The Gifted Community (Ruth 4:13-17; Eph. 4:11-16; Mk. 12:38-44)
The Ashley family Thanksgiving at our house has gotten me in the mood for the Thanksgiving season. (I, for one, refuse to go to Christmas this early, despite every effort of merchants to get me there!) There’s an old German hymn that isn’t in our current hymnal, but which most of us know:
We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered God’s almighty hand.
God sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
And the refrain is:
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
We thank you Lord, we thank you Lord, for all your love.
The thought of thanksgiving leads me to think of stewardship. Now, when many of us think of stewardship, our first thoughts are financial. We put Pledge Cards in the bulletin and talk about budgets and all the rest of it. And that’s important. Without it we can’t function. All of us know that, and careful planning will be necessary for 2016 no doubt. But we get things in the wrong order when we talk about finances first. In the Old World, the steward was the one put in charge of running an estate or household. Stewardship really amounts to finding creative ways to tend and nurture our common life, including, but not limited to, or even primarily, our physical resources. It’s about our gifts and our giftedness as people more than anything.
And that thought leads me to the Epistle Lesson. The passage from Ephesians 4 states several principles. First, that we’re given all we have by God in Christ (also the point of the hymn text with which I started). Next, these gifts are not, primarily, material, but gifts of people who build us up and make us better by making us like Jesus. Next, we are most like him when we are united in our diversity to other folks, both inside and outside this congregation, not divided by controversy from them. As the Ephesians text itself says, we are most like Christ when we “speak the truth in love.”
Some lines from another great Epistle, 1 John 4, that say:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:16b, 18a,19a).
To say this again: the very best gifts we have from God are the people we are with, who build us up to maturity in Christ. Maturity in Christ means loving, tending, and nurturing these people with the same love we’ve learned by being loved by God. Such love makes it possible to live without fear in a world that exists and prospers by instilling fear in people. These principles give us a way to reflect on our other two Scripture Lessons today, both of which speak as stories that illustrate how it is to tend and nurture the people-gifts God gives.
The passage from the Book of Ruth is the part that says “they lived happily ever after.” It’s also the part that tells us that the great Israelite hero and favourite king, David, was descended from an outsider, the Moabite Ruth, so that, according to this gentle little tale, Israel’s story, in part, is about the contributions of outsiders. This is a book of and for outsiders, and really should be titled the Book of Naomi and Ruth. Naomi was Ruth’s mother-in-law, and without her there is no story. More in a moment.
For both Jews and Christians David is the ancestor of the Messiah. His town (Bethlehem) is not only the town where Naomi started, and also where she and Ruth end up, but also the town of Messiah. Very soon now we’ll be singing
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
The story of Ruth begins in the dark streets of Bethlehem where famine had darkened the whole area around that little town, and eventuality, that led a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to move to the country of Moab which is, mostly, east across the Dead Sea from Judah. After they moved, Elimelech died and left his widow with two sons to raise. Eventually the two sons took Moabite wives named Orpah and Ruth. But then Mahlon and Chilion died as well (we don’t know why) and left two more widows.
Now in the ancient world, with its emphasis on kinship and clan, being a widow put a woman in a good deal of danger because there were limited systems of community support. Here was not one widow, but three. So Naomi decided to take some action. She would go home to Bethlehem where she did have kin. One of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, decided to go with her. Now, at least Naomi would have a chance to survive with some support for her and, perhaps, for her daughter-in-law.
I say, “perhaps,” because Hebrew society shared in the characteristic (that we’ve not fully outgrown) that it did not give great economic support to women, and certainly not to widows, most especially not to non-Israelite widows. This was in spite of the fact that the Hebrew Torah had quite a bit to say about caring for those who did not have familial support, such as widows, orphans, and outsiders, so they would not fall in the cracks of their communities. The prophets also said much about Hebrew society’s responsibility to nurture these women in the community.One of the features of Israel’s ancient social safety net was a legal fiction that the next-of-kin had the duty to protect the honour and property of the family, and that a surviving unmarried brother had the duty to marry his deceased brother’s wife. Any heir that would be born to the two would, then, be considered the heir of the dead brother. Now that sounds very complicated, but it’s part of the story of Ruth.
To make a short story even shorter, Naomi and Ruth worked to find that near kinsman who would marry Ruth and tend not only the memory and property of her dead husband, but also the memory of her dead husband’s father (Naomi’s husband Elimelech, also deceased). The kinsman’s name was Boaz and he liked Ruth – a lot! And, “they all lived happily ever after” and Ruth was the ancestor of David. It’s really a wonderful story.
But don’t be fooled by appearances. Without going into detail I will tell you that no one in the story would have lived happily ever after (even Boaz) had it not been for what we might call the stewardship that Naomi exercised together with Ruth in a kind of women’s cooperative, moving in the background of the story to make things happen. They didn’t just sit back and wait. They didn’t even just pray about it. The narrator is very reserved in describing all this, so that we can choose to believe that things simply worked out, or that God had a plan, or that Naomi had one. I think it’s a combination of all three. I also think this story is a wonderful example of the way God usually works in the life of a communty. When everything’s over and we can look back at it, it may be quite clear that God was at work, but, if we’re honest, it was through the gifts and abilities of people who gave themselves to others for the good of the community; who nurtured and stewarded the gifts they’d been given. The power at work in this story is the gentle power of human ingenuity abd stewardship working in tandem with the grace and love of God.
Some people think that the Bible is only about what we call the miraculous. Unless there’s thunder and lightning they think God isn’t at work; unless there’s a great miracle with great “Wow value,” God isn’t around. Frankly, the big miracle is the exception in the Bible. We can be fooled by how impressive miracles are into thinking that they are what we ought to expect, or wait for, all the time. Unfortunately, when we think that the extraordinary is the ordinary, and the unexpected is what is to be expected, when these miracles don’t happen, we usually end up beating up either ourselves or others for a lack of spirituality. And that’s always a dead end. My experience of church has been that God usually works quietly in the lives of ordinary people (some of whom society marginalizes) who are inspired to nurture and manage the gifts they’ve been given. In other words, while we must always make room for thunder and lightning, God usually puts the gifts and resources within a community to sustain and nurture it, if people will be willing to work at nurturing and enhancing one another and the community, and using what they’ve been given by God. Don’t be fooled by a lack of thunder, lightning and obvious success. God is faithful in the lives of ordinary people who simply nurture their giftedness and the giftedness of the community, and don’t want much credit for it, like Naomi and Ruth.
The Gospel lesson illustrates how important it is not to be fooled by thunder and lightning – thinking that because we’re impressed by flashy, noisy things that God is, too. The lesson is in two parts. In the first, Jesus warns against those who like positions of power in church, so that they can be seen, but not so that they can nurture the giftedness of the community. Rather they see their position and their power, not as an invitation to uplift those in need, but rather as an opportunity to “devour widows’ houses” – to decimate, for their own advancement, those less fortunate. God’s judgment on these is severe.
A further example of those who like a good show is the little incident where Jesus was watching what was going on one day in the so-called Court of the Women in the Temple where the collection for the poor was being gathered. The custom was that each person would announce the amount of the gift as it was put in. I can just imagine that many were very impressed by the big amounts.
And, almost as an embarrassing anticlimax to the way these snoopy people would see the story, a woman (strike one in that culture), who was poor (strike two), and a widow (strike three) came – one imagines shyly, almost reluctantly, but in obedience to the Torah’s instruction to give to others, to exercise her stewardship of what little she had. And that was almost nothing. She gave two small copper coins worth almost nothing as well. The old King James Version calls them the widow’s mite. Can you hear her whispering the amount as she drops those “mites” in that trumpet shaped collection receptacle? They hardly make a noise at all. Do you remember the little Sunday School song: “Hear the pennies dropping, listen as they fall”? These didn’t even make that much sound. All the lookie-lou’s could ignore this one. Nothing to see here. Next!
Then, as ever he does, Jesus turns our world’s standards on their heads. Note that he doesn’t yell at the crowd or at the scribes, but rather tells his disciples how it is:
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 their abundance: but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
Big gifts are sometimes important, but don’t be fooled by thunder and lightning, sometimes we misjudge what the big gifts are. Don’t always look for the big things that, occasionally, in the grace of God, happen. Those mites are mighty in the eyes of God. As a small congregation, we need to trust ourselves to the quiet working of God, while, as dedicated stewards, nurturers of the giftedness of our congregation, we go about our work in the world. The power of the Church is God’s not ours. Miraculous things can really happen when we share the little we have. The attitude of the generous heart that cannot but give for others is mighty and unstoppable, and reflective of the love of God’s own gift in Christ. These are lessons that encourage us to continue to nurture one another, the gifts that God has given into our hands in this place.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.