sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B), November 11, 2018
It was early morning before my drive to Federal Way. I stopped off at the White Center Library and dropped Christy’s and my ballots into a gigantic metal box. I couldn’t hear a sound as they landed. I jiggled the handle to make sure they weren’t stuck. My work was done … and it felt like so little. It was all I had to give to my country that day.
Two little ballots. A handful of meal in a jar. A little water. A little oil in a jug. A couple of sticks. Two small copper coins. Our gifts are symbolic, and sometimes they feel merely symbolic. How do we use the power we have? And can we trust God to use it well?
A symbol is a tool for human communication, a shorthand. It is something that stands not only for itself but also for something greater than itself, and so it communicates and mediates the thing to which it points. A ballot, for example, casts a vote, but it is also a symbol of our power to change the context in which we spend our lives.
Meal, oil, and water come together to make cakes in this case they symbolize the meager final meal for a poor widow and her son. Two small copper coins symbolize a poor widow’s trust in the religious system to mediate her relationship with the God who created her.
We also have two other symbols that we only place here occasionally. What does our nation’s flag represent? It depends on whom you ask. My love for my country is conditional on its behavior: how much does America look like God’s dream for our lives? So the flag might symbolize what our country is right now, including the ways it has always fallen short and continues to do so. Or it might symbolize what we wish our country might become, in which case we fly the flag in the hope that someday we’ll get there. Veterans are those who have put their lives on the line, being willing even to use violence and to risk the resulting spiritual damage to defend people’s lives for the sake of this symbol and the hoped-for reality to which it points.
But for others, this symbol of a flag understandably rings hollow, because they have never seen the fruit of that hope. For some, this symbol speaks of empire, oppression, slavery, genocide, false promises, financial opportunism for the few causing chronic poverty for the many … all the worst effects of our American experiment. Their experience is real, too, and it’s only out of unearned privilege that any of us can pretend not to see these experiences or choose not to honor them.
In other words, symbols are complicated things, and they don’t always mean the same thing to everyone. We place flags in our worship space today with the intention of honoring their best connotations, but we must never forget their worst and work to keep changing those. A trustworthy church is one that offers critique to the state: How well does our nation promote the love of our neighbors as ourselves? Whenever it falls short, we Christians must speak out. And so we vote, and we call and write our elected officials, and we protest. We get involved in the world because we are trying to reveal God’s Kingdom to the world. We use our power to build trustworthy institutions on behalf of those with less power.
Our readings today focus especially on questions of power and trust. When the widow of Zarepath receives Elijah into her home, she is receiving a member of the powerful prophet class, but he is now on the run from his own government, a refugee in a neighboring land. He has just come from forty days in the desert, where angels fed and waited on him. Elijah may be just as hungry and she and her son are. So when the prophet asks the widow to feed him first, it is not an unreasonable demand, but a dare against despair: “I dare you to feed me first, because I know that even on the brink of starvation, you trust God to care for you.”
Similarly, the widow in today’s Gospel reading gives all that she has: two coins, given in trust to the religious establishment. Jesus points out that no matter how little we have, we still have enough to be generous. He honors the gift even as he calls into question whether the establishment can be trusted.
Meanwhile, the rich are giving many large gifts. Jesus doesn’t criticize the wealthy for giving, but neither does he comment on them at all; he only raises up the gift of the poor woman. The gifts of the wealthy are simply expected: together the people pool their money and care for each other. This is how it’s supposed to work, and so it needs no commentary.
Instead, Jesus calls out the scribes, the authoritative religious scholars who interpret God’s law. He accuses them of abusing and impoverishing widows still further! And then here comes this widow to give all her money into the care of these same authorities. It reminds me of stories of people who give all their money to some televangelist, going deeply into debt because they have been manipulated to do so.
Jesus’ relationship with the temple was complicated. He certainly did not stand against the Jewish temple system wholesale. Jesus was a devout Jew who knew that the system could do good but often failed. He was no more anti-Jewish than a protester is un-American. It was for love of God and for love of his people that Jesus called out the injustice of the powerful. He did not want the widow’s coins hoarded by self-important, swaggering leaders who took all criticism as an attack. These, of course, were the people who would eventually collude with the Romans to have Jesus sent to the cross.
Symbols, by their nature, engage us in such conversations about power and trust. In this story, the powerful give a chunk of their money away as a matter of course, and good for them. But they don’t have to stop and think very hard about how it will be used, because there’s more where that came from. The system, as it stands, has served them well, so why question it or challenge it?
The poor widow, on the other hand, has invested all her trust. She gives all that she has, because who knows? Someone else may yet need it more than she does. Jesus doesn’t judge whether the widow’s gift is wise or foolish. He just names it as the largest gift of all.
So here I stand before you all in a long robe, a religious scholar and interpreter of Scripture. Based on today’s Gospel reading, you have every reason not to trust me. And I don’t demand your trust. You have given me this pulpit, and I’m doing my best not to abuse it. But call me out when I do, OK?
We have all these symbols to consider: flags, ballots, robes, coins, bread and wine and water, the offerings we give today, and next week, our pledge cards, which symbolize our trust in God—and our trust in the church to use our gifts well. I will not tell you where to place your limits on giving. I just encourage you to give, to make a specific pledge in faith rather than merely saying, “I’ll give some when I have some.” Pledging our money is a spiritual practice, and practiced givers can tell you how transformational it can become.
Just remember that the gift you pledge is not merely to keep the lights on at Good Shepherd, though it will help do so. Your pledge is a symbol of the sweat of your brow given back to God. It is a symbol of your trust: trust in the institution of the church to whatever degree you can muster that, but more broadly, trust in God to act both inside and outside of the church, to act in both our wise and our foolish decisions, to act for the sake of redeeming everything and everyone.
We are dealing with many symbols today, but there is one more still: a symbol bigger than any other in this room, far more important than any nation’s flag or any amount of money. The cross incorporates and redeems all these other symbols.
So as the psalmist urges, “put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth.” Put not your trust in political parties and national borders, for the one who gave his life transgresses all such categories. Put not your trust in flags, for the one who gave his life protects you in every situation. Put not your trust in coins, for the one who gave his life stands on the side of the poor over against the powerful. Put your trust in the transforming power of generous, self-giving love, a love that gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry, a love that cares for the stranger, the orphan and widow—a love that frustrates the way of the wicked.
Stand on the side of love and place your trust in love. And may the symbols you offer for the sake of love not only point to the One who is greater but also help show God’s Kingdom to be present all around us. Amen.