October 1, 2017 Proper 26 / Pentecost 17
Scripture Readings: Exodus 17:1-7
Holy Trinity, Ste Agathe / Grace Church, Arundel
Within the gospels there are a few stories about Jesus in the temple, and every time he’s there, there seems to be some sort of pointed message that Jesus is trying to make about how society functions, how society’s ordered and structured. There’s this story from two of the other gospel accounts, Mark and Luke, and it talks about Jesus in the temple with his disciples and they’re watching people as they bring up their alms and their offerings to donate to the temple. The rich in the story tend to bring some money, but not anything staggering. But then this widow comes up and right into pot go her two mites, let’s say about $3 in today’s wages. This is literally pocket change, and yet, this woman on the margins of society without any prospect of security or wealth contributes more in God’s eyes than anybody else because she gives, not out of her abundance, but out of her poverty. And the generosity of that action is what justifies her offering in the sight of God.
SELF EMPTYING LOVE
The author of the letter to the Philippians talks about something similar today when they talk about “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave”. New Testament scholars will talk about this passage as what’s called the kenotic hymn. It’s quite possibly the oldest Christian hymn in existence and the word kenotic, or kenosis, means it’s a hymn about the self-emptying nature of Jesus’ ministry, the way Jesus gave up everything, even his own life, for the sake of the gospel and the kingdom of heaven.
It’s that kenosis, that willingness to give everything you have, everything you are, to the success of the kingdom of Heaven that the widow with the two mites shows. As utterly hard as it is, as much as that price might seem impossibly high, that’s the standard that we as Christians are called to live up to. We’re called to give up ourselves. Jesus tells his disciples to pick up their crosses and to follow him. He tells the rich young man to sell all his possessions and to follow him. He tells the early disciples to drop their fishing nets and to follow him. Jesus asks us to give of ourselves and to give not only out of our abundance, but out of our poverty, not just when it’s convenient, but when it really matters and it really counts.
It’s a hard message to hear and it’s an even harder one to take seriously, but part of the difficulty really, is that our popular theologies seem to have picked up this twisted idea somewhere that when Jesus asks us to give up our lives for the sake of the kingdom, it’s because our regular, mundane, everyday lives aren’t actually worth very much. We seem to have developed this notion that Jesus asks us to abandon the boring, dreary parts of our lives in order that we might take up the higher, spiritual paths of life. But of course that’s not true. Because of course the fact is, God’s demands are even higher than we realize. God asks everything of us in this life, not because our regular, mundane, everyday lives are worth nothing, but precisely because they’re worth everything in God’s eyes.
These moments, these breaths, these are the gifts that God gave us at the very dawn of time, in the beginning of creation. These lives are the lives that God intended us to live, finding love and beauty in the smallest of things and in the most inconspicuous of places. But even there, in the small, everyday graces that decorate our lives, there is a deeper reality, there is more to us than what we live on the surface, and God asks us to give up our very lives in order to find precisely that identity.
God asks us to humble ourselves, not to teach us a lesson about how lowly we are or ought to be, but in order to strip away the parts of ourselves that we use to hide who we really are. All of those masks that we wear as we go about the world around us, all of those costumes that we use to protect our vulnerable hearts and souls. God asks us to humble ourselves in order that we might let go of all those things, in order that we might find the person who truly lies at the centre of all of it, hidden in the very palm of God:
Your true identity, the core of your being, a child of God most high, an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven.
LIVES THAT RESPOND TO GOD’S LABEL
I think it’s really only once we’ve reached that point, once we can understand that fundamental claim that Jesus makes about our identity that we can actually understand what he’s saying in today’s parable, the story of the man who sends his two sons out into the vineyard. The first one says he won’t go, but he ends up giving in and going anyways. The second son says he will go, but never actually does.
Jesus uses this parable as a way of showing the people gathered around him in the temple that the most important thing in our spiritual lives isn’t simply the fact that we believe the right things or say the right things. The most important thing in our spiritual life is that our lives are transformed by the gospel, it’s that we’re able to respond to the gospel, to that good news of who we are at our core.
Christian salvation isn’t about achieving moral perfection and it isn’t about following the law to a T and it isn’t even about being faithful, as if faithfulness were just something else we had to work up to and achieve. Christian salvation is about being able to respond with whatever we have to God’s claim on our lives. It’s about a poor, broke widow being able to give two small mites to the temple collection. It’s about a son being able to respond to his father’s request, even when it doesn’t fit his schedule or his plans.
It’s about your ability to be changed by God in Christ, to live out your regular, mundane, everyday life in the full knowledge that you are a beloved child of God and an heir to the kingdom of heaven. It’s about your ability to respond to that, not just with your mind, and not just with your words, but with your whole being.
It’s about believing in God, but also believing in the promises that God makes to you, to cherish you, to trust you, to give up his life for you. God asks much of you, only because God believes in you, God believes in your ability to carry out the work that’s been set before you. Remember that the least expected, the tax collectors and the prostitutes were the ones to enter the kingdom of God first, because they were the ones able and willing to respond to the word that God spoke into their lives. They were the ones who were most able to appreciate the claim of the gospel that their lives mattered.
And so as you go through your lives this week, I encourage you to bear in mind who you are, when all of those protective layers are stripped away. Take a moment and look at yourself through the eyes of God. Allow yourself to be transformed by that image. And then go forth into the world to love and serve the Lord.