I must confess that the gospel we meet this morning is not an easy one. There is good news for us here, but it is not a simple news. It is a news that will fortify us, but to my fallen palette it tastes a bit like bile going down.
In 1937, just over 80 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his now classic text, The Cost of Discipleship (or, in the original German, simply, Nachfolge). His text opens with a harsh admonition, “Billige Gnade ist der Todfeinde unsere Kirche”—“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” Bonhoeffer wrote these words to a church assailed by the claims of a dangerous ideology. An ideology that sought an illusory national purity. An ideology that marked one group as “fully human” while deporting, enslaving, and exterminating those groups deemed “less than human.” In the blink of an eye, the Nazi Party had leveraged itself into a fascist dictatorship. His church, Bonhoeffer worried, was at risk of missing the costly call of God, preferring instead billige Gnade, cheap grace that justified not sinners but sin itself.
Bonhoeffer found himself attempting to minister to communities who struggled to sense the cost of their allegiance to Jesus Christ—afraid to undertake the sacred labor of seeking Christ ready and waiting in their neighbors, enemies, and scapegoats. To preach the Gospel became an act of treason against a society that sought to deform and devalue the “teure Gnade,” the “costly grace” that comes with following Jesus Christ—the life-giving grace that only comes from the vulnerability of the cross. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, calls the church always beyond the narrow horizons of its own self-interest. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, makes no room for a spirituality that would simply treat God as a means to an end—even if that end is peace.
The scene we just heard from Luke’s gospel is a familiar one to us here at the monastery. We remember it twice a day, six days a week as we pray the words of The Angelus. Our tower bell rings the Angelus daily at noon, three hundred and sixty three days a year, silenced only to mark the solemnity of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
I confess that as I sat with it these past days, I struggled with its familiarity. Centuries of representation have layered upon the narrative the assumptions and preoccupations of so many ages. These layers of meaning tend to pile up, and Mary—the woman herself—often ends up lost in the various coats of semiotic varnish.
Think, for example, of the domesticated angels that litter Marian scenes—those chubby, adorable, benign little putti of the Italian renaissance who minister to Mary, Queen of some distant, unattainable heaven. “Mary on the half-shell,” as my friend Steph Budwey often calls this trope.
Or consider the many ways a cultural preoccupation with feminine submission speaks through the various portrayals of this very scene from Luke, and the ways such a preoccupation overshadows the very bold agency of a Mary who lays her doubt and concern at the feet of the messenger. How can this be? I am not yet married. This could be devastatingly scandalous. No, really God, how can this be?
I think it is important to let this moment startle us anew every time we hear it. For Mary is not any of these cultural projections; not merely a type; not merely a model of an unattainable gentleness or meekness; not some kind of surrogate for figures Venus, Brigid, or Minerva; and certainly not queen of some distant heaven.
For Mary is a woman. A flesh, blood, and soul woman. A woman caught, as are we, within the same messy, ill-defined workings of a sin-sick world. Poor, maligned, and subject to the same dangers and failings as we are. Tempted as we are to despair over our circumstances, our fragility, our inadequacy. How can this be?
Yet at the same time, a woman whom we believe to have borne in her body the very being of God, flesh, blood and soul; a vocation that doubtless exposed her female body to ridicule, danger, and scandal. A woman who still invites us to rely on and cooperate with the agency of God’s grace—for with God, nothing will be impossible. We remember her not for her accomplishments, or successes, or refinements, but for the grace of which she was (and continues to be) full. Hail Mary, full of grace.
God’s free grace. Grace, which armed her with a humility that would disarm the powers and principalities of the world and crown her queen not of some remote heaven, but of God’s new heaven-and-earth creation breaking in on our present darkness, even now.
The Annunciation is a familiar scene for us here at the monastery. We remember it twice a day, six days a week. It recalls for us that moment when God’s New Creation began to break into our world. A New Creation revealed not in kingly courts or around respectable tables. But within the messy, turbulent, and confusing life of an ordinary, flesh, blood, and soul woman.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners.
 Luke 1:34
 Luke 1:37
2 Samuel 11:1-17 & Mark 4:26-34
I am haunted by a vivid memory: a lush, green vine consuming a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and even a small house. The vine is kudzu, a species innocently introduced to the southern U.S. in the late 1800’s from Japan. Now known as “the vine that ate the south,” kudzu is an aggressively invasive species, often growing a foot in a single day. My vivid memory stems from seeing this vine for the first time at age nine, when my family relocated to Alabama from New Jersey. On one stretch of highway, I gawked at the shape of a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and then a small house clearly visible beneath the lush foliage. I silently wondered if our new house would eventually suffer the same fate.
Sin is not unlike kudzu on an untended stretch of highway. In the second book of Samuel, we encounter a passage that is notoriously timeless in its relevance. A simple stroll and a lingering glance in the direction of the unknowing, innocent Bathsheba prove fatal. So much harm grown from a single, tragically misguided decision, to act on his tempting thoughts in flagrant abuse of his power as king. David’s sin rapidly multiplies in a sequence of events leading to worse and worse consequences. An innocent woman’s life is changed forever, and a good man is put to death by the king whose interests he was fighting to defend.
Two of Jesus’ inner ring of followers had so much in common: Peter and Judas. We know nothing about their upbringings and backgrounds. How were they raised? What did they value? What were their ambitions? Why were they attracted to follow Jesus? And why, among the multitude of his followers, did Jesus choose the two of them to be in his closest circle? Jesus was a shrewd and intuitive judge of character. What did Jesus see as so special in Peter and Judas? Were they charismatic? Were they eloquent? Were they passionate or articulate or extremely bright? Were they, like Jesus, riled by hypocrisy and injustice? Did they have a whimsical sense of humor, a hearty appetite, nerves of steel, the wisdom of a serpent, the innocence of a dove, a love for children, a certain way with the erudite or with the poor? They must have been impressive, both of them. Was Peter called “the rock” because he was stubborn or because he was strong? Maybe both. And Jesus made Judas the treasurer. Was that because Judas was so responsible, so accountable that he was entrusted with so much among those who had given up everything to follow Jesus? We don’t know. Surely Judas was a very special person, especially wonderful, to have a place so near to Jesus’ own heart. Surely Judas’ kiss of betrayal was not the first time he had expressed his closeness to Jesus.
So what happened? However similar or different they are to one another, both Peter and Judas end up in the Garden of Gethsemane, and both of them, surely to their own horror and to others’, they became betrayers. What, ultimately, is the difference between Judas, remembered for his deception, and his friend Peter, remembered for his sainthood? They had so much in common… except for one thing. Following Jesus’ crucifixion Judas was precipitous; Peter was not. Judas takes his own life; Peter is given his life back by Jesus’ in the gift of forgiveness.
1 Kings 17:8-16
In our Old Testament lesson we read of Elijah’s encounter with the widow at Zarephath. She lives in the face of imminent starvation. She pours out her heart to the prophet Elijah. She has only a handful of meal and little more than a drop of oil which will form the last supper for her and her son. And you know what happens. She shares her paltry rations with Elijah, and the meal jar and oil never thereafter give out. It’s a beautiful story. I’m not sure, though, that it literally happened. I mean, if we could somehow bring a CNN camera crew back some thousands of years to this particular incident, I have doubts whether this exact story, as it’s been told to us in the scriptures, could be captured on film. This particular encounter between Elijah and the widow at Zarephath, as it’s recorded in the First Book of the Kings, is too isolated, too exceptional a story to “make history,” to be remembered down through the centuries… and to show up in the Canon of Holy Scripture and in our Sunday lectionary every three years or so.
The reason the story about the widow’s oil has been passed down, generation to generation, is not because it literally happened. Maybe so; maybe not. The story has been remembered because it’s true. I suspect most every one of us here has our own version of this story: that when you don’t have what is required, you are given what you need.
What might be your version of this story? I think you have one. When you’ve come to your end. When the cupboard of your imagination is empty and you cannot, for the life of you, figure out how you can make it, how you will make it, given where things are with you financially, or emotionally, or spiritually, or physically; given where things are for you in relationship to your spouse, or partner, or employer, or children, or neighbor, or relative. When it all seems a dead end preceding a kind of death. Death, literally, or simply the death of hope, the death of a dream, the death of a possibility or of a chance. I don’t know how your story has come out… but it surely has come out, and in some amazing ways, because you’re here. You’ve made it to today… which is probably nothing short of a miracle. (It probably is a miracle.) The reason this story about the widow’s little jug of oil has been saved and shared down through the centuries is because it’s our story. It’s a true story, and on two levels.
On the one level there is the reminder about the miracle of provision. When what is absolutely essential for you to live, when what is crucial for your surviving the day (literally or metaphorically), provision somehow happens. It’s maybe in the form of finances or food. Sometimes it’s no more than almost crumbs of attention and care. This past week, one day I was having a particularly tough day. I found myself on kind of a roll… downhill. I mean, I was not about to literally die… but the day was really killing me. It may sound a little melodramatic, but there was a line from Psalm 116 floating through my brain at the time:
“The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me;
I came to grief and sorrow….”
And then late in the afternoon I passed one of my Brothers in a hallway here in the monastery. He spoke to me, just as we were passing one another. He said a few words to me that were exceedingly kind, and he smiled at me. And we parted … And I was a new man. Absolutely transformed. In the instant. From that moment the whole day – what had already transpired and what was to come – the whole day looked different. I could now see the day’s being the most amazing series of events, for which I was almost immediately given the grace to be thankful. That’s a word for it: grace. When you absolutely haven’t got what it takes, and you’re given what you need.
If your life is anything like mine, I suspect you have had a lifetime of experiences – big and small, so many they are without number – where provision and goodness, God’s provision and goodness, have come out of both the surest and the sorriest of situations. That sorrowful Psalm 146 about “grief and sorrow” that was on my mind the other day takes a turn for the better. The psalm continues:
“…Then I called upon the Name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I pray you, save my life.’
Gracious is the Lord and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.”
Recently I was listening to someone who was talking about how bad things are in so many places around the world, and in our own country, and their own town, and – some days, because of it all – in their own heart. Bad stuff. This person asked for my “take” on things. I could not find any argument with what they were saying. But I had to add that what amazes me even more, with each passing day, is how good things are, and often times in the most unexpected and unpredictable of ways: where you discover abject goodness, greatness, beauty, nobility, provision in ways which you could never have even asked for or imagined. Like being surprised by joy. The widow at Zarephath would not have known the word, “grace,” but we do. We as Christians do, and grace is amazing. That’s one thing about this story of the widow’s bottomless vial of oil that is worth saving and savoring: life is positively amazing. When you think you’ve come to the end there is more.
Another reason why this story about the widow at Zarephath is true is because it’s a kaon about generosity. There is a risky principle about life which may seem counter-intuitive until you’ve tested it: what you give away seems to be in direct proportion to what you receive. And I don’t even mean one-for-one. It’s much more than that; it’s like a hundred-fold. There’s a de facto principle in life that in giving you receive. As if to say the one makes the space for the other. St. Catherine’s Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia, has as its motto: “What we keep we lose; only what we give remains our own.” Marvelous! There is something about participating in life as a gift, not clinging to it, not hoarding it, but cherishing it, participating in it, then sharing it with a kind of reckless abandon that is the real deal, because that’s like God. It’s for us to be generous with the things in life to which we’ve been entrusted. But it’s deeper than just about things. It’s to be exceedingly generous with our kindness, attentiveness, gratitude, gentleness, and interest for others.
This generous predisposition certainly can have an effect on our custody of things – on our stewardship of money and property and other things; however the a priori principle is that life gives us the invitation to participate in God’s generosity. We have been created in the image of God, whose opening act in creation in the Book of Genesis is generosity. The words “genesis” and “generosity” spring from the same etymological source.[i] We have been created in the image of God, who, from the beginning, is generous. Long before death pulls from our grip what you cannot take to the grave, acknowledge it all as gift, and gift it back to God as an offering for God’s use. Collaborate with God. It’s a prayer that we re-present God in all that we are, and in all that we have: God, who from the beginning is generous.
The scriptures appointed for today herald widows. There is this wonderful story about the widow at Zarephath in the First Book of the Kings. There’s also a tender remembrance of widows in Psalm 146, appointed for today: “the Lord sustains the orphan and widow.” And then today’s Gospel lesson recalls the poor widow who shares two pennies, “the widow’s mite.” This, too, is a story that is bigger than life and, it’s also a true story. Jesus’ point is not that this poor widow, in giving her two pennies, gave a better gift than the rich person who gives large sums. They both are benefactors, and both are giving from their personal treasury. What’s distinctive about the widow’s mite is simply in her willingness to give her gift, her little gift.
Life is not so much big events; life is a lot of little events which can become profoundly significant. The story of the widow’s mite is quite similar to the story of the widow’s vial of oil in terms of a generous availability in even the smallest of ways. From these widows’ stories, we are reminded about the greatness in small things, which we also see lived out in Jesus Christ who, as we read, “… emptied and humbled himself….”[ii] I recall Mother Teresa’s saying, “We cannot do great things on this earth. We can only do little things with great love.”
There’s a moral in these wonderful and true stories about the widow’s oil and the other widow’s mite:
- In the beginning, from the genesis of life, we witness God’s generosity. We have been created in the image of God whose essence is generosity.
- Giving opens the door to receiving… beyond what we might imagine.
- There is no such thing as a small gift. All gifts are great.
- There will be provision. God will provide. God will provide for you, and God intends provide through you. We are an answer to God’s prayer.
[i]The root gene-means “give birth, beget,” which forms both the Greek and Latin words, genesis, yielding engender, generation, genetic, genuine…
[ii]See Philippians 2:1-11.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Saint Paul’s self-revelation about his “thorn in the flesh” is quite mysterious. Whatever this suffering is, Saint Paul has been praying fervently that this “thorn” be extracted from him, but to no avail. There are two mysteries here. For one, we don’t know what this “thorn” is. We’re never told anything further; however, that fact has not stopped endless speculation down through the centuries what the thorn might be. Is Saint Paul’s “thorn” something related to his family of origin, to his good standing in the synagogue, to someone who is out to get him, or who won’t forgive him, or who won’t respect him? Is the “thorn” related to his physical or mental health, to his sexuality, to an addiction, to an unmet desire of his heart? We have no idea, other than that it is very painful.
Saint Paul is writing an open letter to a local church. The letter hit home. The letter was saved, copied by hand, and widely circulated for more than two hundred years, only gaining in authority as the years passed. The letter was ultimately recognized as belonging to the Canon of Holy Scripture. Why was this personal letter saved, circulated, and so revered? Because Saint Paul wrote of a truth that others can relate to. He’s not just telling his story; he’s telling our story. Everyone has their own version of a thorn or thorns in the flesh that don’t go away. Thorns are very painful.
Marina Abramovic has spent many hours of her life completely motionless, silent, and fasting. She has endured voluntary poverty and physical pain for the sake of her vocation. She is not a nun or a mountaintop hermit, but a performance artist – sometimes called the “grandmother of performance art.” Born in Yugoslavia in 1946, her childhood was shaped by the Eastern Orthodox spirituality of her grandmother and the intense, communist discipline of her distant parents. Her performance pieces, most of them ephemeral or time-based, explore the limits of the human body and the mind. All of them challenge our cherished definitions of art. In 2010, Abramovic performed a piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Artist is Present,” part of a retrospective of her forty years of work. For this, she sat motionless and silent in the center of the Museum’s atrium surrounded by four bright lights. An empty chair stood opposite the artist, in which anyone who cared to was invited to sit and engage in a silent, mutual gaze with her. Abramovic was present in this way for three months, six days a week, for 7.5 hours a day. While the curator of the museum advised her to be prepared to face a frequently empty chair, her simple offer to be unflinchingly present touched a collective nerve and awakened a widespread hunger. That chair would be occupied by a total of 1,545 people, many of whom lined up before the museum opened or slept on the pavement to get a spot in line. People smiled uncontrollably, laughed or silently wept. Each face was met with the same gentle, mysterious, steady gaze, in a physical environment that framed each encounter as a moment of art enfolding a moment of life. Of the piece, Abramovic said, “The hardest thing is to do something which is so close to nothing that it demands all of you, because there is no story anymore to tell, no object to hide behind. There’s nothing – just your own, pure presence.”
In the calendar of the church we remember today the life and witness of a seventh-century monk from Rome named Paulinus. In year 625, Paulinus was made a bishop. He was among the second generation of missionaries sent by Pope Gregory I to assist Augustine in evangelizing England. The church historian, the Venerable Bede, described Paulinus as “a tall man with a slight stoop. He had black hair, an ascetic face, a thin hooked nose, and a venerable and awe-inspiring presence.”[i] Paulinus began his work in York, where there were already a few Christians. Paulinus engaged in long private conversations about the Christian faith with King Edwin. The king sought advice from his councilors, whether he should become a Christian. One of the councilors responded by telling a parable:
So we hear, just after Jesus’ baptism, he is driven by the Spirit into the desert where he’s alone and tempted. The image of desert recurs repeatedly in the Scriptures, and I would say the desert experience recurs repeatedly in our own lives. We know the desert of barren senselessness when we have trouble seeing our way through the chaos and confusion which surrounds us… when we have a sense of being lost or abandoned or desiccated, feeling like we’re trudging on the surface of sinking sand, unable to find our own way out. In those desert times of our lives, life may seem like a vicious circle, as senseless as a dog chasing its tail. That is a sense of the desert, even if you happen to be living in or visiting New England.