The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, retired bishop of Alaska and member of the Choctaw nation, shared the following observation on his Facebook page last Wednesday:
I met a man yesterday who had been in prison for twenty-four years for a crime he did not commit. Intentional racism and an indifferent system had condemned him to the violent world of maximum security. And yet he was set free ten years before his release. God found him in prison. God healed him of his rage. God gave him hope. In time, organizations who fight for justice proved him innocent. Now he lives to serve the One who loved him against all the odds. Faith is not the soft sentiment of a suburban soul, but a power stronger than any force on Earth.
A timely reflection on the meaning of freedom in light of this week’s reading from the Book of Acts. This marvelous and vivid story of Paul and Silas in Philippi comes to us in this season of Ascensiontide – the time between the departure of the earthly person of Jesus and the coming of the “power from on high” which is promised in Christ and celebrated at Pentecost. We are hearing a story not only about the early Church, but one about what freedom looks like in the Reign of God.
We live in a country founded on the principals of freedom. Sadly, the concept of freedom often gets misconstrued. You see, there are two types of freedom: “freedom from” and “freedom to.” “Freedom from” is often how freedom is expressed in our culture. This is the kind of freedom wherein we believe we can do whatever we want to and nobody is going to compel us to do what we don’t want to do. Unfortunately, this interpretation of freedom will, when all is said and done, land us in a ditch. Why? Because it is inherently selfish and exploitative – it has no regard for our responsibilities towards others and is destructive. “Freedom to,” conversely, is a different kind of freedom – one which liberates us to be completely authentic and in so doing allows us to live for God and for others. Paul often spoke of this as a paradox: in being a slave to Christ, he experiences ultimate freedom.
Today’s story from Acts is a story about slavery and freedom. And as we hear it unfold again, pay attention to who is really free … it isn’t always who you think it is! Luke’s narrative indicates that he is an eyewitness to the events which unfold through the use of first person pronouns like “we” and “us” and he tells us they went to Philippi “a Roman colony.” This isn’t just any Roman colony – it is the site of a decisive and historic battle between the forces of the Emperor Octavian and Marc Antony and the murderers of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius. With the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian rewarded his senior troops with land in the region. So this was a city full of retired military officers – a “capital ‘R’” Roman colony, if you will where law and order prevail. Paul, Silas and Luke are all headed for the place of prayer when they meet a slave girl with a spirit of divination.
This girl is triply enslaved: she is owned by others who are making a killing off of her fortune telling abilities, she is enslaved by this demonic spirit, and she is female with no rights of her own. Ironically, she speaks a truth: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” It shouldn’t surprise us that demons speak truth about God – Jesus often is called out by demons for who he really is in the Gospel narratives. She says Paul and Silas will “proclaim to you a way of salvation” – in Greek the word for salvation, sozo, has another meaning: to be healed. But after a few days of having this girl being a walking advertisement for them, Paul gets annoyed and performs an exorcism. The girl is freed from the captivity of the demon. She is healed … but there is a price.
The girl’s owners, seeing that their business interests had been compromised, seize Paul and Silas and appeal to the governmental authorities over the loss of their profits (hmmm … government and business in collusion … doesn’t that sound remarkably contemporary!). The girl’s owners portray Paul and Silas as foreigners, outsiders, whose customs are unlawful and, by extension, contemptuous. They whip the crowd into a frenzy of xenophobic hatred and the magistrates have Paul and Silas flogged (remember that … there’s a twist coming later!). Paul and Silas are then thrown into the innermost chamber of the prison and locked in shackles.
By all accounts, our protagonists are prisoners … but are they really? While their outward appearance is that of imprisonment, their inward spirits are anything but shackled! Paul and Silas spend their time singing praises to God – not laments for how poorly they are being treated. The other prisoners and the jailer too are listening to Paul and Silas as they sing and pray. And then an earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison, opens the doors of the cells and breaks the chains of those imprisoned. The jailer, who up until this point appears to be in a state of freedom, draws his sword to kill himself as this was the only honorable thing to do. Evidently, he isn’t as free as we think. He too is enslaved by a system which would demand his life for a career failure.
At this point, the tables are turned. Paul and Silas, who outwardly appear imprisoned, do nothing to save their own skin and escape. If they had bought into the idea of “freedom from,” they would have booked it out of there! But they didn’t. They knew what “freedom to” meant – it meant that they were there for the jailer’s salvation too. They stay put, and we can surmise the other prisoners do too. The jailer, shocked that the prisoners would act this way, asks what he must do to be saved. Perhaps in that moment, the jailer realizes he is imprisoned by the oppression of Rome too. Paul and Silas tell him to believe on the Lord Jesus and he and his household will be saved. Notice it isn’t just the jailer, but also his whole household who will be saved. Paul and Silas have offered an exit ramp, an “opt-out” if you will, to a system which enslaves and oppresses this jailer and his whole household. The jailer, in a remarkable transformation, brings Paul and Silas to his home and tends their wounds. He and his household are baptized and all share a meal together and are rejoicing in their newfound freedom as believers in Christ.
But the story really doesn’t end there (yes, I think the revised common lectionary ended this way too soon!). Luke goes on to tell us:
When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.
Now the shock value of these passages isn’t always clear to the contemporary listener. The magistrates send the police in to quietly let Paul, Silas and Luke go free. Paul not only points out the injustice of being punished in public but dismissed in private, but he also states (for the first time in Acts) that he and Silas are Roman citizens. This is HUGE!! Roman law forbade the public flogging of Roman citizens! So who is the prisoner now? I suggest it’s the magistrates who, having given into the xenophobic, mob mentality of the crowd, violated their own laws by not checking on Paul and Silas’ immigration status. Paul and his companions are now, in a great reversal of fortune, demanding a personal apology from the authorities and a personal escort out of the prison … and they’re not leaving until they get it. Talk about non-violent resistance! Don’t you just love this??!! And … they get it! The magistrates come and make a personal apology and then they are politely asked … asked mind you … to leave the city. But, not so fast, before they depart Philippi, they go to visit Lydia one more time – they will leave the city when they are ready and not before!
This story is a reminder that for Christians, freedom isn’t a matter of outward circumstances as much as it is a matter of spiritual disposition. For Paul, Silas and the man Bishop Charleston speaks of, it is about God in Christ finding them and setting them free from the things of this world which bind and oppress them. All of us face powers in the world and in our lives which can enslave us. We can be held captive by racism, sexism, homophobia, economic forces, self-loathing over any number of issues, addictions of all types, immigration status … the list goes on and on. But the message of this story from Acts is that God in Christ is giving us an exit ramp – a way out – of all which subjugates us. In baptism, we are set free to live for Christ by living for others. It is a radically alternate reality where God finds us, heals us, and gives us hope. And in being liberated, we have the freedom to serve the One who loves us against all the odds.
Language is a terrible way to communicate … but, unfortunately, we’re stuck with it. We humans are built with an innate need to be in relationship and find connections with each other. We do this by communicating and this largely involves the use of language. But without a foundation of shared experience between two people, it is difficult to communicate an experience to another person. Let me give you an illustration: my husband and I spent time together in Germany, specifically in Bavaria. We have spent time together in my ancestral home of Nurnburg. Because we have a shared experience of that place, if I say “Lebkuchen” to my husband … he knows exactly what that experience is. Now some of you know what Lebkuchen is, but unless you’ve been in the Marktplatz in Nurnburg and eaten Nurnburger Lebkuchen … well, you haven’t had the real deal! Now, if Stuart or I were to try and explain to any of you who have not been in the Marktplatz in Nurnburg and eaten Nurnburger Lebkuchen … well … it is hard to explain. I can tell you what ingredients are in that cookie and you might be able to approximate the taste from your own memory of the ingredients or perhaps from having eaten something similar your grandmother made … but it just isn’t the same thing as being in the Nurnburger Marktplatz and eating Lebkuchen.
Now if language fails us in something so simple as communicating the experience of eating a food in a particular place, just imagine how it fails us when we are talking about the things of the Divine realm! Mystical experiences are downright impossible to transmit in the limited sphere of language. And when we grasp that, we can better understand why some of our Bible stories sound … well … weird. Today’s readings about the ascension of Jesus are just that – weird! Luke, who wrote both the gospel bearing his name and the second volume follow up we call the Book of Acts, is doing his level best to tell us about something mystical in the Divine realm and he’s hamstrung by the limits of language. The gospels of Luke and Matthew all end with Jesus giving a final discourse and John tells of Jesus in conversation with Peter; however, only Luke specifically mentions Jesus’ physical departure. And he uses the imagery which he derives from his Jewish heritage especially the image of Elijah being taken up bodily into heaven by a whirlwind. While we don’t get the whirlwind in this story, we hear he “was carried up into heaven” … and the passive voice reminds us God is behind this action. Of course this has given us all kinds of artistic images of the disciples looking up and Jesus floating away from them.
Former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, remarked upon how we have come to view the Ascension this way:
"Many western Christians have been embarrassed about the Ascension over the years, because they have thought of heaven and earth in the wrong way. We have supposed that the first-century Christians thought of ‘heaven’ as a place up in the sky, within our space-time universe, and that they imagined Jesus as a kind of primitive space-traveler heading upwards to sit beside God somewhere a few miles away up in the sky. And we have told ourselves this story about the early Christians within an implicit modernist framework in which God and the world are in any case a long way away from one another, so that if Jesus has gone to be with God – whatever that means – we understand that he has left us behind, that he is now far away in another dimension altogether. And we have then thought that the point of this story is that we, too, will one day go off to this same place called ‘heaven’, leaving earth behind for good. But this way of understanding the Ascension is, quite simply, wrong on all counts." (“Spirit of Truth” – Rt. Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright, preached Pentecost, 2007 in Durham Cathedral).
This image of Jesus “flying off into ‘heaven’” in conjunction with dispensationalist rapture theology so endemic to our American culture presses upon our deepest anxiety that the disciples, and by extension we, have somehow been abandoned by the Lord and our job now is just to hang out until we can evacuate the planet too. But is that really what Luke is trying to say?
If we take seriously what Luke tells us about the disciple’s response to this event, it seems that abandonment is not what’s happening here. They are not grieving or depressed over this event. Not at all! They went back to Jerusalem rejoicing and were in the temple praising God. Clearly, Luke wants us to know the disciples experienced this event as one of rejoicing and expectation. This is not a replay of the crucifixion. It appears that what Luke is attempting to convey within the limitations of language is that the relationship between the disciples and Jesus had fundamentally changed – it had been transformed. Jesus, the flesh and blood human being who had embodied the fullness of God, was no longer going to be here as he had been. Jesus departed but Christ did not.
We sometimes forget that “Christ” isn’t Jesus’ last name. We would be more accurate to call him Jesus, the Christ. And it is important to make the distinction between Christ, who is a member of the Trinity (yet another mystery where words fail us … come back in a couple of weeks and we’ll talk about that one!) and Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth, the human being who lived in a particular place and time in history. The two are not the same! While they intersected in a particular time and place for a purpose, they are not the same. Christ has always been and always will be. Jesus embodied the Christ for a few brief years in a mystical act of God which bound the created to the Creator through a profoundly redemptive act. And just because Jesus, the historical human being, is no longer with us in the same way he was with his disciples after the resurrection, Christ is still with us, working among us and through us.
This is why we continue to proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again … which is what is depicted in this painting by one of our recently confirmed members, Lee Falk. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again (in Latin in the painting) is the affirmation that the ascension of Jesus has not changed the presence of the Christ among us. We see three verbs in three tenses. Christ has died recalls the historic past event of his death. Christ is risen proclaims the current and continuing reality of the resurrection. Christ will come again is a promise of the future realization of the fullness of the Reign of God to come. In this acclamation, past, present and future collide … perhaps even collapse … into the present – right now. I have heard it said that the definition of eternity is “now” – no past to regret, no future to obsess over – just now. And Christ is present … right here … right now. Contrary to our collective anxiety or just downright bad theology, the ascension of Jesus is Luke’s way of reminding us that while Jesus will not be with us bodily, Christ hasn’t gone anywhere. Christ is still with the disciples. Christ is still with us. And power from “on high” is coming.
“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John echo the words we heard last week from Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter and our lectionary text is foreshadowing Jesus’ departure on Ascension Day followed by the celebration of Pentecost when the promised Advocate makes a rather dramatic appearance to the disciples and indeed all of Jerusalem. Today is also Rogation Sunday which, in the Anglican world, is our ecclesial version of Earth Day. Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare meaning “to ask” and it is a time when we ask God’s blessing on the soil and seeds and the crops to come from them. Originally, the major Rogation Day celebrated in the western Church was April 25th – three days after the much later secular celebration of Earth Day was instituted. Coincidence? I think not. But today, we celebrate Rogation Sunday as the Sixth Sunday of Easter and the season of Rogationtide extends from now through this Wednesday.
The impending departure of Jesus in the ascension may seem incongruous with Rogationtide at first glance. But in pondering these two things in my scattered and slightly ADD mind, I do believe there is a connection between the two and it coheres with our popular obsession with the eschaton – the end of all time. We Americans are fascinated the end of all things. We know, at some point, it will happen. Scientists tell us that at some future time, our planet and galaxy and sun will cease to exist. Some believe it will be the explosion of the sun while others surmise it will come as a result of a wandering black hole. But more colorfully, our scriptures speak of a time when all things as we know them today will come to an end – and some corners of Christianity have raised this specter to an art form. I am, of course, speaking of what’s known as “rapture theology.” Many of you have heard of the “rapture” and it has captured our cultural imagination through Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series of books which have been made into movies. Essentially, it is a reknitting of a handful of scripture texts from Revelation, the prophecies of Daniel, and one particular verse from 1st Thessalonians about how those who are alive will be “caught up in the clouds together with them [those who have already died] to meet the Lord in the air.” Taking these texts together (and especially putting emphasis on the last one), people like John Nelson Darby and Edward Irving developed the idea of Dispensationalism wherein the belief that Christ would come again to take up the believers in the Church into heaven and then leave for a 1,000 period of tribulation where Satan would rule the earth, and then come back again at the end of the tribulation to take those who are “true believers” and cast into the lake of fire those who do not believe. Interestingly, the concept of the “rapture” does not appear in any serious biblical scholarship until the 1830’s. In the grand scope of Biblical scholarship and tradition, it is a new innovation.
And … it is wrong. It is heresy! “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again … and then leave … and then come again” is NOT what we proclaim as the Church. Much of what has been reinterpreted as the rapture are verses we historically associate with the resurrection of the righteous. And even the resurrection of the righteous is not some sort of celestial evacuation plan. God has not and will not abandon the earth! Let’s go back to the Gospel: Jesus says, “we will come to them and make our home with them.” The vision of John tells of the New Jerusalem says it will come to us – we will not be taken to it. The Church has historically taught that the resurrection will be for all of creation – not just people … all of creation. There will be a new heaven and a new earth – God is redeeming all of this because God loves all of this.
This is where Rogationtide fits into our readings. One of the dangers of rapture theology is a rejection of the care of creation. In a twisted logic, there are some who posit that we do not need to care for the earth because if we trash the planet and make it unsustainable, it doesn’t matter. Since God loves us and a loving God will not allow us to live on an unsustainable planet, destroying the earth will actually bring about the second coming of Christ sooner. Now there are all sorts of problems with this thinking not the least of which is we have lots of evidence that God allows us to live with the tragic consequences of our actions and does not swoop in to rescue us from our own stupidity. Trashing the planet to trigger the second coming is putting the Lord our God to the test … and testing God is consistently condemned in scripture. Instead, our readings today remind us that the home of God is with us – with mortals. God has not given up on us or the creation God made and loves. We are called to care for the earth and all of its creatures. When we are baptized, we renounce the sinful view of creation as something to be exploited and consumed for our pleasure and we affirm our God-given role as stewards of God’s good creation. It’s stewardship! And this radical view of our role in the care of creation shapes our choices because we are God’s people and God in Christ isn’t giving up on us or the earth. We don’t recycle because it’s a nice thing to do – we do it because it’s how we honor God and God’s creation. We don’t conserve electricity just because we save some money. We conserve electricity because it lowers the pollution levels in God’s creation and saves the lungs of God’s people. We support sustainability not just because it’s a neat idea but because we are called to care for God’s creation and God’s people.
In the Gospel reading Jesus says, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’” Going away yet also, simultaneously, coming to you. Admittedly, this makes no rational sense whatsoever. But in the life of faith, rationality is wayyyy overrated! Jesus’ words are a paradox designed to get us beyond our rational brains. While he will not be with the disciples in the same way, he has promised the Advocate will be coming to remind them of everything. This early hint at the mystery of the Trinity – that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one and yet distinct – is a way of saying that Jesus the Christ not only will leave the disciples but will be with them in a new and transformed way. Those who subscribe to rapture theology focus only on the going away part which preys upon our anxieties of abandonment and attempts to impress us with fearful images of what being “left behind” would look like. They neglect the second part of this sentence: that Christ simultaneously is coming to us and has promised that he and the Father will come to us and make their home with us. Rather than fear the end of all things and reject the creation which God loves, we are called to heed Christ’s command to love one another and, by extension, to love the creation which God loves. And so on this Rogation Sunday, we do well to live in the hope of the resurrection, the confidence that we are not orphaned or left behind in any way, and trust that God in Christ has come to us to make his home with us.
I had a strange experience this past Friday night. I was all alone with nothing to do. I’ve spent 24 years married and 18 of those raising kids. I can’t remember what it’s like to be alone with nothing to do! Thankfully, I got over it when I remembered that I had some movies dialed up on Netflix that I hadn’t yet seen … you know, the kinds that don’t have the words “Disney” and “Pixar” on them. Remember, I’ve been a mom for a looong time!
So I sat down to watch an older film I hadn’t yet seen. No, not the Battleship Potemkin … I saw that one in college. I watched Cry, the Beloved Country. Many of you have probably already seen it (like I said, I’m a little behind), but for those of you who haven’t it is the story of two men living in South Africa in the 1940’s. Richard Harris plays a wealthy, European landholder who lives in the rural Natal Province. James Earl Jones plays an Anglican priest living in the same region. Both have sons and both sons leave their fathers to journey to a far country: Johannesburg. Both sons reject the ways of their fathers. The wealthy son of privilege rejects his father’s bigotry and imperialism to work for racial reconciliation. The son of the Anglican priest rejects his father’s Christian morals and becomes a petty criminal. The father’s stories intersect when the son of the Anglican priest kills the landholder’s son. It was rather ironic to think I was watching this knowing the gospel reading was on the Prodigal Son this week! No coincidences in the Kingdom, are there?
In a scene near the end of the film, after the son of the Anglican priest is convicted of murder, the older priest confides in his priest colleague who has helped him in his search for lost family members in Johannesburg. The old priest tells his friend that if there is no mercy for his son and he is to die for this crime, he will go up to the mountain to pray. He then reveals he’s only done this twice in his life: once when his son Absalom was ill as a young boy and once when he was tempted to commit adultery. The old priest then says, “I have never confessed that to anyone before.”
Confession: the laying bare of the truth of our lives. It is a sacrament of the Church and at Grace it becomes quite prominent during Lent as we open our worship with the Penitential Order
“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.”
OK, I know you are thinking, “Wait a minute. I don’t remember that last line.” That’s right, you don’t. It was part of the original prayer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote in 1552 and it was in the prayer up until the 1979 revision when it was stricken. Call me “old school,” but I think we are the poorer for it being removed. There is no health in us. We are for all intents and purposes … dead. And death is at the heart of the story of the Prodigal Son.
Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon calls the parable of the Prodigal Son a “festival of death.” What a juxtaposition of words! He notes that everyone, with the exception of the older brother, dies in this story – at least figuratively. It opens with the death of the father. “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.” Arrogant little twit, isn’t he? Even today we bristle at the impudence of this son. He essentially says, “Put the will into effect right now and drop dead old man.” And the amazing thing is … the father does it. He divides his property – in Greek his “bios” (from which we get the word “biology”) which means “life” – between them. He cuts himself in two and pours his life out … and drops dead (at least socially). Both sons receive their inheritance – the older getting his two thirds share and the younger his one third according to the law.
The younger one then journeys to a far country where he squanders his property in dissolute living. Translations vary on this: profligate living, dissolute living, riotous living. But Luke is speaking about much more than blowing the cash. He says the son squandered his ouisias – his substance. He wasted his substance – he wasted himself: physically, emotionally, spiritually … and the money ran out. Oh I’m sure he had a grand old time: booze, broads, gambling … whatever vices you can imagine, they haven’t really changed in 2,000 years. He wastes himself and hits, in the parlance of addiction and recovery, rock bottom. A famine comes on the land and he is reduced to taking a job slopping hogs. For a nice Jewish boy, this is as low as you can go! His life, whatever he may have tried to make of it, was over. He was dead. And he figures this out as he eyes up the hog slop and thinks, “Hey, I could eat that.” He comes to himself – he wises up – and realizes his father’s hired hands have plenty to eat. He knows he can’t return and expect to be treated like a son, so he cooks up a plan. He’ll try to wangle his way in as a hired hand. Maybe the old boy will fall for it. He even comes up with his line: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
But as he returns, the stench of the pig sty still clinging to his body, his father sees him and runs to greet him. How scandalous! No self-respecting father would do that to a son who had dissed him so badly. But wait … the father is dead. He doesn’t care about appearances! All he cares about is extravagant love … a love that can only be set free when we admit we are dead. The father throws his arms around his son and the son then dies on the spot. He says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Period. Full stop. End of sentence. No more conniving. No more games. He’s dead and he knows it. That is confession!
Confession is the admission we are dead and no effort on our part can save us. Confession is not an apology. Too often there is confusion about this. If your confession prayer consists of a litany of all your personal peccadillos and screw ups only to find that next week, your list is about the same as it was last week, then you are stuck in apology mode. Confession is when we say, “Almighty God, I am dead as evidenced by …” and then fill in the blank with those things done and left undone. When we admit we are dead, and only when we admit it, can God’s grace ever have a chance of entering our lives. If we don’t admit we are dead, we’ll never let the grace in because we think we can do life on our terms. Once you admit you are dead and God’s grace enters your life, then and only then can real healing begin, real reconciliation happen and real love be set free. It’s only then when the real celebration – the party – can begin.
So now we have a dead father, a dead younger son, a dead fatted calf, and a big old party going on. Then … cue the music … in walks the older son. Captain Buzzkill himself reporting for duty! This son hasn’t figured out he’s dead. And is he ticked off! He’s been the dutiful son, the one who played by the rules. He has a whole balance sheet of debits and credits. If there’s a “brownie point” system, he’s got it. And the favor shown to this younger son really burns his backside. You see, he wants to keep score. And before we admit we are dead, we want to keep score too. We’ll keep our own balance sheet of who wronged us and how we’re going to get even, won’t we? But the father, after getting the upbraiding by his older son, says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life …” Your brother has dropped dead and come to the party. He leaves us wondering whether or not the older son will drop dead too. Drop dead to an egocentric life of score keeping and resentments. Drop dead so that he can truly live. Will he drop dead? More importantly … will you … drop … dead?
Is it just me, or are there times you just want to put a question mark after the Gospel proclamation: “The Gospel of the Lord??” Or even after the responsorial: “Praise to you Lord Christ??” Today is one of those Gospel readings. Blood mingled with pagan sacrifices, towers falling on people, cutting down fruit trees. Not the stuff of comfort to be sure.
This is one of those “hard readings” of the Gospel where judgment and wrath seem to be forefront. But the problem with this reading is we are stepping into the middle of a conversation which begins way back at Luke 12.1. Jesus is traveling towards Jerusalem and there is an ongoing conversation happening. Jesus is giving a long talk punctuated by a series of parables and teachings. He starts out with parables and teachings relevant to the current times: Parable of the rich fool, anxieties about earthly things, storing treasures in heaven. But then he moves on to talking about reading the signs of the times and necessity to repent or perish in preparation for the end times. He then closes this discourse with the parable of the fig tree. Repentance is a recurring theme in Luke’s gospel – he talks about it more than any other gospel writer. Repentance, in the Greek, means to “turn around” – to pull a “180” so to speak. It is the process by which we turn and return to God.
The crowd tells Jesus of some Galileans who were killed by Pilate and their blood was mingled with pagan sacrifices. In an honor/shame society, this was a really good way to shame one’s enemies. Jesus in his response essentially says that these people were no worse sinners than anyone else (including his audience). He even offers up another shocking example of 18 people killed when a tower fell on them (sounds like something out of a tabloid newspaper, doesn’t it?). He says their sins are no worse than that of others. In these two examples, Jesus essentially tells them that sin is a universal condition and tragedies happen. And we know that sin can be the cause of tragedy and suffering. But Jesus does break the connection between tragedies and punishments. These tragedies were not a punishment by God on these people.
What is curious, and I confess I don’t really know where Jesus is going with this, is his linking these instances to repentance: “But unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” It almost sounds like Jesus is dangling a carrot with some divine cause and effect – if you repent, you won’t perish as they did. Now we know from our experience this doesn’t make any sense. We know all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We also know that tragedies strike whether one repents or not. I confess I’m not clear at all about this link Jesus appears to be making, but I cannot accept it as some quid pro quo transactional theology.
We do know there will be a time of judgment when God will establish perfect justice – a time when all things will be set right. There is both some comfort and disquietude about this. While we long for God’s perfect justice and trust it will set creation right, we also live with the discomfort of knowing our actions, especially how we treat each other and creation, will be judged. Jesus may well be using the example of these tragedies to remind his hearers that judgment will come and since they are still alive, they have the opportunity to repent and turn back to God – unlike those who have already died.
Jesus’ call to repentance is a reminder that repenting, turning around, is a lifelong and constant process. It is not a one time “repent or perish” idea. Instead, it is a day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute thing. The way the verb repent appears in the Greek implies it is not a sure thing that we will repent, but if we do, it needs to be an ongoing action – a lifestyle of repentance. We must keep turning back to God continuously because we are so good at continuously turning away from God!
All of this leads up to the parable of the barren fig tree which ends this commentary on sin, tragedy and repentance on a note of grace. A vineyard owner plants a fig tree and comes to look for figs and finds none. He unloads on the gardener about how he’s come looking for figs for three years and finds none: “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The gardener replies by begging for one more year. He asks for time to work the soil and fertilize it and then see if it will bear fruit. If it does, well and fine; if it does not, then cut it down.
It is tempting to allegorize this story and assign roles to the characters. Often we cast God in the “owner” role and Jesus in the “gardener” role; however, I’m not so sure that Jesus needs to protect the “fig tree” (whatever it represents) from an angry God who wants to give up on it.
I come from a land where fig trees grow. Now I’m no expert on them by any means, but I do know it takes 4-5 years for a fig tree to produce fruit. It strikes me as odd that the landowner would be so impatient. After all, he is also a vineyard owner and grape vines take 5-7 years to produce fruit. This guy should have patience written all over him! Instead, he condemns the poor fig tree before it has a chance … “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”
So, rather than cast the landowner as God … let’s pick this parable up and turn it around and look at it from another angle, shall we? Perhaps the impatient landowner … is us – humanity. Are we impatient? I know I am! The fig tree can be any situation or relationship which we expect to bear fruit. And don’t we sometimes get impatient about that? Especially when the relationships or situations are complicated or messy? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying that one should stay involved in a destructive relationship or situation at all. Sometimes cutting it down – ending something which is death dealing – is exactly what we need to do. But there are those times when cutting the fig tree down is not called for … at least not yet.
God in Christ, as the gardener, may be asking our patience with the situation or relationship. Let God dig around the roots, bring the nourishment of prayer and sacraments, and give it some time to see if this fig tree will bear fruit. If it does, well and good; if not, then you can cut it down.
There is a reminder in the parable that there will be a time of judgment – a time when cutting down a barren tree is the best option. Your fig tree may be a relationship that needs to end. It may be a toxic family you need to walk away from to move on and live your life fully. It may be a job situation which has grown intolerable and is not improving. There are plenty of examples of situations which will not bear fruit – at least not the fruit of the Spirit which brings life. However, the parable reminds us not to act in haste and be attentive to God’s leading and timing rather than our own anxiety and impatience.
A lifestyle of repentance and patience – day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute – is one which leads back to God. It is the means whereby we become open to God nourishment of our souls that we might bear the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.
The Feast of Epiphany gives us a moment to pause and look both forward and back. As we look back, it’s fitting to ask ourselves, “What do we know about the Christmas story?” Now, if you’re reaction to that question is, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” that’s not the Christmas story I’m talking about. It would be more accurate to say, “What do we know about the Christmas stories?” because there are two distinctly different narratives in Luke and Matthew.
In truth, we are most familiar with Luke as he gives us a much more elaborate telling. We begin with Zechariah learning that his barren wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby. He’s so surprised he’s struck dumb and cannot speak. Then the angel Gabriel from heaven came, and tells Mary she’ll be having a baby and drops the dime on the whole Elizabeth being pregnant thing. Mary goes to see Elizabeth whose baby leaps in her womb and exclaims “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior” etc., etc. Then Mary returns to Nazareth and there’s this whole botched government census that sends them to Bethlehem where there’s no room at the inn. Mary gives birth in a barn and lays Jesus in the feeding trough. Then the angels we have heard on high come singing sweetly through the night to some shepherds who go to see this wondrous sight. And Mary keeps all these things and ponders them in her heart.
Luke is telling a story for a largely Gentile audience and fills his narrative with all kinds of heartwarming familial encounters. If Luke is the Leave It To Beaver kind of story, Matthew is more like Dark Shadows. Matthew’s telling isn’t a heartwarming story at all. Matthew crafts his narrative for a dominantly Jewish audience and is concerned with convincing them of why Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecy. His story is much more spartan, more dark and even more sinister. After giving us the genealogy of Jesus and his Davidic heritage, we hear that Joseph learns about Mary’s pregnancy and vows to divorce her. Now angels in Matthew’s story communicate not by showing up in fields like in Luke, but in dreams – and especially to Joseph who, like his ancestor in Genesis, interprets his dreams. Joseph sees an angel in a dream who tells him not to be afraid and to take Mary as his wife, and so he does. Then Jesus is born and wise men come from the east inquiring of Herod about a new king. They are directed to Bethlehem by the religious leaders where they find Jesus at home with his mother. They give their gifts and, again in dreams, receive an angelic message not to return to Herod but to leave by another way. Herod, in turn, finds out he’s been duped and orders the execution of all children under the age of two in Bethlehem. Once again, angels warn Joseph to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt to escape. In the first two chapters, Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfills prophecies from Micah, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah – all to make the case to his Jewish audience – but it is a much darker story with lots of fear, violence and exile.
So now it’s time for a pop quiz: How many wise men were there? Was it A) Zero, because if they really were “wise” they would have brought more practical gifts like casseroles and diapers; B) Three, because we all know that from the “rubber cigar” carol; C) 42, because that is the answer to life, the universe and everything; or D) we have no clue! OK … I know I planted the “rubber cigar” carol in your heads, but the answer isn’t three. There were three gifts but we can’t assume three people brought them. And while both zero and 42 are amusing answers, the answer really is D … we don’t know. Matthew just says “wise men” came from the east. We really don’t even know if they were exclusively men. The word magoi in Greek is the plural of magos which is a masculine noun; however, just because a noun is masculine does not imply that the subjects being spoken of were exclusively male. This word “magoi” gets Anglicized into “magi” in some translations, from which we get the words “magic” and “magician.” This word does not mean “kings” in any sense (even though you still have the “rubber cigar” carol running through your head). Our Western ideal of casting them as “kings” comes from a much later tradition and, I daresay, one which trended towards trying to romanticize the Matthean text – perhaps to soften the darkness of the story. This word “magoi” which gets translated “wise men” really carries a more negative connotation to a Jewish hearer of this story. Magi were astrologers and fortune tellers – gypsies, tramps and thieves to borrow Cher’s old song. They were foreigners and of a shady and questionable kind. They engaged in soothsaying, which was specifically prohibited by Jewish law. The other references to “magos” in the New Testament comes from the Book of Acts and they are not flattering at all (Peter calls one of them a “child of the devil”). The shady foreigners bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – very expensive gifts and, one might wonder, by what ill-gotten gains had these soothsayers acquired such wealth?
To me, the magi and their gifts appear tell us something of what it means to bring our gifts to the Christ child. It’s tempting to concentrate on the expensive and flashy gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh as representative of bringing the best of ourselves to lay before the Christ child. But in my experience, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Our human temptation is to polish the apple and bring the best of ourselves – all the respectable parts – to lay before our Lord. We’d really rather not lay before him the messy bits, would we? Like Adam and Eve, we hide in the garden and hope that God doesn’t figure out we’re naked. Each of us has things we’d really rather not lay before the Christ child – messy and ugly bits of our lives. We’d rather not give Christ our brokenness, our illness, our impatience, our ingratitude, our weakness, our addictions, our dishonesty, our sin. No, we’d rather hold onto that and try to hide it – regardless of how futile hiding it is!
But let’s remember the Magi. They brought themselves – even though their ways were anathema to the Jews and looked down upon. They didn’t just bring spiffy gifts, they brought themselves and all their messiness – all the stuff a pious Jew would have rejected. And this is the mystery of the incarnational gospel: that God doesn’t just want what we think is our best, God wants all the messy bits too! In fact, as Dame Julian of Norwich rightly pointed out, God wants to love us completely, sins and all, because without our sins God would not have had to become one of us.
But this is scary stuff. We are often duped into believing in the God who’s just waiting there to smite us – to annihilate us for our shortcomings – and so we play a game of trying to hide them. It’s a futile game. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” We are afraid to put our whole self out there and give it all over. The irony is, that when life knocks the supports out from underneath us and we actually do fall into the hands of the living God, when we land we don’t find harsh punishment at all but instead we find grace, peace and mercy (which is about the time we slap ourselves in the forehead and wonder why we were so fearful in the first place!).
If anything, Matthew’s narrative of shady foreigners with gifts against a backdrop of fear, death and exile is a reminder to us that God in Christ is not only with us in the messy fearful places but invites us all to come to him regardless of who or what we are. We are invited right where we are, just as we are, spiffy gifts and total train wrecks that we are. We don’t have to get our act together to come to the Christ child – we just need to come! We are not to hold back anything – Christ wants all of us, even the messy bits! In the words of Anglo-Catholic poet Christina Rosetti’s carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,”
What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.
She was someone you could easily miss. She had lived in the shadows all of her life – clinging to the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder and at times falling off into homelessness. She’d lived a life marked by abuse – abused by her father and later by a husband. All of her children had been taken away as she had been declared an unfit mother by the courts. She had lived in every flop house hotel (and I use the word “hotel” loosely) in Hagerstown. And she was dying of lung cancer at the age of 54. When I first met Cathy in a run-down and, quite frankly, filthy duplex, I didn’t really know what to expect. She was unkempt and dirty – as were her family members around her. Living conditions so horrible that I made sure this was the last call of my day because when I left the house the smell of cigarettes and filth clung to me and I needed to go home to shower. Yes, it was that bad.
As I began my visits with her and the details of her tragic life emerged, there was one thing I found absolutely amazing. In the midst of this wreckage of a life, Cathy had a rock solid Christian faith. It absolutely amazed me. She wanted to talk about the Bible, read Scripture (she had many passages memorized), and pray. She wanted to talk at a theological and philosophical level about whether or not she could be cremated and how that would work at the resurrection of the righteous on the last day. She called me her “hippy priest.” When I asked why she replied, “Because you are the only pastor I know who respects me as a human being. You don’t talk down to me and make me feel dumb.” One day, she said this: “I know I’ve done terrible things in my life – things that most people cannot forgive.” She pointed to the crucifix on her wall, “But I know one thing for sure: That man there died for me and he took my sins, all those things I did, with him. He knows I’m sorry and he knows I stopped doing those things. He died for me and I believe it!” Rock … solid … faith. She had a rock solid faith – and it never wavered. She had repented of her sins – she had genuine sorrow and contrition. She had tried to make things right. Some relationships had been repaired – some had not. But she knew she was a forgiven sinner. When Cathy died, the couple who had adopted one of her now adult daughters, offered to have Cathy’s ashes scattered on their family plot – and they planned to put a grave marker there for her. As complicated and messy as her life was, the grace of God’s redemption was present and alive. And through this very ordinary woman, the word of the Lord came … to me.
Today, Luke’s gospel gives us a glimpse of John the Baptist. Now since we are in the year of Luke (Year C), I want to frame this gospel in a way that you may not have considered it before. Luke was either a gentile or, more likely, a Hellenized Jew. What that means is that he was well versed in Greco-Roman culture, even as a Jew – and not unlike his companion Paul who also was a Hellenized Jew. These Jews who lived among the Greeks were really bi-cultural – they could move and operate in both circles. Luke’s narrative style is very, very Greek! Tom Davis, who is a friend and Biblical archaeologist, once said, “Read the Gospel of Luke like a great Greek adventure story.” That’s right … just like you’d read the Iliad and the Odyssey, or Jason and the Argonauts. The Gospel of Luke and its second volume the Book of Acts tell about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus just like a Greco-Roman adventure story. So keep that in mind as we journey through this year.
Luke opens the third chapter with a promise so ordinary you could miss it. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Like all good Greek historians, Luke sets this narrative in a specific time and place by naming the world leaders who were in power at the time: Emperor Tiberius, Governor Pontius Pilate, King Herod and his brother Philip the Tetrarch, Lysanias the Tetrarch, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas – you know … all the “A-lister” power brokers of the ancient world. And Luke tells us that amidst these heavy hitters of the political and religious world … comes the word of God to one ordinary guy – John, son of Zechariah. John, an ordinary nobody who is living in the desert and eating locusts and wild honey (yeah, the bugs and honey guy!). To put it into a modern context, it would be like saying, “In the fourth year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when John Roberts was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Boehner was Speaker of the House, and Martin O’Malley was governor, the word of God came to Fred in Feagaville.” You see? It sounds nuts, doesn’t it? What Luke is doing sounds crazy to his first century hearers! He’s telling you this John, son of Zachariah, this nobody ranks among the rich and the powerful … and perhaps even outranks them because the word of God came to this ordinary guy.
But Luke is doing even more … imagine all these rich and powerful leaders: Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip, Lysinias, Annas and Caiaphas … lined up against … John, son of Zechariah … who has … the word of God on his side. The word of God and one ordinary, bug eating nobody is set over and against all the powers of this world. Luke is telling us that it isn’t about strength and power as we know it in this world. The word of God comes through the insignificant, the weak, the small, the peculiar, the misfits – those who the world holds to be of no account. The unpopular kids, the little league coaches, the stay at home moms, the firefighters, the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted, the ones who you’d least expect to have God speak to. And that’s the point … our God is a sneaky God! Slipping through the backdoor of history in a sneaky way and revealing the promise of salvation to the unlikely, undeserving, misfits – a promise so ordinary, if you’re not careful, you just might miss it.
Now that may feel strange and some of you may be thinking the word of God can’t possibly come to you. Maybe it’s because of things you’ve done or left undone. I think what made me connect with Cathy was she reminded me of myself. Oh yes, there are things I’ve done in my past that by some people’s estimation are unforgivable: in the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, “Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” Even clergy have skeletons in our closets. But as Cathy reminded me, we are all standing in need of grace and mercy. We are all forgiven sinners. And in light of that, who are we to declare that the word of God cannot come to us or through us? That man on the cross died for you and for me so that we might receive the word of God with joy.
So as we continue our journey through Advent, keep watch! Keep watch for those ordinary people in ordinary situations where God’s promise of redemption is revealed. Keep watch … don’t miss it … our God is just that sneaky.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
J. R. R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings
No doubt a few of you recognize these words from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. A good friend and fellow priest posted this on his Facebook page yesterday and I admit it captured my imagination as all good fantasies must – just like our gospel text this morning.
Yes, you heard me right – this gospel sounds like a fantasy. Jesus tells his disciples that there will be signs in the heavens, distress upon earth, roaring of seas, people fainting with fear … and then the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory and this will bring the redemption of his followers. Really?? Be honest … have you seen anything like this before? I sure haven’t! Oh sure, we’ve seen distress and people fainting with fear, roaring of waves (Hurricane Sandy anyone?), and all kinds of trouble and destruction – that’s called the evening news. But this Son of Man coming in clouds with power and glory? Um … sorry … haven’t seen it. It seems like something out of Men in Black, or some kind of science fiction story. It is a fantasy.
Notice I didn’t say it wasn’t true but it is a fantasy – something fantastic, beyond our experience or comprehension, extraordinary, out of this world. It is precisely because it is beyond our experience of the material physical world that it has the power to save us. This image is so far outside us, it pulls us out of our puny, meager, finite lives. Something small enough to live in my head has no power to redeem me – only a promise this big and beyond us has any power at all to redeem us!
Episcopal poet W.H. Auden in his epic Christmas poem For The Time Being wrote this:
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
There it is … our Pilgrim Way: this life we can comprehend and know and understand – the one lived on our terms – only leads to one place …to the abyss, to death, a dead end. And absolutely nothing within our lived reality, nothing which is possible in this temporal life can possibly save us … we need a miracle. We need something beyond us to save us.
And that’s the point: when we are on the brink of death from failure, illness, addiction, heartbreak, depression, or whatever – when you are at the edge of the abyss of death you know with every fiber of your being that you are finite, this world and reality are temporary, and you desperately stand in need of a salvation which is beyond you and impossible by this world’s standards. This is what the gospel offers – a promise that there is a great and deeper Truth that we cannot fully comprehend which is beyond us and is enfolding us and is giving our lives purpose, integrity, meaning, and salvation.
Now some will say this is an escapist’s dream to ward off the specter of death. And this is the risk – the ultimate gamble of our Christian life. For the truth claimed by the Gospel isn’t about verifiable scientific measurable facts contained within our experience; but about a greater Reality and Truth beyond our meager and finite lives – a truth which we will not experience until this world passes away and the Reign of God is fully realized.
It is a risk – a great gamble; however, it is one we are drawn into like Lucy through the wardrobe because we have been caught up in a captivating love story of faith we know as the Word of God which we encounter in Scripture. And once we have had a brief taste of the promises of God, we cannot turn back and we will not settle for anything less than participation in this great love story. The Gospel is true, and it is fantastic, otherworldly, and beyond our experience.
It all sounds really too good to be true, doesn’t it? By our own reasoning and experience, the whole gospel sounds too good to be true. We proclaim a God who created the vast cosmos, and sustains it, and created you and me and … even more incredibly, gives a damn about you and me and our meager lives – so much so that he sent his Son into this world among us, to live and die for you and me so that we might live fully and freely for each other and for God.
This is incredible, unbelievable and in the face of the bad news we hear all the time it really does sound too good to be true. Or maybe, just maybe … it is so good it must be true. That was the opinion of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Oxford English professor and devout Roman Catholic who authored the Lord of the Rings. In an essay over 50 years ago, he argued that the gospel story is not only the perfect fairy tale but is actually the root of all fantasy, because it tells the deeply true and ultimately joyful story of humanity – fallen and redeemed – and God’s passionate love affair with us in spite of us and God’s tenacious quest to love us back to life and redeem us.
We hold a paradox in our faith: things are simultaneously unbelievable and true. The whole of Scripture points to this paradoxical reality. Genesis proclaims God created us and cares about us; ridiculous but true. Prophets declare God’s love for us even when we fall away and reject God; unbelievable, but true. Mary’s song, which we will hear in a few weeks, proclaiming a reversal where all who are hungry would be fed; beyond our experience, but true. Colossians declares that we are more than the sum of our past failures and shortcomings, that God has in fact nailed the record that stands against us to the cross; highly doubtful, but true. And at the end of all this Revelation promises that God will wipe every tear from our eyes and create a new heaven and earth and dwell with all of us in peace – sheer fantasy, but true!
The Bible makes amazing, extraordinary claims about a God who is far beyond us yet who also knows us intimately and wants to redeem us, heal us, and love us – claims which sound too good to be true, yet when we hear them we cannot help but believe them on some level and live our lives according to their truth. It is the promise which is more than we can ask for or even imagine – it is a promise big enough to save me and you.
As preached at Grace yesterday (and perhaps in a few other places along the way), this week's sermon is found on Sermons That Work
In Ghana, as in many West African countries, the Christian churches have some very different traditions. Our diocese had been in a companion relationship with the Diocese of Accra in Ghana and several people I know have been over there to visit. The first thing they noted is that worship takes as long as it needs to take … which usually means several hours! They don’t have that “Thou shalt not preach past kick off” rule there. Another tradition is how they give their offerings. They don’t just sit in the pew and wait for a plate – they dance their offerings up the aisle. That’s right, they dance. Now I know if I tried that here at Grace Church I would likely be preaching to an empty house next week, so rest assured we won’t try that here. But what they do at the offertory is everyone, and I mean everyone, leaves their pews by the side aisles, goes to the back of the church, and one by one they dance forward with their offerings. Of course, money is offered, but other things are offered too – a farm tool for blessing, a bolt of cloth for a dress, food for those who need it. One of my friends who witnessed this noticed that some would dance forward and prostrate themselves in front of the altar or even lay their torsos on the altar for a period of time, and then return to their seats. When my friend asked one of the members what was happening, she was told, “They are offering themselves to God – it is all they have to offer.” They offered themselves because they had nothing else to bring.
Today’s gospel reading is popularly known as the story of the Widow’s Mite from the old King James translation. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and we are now back in Holy Week. Our Church year takes us to Holy Week twice: once in the spring when we observe Holy Week and the events in the life of Jesus and once in the fall between All Saints Day and the Feast of Christ the King when we focus on the teachings of Jesus during that week. So Jesus is now in the temple and to understand this story, we need to encounter it within the context of the whole chapter which begins with two other teachings. The first is when Jesus is asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus asks for a coin of the realm and inquires, “Whose picture is on the coin?” The response is, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answered (again from the King James), “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesars and render to God that which is God’s.” Now if we stay with a surface reading, we can get caught up in all sorts of machinations about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God which is sheer foolishness. It all belongs to God … even Caesar belongs to God! So Jesus’ point is that nothing really belongs to anyone – it’s all God’s.
The next query comes from the Sadducees who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They ask Jesus about a hypothetical woman who marries a man but he dies before they have children. So she marries the man’s brother, in compliance with Levitical law, and he dies without having children. And she does this seven times over (yes, it’s the “One Bride For Seven Brothers” story – not to be confused with the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” story). The Sadducees ask, “When she dies and gets to heaven, whose wife is she?” Jesus proceeds to tell them they don’t get it because people are not given or taken in marriage. Essentially, this is a property question! In first century Palestine, a woman was property of her husband or father. Jesus tells them that she’s nobody’s property – she and her husbands belong to God.
Now we enter the Temple complex and Jesus is sitting opposite the treasury and watching how people are giving their money. Our English translation omits the word “how” but it is in the Greek texts. As people entered the Temple complex, they passed by the treasury box which a large box with a funnel-shaped opening on the top so that people could throw their coins in and they would filter down into the box – rather like tollbooths on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You would hear the sound of the coins as they were thrown into the treasury. Now I have traveled a bit and brought with me some “coins of the realm” of various countries: a Pound Sterling from Great Britain, a couple of 10 Franc coins from France, a couple of 2 Deutschmark coins, and two Austrian 10 Groeschen coins (mind you, these predate the Euro). Now in the case of the Pound, Franc and Deutschmark coins, they are substantial, heavy coins. The more they are worth, the heavier the coin. This was true in the Roman Empire too – a denarius was a substantial coin but lighter in weight than a talent which was worth more. So let’s say the Pound, Franc and Deutschmarks represent the wealthy throwing in their offering – it sounded like this (drop the coins on the floor) a pretty substantial sound. Then along comes the woman with her two lepta, much like these aluminum 10 Groeschen coins, and she throws them in (drop the coins on the floor) … did you hear the difference? Jesus did! He heard the difference as well as saw it. Two lepta were not even enough to purchase a pigeon for the minimum temple sacrifice (that required eight lepta). In essence, she had nothing … and she threw it all in. And Jesus tells us this widow gave more than anyone else because the rest gave out of their abundance – they gave out of what was left over – but she gave everything she had. In English it says, “everything she had to live on” but the Greek says “her whole life!” She put in her whole life. She laid down on that altar!
And this is what God asks of us – to offer and present our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God – because we don’t own anything. It all belongs to God and what we give back is merely an acknowledgment that we understand this truth. God does not want our leftovers – our leftover time after everything else comes first, our leftover talents when we’re all tired out from what we’ve wanted to do, or our leftover treasure. God wants all of us – body, soul, and possessions – to be utterly dedicated to God’s work and people. God wants each of us to lay down on that altar and may we have the grace and humility to do just that.