Saturday, 17 October 2015

The widow who gave all that she had

This is the fourth picture that can be found on the walls of the church of St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. It is a portrayal of the incident recorded in Mark 12.41-44. So there is the chest, the widow, Jesus and a disciple.

I came across a new interpretation of this passage. In the previous verses we have been warned about the teachers of the law: ‘They like to devour widow’s houses’ (v40).  And now we read of a widow who has to put everything that she has into the temple collection box. Jesus' is challenging a religious system which exploits the poor.

While I think that we need to hear that challenge, I am not convinced that this is what is going on here.
The widow’s giving appears to be completely voluntary.
And Jesus points to her as an example of giving.

My own view is that Jesus is teaching us here what it means to follow him, about discipleship.

The contrast here is not between the teachers of the law and the widow.
It is not even between those who give for show and those who give in secret. Jesus is able to see what both the rich and the poor are giving. The widow does not give in secret.
The contrast is between the giving of the rich and the giving of the widow: The rich give ‘out of their abundance’. The widow gives all that she has.

1. This widow teaches us that people are more precious to God than money

The rich are putting large amounts of money in the chest. The widow puts in one pence.
Who gives the most? Well, obviously the rich.
But Jesus says that the widow has put in more than all the others.
Why? Because she has put in everything that she has. She has put in herself.

There is the story of the little boy who went up with all the other people who were taking their donations to the front. They placed them on the large plate, which was held by the minister. The little boy came to the minister. He asked him to lower the plate, and then to lower it even more. The man thought it was because the boy couldn’t reach. But as he lowered it to the ground, the little boy stood on it. He is offering himself.

In the end, the offering that God is looking for is not the offering of our money. He wants the offering of lives that are dedicated to him, of men and women and girls and boys who put our trust in him.
God is looking for whole-life offerings: for us to offer him not a bit of our wealth or time, a few of our gifts or some of our property. He is looking for people who mean business with him; for people who are prepared to dedicate all of their wealth and their time, their gifts and their property to him. He is looking for people who offer him their achievements and failures, their hopes and frustrations, their hurts and joys. Because it is when we do that, he is able to work in us and through us.

2. This widow teaches us that we cannot afford not to give.

The rich are giving large donations because they can afford to give.
They are giving ‘out of their abundance’. 

We give, most of the time, out of our wealth; because we can afford it.

After the costs of the essentials have been met (food, clothing, utility bills, rent or mortgage and travel), and after the things we choose to spend our money on (the holidays, the children, a higher than average mortgage, clothes that make us look or feel good, gadgets and mobile phones and internet, a smart car, a particular hobby – golf or sailing or cycling or play stationing, going out for meals or theatre or clubbing etc), we then put whatever is left in the plate.

And then we are challenged that God should not be the last on the list but the first on the list. So we choose the amount we wish to give, what we can afford to give, and at the beginning of the week or month we set that money aside, whether through putting money in an envelope or setting up a standing order.

And then we are challenged to consider whether what we give really does represent the place that God has in our life. 
I recall one person, who I hasten to add was not from here and who I suspect was not short of a penny or two, telling me rather proudly that he put 50p into the collection every time he came to church. I suspect he wanted me to say thank you on behalf of the church. So I think he was a bit taken back when I answered, ‘That is great. What we give reflects what God means to us. And if God means less than half of one newspaper each week to you, then that is what you should give.’

And I have heard people use the story of this widow to say that our giving should be measured not by how much we give, but by how much we hold back for ourselves. A wealthy person who tithes and who gives £10k a year – may be beloved by the treasurer – but in God’s eyes is giving far less than someone with very little who tithes and gives £1k a year. Why? Because the wealthy person still has £90k left whereas the person who is poorer only has £9k left to live on for the year.

But I don’t think Jesus, by drawing his followers attention to this woman, is saying that here.
He is saying something much more radical.

Here is a widow who is doing exactly what Jesus asked the rich young ruler to do in Mark 10.21: ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’. (Mark 10.21)

This widow had almost nothing, but she gave everything that she had.
She gives because she realizes she can’t afford not to give.

She was a widow. There was no social security, no widow’s pension. Opportunities for employment for women were very limited. You moved from your father’s household to your husband’s household to your child’s household. And if your husband died early, you were stuffed. And this woman had lost her husband, and she had nothing. So when she gave the two coins, she really was giving everything that she had. There was nobody else she could turn to. She was throwing herself on the mercy of God.

She gives as an act of trust in God

She had heard the story of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17.8-16).
About 600 years earlier, there had been a severe famine. Elijah, who was a prophet, went to a widow and asks her to give him something to eat. She says, ‘I’ve only got enough for one last meal for my son and myself and then there is no more. We plan to eat and then die. But you are welcome to share that meal with us if you wish’. Elijah tells her, ‘Don’t be afraid. Prepare the meal, give first a little to me, and then eat the rest with your son. But you will not die, because God says there will always be some grain in your jar and some oil in your jug until the famine ends’.   

I’ve had my own widow of Zarephath moments.
The first opportunity that I remember is one that I messed up. I was back from university for the holiday and got a bus into Nottingham to go to church. I knew hardly anyone there. All I had in my pocket was £1 for the bus fare back home. The collection came round and I had a deep conviction that I should put that £1 in the plate. I didn’t. I thought, “How will I get home if I put that money in the offering?” I really wish that I had, because at the end of the service, a couple started talking with me. They asked me where I lived, and then said that they lived in that direction, and they offered me a lift home.

There have been other moments when I have been asked to take a new step of faith in God. Most of them I have bottled out of, but occasionally I have taken those small steps of faith and trusted God to provide, and he has provided.

Here was a woman, however, who by putting those two coins into the temple treasury was taking a major step of faith.  Jesus says of her, “out of her poverty she has put in everything that she had, all she had to live on”.

I’d love to know what the end of this story is. What happened to her? Did Jesus go up to her and invite her to join the small group of men and women who were beginning to follow him. Is she one of the women who are at the foot of the cross when he dies? Does she become part of the community? Or does she go out of the temple and Fantine-esq meet with her Jean Valjean? We don’t know, but I am convinced of this. God did provide for her what was necessary, and one day, when we meet with her, we will find out how!  

3. This woman is a model of what it means to follow Jesus, of discipleship

There is clearly a theme running through the mosaics in St Apollinare Nuovo. They take us on a journey – just as in Mark’s gospel, we are invited to follow Jesus on the way. The presence of the disciples in each of these images is a clue – as is the fact that several of them are moving us on to the right, to the next image. It is a journey that begins with the healing of the paralysed man and ends with the risen Jesus pointing us to heaven.

And here we have a woman who is a model of discipleship. She is an example to us of giving, yes, but more than that.

She is a model of someone who recognizes that she owes God everything, and without God she is nothing. And in a very practical way, through putting money into that temple chest, she throws herself onto the mercy of God. She abandons herself into his hands. 

V44 could be paraphrased: ‘She gave everything she had to God, and she lay down her life’. It is what Jesus calls his followers to do: ‘to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him’. It is how he lived his life, and it is a glimpse of what he is going to do in a few chapters time.

This woman had been brought to this point probably because, with the death of her husband, she had been brought to the very bottom and she realized that everything else had failed her. 

When life is going well, it is so easy to put our trust in riches and the things around us. So maybe taking that step of giving everything away, is just a little too big for us, at the moment!

But we will discover that there are moments when we are invited to follow this woman and to step out in faith. Not maybe by giving everything that we have – that is like trying to get from the bottom step of our staircase to the top step in one move – but by taking a risk. It might be a step of obedience, forgiving someone, saying sorry to someone, volunteering for a project, coming on the Journey’s course. But it might also be about choosing to give more than we think that we can afford. Giving out of our poverty and not out of our abundance. 

It means we take a small step of faith, trusting in the God who notices and who loves us. And we throw ourselves on his mercy.

Whenever I have read this story I have thought of this woman as stooped and crushed.
But in this mosaic she is standing upright and noble. And I think that the artist has seen something.

When we abandon ourselves and put our trust in Jesus, when we offer to him everything, it is then that we are at our most noble, we are most human and we are most God-like.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Praise or Pride: a talk for harvest

We are here today to give thanks for the harvest.

God has given us the most astonishingly generous gift. Yesterday we went for a circular walk around Clare. We are so privileged. The Suffolk countryside is beautiful and fertile. And I know that some people – even people here – are seriously struggling, but as a rule we have so much. Few of us, if any here, will have known starvation. The only times in my life that I have gone hungry are by choice. And most of us really do have genuine choices about what we do with some of our money. Yes, the rent or the mortgage, the electricity and the food bills need paying, but most of us have at least a little at the end of the week or month to buy something that is not essential. And we have a pretty good system of public services, of education and the NHS. We know who we can turn to when we are sick. And although the recession and austerity has badly affected large numbers of people, overall and looking at the big picture, we have enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic growth and political stability, under a rule of law. And today we have so much more stuff, and so many more choices, than our parents or grandparents had. It is an astonishing gift.

The passage that we read was written to people who are about to be given a mega-gift.

The people of Israel are in the desert. God has brought them out of Egypt, where they have been slaves. It was one of the biggest refugee movements that the ancient world ever saw. And God is bringing them to the home he has promised them. But to get from Egypt to that home, they need to go through a desert. And they’ve been in that desert for 40 years. It is not a good place to be. It is (and I quote) vast and dreadful. It is thirsty and waterless. It is inhabited by venomous snakes and scorpions.
And they have been out of their depth. Metaphorically and literally. On one occasion God led them through sea on foot. There have been times when they did not know when the next meal or sip of water was coming from.
At times they were simply overwhelmed. I’m told that JF Kennedy had a plaque on his desk in the White House which said, ‘O God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small’. After our experience of the boat trip to the Aran Islands, I know that experience! And that is, no doubt, how they felt.

But they have also begun to experience that when we go through those periods in our lives, when we are overwhelmed, or find ourselves in a vast and dreadful desert, then we are open to receive a gift. You stop putting your trust in yourself and in your own abilities (because you can’t) and you start to trust One who is bigger than you, outside of you and beyond you.
And when we do that, we see God at work.

He leads us, as he led them, through the desert.
He provides for us, as he provided water for them in the most unlikely place. He tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water pours out. He gave them manna: manna was an edible bread like substance which appeared on the desert floor in the morning like dew. They didn’t work for it. It just appeared. They gave it a very technical name, ‘Manna’. Manna means ‘what is it?’

And in that time of testing the people learnt that life really is not just about the food that you put into your mouth – it is about the food you put into your soul. It is not about the stuff that you use to feed your body, but the stuff that you use to feed your mind and your heart. And they have learnt that ‘people do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’ (Deut 8.3)

And they learnt that, if they did humble themselves before God, if they received his gifts as gifts, if they believed his promises, and followed his commands, then after the time of testing there would come a time of abundance.

It is interesting how we learn stuff about ourself and stuff about God when we go through it, when we are out of our depth. Perhaps as we come together to give thanks to God for the good things in life, it is also good to give thanks to God for the tough times.

George Matheson, who died in 1906, was a Scottish preacher and hymn writer. He wrote the hymn, ‘O love that will not let me go’. He was also blind. And on one occasion he prayed this prayer:
“My God, I have never thanked Thee for my thorns. I have thanked Thee a thousand times for my roses, but not once for my thorns. I have been looking forward to a world where I shall get compensation for my cross; but I never thought of my cross itself as a present glory. Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn, show me that I have climbed to Thee by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbow.”

But now, says Moses, to the people, you are about to enter the land that God has prepared for you. It is an amazing gift: ‘a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills’.

He says to them: ‘You are going to eat and be satisfied. But - and remember this before it happens - when you get wealthy you have a choice.

You can take the gift and forget God. In your abundance you can become proud. You can think that what you have is yours because you deserve it.
Or you can recognise that it is a gift, an undeserved gift, and you can praise the One who gives it to you.

My generation has been materially blessed. And we have chosen to take the gift and forget God. We think we deserve our prosperity. We think that all this stuff and much more is ours because we are wise and hard working and have good standards.
It is quite a useful way of looking at things. It means that we can justify being a ‘have’ in a world of ‘have-nots’. If people are poor they obviously deserve to be poor. They must be lazy or wicked or foolish or all three. And I can keep what I have for myself.

Wealth and pride are like two star struck lovers. Pride looks at wealth and says ‘I have won you by my brilliance’, and wealth looks at pride and says, ‘I am your prize’. And as the lovers gaze at each other, there is no place for God.

When I was at theological college we had a young man spend a term with us. He was from the then East Germany and he was training to be a Lutheran pastor. He told us that on one occasion, on a Communist Youth camp, they went into the canteen and sat down. In front of them were empty plates. The youth leader said, ‘Today we are going to ask God for food’. She said a prayer. The plates remained empty. ‘You see’, she said, ‘God has not provided the food. And so now the food will be provided by the workers from so and so farm and prepared by our team of caterers. Why pray? This is the work of our hands’. And the food appeared.

But in our pride we miss the point. Who gave us this world in the first place. Who gave us seeds and plants and cattle? Who gave us life? What did you do to deserve to be born when you were, to whom you were, where you were, with the gifts that you have? And who gives you the ability to produce wealth? V18: ‘But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth’.

My prayer is that those of you who are younger will not make the same mistake that my generation has made. My prayer is that you will turn back to God. That you will recognise that all that you have is undeserved gift. It comes from God. It doesn’t actually belong to you: it belongs to Him, but he has given it to you for your delight and enjoyment.

That means that it is a sacred gift: it is to be received with gratitude, with an awesome sense of responsibility, with praise.

That is why we are here today: to say thank you.
That is why it is a good thing to say ‘grace’ before meals. It can begin by being very simple. ‘Lord Jesus, thank you for this food we are about to eat’. And I know that it will feel awkward to begin with, but saying thank you to God is a really good habit to get into. One mum said to a guest at dinner, "We say grace at dinner each day to remind us around here that there is something bigger than our egos."

Praise is about recognising that all things, not just food, are the gift of God.

Some students were asked to list the Seven Wonders of the World: Great Pyramids, Taj Mahal, Grand Canyon, Panama Canal, Victoria falls, St Peter’s Basilica, China’s great wall. One student, a quiet girl, said nothing: ‘There are so many’. She said, ‘I can’t make up my mind’. ‘Tell us what you have written and we’ll help’. So she said, ‘My seven wonders of the world are – to touch, to taste, to see, to hear, to run, to laugh and to love’.

GK Chesterton said, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Those of you who are American have got one thing really right (I’m only going to admit to one thing!): You have a national thanksgiving day. Thanksgiving for your founding fathers and mothers, thanksgiving for your land and your people and your harvest. It was declared, in 1863 by Lincoln, that it would be a day for “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens".

And when we give thanks for something, several things follow.
- We recognise that there is one who is so much bigger than us, and on whom we are in complete dependence
- We recognise that God does love us, and delights to give us good things, and that even when we don’t have stuff we can still trust him.
- We recognise that we do not deserve this, and that it is complete gift.

And there is one final thing. If we do not receive material blessings as a gift from God, if we think we can take them for granted because they are the consequence of some astonishing set of cosmic coincidences, or because we have done something to deserve them, then we are never going to receive the bigger gift that God longs to give us.   And that gift if actually far more precious than all of this.

It is a gift that will take us through death into life. It is the gift of God’s word and his promises, the gift of forgiveness, the gift of the invitation to become a child of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit – God’s presence to live in us, guide us and strengthen us; the gift of an eternal destiny; the gift of deep and intimate friendship with the person of Jesus Christ. 

And if we begin to learn to receive material gifts from God as a gift with gratitude and trust, then one day - and I hope that many of you have already done so - we will be ready to receive the treasure of the spiritual gifts that he truly longs to give us.