Generosity of Spirit
Ordinary Sunday 32, 11th of November, 2012
Sharne Rolfe, Theological Student and Candidate, Anglican Diocese of Melbourne
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
1 Kings 17:10-16
Psalm 146:6c-7, 8-9a, 9b-10
Mark 12: 38-44
Generosity of Spirit. We could explore generosity of spirit through any of today's readings. But I'm going to focus on the gospel story of the poor widow, dropping her two small coins into one of the funnel-shaped containers that we know graced the outer treasury walls, whilst all around her, as Jesus tells us, wealthy people were putting in very large amounts. But who gave more? It's a rather perplexing question.
Let's imagine the Gospel scene again. The widow, who Jesus observes as he sits opposite the treasury, is very poor and defenseless. This was the lot of women without a father, husband, or son to support them in society at that time. A poor widow, she gives just two small copper coins or lepta, whilst we can see many rich people around her putting in very large sums. We need to remember that wealth, at the time, was seen as a sign of God's blessing. Yet Jesus, observing the scene, emphatically pronounces to his disciples, and to us, in the Kingdom of God it is the widow who has actually put in more. She was very poor but, importantly for this story, she did have two coins — she could have chosen to give one and keep the other for herself. But from her position of need, she gave all she had (everything), all she had to live on. In contrast, the wealthy gave out of their abundance.
There is nothing wrong, of course, in giving out of one's abundance. And Jesus does not, in this story, condemn the rich. Rather what he does here, as in many other stories, is to use the example of someone on the fringes of society to turn secular values of ambition, upward mobility, wealth and power on their head. In the Kingdom of God, the last shall be first. Jesus was seditious in his time — again and again he teaches that fullness of life, sharing in the dream of God, means a very different set of values to those of the wider society. There is to be no getting away from it. We need to get our values right! It is the scribes, with their self-promotion, hypocritical power and privilege, and showy appearances of holiness that Jesus warns against. The scribes know what the first and greatest commandment is; but it is a very poor, defenseless woman who actually fulfils it.
Being generous, as we know, isn't always easy. And sometimes we are surprised by the generosity of those we think have very little to give. Being generous sometimes takes great courage, particularly if, like the widow in our Gospel today, enacting generosity means revealing yourself as you really are, out of your need, not from a position of affluence or power.
A few years ago, my daughter and I decided to celebrate New Year's Eve together with dinner at a nice restaurant in the Docklands. We enjoyed our meal and after watching the fireworks, began to walk back to our car, joining the throngs of happy party-goers spilling out onto the city streets. We weren't far from our car when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man sitting on the footpath a little way ahead, begging. As Ray Cleary commented a couple of Sundays ago, the presence of someone begging is confronting. Should we give money? What might they do with it? Are they genuinely in need? I suppose all these thoughts crossed my mind, but on this occasion I stopped, found some money quickly in my purse and placed it into the man's begging bowl. This might have been the end of the encounter, if "encounter" is the word for such an impersonal gesture as throwing down some money, and walking on.
But this was not to be the end of the encounter. As I reached down to put in the money, this young man, obviously destitute and in great need, looked me squarely in the eyes, said thank you, then reached out his hand to me. And in that generous and courageous gesture of all that he had to give on that night, I experienced something that was transformational. For I saw that mine was not the generous act here. Like the rich people giving to the treasury, I had given out of my abundance. This young man, sitting alone, reduced to begging with the happy crowds jostling around him, offered me all that he had that night, risking my rejection, showing great courage in his giving. On that night, it was he who put in more.
Generosity and sacrifice are timely topics on Remembrance Day. As Armistice Day, we commemorate the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War 1. Armistice came too late for the 20 million people who died in that war and the grieving families and friends they left behind. It certainly came too late for a member of the congregation of St Peter's Easter Hill at the time. A small plaque located on the wall near the back of the church commemorates Noel Edward Bechervaise, an Australian soldier, aged 23 years, who gave his life for king and country at the landing of Gallipoli about noon on Sunday April 25th, 1915. And some of your families may also have been touched by loss through war.
There is nothing pretty about the brutality and devastation of war, there is nothing pretty about being reduced to begging on the streets, and there was nothing pretty about the poor widow Jesus saw coming to the treasury. As we are confronted by these images, they force us to confront ourselves and ask some hard questions — Could I be that generous? Could I ever give all that I have? What might I do in the future that stretches my generosity of spirit further than it normally goes?
Generosity of spirit is one of the ways in which we get to share in God's dream for us. It can be difficult, painful, even downright deathly for some. Yet in that moment of generosity, either as a giver or a receiver, we get a God-given opportunity to glimpse the fullness of life to which Jesus Christ calls us.
As my placement is now drawing to an end, I want to thank all of you at St Peter's Eastern Hill for the kindness you have shown me during my time with you. I am deeply grateful for the opportunities to learn about worship, liturgy, mission and outreach that have been afforded me here. But mostly I am grateful for your wonderful generosity of spirit.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.