Sunday, November 11, 2012

And the soul felt its worth

Psalm 146; Mark 12: 38-44
Lordship Community Church, Stratford, CT
November 11, 2012
(Whenever song lyrics appear in my sermons, I sing them.)

Widow's Mite,

            This is a story that Jesus could have told alongside the story from Mark’s gospel of the robber baron scribes and the widow’s offering of all she had.  It comes from Calcutta, India, from the Missionaries of Charity and their superior, Mother Theresa.

Unfortunately it was nothing unusual for her, just an entire family in one of the slums of Calcutta that was suffering from malnourishment, nearly on the brink of starvation.  Mother Theresa put some rice into a sack, a few handfuls—all that she could spare—and delivered it to this desperately hungry family.  The mother was so thankful and joyous, she instantly took the bag of rice into their small cooking and living space.  In a few moments she came out with half of the rice in a container and rushed down a small alley.  Puzzled, Mother Theresa called after her, “Where are you going with that rice?”  The poor mother replied, “I know another family who has nothing to eat, who also needs rice.”

            Prosperity and poverty live side by side in Calcutta or Kolkata.  In a city the size of Dublin reside more than 14 million people.  Alongside beautiful historic buildings and its educated middle class, reside the sick and the dying, the starving and destitute outcasts, about 3 million people.  Calcutta has a rich history of religious tolerance, with Hindus, Muslims and Christians living together in community.  Yet even though all three religions advocate for the poor and decry the injustice of poverty, still 80% of those living in slums live on $11 - $37 a month.

            None of us really like to sit through public service announcements picturing the bloated bellies of children or gaunt-faced women breastfeeding a baby, asking for our support.  When we go to a city we try to avoid panhandlers or anyone with a cardboard sign or we give the change jangling in our pockets.  None of us likes guilt; none of us are truly motivated to give more because we may feel guilty about the abundance we enjoy.

            This is not a sermon about guilt and money.  We’ve all heard more than our share of them, and they’re not highly effective at changing our giving habits and money attitudes.  Instead, I’d rather talk about knowing our own worth as a human being, and thus knowing the worth of every other human being on this planet.

            There are two interpretations of this reading from Mark.  The traditional understanding is that Jesus is praising the widow’s religious devotion, for giving all she had to live on, in contrast to the offerings of the rich, who are giving what will not be missed.  The other explanation is that Jesus is lamenting that this poor woman is being taken advantage of by the religious authorities, paying for the expenses of the temple out of an already impoverished pocket.

            I would like to propose a third reading of this passage.  The widow, having no one else, sees herself as connected to a larger, wider family, that of her faith; that in her giving she becomes part of the community, that she too can give, like those around her.  The widow knows her worth as a child of God and gives accordingly.  What Jesus praises is that she knows her own worth, that she has not devalued herself because she is a poor widow.

            When Jesus observes the scribes in their long flowing robes, sitting in the best seats, requiring acknowledgment and respect from others, and saying long prayers just for show, I doubt these scribes saw themselves as connected to the poor, the outcast, to the orphaned and the widowed.  Most people who strut have not only an inflated sense of self but are also fearful and insecure.  They are more likely to be disconnected, lonely, and isolated.  When Jesus says that they will receive the greater condemnation, I interpret that he is saying that not only will they suffer the consequences of their actions and attitudes but they will do so alone—separated and apart from others.

            The great gift of the incarnation, of God with us, is the realization that we are all connected, one to another, and to the earth, to the creation itself.

Long lay the world, in sin and error pining,
‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

If Jesus is lamenting anything, I think it would be over the rich scribes and others who don’t yet realize that their worth is not dependent on money or influence or power or education but simply that they draw breath.  In the first creation story, when God made human beings and breathed life into them, God declared them good before they had done anything.  When as yet Jesus had not yet begun his ministry but had simply risen out of the waters of baptism, God declared that he was a beloved child.


But we human beings tend to size up others based on actions rather than seeing the deeper kinship we share.  Often we put ourselves in the place of God, forgetting that it is God who judges “people and nations by [God’s] righteous will, declared through prophets and apostles.”[1]  It takes a lot of hard work to be able to see all people the way God sees people—as beloved children.  And that is because we don’t yet know our own worth.  We don’t yet see ourselves as precious.  We don’t yet see the hope that God has placed in each and every one of us.

The Son of God lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need; our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles, has been working with gang members for the past twenty years through his organization Homeboy Industries.  When they are ready to leave the life of gangbanging, maybe when they get out of jail, maybe when a close friend dies, maybe when they become a mom or a dad for the first time, these young people come to Greg, or G as they call him, for a job in the Homeboy Silkscreen warehouse or the bakery or Homegirl cafĂ© or in another offsite job that partners with them.  In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Greg describes, in story after story, how these once violent, risky kids begin to see themselves as something other than a life that will end before the age of 25; as something other than a target for a bullet; as something other than a waste of a human being.  They begin to see that their soul has worth.

Homeboy Diner

But then the stories catch us up short, because this young man or that young woman who saw their worth then dies as a result of a stray bullet or one that was meant for them.  Greg has baptized over a thousand gang members and their families but he’s also buried over 160 of them.  Over and over again he is asked the question, and he asks it of himself too:  What’s the point of doing good if this can happen to you?  What’s the point of changing your life if you don’t even get a chance to really live it?  The answer that Greg came to was this:  these gang members were human beings who came to know the truth about themselves and liked what they found there.  He says, “What is death compared to knowing that?  No bullet can pierce it.”[2]  All she had to live on.  And the soul felt its worth.

In the Monroe Congregational Church we say our church covenant as a Body of Christ every Sunday except Communion Sundays when we say the UCC Statement of Faith.  In our covenant we promise ‘all that we are and all that we have, to the fulfillment of God’s kingdom’.  In order to promise all that we are and all that we have we need to know our worth.  And of course it’s a journey that we’re on, a process that we’re engaged in.  I’ve yet to see a member of my church ‘give it all up for Jesus’.

But we don’t come to know our worth on our own.  In Africa it is said that we become a person through other people.  It is through our connections, our relationships, through a sense of belonging that we know our own worth.  The more connected we are, the more engaged we are with others—others of all stripes and not just our own—we begin to see ourselves and others the way God sees us: as something other than abundantly rich or oppressively poor or somewhere in between; as something other than one of the many labels that have been placed on us or that we own with pride; as something other than just an obscure person who can’t make much of a difference.

Do you, Lordship Community Church, know your own worth as a body of Christ?  Do you realize how precious you are in the eyes of God?  How have you experienced the hope that God has placed in you?  How do you connect with the wider church and have a relationship with it? 

When we know the truth about ourselves and like what we find there, we give not out of our abundance what we won’t miss, we put in everything we have--even our hopes, our dreams, our fears--all that we have to live on, to the fulfillment of God’s kin-dom.  We give so that others may know that we are kin to them and they are kin to all of creation.  Death can’t touch it.  No bullet can pierce it.  Love is its name.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.


[1] United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, 1981.
[2] Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle, S.J. New York:  Free Press, 2010.  Pp. 16-17.

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