patrons to their fellow disciples establishes clearly that they were not traveling with Jesus because some infirmity or impurity forced them out of their homes, but rather they followed Jesus as a matter of choice, a freely given response of to grace. And so their patronage of the community is also a freely given expression of who they are in Christ -- free to follow Jesus, and set in a new family of sisters and brothers who travel with them. In some ways, Queen Jezebel in the book of 1 Kings gets a bad rap; she is only behaving, after all, according to the conventions of this world, in which the rich get richer and the powerful use their power to consolidate their privilege. What's the point of being king if it doesn't mean you get what you want in the kingdom? But the women in this Sunday's gospel know better. They know grace, and so they extend grace to others, a radical expression of their radical freedom as Jesus' followers.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 27, Year B
I try to live with all in Christian charity. Really, I do, with varying (mostly miniscule) levels of success. But the editors of our lectionary are really making it difficult for me this week with where they end the gospel reading. Fortunately they give us impetus in the other readings for this week to think about the gospel differently, but they've given us a selection of verses from Mark to create the perfect collection of readings for "stewardship Sundays," all neatly packaged for sermons suggesting that we should all emulate the widow of this Sunday's gospel, whom Jesus praises so for her generosity. More sermons than not this Sunday, I suspect, will move from that point and use a rather uncritical equation of Temple=church to say that Jesus wants us to give more money to the church, trusting that God will take care of us if only we have the courage to pledge more.
There's one problem with this reading.
Actually, I have to amend that. There are MYRIAD problems with this reading, but let's start with the biggest one:
Where do you see any suggestion at all in the text that Jesus thinks it's a wonderful thing that this poor widow put her last two coppers -- all she had to live on -- in the Temple treasury, going away destitute?
It just isn't there. If anything, the text suggests the opposite. The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in long robes, receive the seats of honor, put on a good show of prayers, and DEVOUR WIDOWS' HOUSES. That last bit is particularly important because of what follows:
Jesus watches a bunch of guys in long robes take a widow's last two coins -- all she has to live on.
Then Jesus says something. What he says boils down to "and just in case you thought I was making stuff up on that point, check out this woman -- she just put literally her last cent, all she had to live on, in the treasury to maintain this lovely building."
But he doesn't stop there, even though our lectionary editors would leave people whose primary exposure to scripture is in Sunday services thinking as much. The conversation continues. Jesus' disciples have the nerve to say, "Yeah, but look at the building! This is glorious!" and Jesus responds with a prediction that it will all be destroyed -- an act that elsewhere in the gospels Jesus attributes to no less of an actor than God.
Note that Jesus did NOT say, "Not one stone will be left on another ... unless you all are as generous as this widow. Now dig deep, people -- this building must be maintained at any cost!" Jesus doesn't criticize or blame the widow for the dynamic here; he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the robed guys collecting the widow's money. That's something to think about when we're all vesting on Sunday morning!
But Jesus doesn't come anywhere close to praising the dynamic of poor people being left with nothing by people claiming to be God's people. Preachers, I beg you not to come anywhere close to suggesting otherwise this Sunday.
Jesus' point here is not to suggest that God's people must never have buildings in which to meet. The earliest Christian communities in Jerusalem met in the Temple courts, after all, and Christians' houses around the first-century Mediterranean provided not only places to meet, but places to house those whose choice to follow Jesus meant that their families tossed them out on the street.
That sharing of resources in which none have too much and all have enough -- sharing celebrated in our reading for this week from 1 Kings -- and not any number of impressive vestments, eloquent prayers, or gorgeous examples of architecture -- is what makes a place holy to the Lord who cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146:8). When the Letter to the Hebrews speaks dismissively of "a sanctuary made by human hands," in contrast to the true one, it does so in that venerable and blessed prophetic critique of religious and political establishments naively assuming or cynically cultivating a belief that the defense of any piece of ground, the maintenance of any building or institution, or the observance of any ceremony could ever justify making more widows and orphans or failing to care for those already among us.
I believe that is the message God is calling us to proclaim on "stewardship Sunday" -- and on stewardship Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday too. I believe that every day is stewardship day, a day to remember "who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them" (Psalm 146:5), and to whom therefore all those things and all they produce belong. It is a day to remember that freely offering back to God all God's gifts to give justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger, freedom to the prisoners and sight to the blind. It is a day to remember, and to act in remembrance of God's grace to us, most especially in sending us Jesus, that those bent down by the world's troubles may be empowered to walk tall.
That, more than any building or any ceremony, is what glorifies God. And when we participate in that process, that mission of God in the world, we come closest to seeing God's glory on earth. There is nothing more exciting, exhilarating, and joyous than that -- nothing on earth more likely to inspire us to cry out:
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
And thanks be to God!
Proper 14, Year C
If you're looking for a comment on the readings for Sunday, August 1st (Proper 13), scroll down! This one's for Sunday, August 8th; I'm publishing it early because I'm about to leave for vacation, and probably won't be on the Internet again until I get back on the night of the 7th (and finish up my sermon for the 8th!).
How many times do we hear or say the words "I know I should ... but my heart's just not in it"?
The gospel reading for August 8th tells us that there's something we can do about that, and it points to one of the best and least-discussed reasons for us to exercise stewardship the way Jesus does -- with generosity that goes far beyond the bounds of what American culture would tend to see as sensible.
It comes in Jesus' saying, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be." It's often misquoted as or misinterpreted to mean the same thing as, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be," but that's not what Jesus says. Jesus says that our hearts follow after our treasure like a dog runs after a stick. How we spend our money determines where our heart will be -- what kind of a person we'll be.
In other words, our stewardship is a means of our formation. We have (and should have) a strong self-interest in treating possessions as Jesus teaches us here -- holding them loosely, selling them to give alms, being generous toward others as God is generous -- because doing so is the best way, if not the only way, to experience that it is God's good pleasure to give the kingdom. Those of us who are most anxious to accumulate enough to shield us from misfortune and pain (as if that were possible!) have the most to gain from giving our "nest eggs" and "rainy day funds" away; when we do, we will finally be able to receive Jesus' word at the opening of this passage: "Do not be afraid."
As long as we rely on our own diligence and what we've accumulated for security, we will never be free from fear; we know too well in our heart of hearts that there are innumerable things in the world that we can't control, no matter how much money we've got. If we wait to be generous until we feel we can afford it, we might wait forever in fear. The solution Jesus advocates is stepping forward in faith, giving our treasure to the poor and knowing our heart will follow.
This is not a "prosperity gospel" that says if you invest your treasure where God's heart is -- in extending God's justice and mercy among the poor -- you'll get that promotion you wanted, and have more money than before. This is an identity gospel -- we choose behave as children of our Father because of who we are, and our hearts follow -- experiencing, as a result of that trust, not only deeper intimacy with God, but also real love in community. When we're all living into God's generosity, we find that when we do have needs, we're part of a family of sisters and brothers in Christ who KNOW who they are, and will express their ties with you as children of one Father by taking care of one another as family do.
That's why I'm glad the gospel for August 8th is read alongside the story of Abraham and the words of the Letter to the Hebrews on Abraham's faith. "Faith," or pistis in Greek, doesn't mean intellectual assent to a proposition; it means something more like "trust" or "allegiance." It's not about what we usually call "belief" so much as it is about relationship. Having faith is not about trying to convince yourself that you are convinced of something. You don't know you have enough faith when the needle doesn't leap on a lie-detector test as you say, "My journey will birth a people, and we will have a home." You know you've got faith when, however your heart pounds as you do it and whatever fears you have, you take the next step forward into the desert. Your heart will follow your feet, and you will become more fully the person God sees as your true identity.
So let's be generous with all of our treasure -- certainly with money, but also with time (I think an even rarer treasure in the communities in which I live and worship!), and energy, and love. Let's do it as if this were our last chance to try it. Where our treasure is says far more about who we think we are, what we think is of eternal importance, and who we want to trust, than anything we say with our lips. Let's speak with our treasure who we are in Christ, and we may find the miracle of Creation repeated, as speech bring worlds into being.
Thanks be to God!