sermon for proper 27, year b, november 11, 2012

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of St. Mark, we hear Jesus warning his disciples to…

“Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mark 12.38-40)

In stark contrast to this kind of behavior, and to the attitudes that underlie it, as well as in stark contrast to the attitudes and behavior of the rich and powerful, the Lord holds out the example of a poor widow, who came to the temple treasury, “and put in two copper coins, which make a penny,” (v. 42). And Jesus said to them

“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (vv. 43-44)

Over the past several weeks I have spoken about the imperative for us to offer our whole selves to God and to his purposes, in union with the self-offering of God’s Son. This is what we are to be about, and a picture of that is sketched for us in this Gospel vignette: a poor widow giving “everything she had,” even though it isn’t much, to God.

There are many lessons that might be drawn from this. Firstly, it is an antidote to the feeling that we must wait until we have more before we can afford to give anything to God. This is wrong. God doesn’t want some particular amount: he wants us to give him what we have, and who we are – RIGHT NOW. To do otherwise would be a failure to trust God, and to deny by our actions that the shape of my life RIGHT NOW, my possessions, all that I am and have today, has been devised and constructed and given to me within the context and with the permission of God’s providence. St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Already you are filled! Already you have become rich!” (1 Cor. 4.7-8). God wants us to be generous with WHAT WE HAVE, not with what we might have at some future date.

We might further draw a lesson from this passage about bourgeois respectability. Much has been said during this, mercifully-concluded, election season about “middle class” aspirations in this country. This “middle class” is held out to us by our politicians and the media as some kind of ideal – the place where exemplary Americans live. But Jesus shows us another, better way. Christians should – MUST – strive to be like the poor widow, to be entirely invested in God and his program.

Furthermore, and speaking of politics, note that the poor widow gave everything she had TO GOD – not to Herod, and not to Pontius Pilate. In other words, her whole living was invested in God and his Church, because she recognized that she had received everything from God, and that from him she hoped to receive salvation – and not from the civil government.

In case you have been in a coma, President Obama was elected to a second term as our president last week. Slightly more than half of our nation is happy about this, and slightly less than half is disappointed. But the example of the poor widow in today’s Gospel reading offers us a glimpse of the proper disposition of Christians to this election – indeed to any election. We should be so entirely invested in God’s treasury, with everything we have, with our “whole living,” as to be moved very little by the outcomes of elections or the any of the doings of the City of Man. In short: if you are pleased that President Obama will lead us four more years, don’t be too pleased; and if you are disappointed, don’t be too disappointed. Psalm 146 says: “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, * for there is no help in them.” Ultimately, there is NO help in them.

Our Lord commanded us to give the civil government its due (cf. Mark 22.21; Rom. 13.1), and we should be conscientious citizens, paying our taxes, voting, and generally taking an interest. But our investment in the affairs of the United States of America must, for Christians, always be governed by prudence, and colored by the certainty that, as St. Peter said, one day, “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up,” (2 Peter 3.10).

In 1833 one of the magisterial fathers of Anglican Catholicism, John Keble, preached a sermon at the University Church, Oxford, during a time of national political agitation, a time, not unlike our own, when progressives had a reason to celebrate, and traditionalists had a reason to be disappointed. Keble said:

“As to those who, either by station or temper, feel themselves most deeply interested, they cannot be too careful in reminding themselves, that one chief danger, in times of change and excitement, arises from [the] tendency [of such times] to engross the whole mind. Public concerns… will prove indeed ruinous to those, who permit them to occupy all their care and thoughts, neglecting or undervaluing ordinary duties, more especially those of a devotional kind.”

Keble went on to enumerate the two chief devotional duties of Christians with respect to the civil government, namely: intercession and remonstrance. In other words, as disciples of Jesus, our two main responsibilities to President Obama and to our government more broadly, are to pray for them, and to speak openly when they make foolish decisions or when they act unjustly. And note well that these duties would have been the same if Mitt Romney had won the election; although the form of the remonstrance would certainly have been different, the duty to remonstrate would have been the same.

Christians have never had to look far for causes of remonstrance. Nor do we. The poor and immigrants are very seldom treated with the dignity that is their due. About one million babies are killed inside their mothers’ wombs in this nation every year. And to be particular: if nothing changes in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the University of Notre Dame will soon have to pay the federal government approximately ten million dollars a year in penalties for the privilege of practicing the Catholic faith on these shores. This is a grave injustice, and an egregious violation of the God-given liberty that is supposed to be protected under the law of this land. Great remonstrance is now called for.

There is much to remonstrate, but intercession is just as urgent. I hope all of you pray daily for our president and other civil authorities. People of every political persuasion can recognize that there are urgent challenges facing our nation and its leaders. And if you are the sort that becomes agitated by paying close attention to secular politics, I would encourage you to refocus your agitation into prayer. Extemporaneous prayer is always valid, and often good. The Book of Common Prayer has a number of prayers for these and similar intentions. And I will conclude by drawing your attention to just one, on page 817:

“O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world:  We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace.  Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.  Amen.”

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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