Sermon Archives

High Stakes ~ Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 and Mark 12:41-44

Well, election day is over. I hope you all went to the polls and did your civic duty. And I guess we will soon have a casino in downtown Cleveland. I didn’t vote for it and don’t think it will solve any of the real issues before us as a city and region, but my sermon isn’t on the blessings or the evils of gaming.

But the reality of the casino got me thinking about the high stakes of life, about the gamble of waking up in the morning, about rolling the metaphorical dice of choice, or going “all in” for a dream,  just risking it all.

I got thinking about this because we spend so much of our energy and time trying to protect ourselves from risk. But let’s face it, each day is risky business. You have to weigh the odds about bringing up that contentious issue with your spouse. You have to decide what you are going to have for lunch, where you are going to college, what you’re going to do on Friday night and with whom. You have to risk it. Who are you going to share your deepest needs with? Who are you going to risk lowering that metaphysical seventh veil and saying ‘”Here I am”? How much are you going to pledge to the church? Where will your investments go?

And you can have all the information, and you can be as certain as you can be with all that there is to know, but yet there is nothing that is 100% risk free.

So we have these two passages this morning. And it was with great intention that we read both of them together. Because we get to see two women who go “all in.” Ruth, who Clover lifted up last week, chooses to follow Naomi; and the unnamed “poor widow,” who gives two coins, worth about a penny to support the temple. Jesus describes the woman’s offering as “everything she had, all she had to live on.”

I read these two passages and I thought of the words of Elie Wiesel. Elie Wiesel was a famous Holocaust survivor, a Jewish writer and philosopher who wrote wonderful memoirs. A man of peace and of vision, he remembers how he felt when reading the Bible. He writes: “There was something terrifying and fascinating about reading the ancient texts, something that filled me with awe. Without moving I could ramble through worlds visible and invisible. I was in two places at once, a thousand places at once. I was with Adam at the beginning, barely awakened to a world streaming with light; with Moses on Sinai under a flaming sky. I seized upon a phrase, a word a distance, vanished.”

And that’s the way I feel with these stories today. I am agitated by these two women.

The widow in Mark’s gospel gives not out of her abundance, and not even out of her poverty. She actually gives what she doesn’t have.

I don’t get it. I don’t get it because I have never had to do it – give from that which I lack. I’ve never had to put food on the table, I’ve never had to try to get health care for my children, I’ve never had to rummage to get clothes for the backs of those I love, and not have money to do it.

This is something more than just a simple moral tale, folks. There is something deeper going on here. It is almost like Abraham sacrificing Isaac – Abraham offering to sacrifice his only, beloved, promised son. It’s the same kind of sacrificial stuff. These stories raise more questions for me than they answer – leave me befuddled.

And Ruth, well, we heard last week that she left her more certain hope of security with her kin to follow Naomi back to Bethlehem after her husband died. I mean, Ruth rolled the dice and took a chance. Both these women go “all in” – put in all the chips – even the chips they don’t have.

I find myself wanting to make up happy ending stories for these two – proving to myself that they made it, that somehow God blesses sacrifice. Ruth, we assume, had a happy life with her new husband Boaz after she uncovers his “feet” and they have their frolic on the threshing floor, but we don’t know for sure. We know that Ruth gave birth to Obed and I guess he turned out all right, but we don’t get his story either. We just know that Obed was the father of Jesse and Jesse was the father of David, yes, that King David.

But we know what Ruth never knew. We know that her grandchild is David. She didn’t know that. She probably spent years being the wife of Boaz and doing what wives did in those days… it was probably pretty hard. Have you ever read the Red Tent by Anita Diamant, the novel about women living in the iron age of Palestine? Ruth just lived the life that was before her, day by day.  What don’t we know is how her life went. And really, I think about my own life, about our own lives, do we really know about what our lives are going to be like. Do we have any clue? And the answer is “no,” not about choices made today. How they might have tremendous consequences, or no consequences at all.

As for the widow, I find myself thinking that in return for her “mite”,  the little penny, that God is going to send her a blessing for her sacrifice and that on the way home she found a gold coin and she went to the Jerusalem casino and placed it on 21 black and hit the jackpot and retired in a nice condo overlooking the old city – but we don’t know that. Probably she died an old, poor widow, with nothing. She just gave it away. So where’s she going to find her food for that night?

We just don’t know the outcome. And that can be more frightening than anything. It makes me think of Jesus in the garden saying, “Father, Abba, Daddy, please take this cup from me.” He risked it all too, without knowing. And I can’t help it wrestle with the agitation: am I willing to risk anything, really, at all?

Or do I just want to play it safe, and give of my abundance and produce nice kids and protect my assets and follow the Fidelity little green line to prosperity.

You see, Scripture is dangerous. Faith is agitative. Following Jesus is risky business. Life with God isn’t about protection and the status quo – we need to hear that every week. It is far more radical and problematic than anything the Democrats will ever come up with. I know that each political party wants to portray the other as dangerous radicals – but that is a joke, neither party comes close to the disruption of God’s kingdom.

It isn’t wrong to give out of your abundance. Jesus doesn’t condemn the rich who put in large sums to the temple. This story isn’t anti-wealth or anti-rich people. I mean, we celebrate abundance all the time here.

You and I live in an abundant nation and we are very thankful for it. Even in the midst of this economic downturn, and the reality of joblessness, and the increase of homelessness, and hunger and those without health care – with our standard of living, no one argues that we are not still the richest, most powerful nation in the world. And we all agree, I think, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, that we have this marvelous responsibility to share, to be generous, to sacrifice, to help others.

I mean, after all, you and I have more than enough to support the work the of the church, its mission and staff – to pay salaries and perks. We have more than enough to support any building program that will restore and maintain our building.

The stewardship season that we have entered is all about recognizing the abundance that we have received from God and in response we give abundantly – we are at our best, we say, when we are being generous, when we are giving things away, we are at our best – it is doing what we were made to do.

The ministry of Stewardship knows, and I know, that you are a very generous group and that we will have enough and even more than enough to do all that we plan to do and hope to do.

But this widow seems to suggest something else about God, and what God wants. And it’s about a lot more than just money. I hate thinking about what I don’t have – my weaknesses, my insecurities, my dysfunctions, my poverty, even if it isn’t financial poverty – I am well attuned to what I lack, because I look in the mirror,  and who I am not and it is why every Sunday you have to hear that you are a “beloved child of God,” because if truth be told most of the time, I don’t know if I believe it, for myself.

And it seems to me that the this story of the old woman is almost a parable – a description of the counter-intuitive nature of God’s kingdom – it doesn’t quite make sense. God doesn’t want my strengths as much as God wants me to offer what I lack. God does not want me to offer my strengths but my weaknesses. But God, I don’t want to offer that…for I am ashamed.

God doesn’t want me to offer my certainties, God wants me to offer my doubts. And that is weird, because we define faith as certainly, don’t we? When people say they long to have faith, they mean, that they want to be sure about something. But this lesson seems to suggest just the opposite.

I keep thinking of this widow. She haunts me the same way that the blind beggar sitting in the dust we read about two weeks ago haunts me – these are the characters apparently, who get it, who risk it all for a moment – Jesus points to people who don’t know him but who understand fully that life is so precarious and that there are no guarantees, so you had better go for it and risk it all sometimes and just do it – and who cares what happens. Because faith in Jesus Christ is not about results.

And then there is Ruth. As I said, she doesn’t know the outcome of her risk. But we do. Ruth, the outsider, the one who is not of the chosen people, is the grandmother of David. Without Ruth’s risk, we have no Jesus. Ruth didn’t know that, but we do.

And so I believe that this is the glory, the counter-intuitive of our faith story which we cling to, and risk that it is true for it lifts up the reality of our precariousness – no matter how good you are, bad things may happen. No matter how much you prepare, things will go wrong. I don’t know anyone who is faithful who is protected. It’s not about protection, it’s about going through.

But playing it safe leads to nothing. Risking it all, well – things open up… maybe not for you, but for history, for time and eternity – there is this kind of butterfly effect – you simply do not know what your action may lead to, what your choice may commence, the movement of great power. And there is something powerful in that. Not certainty, but possibility.

And so my mistake may lead to some great gain. My weakness may lead to some great strength. My last penny may lead to some great wealth. It may not, but it may…. and the possibility is enough for me.

The possibility that God is love opens up whole new avenues. The possibility as the Bible shows again and again is that nothing is good or bad until God gets through with it.

You and I may never know what a risk taken today will lead to – but we trust that love is greater than hate, and hope is greater than despair, and time – well, time always bends towards grace, and restoration, and reconciliation, and fellowship. And after all, whether we have much or little, it is all just house money anyway.

It is risky. Yes. It may not be true – but what is the alternative? Belief is not what you know with your head but what you are willing to give your heart to.

And I like to think that whatever happens to my choices of life, my risks taken, where I place my bets – that in God’s economy there is no way for God to fail…and it isn’t really about me and where I will spend eternity, it is about God. And so, the more I lose myself in God, the more I find myself in me.

The more I risk, the more I send out waves of potential power – alternatives, and avenues of possibility. I may not see the results but I have to let that go. What is parenting after all?

So I ask you, are you going to risk having THAT conversation this week?
Are you going to risk, in some avenue, this week, standing up for what you believe in?
Are you going to risk this week revealing your poverty to somebody?
Are you going to risk being embarrassed?
Are you going to risk taking the only choice that is apparent to you and trust that above, beyond, within, among, under, through – there is a Creator who has risked it all for you too.

Faith is high stakes craziness!

But I think it’s the only real way to go – for the Bible tells me so.

AMEN.

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