32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 17:10-16 | Hebrews 9:24-28 | Mark 12:38-44
Almighty and merciful God, graciously keep from us all adversity so that unhindered in mind and body alike we may pursue, in freedom of heart, the things that are yours. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
The image of a new heart, the image of a new mind, the image of a new way of seeing is so much a core of this Judeo-Christian tradition we belong to. We’re always invited to open our eyes to see what’s real, as opposed to what we have been toldthe reality is, or we’ve tried to create reality out of our own imaginations in a way that would somehow satisfy whatever needs we have. Nothing is more important than seeing things as they are, and along with that obligation, I think we should take seriously the obligation that, once we see what is real, we need to surrender to it, roll with it, go with it. You look at the beginning of our tradition in the Old Testament and we look at God entering the lives of his people, and right away the tone is set, at the beginning, for he saw his people as enslaved in a place where they could not be free. He wanted them to be free, and this image of freedom would bring them to a place of abundance, the Promised Land. “I want you to be free of everything that robs you of the life I’ve created for you. I want you to live in this place that I’ve created for you that is filled with abundance.”
Let’s look at these readings and see what they might say to us about this whole process we’re engaged in, this life that God has given us. The one thing I’d like to start with is an image we had recently in the Scriptures, and there was a line that said, “This thing about salvation, this process of moving from slavery to freedom, from scarcity to abundance, this is not a work that you do on your own. This is not something you can sit down and decide, ‘Okay, give me the plan. I have the necessary discipline, and I’ll work this out, and I’ll figure it all out, and then I’ll find this place you’ve promised me.’” It just doesn’t work that way. It’s more mysterious, and the bottom line is stated this way: for you, this journey to freedom, this place of abundance is not anything you can accomplish alone. You can’t get there on your own, but for God, nothing is impossible, and God’s plan is that he enters into your life and creates a new way of seeing, a new heart. And then somehow, with him in you, you in him, you go on this journey, this incredible journey. It has everything to do with the world presenting itself as God has planned it for you and God being there as he’s always planned, for him to be there with you, you being fully yourself there. The three together — life, God in you, you in God — that’s the setting. That’s what we’re here to deal with.
One of the real problems in this situation is how do you figure out that there’s a "me" here, and that there’s a God in me here, and there’s a world out there, and you have to see them all clearly. Let’s look at each one in the context of the readings. The readings are about poverty, this mysterious thing that St. Francis was so in love with. He felt that there could be no real spiritual life unless you lived a life of poverty. Poverty is not the absence of money.Francis didn’t quite understand that. He had the spiritual image of poverty absolutely right on, but he also thought anytime you got anywhere near money, you were in trouble. Well, let’s just imagine that money is a symbol of your own power, your own power, and he was right. The minute we set out on this journey thinking that we are called to make ourselves into something beautiful for God, that we’re going to clean up our act, do the right thing, be successful and make the right decisions so that everything in our life works out — we have this wonderful life. All that is so much focused on our discipline and our life, and that isn’t what this world is about. It isn’t about cleaning up your act, doing the right thing and then everything works out because you did the right thing. Life is so much more mysterious.
So in this first reading, we see there is a woman in this story who is at a point in her life when she realizes that things are not going well, and there isn’t enough food to sustain her, and so she is going to die. What I love about this image, in this story with Elijah, is that this woman realizes that she’s going to die. She has just a little bit of what she absolutely has to have in order to exist, and a man comes along and says, “Can I have some of that?” And she says, “Yeah, I’ll share some of it with you, but then when it’s gone, I’m going to die.” What is she doing? She’s somehow not clinging to the fact that there is a way to change this thing. There is a way to make it all different. If she could just live a few days longer, that would be better. She isn’t desperately begging this man to go find her food. She is in this mysterious place of sort of resigning to something that seemingly has to be. She has given in. She’s like, “Oh.” She’s not hanging onto the thing that she has said to herself, “Without this, I cannot exist.” And when she lets go of the thing that she believes is keeping her alive, when she does that, something shifts. Something happens, and Elijah recognizes in her, in a sense, acceptance of reality and what’s happening. He says, “You know what? You’re not going to die. Until it rains again, God is going to enter in and take you through a process in which the thing you thought you couldn’t live without … he’s going to make up for that. He’ll be there in some way for you so the thing you think you can’t live without is really not going to kill you.” Interesting.
What do you really need to be happy? What do we need to be content? I don’t know if you’re like me, but I find there’s something happening inside of me when I have, in a way, planned something to work in a certain way or I’m looking at my life, expecting it to be a certain way, and when it’s not, I don't know. I don't know how to describe this, but there’s a kind of, I don't know, negative feeling, a kind of dread, a kind of like — well, I want to blame myself for it. If I’d have done something different, then it wouldn’t have happened this way, or more likely I blame somebody else. They’re not doing their part, and if they’d have done their part, this wouldn’t have worked out this way, and it’s not supposed to work out this way, and it makes me miserable when it’s not working out the way I think it should be working out.
That whole system of saying, “I’ve got a plan, and I know the way it’s supposed to work, and I have to pour my life into it to make it work, and when it doesn’t, I’m depressed,” has no poverty in it. I’m holding on, holding on to a particular result that I feel is supposed to happen, and when it doesn’t, something’s wrong. Something’s wrong. Where does that come from? Why is it that our minds, our egos or whatever take on the responsibility of creating the world around us?We don’t do that. We participate in it. We don’t own it. We don’t possess it. We participate in it. We’re part of it, and we roll with it. We go with whatever is happening, and somehow there’s something about the way it’s written. Jesus used to use that phrase: “This is the way it has to go. This is the way it’s written.”
The second reading describes the gift that Jesus gave us, the sacrifice. What was the sacrifice that Jesus was so engaged in that it changed the world when he gave into it? And the interesting thing about what Jesus gave into, when you look at it, was evil, and he used the words, “I have to give myself over to evil,” but evil somehow gets in there and seemingly does whatever it can do to destroy something. What it wants to destroy is your trust and your ability to surrender to whatever it is and be at peace even though things are falling apart. It wants to somehow instill in you a sense that, “If it doesn’t go this way, then I can’t stand it. I can’t deal with it.” In a sense, Jesus asked in his sacrifice for people to accept what he’d been working on for 30 years privately and then the three years he was engaged in this work publicly, that in all this effort — and remember, he’s 100 percent human — he didn’t sin. But if Jesus didn’t have a desire and a longing to be successful in what he was doing, how could he be human? That’s just so core to our human nature. If Jesus couldn’t say no to God, then what’s so great about him saying yes? When he begged God not to allow what was happening to him — to be humiliated, laughed at, mocked, to be seen as a complete failure and then die — where did he get the ability to do that without feeling that it was wrong, that there was something terribly amiss in it? And he didn’t want to do it; he begged twice not to do it, but he gave in. And there was something about that moment when Jesus gave into the way it had to be and not, in any way, shape or form, take on what we take on so often, the responsibility of saying, “Well, if it is not going the way I think it’s supposed to, I failed, or someone else is failing. Something is wrong.” Was it wrong that Jesus died the way he did? Absolutely not. He had to die that way to save us. He was able to let go.
The widow in the gospel story gives just two pennies, but what Jesus is looking at and seeing in her is that she’s giving away everything she has that would give her a sense of being protected and cared for, and she lets go and trusts in whatever is coming. What an incredible gift. I’d like you to feel that’s what poverty is all about. It’s about not demanding things to be a certain way. It’s about not taking on the responsibility that things have to turn out a certain way because all of those things are what give us a sense of value, and value is a kind of seductive thing that we put our value into things that aren’t really who we are, what we are. It’s almost like money — money’s a perfect example because people will often feel that, “If I have the money, then I have the power. I have the prestige. I have — I’m valuable.” But the truth is your value has nothing to do with that. The incredible value you have is that God lives in you. You live in him. He’s asking you to embrace the world around you because everything is as it needs to be. If something you claim, “I can’t live without,” and you believe that, “without it I’ll not exist. I’ll die,” he’s going to probably somehow work around to getting you to let go of that, to not have it, to not own it, to be poor. I have such a hard time — such a hard time doing that.
Whenever I do a project, if the project is good, then I’m good. If the project isn’t good, then I’m not good. That’s the opposite of poverty. So the challenge to be poor, as Francis so much longed to teach his disciples, is this amazing place of freedom from any expectation of how anything has to be and recognizing that whatever it is, no matter how contrary it is to what we thought it should be, is exactly as it should be, and somehow in all of that there is something for me. There’s abundance, amazing abundance. What a different way to live. What an amazing thing that God has given us as a goal, and knowing that we can’t achieve it, we just want it. We long for it. We know he’ll bring it to us. Then we go into each situation with a disposition that is more about curiosity than judgment. “This is wrong. This is terrible.” No. “Wonder what this is about. Why is this happening?” If the answer is to help me become so confident, not in my performance, not in what I have, but knowing that I’m loved, knowing that I’m safe —
Father, your plan, when we understand it, when we embrace it, when we surrender to it, is beyond our imagining, particularly in its effects, how it brings us this strange, mysterious, inner world of peace, gives us the capacity to be a healer, to be a life-giver to the people around us. Bless us with this kind of wealth, and let the poverty you call us into let go of everything that is not what it seems, not capable of giving us the life we long for, not capable of giving us any value. And we ask this through Christ our Lord, amen.