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From Greedy Takers to Self-Denying Givers: a Sermon for Shepherd by the Sea, Gualala, California November 11, 2012

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Shepherd by the Sea, Gualala, California

November 11, 2012

1 Kings 17:8-16 Psalm 146 Hebrews 9: 24-28 Mark 12:38-44

From Greedy Takers to Self-Denying Givers

The lessons for today are about stewardship.    The secular principle of psychology goes: self-realization by self-acceptance. That can keep a person quite self-absorbed. The Christian principle goes: self-acceptance for the sake of self-giving. Our self-acceptance becomes possible, because as unlovable and unacceptable as we are, God in Christ has loved and accepted us and given us all things in heaven and earth as spiritual gifts and blessings. What we therefore receive from God, as givers, we share with others. With that a circulation of grace continues that brings life, the life of Christ to our church, our community, our society, our whole country and world.

Look at our first story! King Ahab had brought the fertility worship of Baal into Israel. With that an angry Elijah prophesied three years of drought and famine in the land. Probably to escape the hand of Ahab, he fled to Sarephath, a village just south of Sidon, where God had commanded a widow to nourish him.

I wrote a children’s song about the story. It’s called, “God Will Provide.”

God Will Provide

Elijah met the widow

of Zarephath

Picking up sticks

upon her path.

“Bring me some water,”

Elijah said,

“and don’t forget

to bake some bread.”

“The little I’ve left

will make one bread;

Then my son and I

will soon be dead.”

“Have some faith

and put God first

and God will fill

your hunger and thirst.”

“Your flour and oil

will never run out,

that’s what sharing

is all about.”

Selfish people

never have enough,

and those who share

have more to spare.

Those with a lot,

will always want more.

Those with a little

will help the poor.

Seek ye first

the Kingdom Above

and God will provide you

with food of love.

The food of love

Will never run out

Because that’s what

Sharing’s all about!

The Widow of Zarephath was much like the widow who offered her two mites in the temple. A little flour and oil is all she had and the prophet wanted her to give it to him, requiring her to have faith, because he promised that God would see to it that her flour and oil would never run out. Death by starvation was staring her in the face and what was harder for her than her own death, was that of her son. Giving is the test of our faith. It is a tangible way to see if our faith is real or not.

The surprising outcome of her giving was not only being sustained throughout the drought and famine, but her son suddenly died and Elijah resuscitated him and turned the utter tragedy of her life into joyful motherhood once again.

Giving is healthy self-denial and dying to oneself makes the wonder of life and the fullness of God’s grace and glory become revealed to us in the law of love that includes the very least, the least of these.

How else can you explain the way Jesus sees the widow throwing in two mites and showing that she gave more than all the wealthy and bountiful offerings pouring into the treasury of the temple? God’s blessings are involved and because of them, a little becomes a lot and a lot can become a little. The background of power and prestige can make what appears to be giving into taking, so we should not be fooled by appearances. What the rich gave was no sacrifice at all, while the widow did not know where her next meal was coming from. In those days kings provided for widows because they had no property or income and were reduced to begging and gathering sticks like the widow of Sarephath. She really gave more than the widow Jesus pointed out, because she gave the prophet her last meal, which separated her and her son from starvation.

Jesus gave us even more, as Hebrews points out. He gave his life in his once and for all sacrifice. Like Luther says, he purchased us not with silver and gold or money, but with his own precious blood. God had to look at us, who are so angry and ungrateful and ask, “What do you want, blood?” And in our sinful and selfish way, we said, “Yes.” Then Jesus went to the cross and shed his blood for us, so that we might start coming alive to God and alive to our neighbors and those in need and continue God’s circulation of grace, which brings sustainability. The food of love never runs out. We share and the deeper our faith goes, the more our faith increases, the more we can give and share and in consequence, receive God’s blessings.

Our Psalm says, “Don’t put your trust in rulers; in mortals, in whom there is no help.” The systems and policies that administrations put into place are important, but the real flow of the circulation of grace in our lives depends upon our faith in God.

For example, one grain of corn placed and planted into the ground, dies. Notice that it is sacrificed because it is not eaten. Out of it a ten foot plant grows with six to eight ears of corn that can be husked with many hundreds of kernels of corn on each ear. Jesus would say, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”

So whether we take the outcome of the Obama and Romney campaigns as good news or bad news, the really good news is the outcome of the campaign of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we also know that systems are important and bring with them a great deal of injustice, so greater approximations of justice are called for. The Gospel of Jesus Christ makes clear that widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor need to be protected from the voracious, who try to swallow up their houses. I wonder about reverse mortgages, sometimes. We should be wary, because the elderly are vulnerable.

What God requires of us is to become people who deny ourselves and die to ourselves in order to become givers and not takers.

Jesus was also comparing the joyful sacrifice of the widow with the voracious appetite of the greedy hypocritical scribes. I would like to point to other people and call them greedy, but then I do a double-take and look at myself. Why does my heart sink and why do I get perturbed when a beggar approaches me? I give him a dollar. Then I’ll turn around and pay fifty to sixty dollars on a meal for my wife and me at a restaurant.

When I give, it is so hard on me and I measure it so carefully. When I use money for myself, I often don’t even consider the limit. I’ll put thousands into the stock market, where I’ve lost them, thinking they would make me more money. If I had only given it away, I’d have some real treasure in heaven.

Selfish people never have enough. We always want more. When we can deny ourselves, we can share and even have more to spare.

I know a woman who was on welfare, back when I ministered in Coney Island. Without pay, she would clean the whole church and then decorate the altar so that everyone could see how much she loved the church. Her son worked for the telephone company, was in the union, and received a high salary. He would come to his mother for help when his money ran out. I kid you not!

So let’s hear Jesus out. For it we have to identify with the scribes. Although I want to, it would be hard for me to identify with that poor widow, in any case. The scribes were different because they could read and write, while the common people in those days couldn’t. They were professional and had more knowledge and power and they used it to their own advantage. Our self-interest is naturally stronger than our concern for other folks and helping them. So like with us, their greed went unchecked. Acting religiously, they were devouring widow’s houses.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I remember in Coney Island in the Eighties, in the time under Ronald Reagan, Mario Cuomo, and Mayor Koch, how homelessness suddenly spread from the Bowery, where it had been notoriously contained for a long time, yes, now spread throughout the whole city and then throughout all the cities of America. That was when homelessness began. Here’s one reason: There were many S.R.O.’s in Manhattan and the other boroughs. Single room occupancies, where large numbers of the poor lived. The owners of these buildings wanted to convert them into condominiums. They dumped all the people into the street, renovated, and sold each apartment, which had been a rental, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, charging a monthly maintenance fee almost as high as the previous rent. Their real estate now brought in mega-bucks, but the homes of millions of people were devoured in that greed. Mayor Koch blamed the churches for being so hard hearted that we did not take in the homeless! Meanwhile their policies were sending countless people into the street.

Then we watched hurricane Katrina take out almost all the houses of the great City of New Orleans. Just a little later, the deluge of greed from Wall Street infected what used to be called, “real estate.” Everyone wanted equity income on their houses and were speculating by flipping them for profit and the banks were putting questionable mortgages into speculative derivatives and millions of houses went under water. Being “under water” was not a figure of speech for New Orleans, but being under water was just as real for the millions of people, who have been losing their homes by foreclosures each year since the Wall Street debacle.

It is our greed that has devoured all those houses across our country. We learned to live with the inhumane condition of homelessness. What goes around comes around. From homelessness going across the country, it has gone to the disaster in New Orleans, to the millions who have lost their homes in this great recession, to the new disasters now striking us in lower Manhattan, Statin Island, and the New Jersey shore. When we’re under one blanket, it’s not right to pull it over ourselves and expose other to the cold.

Perhaps unchecked human greed and selfishness can be compared with the fertility religion of Baal that Elijah fought, where parents would commit human sacrifice of their children to assure them of prosperity. Because of his protest, Elijah had to leave Israel quickly to escape the wrath of Ahab.

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The voracious appetite of our greed needs to be checked by self-denial and dying to ourselves so that we come alive to God and alive to the love and sharing and giving of the new life in Christ. Our conversion, because of God’s acceptance of us, changes us from takers into givers.

Giving is really a test of our faith. In baptism, not our house, but we ourselves go under water, in self-denial, in dying to ourselves, dying to greed and all the other vices and sins, so that God lifts us up out of the water into our new selves, into a wonderful world filled with love and compassion, sharing and self-giving. Then grace will abound even on a deeper level than just giving money.

Money, of course, can really be our secret god that we believe in and cling to for dear life. What we discover is that it robs us of our life and of the human value of our lives. When we cling to and trust in the one true God, then we check our greed, we deny ourselves, we die to ourselves, and to sin, our separation from God, who even gave his only Son, so that we would not perish but have everlasting and abundant life.

After baptism we find ourselves in our new selves and we enter the wonderful new world that Jesus proclaimed, where sharing and self-giving become the new order of the day, where the first come last and the last come first. This new world becomes filled by grace and truth. The grace of God begins circulating amongst us, and we come alive receiving a world full of God’s gifts and blessings. And new houses will be built first for the poor and needy and then the millions in the middle class, who have lost them. Homelessness will recede until it becomes contained in the Bowery once more and everyone will figure out how addictions and insanity can be healed to bring shelters to them as well. The greed for the almighty dollar will decrease and faith in God will increase, because everyone will experience the self-giving and sharing that real faith brings. Then widows and orphans, the poor and the strangers in our land will lead us further into the life of giving and sharing that mark the children of God. Amen.

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