Artful Generosity

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Mark 12:38-44

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Long has Mark’s poor widow summoned to us. Her mite, her mighty mite, ‘two small copper coins worth a penny’, abides with us, to disquiet even the quietest mind.

Artful generosity. Yes. But of what sort? Personal or Communal? 

Personal Generosity

First, on one hand…

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Tell me after worship or by email your earliest memory of a sermon on ‘the venerable doctrine of Christian stewardship’.

A poor mother and son (an early memory of a stewardship sermon). The son needed to see a doctor, but the mother’s work prevented her from taking him. She called the local WSCS to ask if someone would help, but heard nothing. That night she told her son that she did not know whether he would have a ride and they would have to trust God to help them. A woman came the next morning. On the way home the boy shocked her, and touched her, by asking, ‘Maam, are you God?’ Far from it, far from it, she thought, and said. ‘No. Why?’ ‘Well in our prayer last night my mom said that God would have to help me get to the doctor. And you came and got me there. So are you God?’

God helps. Or help is God. Gandhi said for God to appear to the hungry, God would have to come as bread…

I look across nine pulpits and forty years, and I see her in every town. Amy Whetzel, alone, in Ithaca, caring alone for her bed-ridden dad. Setta Moe, near Malone, a chain smoker, who went door to door to raise money for her church’s (beautiful) windows. Syracuse had Mickey Murray, whose husband died when they were forty, but who raised her family alone and still had time to run a Wednesday evening junior youth group dinner. In Rochester, Barb Steen, who by then had lost both children and her husband, and got up every morning, made a list of 5 names, and wrote or called or visited every one. Widows all. And here at Marsh, Marsha Meade, County Durham, in the north of England.

One widow at 86, drives to church on Sunday, and on the way stops to pick up some of the ‘older people’. In 1965, with tears, she spent a Kennedy silver half dollar, a precious coin given her by her own recently deceased dad, using it on the last day or so of October, after that month’s salary was worn through, so that the parsonage porch would too have pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, like all the neighbors, all part of raising four children on a preacher’s salary.

The one committee a church needs, if any, is a stewardship committee to teach, by example and service, the artful generosity that is the marrow of Christianity.   You tell me how you give, and I will tell you who you are. You tell me the contours of your painting titled ‘generosity’ and I will tell you who you are. The only permanent possession you can claim is what you have given, permanently, to another. Only your gifts are real possessions, and this is mainly true of your time. As in the existential fragment of this one hour, in public worship of God.

We went north into the wilderness, just miles from Canada, to be within driving distance of Montreal. We did not really know how we were going to manage it. On Thanksgiving Sunday, both church offices, we discovered, were filled with food, for us, for the winter. You can live off the land if the landscape includes some women and men of artful generosity.

Our son earned his first $150 dollars as a coaching assistant one summer for a Colgate University soccer camp. He put the three fifty dollar bills on his dresser. That Christmas his sister was leaving for a term in Adelaide, Australia, and as she headed out the door he put that money, his only official earnings to that point in life, in her hand. All he had.

This all of having and giving, the giving of what one has, especially in the liminal moments, is the stage on which Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, appears. Our undergraduates, at young ages, entered the dark and deep of her great play about an older poet, her younger doctor and former student, and the long shadow of illness to death. The young doctor gives all he has but it is not enough. The older nurse gives what is needed, her very self, sitting on the bed, holding the poet, caressing and caring, and reading at the end from The Runaway Bunny: ‘ I guess I’ll stay and be your bunny.’ ‘Good. Have a carrot.’

You people at Marsh Chapel are the most generous of souls. You give of your time. You share your talents. You worship God in artful generosity toward your neighbors, including your soulful use of the collection plates. As people of faith, and in particular, as faithful religious people, Christian people, Protestant people, Methodist people, you tithe, you give generously in a disciplined way, offering year by year 10% of what you receive, to others.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Yours is the spirit of the psalmist. Who longs. Whose soul longs. Who thirsts. Whose soul thirsts. Who remembers. Whose soul remembers. Who despairs. Whose soul despairs. And yet who sings. Who sings songs in the night. Who sings songs in the night. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

We heard our own Lorelei poignantly sing Psalm 42 on Friday night. In their new, and newly arranged voices, one heard again the ‘agonic’ cry of the heart, of the moth for the flame, of the night for the morrow.

Artful generosity is personal. It harbors a longing.

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

 Communal Generosity

Second, on the other hand…

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a condemnatory, not a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

He excoriates. He judges. He criticizes. He condemns. Look. What a miscarriage of justice. All these others, religious leaders, take and receive. Fine clothing. Public status. Glorious meals. The best seats. They—don’t miss this—devour widows’ houses.

In this tone of voice, one not of commendation but of condemnation, Jesus casts a piercing dominical eye upon the lack of artful, communal generosity. Awful! She has put in everything she had to live on! An atrocity, not only because others have not given—surely bad enough. But more-so, that she, unwisely, mistakenly, foolishly, out of a kindness that kills, has given far more than she should have done.

The community has not cared for her. As it has not for the 9 year old boy in Chicago, who carried a basketball toward his grandmother’s house this week, and was shot dead. As it has not for the poor children in the rural outbacks of this great, good country, who lack multiple forms of nourishment. (There are more poor white children in this country than any other kind, most in hidden rural hills and hollows a long way from anywhere.) As it has not for the poorest quintile of households in this country, only 8% of whose children go through college, when 84% of children in the top quintile do: SAT scores and ZIP codes match exactly. As it has not for those children who tragically have been abused by religious leaders.

Jesus’ most venomous rhetoric is reserved for religious leaders. Long robes. Best seats. Respectful greetings. Banquet honors. They devour widows’ houses. They will receive the greater condemnation.

Here, from this angle of vision, the poor widow is not an exemplar of personal generosity, but a measuring rod of communal generosity, or lack thereof.   Real religion is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction.

We know about corruption in religious leadership, in local, lived, and shared experience. But lest you fellow Protestants think to Lord it over other denominations on whom a ‘Spotlight’ has fallen of late—beware. We too have our troubles. Protestant churches are not exempt from the trauma of clergy misconduct. 2 of the 9 congregations I have served have had past experience of clergy misconduct.

There he sits, across the plaza and watches. The compassion of the poor widow is not matched by a communal compassion, which should be heralded by, evoked by, sponsored by, the communal, say religious, leadership.

You also have read much of Thomas Piketty’s, Capital. So you know that beyond a certain threshold capital tends to reproduce itself and accumulates exponentially (395). You understand the multiplicative and cumulative logic of capital accumulation and concentration (373). You see that while the baby boomer generation may have thought that the influence inheritance was a thing of the past, the millennial generation sees the return of its influence with a vengeance.

After Jesus, and before Mark, Paul proclaimed: let those who have much not have too much and those who have little not have too little. (2 Cor. 8). On his proposition Boston University was born, has lived, and will thrive.

It is a biblical conception. Naomi and Ruth find their way together into an uncertain future. To do so they need each other, they need the courage to change, they need a partner or two, and they need an artful generosity that is communal not just personal.

It is a biblical conception. Paul Farmer, you spoke to us this week here at BU, and stayed for five hours, five hours, to sign books for students who waited for him to do so. He told us so in Mountains Beyond Mountains.

It is a biblical conception. One of the great BU traditions is the annual University Lecture. This week Dr. James McCann took us all the way up the Blue Nile, and taught us again, along the way, about a communal, artful generosity. A hope of a globe whose climate is conditioned by generosity. A hope of a continent, Africa, whose greatest river, continues to nourish, to slake the thirst of a needy landscape. The hope, especially, of a new form of ecological science that we are calling CHANS, coupled human and natural systems (11/1/15). 

It is a biblical conception of artful generosity, this communal one. You remember Amos. You remember his warning about a ‘famine of the word’. You remember his picture of Yahweh standing to measure his people against the plumb line of justice. Against the plumb line—of justice. It is a harrowing memory.

While far less traditionally asserted, and while much less useful, in the immediate sense, for church stewardship Sundays, like this one, the harsh word of Jesus much more naturally fits the flow of Mark 10, the general spirit of the whole of Mark, the full sense of Jesus’ criticism of religious leadership, and the plain sense of the passage itself. The first voice, of commendation, is the more familiar, more common, more generally heard and used. But the second, this one, of condemnation—she put in all she had to live on!—is the truer to the passage.

Jesus speaks to us today and points to the perennial guest of stewardship Sundays near and far, saying with a commendatory voice: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Long has Mark’s poor widow summoned to us. Her mite, her mighty mite, ‘two small copper coins worth a penny’, abides with us, to disquiet even the quietest mind.

Artful generosity. Yes.

But of what sort?

Personal or Communal?

Merciful or Just?

Individual or Societal?

Today the gospel brings us two sorts of artful generosity.

Truth to tell: we may just need them both.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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