Small Money and Biscuit

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44

We have a penny and a biscuit. This is what we have to work with and then we are finished. The widow in Mark’s Gospel has the equivalent of a penny (year of inflation value not noted in my translation). The widow of Zarephath has a bit of flour to make a cake. The cake is made of oil and flour…so I am calling it a biscuit. Cake sounds too bourgeois, too fluffy. We have a penny and a biscuit

We will eat the last biscuit and die. These words by a woman who is at the end and are stated quite directly.

Elijah, the prophet who announced the drought in the first place, then assures her that she need not be afraid but that the God of Israel has promised that the oil and flour will be replenished until the rain returns.
Does she know who Elijah is? Does she worship the God of Israel? I don’t know you or your God but, “ok, sure….we’ll go for it.” Not sure if that is faith or resignation. Ah, what the h**l it, nothing to lose.

The prophet—or random guy Elijah—makes a request and…

15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

As an interpreter I must ask—What is the purpose of this story? Well, it continues the trajectory of God’s engagement with a people and a leadership that doesn’t follow God’s way. You may remember that God was not in favor of setting up the kingly political system in the first place. In particular, in the chapter before we read that the new king Ahab wasn’t starting off well.

We read, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all of the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33b) . Mmm, not a great start. Notable, yes…good?… leaves a little to be desired. “Did more to provoke the anger of the LORD”…yikes. Because of this, God sends the prophet Elijah to declare that there will be a drought. Elijah then flees (tough luck being the bearer of such terrible news) and lives by a wadi as a source of water. A wadi is a temporary stream in the desert and God delivers food morning and evening by ravens. Specifically, the ravens bring bread and meat. Which is good because it helps him survive but made me grimace when I thought about how that would work practically. Little dirty raven claws holding meat…likely not wrapped…

The water source then dries up and Elijah leaves hiding (because I guess ravens can’t deliver water? You know—it’s the claws, water is tricky. They can’t grasp water?…wasn’t this a miracle already?, couldn’t God just rig up a little water pitcher?) Whatever the reason, Elijah goes looking for water. Which brings us to the widow. The prophet asks for water—which is presumably in short supply and she obliges. He then asks for food as well (since the ravens can’t come into town?) The famine has gone on long enough that the widow is down to her last bit of food. Now as a widow with a child this dire situation likely would happen sooner than for others, however, the drought has apparently already been taking its toll.

A few observations or questions may be in order. Firstly, the sins of a leader or leaders can lead to great suffering—I was at an event at the Middle East Institute on Thursday and the situation of civil war in Yemen and US support Saudi bombing and the dire famine in which millions are starving or on the brink of starvation was discussed. While the answer isn’t clear the negative results of the actions of leaders is quite clear.

Secondly, the question of God’s action—perhaps culpability—in this suffering is raised. Diving into the philosophical and theological tangle is not what I plan to attempt this morning, but this passage made me wonder about day 2 after this story for all of the other widows. If this widow had one more meal and then nothing what about all of the others?
Speaking of widows in dire straits who give in noteworthy and sacrificial ways….across town and x number of years later…

We see Jesus in the temple.

Beware of the leaders who wear fancy cloths, are respected, have the best seats, consume the needy, and as show, pray long. He doesn’t actually say, “don’t be this way” but watch out for them. Though one can imply that this path is a risk—Jesus-wise. Don’t be caught. Don’t be fooled! He asserts that they will receive “greater condemnation.”

After this exhortation they sit down to watch the offering plate station. In this, the wealthy give large sums and then a poor widow gives the equivalent of a penny. (Incidentally, last Sunday before I knew this was a the passage, I discovered that there was a penny hidden behind the pulpit covering—it is of so little value I didn’t even pick it up…still here). So Jesus and his people are hanging out, loitering even (hang out like it was a mall in the 90s—See Dream Cities for an interesting discussion of malls), and checking out what people are giving. Jesus then notes that this destitute and vulnerable woman has given more. More?! If we watch closely, he doesn’t say anything negative about the large sums—though this is the impression. It is the impression because of the comparison and praise for the other party, the widow. This impression of implicit critique is also because of the passage just before. The feeling is that some of the large sums are able to be given because the ostentatious “scribes” have not only done their religious duties for show but have devoured the widows’ houses.

Their wealth is based on their exploitation of others. Was this particular widow impoverished due to her wealth being consumed? We don’t know. Perhaps she is simply part of a class of people who are stripped of their means of survival. While the main point of Jesus’ teaching is about motivation in religious actions there is a subtle (or not so subtle) economic critique in Mark. [1] It is not only the action and teaching of Jesus that matter but the text—the literary structure, flow, and rhetorical jabs matter as well.

Implicit in this is the economic critique but there is the explicit teaching as well. The gift of this destitute widow, though small—nay paltry—this gift given in this way was the greater gift.

Now this is not a sentimental “it’s the little things that count.” It is not an inspirational poster nor a Hallmark card with a kitten nuzzling something…anything! No, Jesus’ point was that giving that hurts (or is sacrificial) is better. But even that may be a tired moralism.

Giving that hurts somehow means more than the more “effective” big gifts. The rich young ruler in the Gospels gets generally affirmed—“You’ve done all the correct requirements, which would include the correct religious donations, but now go sell everything and give it away. Or Luke, the sermon on the plane—“blessed are the poor.” This is what Liberation Theologians called God’s preferential option for the poor. The widow who is poor amidst the wealth of those who disposed her—the widow and her tiny gift has given the greater.

Now it is fine for Jesus to say this. He isn’t the leader who is trying to repair the temple roof. It is fine for Jesus, he isn’t tasked with figuring out a budget. Those of us who do this institutional work very much appreciate this sort of gift. A smallish non-profit that I work with got a surprise $750,000 gift a year or so ago. The widow’s penny is great but….you gotta love a large bequest.

Which is the reality that James is addressing—don’t show favoritism to the wealthy who might become your benefactors.

Whether we try to or not and whether or not it is appropriate, we tend to identify with one character or set of characters. Because of our competitive or perhaps judgmental inclinations we quite likely engage with this text from what might be called a “distorted Jesus” vantage. We may watch how or if people give and think “well that’s interesting (of course not thinking it interesting in the curiosity sort of way but using this as a jab)…that’s interesting, it doesn’t look like they gave anything. (Of course, having the online giving option now sows some doubt in such judgments.) We may also feel some degree of identification with the scribes that get such a tough word from Jesus—are we devouring? Are we doing this only for show?

A problem with Jesus is that he, at least as recorded in the Gospel literature, is very definitive in knowing peoples’ motives. Jesus knows that this is all the widow has and that she is giving it in a laudable way. This is different than my anxious self-assessment. Am I up here preaching because I like the sound of my voice or because I have a call from God and the community to do this work? Am I distressed that the number of people here on a Sunday has decreased because I care deeply about proclamation of Jesus’ Gospel of Peace through word and deed on this particular location or am I distressed because it makes me feel like a failure as a leader?

Is Jesus inviting us to perpetual internal assessment? Are my motives pure? Is the percentage of my income given high enough? What if I get it wrong? What if we fail?

Kierkegaard’s leap of faith would seem to apply to the question of belief. Can it also be used to these more “applied” matters? What if—at least for those of us who tend toward introspection or self-doubt—what if we got over ourselves and got on with the simple things, the basics?

As a movement or organizational worker, I would much rather have someone give with wrong motives than get stalled or over-think it and not give at all. Motivation counts but if you are asking if your motivation is correct you are probably on the right track. Jesus wants us to be swept up in the Kingdom of God. Swept up not squashed down by perpetual self-reflection or doubt.

Being caught up in the work of God we may then be like the widow. The widow is swept up in the work of God. Those two copper coins—a penny worth, what I didn’t even bother to pick up from behind the pulpit drapes. All that she has is given to the worship and work of God. All that she has isn’t, at least on its own, all that useful. The power of God is seen in the widow. May we be like the widow. May we be like the women who lost everything and still gave.

WHO ARE “ALL”?

Matthew 25:37-40, Acts 2:42-47

Faith Westdorp

In today’s reading we see the beginnings of the first church.

Matt Skinner writes that this passage “describes a community of faith that operates in the power of God’s Spirit. The virtues of justice, worship, and mutuality are not accomplishments of extraordinary folk; they are signs of the Spirit within a community of people who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity–not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers.”

Working for BNP and for a church is pretty amazing. One of the biggest surprises to me when I started and over the course of the past six months has been how God shows up at Brethren Nutrition Program. It is astounding. Items that we need seem to appear out of thin air, volunteers come through at the last minute with donations of materials and their time. We feel God’s presence in other ways too, in the gratefulness of our guests, in the simple way that things work out day in and day out, even when they shouldn’t. These are, I believe, “signs of the Spirit within this community of volunteers and guests who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity”.

The community described in Acts 2:42-47 consisted of God-fearing Jewish people who had come to Jerusalem after hearing of Jesus’ resurrection. Together, they witnessed the wonder of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when a wind blew and suddenly people who spoke different languages could understand one another. The first church consisted of people from vastly different places, cultures, and backgrounds who were united in faith.

These people sold their possessions and pooled their resources in order to better care for one another. Isn’t that beautiful?

Do you think that there were forms to be filled out in order to confirm and establish that Sarah really needs that loaf of bread, or that David needs a new shirt? I know some of y’all are sitting there like “Wellll these people were prob illiterate so… no there weren’t any forms because no one could read”.  That’s not my point. The point is that this passage illustrates needs being met, no questions asked.

 Why then is it so much more comfortable for us to create processes and systems for helping others? Why do we create systems and bureaus for interacting with the needy instead of connecting with each other, and folding everyone in?

Raise your hand if you remember the first time a stranger asked you for money. I do. I was six.

A year later when I was in first grade my family moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland. My mom commuted into DC and would take my brother and I in with her on days that we had off from school so that we could stuff and seal envelopes at her office. The highlight of working in my mom’s office for my brother was always competing with himself for how many envelopes he could label in a set amount of time. For me, it was a trip to the Chipotle of the ‘90s, Baja Fresh (they had BLUE Hi-C in their soda fountain). On our way to DuPont Circle from my mom’s office a man sitting on a stoop asked us for change and my mom ignored him, or maybe didn’t hear him, or more likely was so accustomed to these requests that she didn’t even register it. But at 6 years old I heard him and saw him in full, and I stopped to open my red, heart-shaped purse to give him my dollar bill. My mom quickly came over when she saw what I was doing and gave me a “stranger-danger” lecture as we walked away. I felt like I had done something wrong by helping someone in need.

My mom isn’t a bad person, and she definitely had a strong influence on my path to BNP. A year before this, she had encouraged me to run a penny drive at our church to benefit a children’s charity. She obviously took on a lot of the associated work because I was 5 and mostly remember being annoyed that people had contributed silver coins to our PENNY drive.

These two experiences have stuck with me because they are reminders that we are all taught who to help, and how. Through my Psychology coursework, I was introduced to a slew of psycho-social phenomena that are useful when analyzing how and why we’re taught to help some people, and not others. One theory that’s applicable when thinking about why and how we help or don’t help people in need is in-group/ out-group theory. An ingroup is defined as a social group to which we think we belong, and an outgroup is a social group that you do not think you belong to. The strength of our attachments to our multiple personal “ingroups” varies. For example, my sense of belonging to “women” as a group is much stronger than my sense of belonging to “soup kitchen managers” as a group.

Social scientists have shown that we feel more positively towards people we perceive as members of our ingroup. On the surface, this is another classic example of psychology confirming something we already know to be true: we like people we can relate to, who are like us.

The unfortunate outcome of our tendency to gravitate towards people who are like us, is what it does to how we think of people who are not like us, AKA members of our various outgroups. An outgroup that social scientists have found to be among the most likely to be thought negatively about and discriminated against are people experiencing homelessness.

One study using MRI/ fMRI scans to map people’s brain activity as they were exposed to different pictures of people and things drives home this point. In one picture, a study participant sees a chair. And in the next, they see a picture of someone belonging to their ingroup. In the last picture, they see a picture of someone experiencing homelessness. Participants’ brains’ responses to pictures of people experiencing homelessness are closer to how they perceive a chair than how they perceive a member of their ingroup. Essentially, when we see people experiencing homelessness we process them as furniture instead of as people. This process is referred to by psychologists as “dehumanization” and is the nasty mechanism behind some of humanity’s greatest atrocities, like the Holocaust. 

The practical implication of this is that we don’t notice and don’t see people who are members of outgroups. People who are homeless. Our brains override our view of them. In other studies, social scientists have shown that we perceive the pain of people belonging to outgroups as being less severe than our own (which, as an aside, has been used to explain why doctors under prescribe women’s pain meds). Dehumanization causes us to literally not see people in need, just like my mom walking by the man on the stoop.

There’s a big advantage to not seeing the suffering of people who are different from us. It allows us to focus our mental and emotional energy on our ingroup, a pool of people who presumably share more genetic information with us than members of our outgroup do. Positive affect or “feelings” for people who are like us aids in group cohesion, which in turn strengthens familial bonds that support the propagation of our own genetic lines. Beyond that, city and close-quarter living would be unbearable if our brains processed every person we see the same way we process our loved ones. Can you imagine the exhaustion that would ensue if we greeted every person we saw like they were our best friend?

But Jesus DID see each and every person as if they were one of his best friends, his loved ones. He is and was perfect, saw society’s castaways and tended to them with compassion. A life modeled after Christ must include compassion and love for those who are vastly different from us.

My favorite bible quote is found in Matthew 25:37-40 (NIV)

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The ways in which we come to view others, between “ingroup” and “outgroup”, “stranger” and “friend” are all learned.  If the first Christians, through the power of the holy spirit were able to overcome lack of a common language in order to “give to one another” then we have the power to open our hearts wider, to love deeper, to widen our circles to include people we haven’t before. We can break bread with more people, and we can strengthen the bonds that we have and bring more people in.

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=52

Returns

WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN

Jeff Davidson

May 4, 2014

RETURNS

Psalm 116:1-4,12-19

Almost everyone has a memory of a gift they have either given or received that was so ugly, or so wildly inappropriate, or just so strange that they would have returned it in an instant if they possibly could.  It’s become so much of a cultural cliché that there are sit-com episodes about the clueless husband who gives his wife an iron for Valentine’s day and there are advertisements at Father’s day about what to get Dad besides yet another tie and there are parties at work dedicated to wearing ugly Christmas sweaters.

I think the most unusual – no, it was more than that.  I think the weirdest gift I ever got was when I was probably 12 or so.  It was a Christmas gift from Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred.  Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred were known for giving unusual gifts.  They were thrifty people, and when it came to gifts they truly and rightly believed that it is the thought that counts.

I remember that particular Christmas receiving two gifts from Xoa and Fred.  The first was a pair of socks.  There’s nothing wrong with that; socks can be a fine gift, although for a 12 year old boy they are kind of disappointing.  But these socks were weird.  They were orange and they were really, really thin, thin like hosiery.  They were still on the cardboard that they had been on in the store, but they looked old and smelled a little musty and I had the impression that they’d spent several years in the attic before being plucked out of some dusty, long-forgotten trunk to become my Christmas gift that year.

The second gift was a pack of gum.  Well, that’s not quite right either.  The second gift was part of a pack of gum.  It was a six pack of Beech-Nut gum, but it had been opened and there were only three sticks in it.  And those three sticks weren’t soft like new chewing gum is supposed to be.  They were really hard. And the package didn’t look like the Beech-Nut gum that was in the stores.  It looked old.  It looked like 1930’s old.  It looked like it had been something my Uncle Fred had gotten when he was 10 or so, and that after eating some of it he’d decided to put it away for 40 years or so to give to me.  Along with his new socks that he’d gotten that year.

Back then the idea of returning gifts to the store for a refund was unheard of, and even if it hadn’t been there was no way to return these gifts to anyone.  I thanked them for the gifts and kept them in my room for a few years.  I don’t know what ever happened to them, but if I ever find those socks and that gum I’m looking forward to figuring out who to re-gift them to.

These days when you get a gift you don’t like, it’s not too much of a problem.  The gift almost always includes a special return receipt, just so you can take it back to where it was bought and get the money.  I know that it’s not as busy as Black Friday, but the week after Christmas is plenty busy at the returns desk as people bring back the gifts they just received from people who love them in order to get some cash.  It’s so routine that when I bought Julia some jewelry a few months ago they asked me if I wanted a gift receipt with it or not, and when she bought a handbag for herself they just automatically gave her one without asking.

God gives each of us gifts every day.  The fact that you are here this morning means that you’ve been given the gift of life today.  Mark has shared his gift of music with us.  Don and Steve and Mary and John and Ruth and others have shared their gifts in preparing this space for worship this morning.  We’ve shared our financial gifts in the offering plates today, and those financial gifts are the result of money we’ve earned through using yet other gifts and skills and talents and abilities that God has given us.

All of that is in addition to the gifts of sunshine and mild weather we’ve had this weekend, and after the winter and spring we’ve had so far those aren’t gifts to be taken for granted.  They’re in addition to the gifts of family and friends, both near and far.  They’re in addition to the gift of a home, a gift that many do not share.  The gift of a country that for all it’s faults and all of it’s shortcomings is free of the kind of violence and fear that our brothers and sisters in Nigeria or Egypt or North Korea or other places face each day.

God has given us many gifts.  The Psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”  The gifts God gives us are given out of love, and if God has given them to us then there must be a way to use them.  If God had given me the orange socks and the gum from 1932 I probably could have figured out something to do with them besides look at them and scratch my head. We are to use the gifts that God has given us, whatever they are, and in using them, return them to God.

I’ve never paid a lot of attention to investments.  I’ve never had a whole lot of investments to pay attention to.  As I get older, though, I find myself taking a closer look at some of the statements that come in the mail.  I have a couple of retirement accounts from jobs I’ve had at one time or another that have some money in them and of course I’ve got social security.  When I was thirty or thirty-five I didn’t care very much.  Now that I’m fifty-five and therefore closing in on retirement age I’m reading the statements more carefully and checking out the projections of what I’d get each month depending on when I retire.  I look at how much the accounts have earned or lost.  I check out the return on the investments.

The concept of a return on investments is seen a few different places in the Bible.  The most famous example is the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30.  In The Message, this passage is talking about the Kingdom of God and says,”It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, and to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.”

There’s another sense In which returns matter to God.  God calls us to return our gifts through using them and sharing in offerings to God.  God also calls us to get a good return on the gifts and skills that he has trusted us with.

You may remember that back in January I flew back to Ohio for a couple of days to be with my sister as she was preparing for heart surgery.  I flew in to Cox International Airport in Vandalia.  I grew up less than five miles from that airport.  We lived on Peters Road, and you could come out of our driveway, take a right, and in five minutes be at the airport entrance.  You just took a left into the airport and drove down a long driveway to the lobby with the control tower on top.

It’s sure not that way know.  Peters Road now dead-ends before you get to the airport entrance.  My old house is still less than five miles from airport property, but it now takes about fifteen minutes to get there because you have to loop around to the other side of the airport.  The airport itself is thirty times larger than it was when I was a kid.  When I was growing up it took five minutes to walk to your gate from the ticket counter.  Now it takes ten minutes just to walk to the security checkpoint, and once you’re past that it’s at least ten or fifteen minutes more to get to your gate, and that’s if you have a close-in gate.

When I flew back into Cox airport in January it felt strange.  It didn’t feel anything like the place I’d known growing up.  But as I got into the rental car and drove through the city of Vandalia and then out into the country I got more and more excited.  The country out there still isn’t built up.  There are still farms.  I recognized houses that had been on our bus route for school.  I remembered friends and where they had lived.  I drove past cousin Ron’s, and Uncle Verlynne’s place, and then past the church I grew up in.  It felt familiar.  It felt comforting.  Even though I haven’t lived there regularly since I was in high school, it felt like I home.  I felt like I had returned home.

Do any of you ever have that feeling?  That you’re returning home, returning to a place and a time where you once felt comfortable and connected?  Maybe home is where you grew up.  Maybe home is where you live now.  Maybe home isn’t about a place but about people, people with whom you feel safe and loved and cared for.  Maybe it’s some combination of people and place depending on what’s going on in your life.

Like the old hymn says, there is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God.  Our relationship with God is like that of the prodigal son, who wandered far away and squandered his inheritance and wanted nothing more than to be home, whose father came to greet him when he was still far from home.  As the Psalm writer says, God has heard our prayers and our supplications.  God has listened to us, and saved us from death.  When we are with God, we are at peace.  We are in safety.  When we return to God, we have returned home.

We can return to God from the gifts and skills that God has given us.  We can use what God has given us to spread the Kingdom even farther, and give God a good return on his investment in us.  We can return to God to find warmth, and safety, and mercy, and forgiveness, and love forever.  May we always look for ways to return to God, whatever that means in our lives.  Amen.