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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Generosity and Poverty

Agnus Day
Generosity and Poverty – Mark 12:38-44
Pentecost XXIV – Proper 27B – November 11,2012
St. George’s Chapel, Harbeson, DE
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

Today’s scripture gives us two very different images of women doing what they need to do in order to survive. The first is the young widow Ruth who uses her feminine sexuality – the only thing she has left – to seduce Boaz into being her husband. All’s well that ends well as she not only spares her former mother-in-law but bears a son Obed, who became the father of Jesse who became the father of David who became the King of Israel.

The other is an unnamed woman, a poor, elderly widow, who gives what she has – two copper coins – to the Temple. Jesus compares her with the Scribes and says to his disciples, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

Jesus, an ancestor of the House of David, seems to understand something about generosity - God's and our own - that many of us have a difficult time grasping. I know I do. Still.

I learned a lesson about greed and generosity and success as a young child. It’s a touchstone story for me, which I think of whenever I consider these things – or sit down to write out a check to the church or any other worthy agency – religious or secular – which is doing Gospel work.

A little bit of background: I am the oldest of four children. When each of us turned seven years old, we got an allowance for the chores we did. Every Saturday evening we were given two shiny quarters as an allowance. The rule, however, was that we had to put one quarter into our piggy bank, and put one nickel to the church in the collection plate on Sunday. That left us with two whole dimes to spend on ‘penny candy’ and other, otherwise forbidden treats like soda or a milk shake at the soda fountain.

I thought that was grossly unfair. I mean, I understood the wisdom of savings but giving one tenth of my hard-earned money for the church was simply over the line! To my mind, that was five pieces of penny candy I could be enjoying. And, what was the church going to do with that money? Buy candles? Or incense! Are you kidding me?

Besides, there were times when my parents could not afford to give even two shiny quarters. My brother was a sickly child and often I heard my parents lamenting that they owed $75 dollars (which might as well have been a million back then) to the Rexall Drug Store to pay for his penicillin.

And, my father always seemed to owe someone named Jack Daniel who demanded a line item in the family budget. My mother hated this guy named Jack Daniel, but my father insisted that it was the only enjoyment that he, as a workingman, ever requested.

One day, as I was sitting in church during one of the offerings, I watched the long handled baskets pass by me as I slipped in my weekly pledge of five cents. We always sat near the back of the church, so by the time the collection basket got to us, it was teaming and practically shimmering with shiny quarters, dimes and nickels. That’s when I got a brilliant idea.

I figured that I could easily glide my hand over the top of the cold hard, cash, drop in my nickel, and then scoop out a quarter or two. When no one was looking, I could then slip the quarters into my anklet and, before too long, I would have enough saved up that I could afford to pay off Jack Daniel so there would be more money for Mr. Rexall. It was a brilliant plan! I was a budding successful entrepreneur -  and a potential hero!

I didn’t mean to set myself on a life of crime, but suddenly, I was so successful that I began to think that, once I paid off Mr. Daniel, I could begin to save for a new home for my parents – one with a bedroom for each child so I wouldn’t have to share my bedroom with my three sisters and we could all have our own room just like my brother, whom we called “The Little Prince”.

Things came crashing to a halt, however, when Sr. Bernadette – the one with the eagle eyes who was meaner than a junkyard dog – spied me from across the church and reported me to Father. I still remember my palms sweating as I was called into Father’s office, with my parents, and being confronted with the evidence as reported by Sr. Bernadette. Through tears and sobs, I confessed my plan to pay off Mr. Daniel and bring peace and harmony and prosperity to my family.

I don’t really know what happened after that. I only know that I had to leave the room and Father had a long conversation with my parents. After that, Mr. Daniel disappeared from the family budget and Mr. Rexall was paid in full. I had to spend the rest of that Sunday repenting in my room, after which, nothing was ever said again about the incident. My lust for greed was permanently curbed, I returned to obeying the rules, and I was spared from a life of crime and corruption.

More importantly, as I have reflected on this story over the years, I have come to learn something about the church and something about God’s generosity – and my own.

The first is that so much of what the church does is unknown to many people. There are hundreds of these little life-saving and life-giving events that happen in the course of a week in the life of the parish that it simply boggles the mind. You won’t see this written up in an Annual Report or even hear spoken of during a Vestry meeting. You may think you are writing out your pledge so that the lights and heat stay on – and, to be honest, your money does that as well – but, when you give out of your poverty, expecting nothing in return, you enable every day miracles.

Another important lesson is to remember that God’s forgiveness and generosity is boundless. But, it’s even greater than that. God takes our mistakes and our sins and turns them into glory. Ruth, who used what she had to secure her future also secured the future of the line of the great-grandson who would become King. God also took my childhood greed and turned it into an opportunity for healing and wholeness for me – and my family.

When I think about why I pledge to the church, I think about this story of Ruth and I consider the story of the Widow’s mite and I weigh that against what the world teaches about success and prosperity. I think the Gospel message of giving out of our sense of poverty often leads to amazing stories of generosity and miraculous stories of healing and wholeness.

Both stories remind us that our real security lies not in our ‘stuff’ – our clothing or cars or homes or back accounts. Our real security lies in the boundless generosity and graciousness of God. This frees us up for generosity beyond measure – to be as foolish and lavish with love as God is with us – even when we feel we don’t have enough to give, or what we give may be too costly.

And we are reminded – once again – that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not sin, not money, not power, not status, not even who we voted for in the last election.

As Archbishop Temple once said, sometimes we make good decisions, and God still reigns. Sometimes we make bad decisions, and God still reigns. 

The letter to the Hebrews says, “And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

Which inspires me to join my voice with the song the Psalmist (146) sings,

    Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
    whose hope is in the LORD their God;

    Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
    who keeps his promise for ever;

    Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
    and food to those who hunger.

    The LORD sets the prisoners free;
    the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
    the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

    The LORD loves the righteous;
    the LORD cares for the stranger; *
    he sustains the orphan and widow,
    but frustrates the way of the wicked.

    The LORD shall reign for ever, *
    your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.


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