The 24th Sunday in Pentecost, When Our Wants Take Precedence over the Needs of Others
Sermon for Propers 27B
The Essential Things
They are those we try not to notice...
The gleaners in the fields.
Impoverished widows scraping by.
But why, why do we avoid their eyes? What is so difficult about noticing these people?
The ones standing at the crossroads, holding signs. “Homeless veteran, anything helps, God bless”, or “kids at home, need money for food”
The ones removing items from their cart as they realize it’s going to cost too much.
I realize, I realize that in closing my eyes, in looking away and pretending not to notice...that I feel ashamed. That somehow I know that I have more than I need, while others, others have less, far less.
I don’t want to look.
But, I have no choice in the matter. Stopped at this red light, this moment is captured and I remember that he was lying with his head cushioned by the sign he had been carrying. Resting, I hope, and not hurt. We kept driving, on our way to an appointment and running late. We moved too quickly and it would have been impractical to turn back. There are other ways to care, to give I thought.
Excuses I know. And, I wonder, what the disciples felt when Jesus turned their attention to the woman in the temple. When they were stopped, when they had no choice but to notice. These were her only pennies...not enough to help her but everything she had to give. A paltry offering really, day laborers in the fields made 64 of these coins each day, yet all she had was two--not enough to pay for lodging, not enough for food. Yet, it was everything.
And, I wonder, if she felt that she had more than she needed, while others have less. Need becomes such a relative term here doesn’t it?
What do we need?
The relentless gallop towards the more secular aspects of Christmas descended upon me on Halloween day--buying candy at 4pm, the first tinny strains of Christmas music weaved through the faux spider webs and remnants of plastic pumpkin displays. Within days the special “holiday catalogs” from seemingly every place we’ve ever shopped and many places we’ve never shopped began to arrive at our door. Buy, buy, buy...the perfect gift, the perfect choice...I protest, but we don’t need anything!
Yet, somehow, the cart is filled and we leave the store with more than I thought we needed--and as we leave we turn at the corner where the veterans stand so often. Anything helps...but what I have to give seems so little in the face of the want. And, my spirit shrinks as I think of the full bags in the trunk of the car.
In many ways, it becomes painful to notice the gleaners in the field. There they are, Ruth and Naomi just getting by on the leavings from our harvest. The widow with her coins, I feel ashamed by her generosity and it is becomes so glaringly obvious that there are those with less who offer so much more. So many in this world have been asked, expected even to give disproportionately, to give more than their due by choice or chance or force or violence. Folks who have carried more of the burden and who too often go unnoticed when the burden becomes more than they or we can bear.
Part of me wants to cry out to the widow...”wait, stop, keep your pennies, you need them more than they do!” But, she will not hear me and she will remain unconvinced.
Need becomes such a relative and personal thing...
The passage we heard read today as our first reading was an excerpt from the book Journeys of Simplicity. This is a book in which the author has compiled lists of belongings or things packed for journeys. In this passage Bilbo Baggins, like so many of the great saints, leaves a life of relative comfort and leisure to go on an epic adventure in which he is called to give up everything to save everyone--does this sound like anyone you know?
On Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton's Antarctic Journey, after the destruction of his ship the Endurance by the ice pack, he told his men that they could each carry the clothes on their back, two pairs of boots, 6 pairs of socks, two pairs of mittens a sleeping bag a pound of tobacco and two pounds of personal gear. To his own pack he "ripped from Queen Alexandra's Bible the flyleaf inscription; the 23rd psalm; a page from the Book of Job...Laid the Bible in the Snow and walked away"
What would you keep on such a journey? What would you write down on your list of essentials? As we read and hear and see the folks who have suffered through hurricane Sandy, and continue to suffer in the aftermath, perhaps our understanding of what we need has changed?
When we pack a bag, or pack up our house or apartment what do we keep? What do we put in fire proof boxes or on our mental checklist of things to "save" should something happen? Feel free to take a moment to jot down that list on your bulletin somewhere.
I imagine that your list is surprisingly short. Does this mean that everything else is an extra, an abundance that we have in excess?
Don’t worry, it’s not that simple, there are many things which we have that feed our body, our mind and our soul that just don’t make the list. There are things that bring us joy and make us more of who we want to be and are called to be, and I am not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy or have these things. But, perhaps in thinking of how very little we truly need, we can grow to appreciate how very much we do have.
I also wonder what their lists would be, the disciples, the clergy, the widow...even Jesus.
What would they have found essential?
What would be on their lists? In some way I imagine that distilled down to the essentials all of the lists would bear a surprising similarity--and perhaps could be boiled down to those things that remind them of who they are and who they love. Do the things on your list serve as reminders? Are they the irreplaceable things that allow us to retain our dignity and care for those we love?
We humans need surprisingly little it turns out...and what Jesus in particular calls our attention to in this passage is the reality that too often our abundance comes at the cost of others. Part of the challenge of this Gospel is that we are being asked if we are the ones who devour widow’s houses.
And, as we ponder this painful question I ask, does what we consider essential cost the livelihood, the dignity of another human being? Do our wants ignore or exploit the needs of others? Who bears the heaviest burdens and pays the highest price?
These are challenging questions for all of us--does power and privilege always come at the expense of others? If we are lucky enough to enjoy power and privilege do we have an obligation, an obligation grounded in the teachings of Jesus and indeed the entirety of scripture, to care for others? Scripture, the Christ we follow and our traditions would indicate that caring for others is, indeed, central to our faith.
So, back to that corner, the one near my house and the strip mall, the one where the veterans stand.
I reach into my glove box for the strip of McDonald’s certificates we keep for the folks at this light. Perhaps a hot cup of coffee, a sandwich--something, anything.
I can’t pretend that this little bit will fix anything or anyone--it is a paltry offering in the grand scheme of things. But, perhaps in noticing, in seeing, I am working towards the calling of Christ to all of us...the calling to seek and serve Christ in all persons, love my neighbor as myself and honor the dignity of every human being. It’s another list of essentials isn’t it?