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Holy Smoke – Br. Mark Brown

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One of the catch phrases of the recent political landscape has been “It’s the economy, stupid.” It sounds like something Jesus might have said in one of his crankier moments. Jesus was very concerned with money and had a lot to say about it.

About this time of year parishes all over the country are having “Stewardship Sunday”. (Perhaps that’s why some of you are here!) Vestries are preparing annual budgets and figuring out ways to economize. Some preachers are reminding people of the Biblical standard of the tithe. People are wondering if that means 10% before taxes or after.

Some preachers are using the story of the Widow’s Mite to remind us that the Christian standard of giving is actually not the tithe. Neither 10% before nor 10% after taxes. The Christian standard of giving is “all”—as in “put your all on the altar” (words from an old hymn). There is a different kind of “economy” in the Christian life. The poor widow puts her “all” on the altar. Not 10%, but 100%.

The reading from Hebrews this morning speaks of two sanctuaries or temples: the temple made with human hands and the temple not made with human hands. That is, the heavenly temple. In our liturgy we celebrate the marriage of these two temples; we celebrate the commingling of the economies of these two temples. There is an economy of the earthly temple; there is another economy of the heavenly temple. In the liturgy they come together—again and again and again as we renew our self-offering in the Eucharist.

In this earthly life there is no escape from the economics of the quantifiable. We are incarnate beings with quantifiable size, quantifiable age, quantifiable needs. Needs like food and clothing and shelter and places to gather to be human together. A church is a place where we gather to be human together. And this is a quantifiable structure with quantifiable requirements for maintenance—it takes X number of dollars and X number of hours of work to maintain it. The economics of the quantifiable are very much part of the reality of this place—as they are at your house. If you write a check for the offering, it’s for a specific amount. If you put a bill put in the basket, it’s of a particular denomination.

The offering basket with a certain amount of money goes to the altar, along with some bread and some wine, actually a certain number of ounces of bread and a certain number of ounces of wine. The gifts of money, bread and wine are the quantifiables put on the altar. The gifts will have been measured out and placed there according to certain economies—not too little and not too much, we hope. Two or three loaves of bread—not twenty or thirty. Thirty-two ounces or so of wine, not thirty-two gallons. We, naturally and rightly, observe certain economies when measuring out the gifts, including our money.

But these gifts of bread and wine and money are tokens. They are quantifiable tokens of the incalculable. The poor widow—and we’re all the poor widow– puts her “all on the altar”. But the widow’s “all” won’t begin to fit on this marble construction, which is about 3 ½ or 4 cubic meters, I’d guess. The only altar that will accommodate our “all” is the heavenly one, the heavenly altar in the heavenly sanctuary in the heavenly temple in the heavenly Jerusalem. In that realm there is a different economy, an economy of the incalculable, unquantifiable; an economy of infinities.

The coin, the currency of the true sanctuary, the heavenly temple, is you; it’s me. And the “you” about you and the “I” about me are indivisible—we can’t be parceled out like so much money, or so much time. We can tithe our money but we can’t tithe our own selves. It’s all or nothing in the temple. Shall we say, “O Lord, take my right hand, but not my left? Take my left leg, but not my right? My head, but not my heart? Take happy me but not sad me? Take sick me but not well me? No, it’s the whole thing, the whole human being from tippy top to toe, the good, the bad and the ugly. We are, each of us, indivisible singularities—like the God in whose image we are made. All of me; all of you: the only coin of the temple. Coins with Caesar’s image are rendered unto Caesar; beings with God’s image are rendered unto God.

Here, in this place, we celebrate the marriage of these two economies: of the finite and calculable and partial, on the one hand, with the infinite and unquantifiable and whole. We celebrate here the commingling of heavenly and earthly economies. The infinite permeates, infuses the finite, like the fragrance of incense permeating the air.

Speaking of incense: a little side bar. In a few minutes, after I’ve censed the altar and the gifts on it, Br. Brian will cense all of us. Incense has been used since antiquity at the time of sacrifices. The altar is censed because it is a symbol of Christ himself—he who is the one perfect sacrifice. The gifts on the altar are censed because they become joined to that sacrifice. Then we ourselves are censed because we become joined to that sacrifice. We bow to signal our assent to this self offering—as if to say, “Yes, I put my all on the altar”—again. Or, as we sang a little while ago: “Here’s my heart, O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above” [Hymnal 1982 #686]

The Rite I Eucharistic prayer says it best, echoing St. Paul: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.”

In making this self-offering we do not lose our selves. In this commingling of economies, in this marriage of the quantifiable with the incalculable, we gain ourselves, we are restored to larger life, again. Having commingled with the infinite on this altar, even in our brokenness and weakness, we are transformed, restored. We are restored to our true humanity—an immeasurable thing. We come to church to be human together, to be alive together, to be lively together. To be immeasurable together.

There is in this liveliness a marriage of economies: one having to do with the particular, the specific, the quantifiable; the other having to do with the infinite, the immeasurable–the quantifiable giving substance to the infinite, the infinite giving meaning to the quantifiable.

“Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…”

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5 Comments

  1. Ruth West on July 12, 2016 at 22:38

    What an interesting sermon! Some things indeed cannot be measured, such as His grace, His power, His blessings, and His love. I loved your illustrations, such as the two temples, the widow’s mite, and, most meaningful to me is the presenting of ourselves at the Eucharist, “souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.” This is the ultimate gift to Him. And if we have truly surrendered ourselves to Him, giving the measurable gifts is so much easier, even when our worldly goods are so limited. Thank you, dear Brother.

  2. Margaret Dungan on July 12, 2016 at 15:54

    Thank you for reminding me that these words mean much more than money. It is easy to get hung up on the question, am I giving enough money to others?

    Margret.

  3. Rhode on July 12, 2016 at 10:56

    I pray I can be like my mom and dad. Money given to every good work, and to anyone who asked!!….helping people no one cared for, regarded as foolish by our relatives and even their church. My mom passed at 63, but my dad even in great grief moved forward and the older he was the more childlike his zeal for God and delight in His word and the people in his lfe. He sang in the choir and in his car. He and mom tithed their whole life. They definitely had times of struggle but I am amazed how God provided for their every need….Lives well lived.

  4. Jaan Sass on May 21, 2015 at 17:42

    This brings to my mind all those things I spend money that are detrimental to me. I need to ask myself am I really placing God first in my life

  5. Polly Chatfield on May 21, 2015 at 09:01

    Thank you, Mark. Your words always sweep me out into the infinite, the immeasurable, a place where we all need to be more often than not, a place helps me to calculate better in the here and now.

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