Monday, November 12, 2012

November 11, Proper 27, Risky Living -- Loose Giving

A Guest Sermon by Rev. Dr. Renée Sue House, for Consecration Sunday at Old First

Risky Living—Loose Giving
I Kings 12:8-16; Ps. 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

A devastating hurricane.  A tense presidential election.  A discombobulating nor’easter. And in the wake of all this, Consecration Sunday. If nothing else, we come to this day newly mindful of the contingency, the fragility, the riskiness of being human. Here today. Gone tomorrow.  Boats splintered on driveways.  Houses lost to fire and water. Subways and hospitals submerged.  Hearts shattered by death.  Physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, it is risky business to be flesh and blood.  Risky to be, risky to have, to hold, to love, to give, to lose.  

It seems always to happen.  In the face of other’s losses, we recognize sharply how blessed we are, how rich in things, and people, and love, and spirit.  Crises can create an open-heartedness and open-handedness in us.  In days like these we don’t have time to count the cost and calculate the risk.

On Thursday night I was here with some of you and could see you responding to the losses of your neighbors with heart, mind, and strength.  Offering your prayers, your church building, your time, energy, money--offering yourselves to make sure that people living in shelters have food to eat, clothes to wear, and hope for tomorrow.  You have responded to the risks of human living with your love. And in this you risk something too in this less protected living.  I think this puts you in a good place to choose how you will consecrate your money to the love of God and neighbor in the year ahead, because  I think it puts you less guardedly into the very mind and heart—into the very life of God.

Last week Rev. Meeter said it is risky to tithe.  It is risky to set aside the first ten percent of our incomes out of love for God and neighbor.  Financial planners would advise that we invest these moneys more realistically.  There is the fiscal cliff and the threat of recession.  There are children to feed and clothe, college and pension funds to build and safeguard.  And, the reality is, it just ain’t cheap to live in Brooklyn

Tithes and offerings rub against the grain. It takes faith in God’s own faithfulness and generosity to live generously. Faith in God is the way to respond to the daily risks of just being human, and to the risks of giving when we cannot know what tomorrow holds.  Trust in God’s provision and promises leads to risky living and loose giving!

When we talk about giving, we usually talk about dedicating the first ten percent, the first fruits of our labors. But this morning, the word of God stretches us.  We meet two widows who offer their very last fruits—they give away all they have to live on. 

You’ve got to wonder what God was thinking in chosing the widow of Zarephath to be the one to feed the prophet Elijah.  She lives outside of the people of Israel. She is vulnerable.  Of all the folk who may have offered Elijah hospitality, why her?  It’s like asking a single mom who is now living in the armory to give food for the consecration luncheon today.  The widow of Zarephath responds plainly to Elijah’s demand.  “As the Lord your God liveth, I don’t have anything to give you,” she says.  Apparently, the widow knows about Elijah’s God, but she doesn’t know this God as her own.  She doesn’t know Psalm 146, that “the Lord upholds the widow and the orphan and keeps faith forever.” 

And I wonder too, what might Elijah be thinking when she says, “sorry guy, my cupboard is almost bare.  I am going to make a small cake for my son and I, then we will eat it and die?”  God sent him here, and now she has no food?  I know, we imagine he is a pious, perfect prophet.  Always full of faith and trust in God.  Never questioning.  But in truth, Elijah struggles with God.  He loses hope.  Despairs of his life and sometimes hates his vocation.

As told, this story moves and resolves quickly.  But these two are human beings like us. I believe there is very pregnant pause in which both Elijah and the widow feel nothing but risk.  Nothing but fear.  Their lives are completely contingent on God.  Trusting God to keep God’s promise is the only way to find rest in the risk. So this widow opens her hand to give.  Her first act of consecration.  Her first experience of loose giving.  Her first encounter with this God who provides, creates communities of love, and keeps faith forever!

Jesus is watching as the people place their offerings in the temple treasury.  A poor widow puts in two small copper coins, worth a penny. She has been coming to the temple her whole life.  Even after her husband died and her financial resources dwindled, she brought her offerings--a sign of her trust in the living God.  She knows that what Jesus has said is true.  The temple scribes play at piety, parade their pride, and devour widow’s houses.  If she were more shrewd, she would protect herself.  If she were less foolish, she would hold onto her last fruits.  But a lifetime of trust in God’s promise and provision leads her to risky living and loose giving.  God upholds the widow and the orphan.  God keeps faith forever.  This widow believes that faith in God’s faithfulness is the only risk worth taking, the only leap worth making.

If Jesus has not been watching, we would not know this story.  When he calls the disciples over and points out what has just happened, Jesus is restrained.  These are the facts.  The rich have put in large sums of money.  The widow has put in her last two coins—all that she has to live on.  Jesus doesn’t criticize the rich folk who put in large sums of money.  He doesn’t accuse them of withholding from God.  But he does do some “new” math by calculating that she has given more than anyone else because she has literally risked her life.  

So we are left to sit with the disciples and ponder what this might mean.  Is Jesus suggesting that every one of us ought to engage in this kind of sacrificial, trust-full giving?  Is he changing the rules, saying indirectly, “You have heard it said that you should give a tenth of what you have to God, but I say, give it all?”  Is Jesus hoping that we with the disciples will be disturbed that there should be in the community a woman so poor while others enjoy great wealth?  Is he praising her faith and generosity, or criticizing the scribes and Pharisees who exploit faithful widows rather than care for them?  Jesus doesn’t tell us what to do here, just creates a pregnant pause in the action and invites us to see, and hear, and respond. 

But there is more to see, and hear and respond to than the widow’s offering.  As Mark’s gospel unfolds, we cannot miss the connection between the widow who gives all that she has, and Jesus who is on his way to the cross. Jesus knows the risks of being flesh and blood.  In birth, in life, and in death, Jesus gives up everything to flood the world with God’s perfect love.  As the writer of Hebrews says: Jesus appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. Once and for all. Risky living and loose, lavish redemptive self-giving. 

And there it is.  The heart of the matter.  Here is it, the deep structure and source of our own desire to give without counting the cost or calculating the risk.  We live, and move, and have our being in the living God whose love knows no ending, who keeps faith forever!  Now unto him who loves us and freed us from our sins with his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion, forever, and ever!

Copyright © 2012, by Renée Sue House, all rights reserved.

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