At Synod last month, we heard a report from the group of priests who brought St. Michael’s conference to our diocese. St. Michael’s is sometimes compared to a spiritual boot camp, and it’s a week long event where Episcopal teenagers are taken seriously. Apart from having fun together, they get the chance to really grapple with Christian truth, ask hard questions, and invest in rich worship in a liturgical setting. In fact it’s so substantial that our Bishop counts it as Confirmation preparation. The diocese of Springfield had its first ever St. Michael’s this past summer, and I was happy that two teenagers went from our parish, and I hope we will send many more of our acolytes and other teens this coming summer. June 12-16, mark your calendars. But what I want to mention from that Synod presentation on the St. Michael’s Conference is just one small thing that one of the clergy did. It immediately came to mind when I read today’s Gospel lesson. The narrative shows us Jesus teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem – so, in a place that you would think would be very rewarding to visit for any Jew of his day.
But he’s not having a very positive experience. In the way Mark’s Gospel gives the chronology, he’s already cleared the Temple of the money-changers, and he’s made a number of critical remarks about the people who hang around the Temple a lot, like the scribes and the Pharisees. At the beginning of the passage we heard today, Jesus is continuing his criticisms -- denouncing the scribes for collecting respect, for trying to get the best seats, for wanting to be honored at public events, and for making a show of commitment to their religion.
If you were around during the Sundays we read Mark chapter 10 together, you’ll remember what Jesus’ problem with this attitude is. Jesus knows in his bones that God is about giving not receiving; blessing others not being blessed; and serving not being served. So when Jesus sees people who claim a connection with God acting in a way that misrepresents the way God does things, it disturbs him, and, because he is so secure in his own connection with the Father that he has no fear, he doesn’t hesitate to say so. He’s been saying so for quite some time when Mark tells us he decides to sit down and just watch what’s going on. He sits opposite one of the donation chests – there would have been thirteen of them scattered around the Temple precincts, made of metal and shaped like trumpets. He sits there as a series of people drop large handfuls of coins in – there was no money issued in bills at that time, it was all coins – and listens to the loud clank each one makes. “Many rich people put in large sums,” Mark says. And all the time, Jesus is watching, seeing how the regular worshipers, if you will, are mirroring the way the scribes do things, rather than the way God does things. The tendency to turn everything to how it can benefit oneself. Sin 101.
And then a widow comes up – since women had no inheritance rights, she was someone who had nothing, who depended on others for survival – and she puts in two lepta. The lepta is the smallest Jewish coin in circulation, worth one half a Roman penny. Jesus has just been watching, but this, he finds worthy of comment. What does he say? Look at it closely. He says that in God’s economy, in the way God does things, she has given not just the largest gift he has seen so far, but she has given more than all of the people who have come before her put together.
I said a few weeks ago that Christianity is hard to believe, and if we don’t find that statement of Jesus’ hard to believe, there’s something wrong with us. (Do the math: two pennies is not more than a thousand dollars.) But because he knows God, Jesus knows that God has a different kind of math. Motivation and proportion are God’s bottom line. What is in your heart and what does the gift mean to you? Two pennies can truly say to God, “I love you more than anything, I trust you, and I give you my life,” whereas a thousand dollars can still be saying, “That ought to be enough,” or “Eh, I won’t really notice it.” It all depends who you are, what you mean by it, what’s in your heart. And of course Jesus can read hearts.
So God has his own math, and it’s all about the why rather than the what. It’s all about the spiritual effect in the giver, which then overflows into a spiritual effect on whatever community that giver is part of. That, of course, is not the world’s math. The way the world does things is not the way God does things. But the part of this almost nobody I’ve met can believe until they have experienced it many, many times – because it is so counter intuitive -- is that when you start prioritizing God’s math, the world’s math tends to turn out better for you as well. It’s hard to believe, I know. It sounds impossible. But once you have seen that math work, and met person after person and church after church who have seen that math work, it’s easier to take the risk that it might work in your life as well. And the beautiful thing is that anyone can do this. Anyone can give proportionately to their resources. Anyone can give out of love. Anyone can give with an attitude of trusting God.
Nobody has to say “well, I can’t do very much.” Nobody has to say “My little donation won’t make a difference.” It will to God! That’s one reason I always advise people who, say, right now have no income, to pledge maybe five dollars for the year, purely for spiritual purposes. It’s why I advise people never to let the plate pass you by without putting something in it, even if you already sent in a check by mail. Because you count. What flows from you up to God’s altar counts. This is God’s math, in which everyone can get in on being a blessing. We’re not NPR requiring a minimum donation to get your tote bag. We are a Christian community, called to value each other in the way God does, not in the way the world does.
Of course, Jesus can read hearts and your treasurer and I can’t. If you’re part of this Christian community, when you put your blue card in the plate this morning as Emmanuel receives pledges, we have no idea how what you give is shaping your attitude and your practices and your relationship with Christ -- that’s all between you and God. My hope for you is simply that the Great Reader of Hearts is smiling with anticipation of where, through the spiritual commitment you make today, he will get to lead you next.
But I was going to tell you a story about the St. Michael’s staff at Synod, wasn’t I? Yes. So here’s what happened with the St. Michael’s staff at Synod and how it relates to the widow putting in her two pennies and outdoing all the dignitaries at God’s math. They made us stand up, and they said they were going to teach us the Christian version of the Hokey Pokey. You all know the Hokey Pokey, right? “You put your right hand in, you put your right hand out….” It’s a complicated children’s song with motions. I never really learned the whole thing, but there’s all this putting one hand in and taking it out and then you put it in again, and then there’s shaking, and then you turn in a circle, and you have to do the other hand and it goes in and out, and then it’s your feet, and you keep putting parts of yourself in and taking them back out again.
So we all stood up and they told us they were going to teach us the Christian version of the Hokey Pokey, instead of the world’s version -- which we all already knew and sang a verse of, poorly, to prove that we knew it, although we managed to end together: “you do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about.” The Christian version, they explained, is not like the world’s version. It’s different. Here’s the Christian version:
“You put your whole self in.”
That is pretty much what it’s all about.