Homily for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
November 11, 2018
St. Thomas Episcopal Church (My Sponsoring Parish for Ordination)
I remember the day that a few coins broke my heart open.
I was just a few weeks into my first year of seminary field education, piecing together how my work in the world and my work in the church might fit together into this vocational call I was pursuing. I was setting up for the Friday Red Door healing prayer service, a service of word and prayer which takes place before our weekly community lunch for people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. The campus ministry student who was the greeter that day called me over and said, “there’s a woman who just came in and says she needs an offering plate…what do I tell her?”
Her question caught me off guard; the last thing in the world I wanted to do was to set out an offering plate at a service attended by people whose lives were mired in poverty. So, I walked over to this tiny, frail-looking older woman to see what she really wanted. She had on simple, well-worn clothes and spoke to me quickly without making much eye contact. As a trained social worker, I can tend to quickly assess what I think might be going on…sometimes to a fault. And on that day, I admittedly presumed there had been some confusion, and perhaps this was a request for financial assistance mistaken as a request for an offering. But, in seconds, I had to check all those assumptions of wealth and privilege as she repeated her request clearly and directly: “I said I need an offering plate” she said, “I have something that I want to give the church.”
I nodded and ducked into the chapel, picking up one of the carved, wooden offering plates on the back table. She reached into her quilted purse and pulled out a smaller cloth sack. As people filed in for the service, she poured the contents of the bag into the plate, until I needed to use both hands to support the weight of the heaping mound of coins she poured into that wooden basin in my outstretched hands. The tellers would later report it was well over $50 of her collected change. She didn’t want to be recognized, or to stay for the day’s programs. But she did tell me that when she was younger, she had two children and not enough food to feed her family. She would come to this church on Fridays and the volunteers would feed her, and make sure she had extra milk to take home for her children. That compassion nurtured this woman and her family in body and spirit and now, she had come to give all that she had saved.
“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.”
Our logical minds and human actions want to separate “poverty” and “giving” or at the very least, to think of the latter as a way to alleviate the former. We hear Jesus drawing these same distinctions in today’s Gospel. First, he points out the complete hypocrisy that emerges when “demanding” is conflated with “giving.” The extortion and corruption Jesus knew were taking place in the name of religion were the exact opposite of giving: the unjust system Jesus condemned imposed poverty on a vulnerable sector of society, devouring the security of home for the benefit of an institution.
But, the lesson doesn’t end there. Jesus breaks down the barrier between “poverty” and “giving” even further by illustrating something new about the realm of God. Jesus draws our attention away from the elaborate gowns and lofty prayers of the institutional authorities who seemed to have all the power and illustrates instead what was happening through the perspective of a widow who had felt the profound pain of injustice and poverty all of her life.
What does it mean…really mean…to see through the eyes of poverty, instead of the eyes of wealth? Wealth is our human representation of security, power, comfort, assurance. When we have wealth, we can feel self-assured and capable of deciding to whom we are willing to give what proportion of the abundance we possess. We live in a society that values and protects the privilege of wealth. But seeing through the eyes of poverty forces us to focus on what it means to give with trust, through the vulnerable eyes of scarcity and oppression. Seeing through the eyes of poverty means we have to leave behind the glittery false promises of security, power, and comfort and rely instead on the providential nature God who loves and care for us. Giving from our poverty is a true act of faith. It’s what it truly means to Go Now Into the World and celebrate our participation in that economy of God’s mercy and grace.
Some of us have been at the receiving end of these gifts of mercy quite directly. Some have felt what it is like to give with total trust and abandon. But many of us have to pause intentionally in order to see and feel the weight of sacrificial giving others have enacted on our collective behalf. This is why we have pause on the 11th day of the 11th month for remembering and honoring the selfless and sacrificial actions of our veterans; this is why we are urged to pray and recognize those who have given the gift of life through organ donation on this weekend of the donor sabbath. We should and do stand in awe and respect of these sacrifices made by others. But Jesus, in directing our gaze to this easily overlooked widow and her two copper coins reminds us that it isn’t enough just to admire sacrifice from a distance. We are invited to move closer to this poverty of spirit in order to truly understand what it means to give.
Dorothy Day, founding mother of the Catholic Worker movement, writes about the liberating nature of voluntarily embracing what she describes as the true intention of holy poverty: “To love with understanding and without understanding. To love blindly, and to folly. To see only what is lovable. To think only on these things. To see the best in everyone around, their virtues rather than their faults. To see Christ in them.”
Taking up our Christian Sister Dorothy’s challenge, how do we look through the eyes of holy poverty to see the living Christ in our midst?
I can tell you that I saw Christ that day in the eyes of the woman who poured out all her change not because she was forced to do so, but because she had seen Christ in the giving actions of those who cared for her and her children. Her gift reflected her voluntary participation in the realm of Christ rather than the realm of this world. That day, as my heart broke open, I walked into the nave of the church carrying that coin-heaped offering plate, through the rows filling with people gathering from the surrounding streets, up the chancel stairs to the altar where I bowed, and prayed, set her offering to rest there for the remainder of the service. God is the source of these gifts of holy poverty. She didn’t want a tax receipt. She wasn’t asking for anything in return. She wasn’t engaging in a transaction with the church. She was pouring out all that she had as an offering to God, a sacrifice of healing for our collective spirit.
Some of you know about one of the projects I’m currently working on, Faith from the Margins to the Web. Each week, campus and community volunteers across social margins of age, race, wealth, social class and other human differences to engage in holy conversations about our weekly Gospel lessons. Crossing the social margins of this world, each pair or small group is able to discover God in our midst, as revealed in holy scripture and in each other.
In the group which was discussing today’s Gospel lesson, the question was posed: is this widow a hero, or a victim? There was a flurry of conversation following that question about how she gave from her heart, how she gave all she had, but also how she had been relegated to that state of poverty by the oppressive system of power in which society and the church participated. Toward the end of the discussion, it was a woman named Theresa…someone who earlier that day had confided in me her pending homelessness within a few days and had asked me to pray with her for strength…who shared the offering of her heart through the eyes of her experience:
“You know, at the end of the day, I think maybe she isn’t a hero or a victim” said Theresa. “I think she looked at those two coins and she looked up at God and she thought, ‘if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even have this. You made me, and what I have is yours. So go ahead, have this: here it is. I want you to accept this, just like I accept what you give me.”
During this past week, as I have prepared for my ordination, and even more so now that I live into the vows that I have made, Theresa’s words have become prayer. When it comes right down to it, all we truly have to offer God is the gift of ourselves. We pour out the coins of our lives into the outstretched hands of God who has already given us all of who we are, and everything that we need. The robes, the glory, the accolades: these are mere distractions from the trust that comes from knowing that all we have is already held in the hands of a loving God. Oppressive systems cannot devour divine mercy. God’s love prevails in our actions of compassion, in the holy poverty of having our hearts broken open so that we can give with open and loving hearts, receiving in return the gift of truly seeing Christ in each other.
“If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even have this. You made me, and what I have is yours. So go ahead, have this: here it is. I want you to accept this, just like I accept what you give me”