Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Peggy Gunness
Memphis, Tennessee
November 12, 2000
The Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost

In Praise of Poverty
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44

Today in the Gospel reading we hear the familiar story of a widow living in abject poverty and yet giving generously of what little she had to the honor and glory of God. She's the undisputed heroine of the story, and Jesus honors her for her abiding trust in giving.

So I want to use the opportunity to talk about poverty - or rather about the nature of poverty and how we experience it daily even ourselves. For although in many ways we may be seen as being rich and vibrant and filled with abundant life, yet in other ways we are as empty and as threadbare as paupers. In fact, I believe that this is a part of the human condition. Now, know that when I'm talking about poverty in this way, I'm not talking about money or material possessions. Rather, I'm talking about the way there is often little joy or peace in our hearts, about how our relationships may be starving for lack of nurture, about dreams gone sour and hopes that are shattered. I guess you could say I'm talking about a poverty of the soul.

Now at the outset let me point out two things:
First I want to clarify that the poverty I want us to examine here this morning is one with many faces and that it can be seen in different ways throughout the world. For example, in the Middle East what I'm calling a poverty of soul is manifest in the frightening outbreaks of hatred and violence which fill the streets and is reflected in the anxious faces of the people. In many of the nations of Africa it is manifest in the deep sorrows that arise from the seemingly inescapable experiences of disease met with inadequate medical care In this country, one could say that there is an emptiness which is starkly manifest now in the staleness and stalemate of our current political situation. I could go on and on, describing this malaise which I characterize as a form of human poverty, for it seems to be so widespread and commonplace everywhere we might choose to look.

But then, the second thing I want to point out comes from the reading of the Gospel. In it, a poor widow came up to the alms box in the temple, and she put into it everything she had, "her whole living" the text says - and that wasn't very much at all. But Jesus knew the significance of that gift; he knew that it was a gift of faithfulness and trust. So he stood up for her against all of the derision her action caused, because it was clear to him that hers was a gift of nothing less than an unwavering faith and a totally selfless love. The story leads me to ask, "Do you and do I dare to give out of our poverty?" Do we dare to give out of the poverty of our soul?

Now, you well might wonder what on earth I mean when I say "the poverty of our soul." So let's consider for a moment: In what ways are you - and am I - poor? At times I hear myself or others saying, in so many words, that we see ourselves as poor in intelligence or in business acumen, or poor in love, or in the approval of our peers. Or perhaps we confess that we are poor- lacking - in faith or in the courage to entrust ourselves wholly to God. As I was writing this I was amused to recall that, taped to the inside front cover of my very first Prayer Book, is this statement:

We show a lack of faith in God by a lack of faith in ourselves as proceeding from God's creative act. (H Williams)

This lack of faith in God and in ourselves is the kind of poverty I'm talking about. It's a poverty of faith, if you will.

So what, then, is today's Gospel story trying to say to us? I believe it is this, that no matter what we may think, and no matter what the standards of the world may seem to be telling us, whenever we offer the truth of our emptiness, our sorrow, our deep hunger to God, whenever we are able to offer these, it is enough. We need not be ashamed of our weaknesses or of what we lack - we need to be generous with them! And whenever we are, God is surely well pleased. So I wonder? What would happen if we were to offer our particular experiences of whatever our own poverty might be to God in our prayers, like this for example:

Lord, I am ashamed of seeming always to offer
you such rushed and shallow prayers.You see,
I don't know how to pray very well.
I don't have beautiful words or phrases,
and my prayers are even offered sometimes
without much faith. So today I want to give you
these poor and inadequate attempts at prayer,
asking only that you receive them,
and that through them, paltry as they are,
you might teach me how to pray.

Or another example:

In the midst of this most busy day,
I want to offer to you, most patient Spirit of God,
the poverty of my time. I always feel so rushed
and pressured, and it sometimes seems as if I think
that only the hours of this one day are limited.
Yet I forget that the hours of a lifetime are limited too.
So please slow me down, you patient God,
and help me to be aware that every moment is precious,
and that the sum total of my moments
on this earth are limited and so to treasure them
each and every one.

Or yet another:

Friend Jesus, I offer to you, as so many have before me,
the poverty of my broken dreams
and the selfishness of my needs.
I offer to you my worn and weary failures,
asking that you use them to teach me humility
and the courage to begin again.
I offer you the ways I've offended or
ignored those whom you gave me to love
and beg you for yet another chance to be kind to them
and sensitive to their needs.
I offer you myself.
Please help me
to be an instrument
strong and supple in your hands,
and use me as you will.

I remember so well a story that my friend Jack told me years ago. It seems to express what I'm trying to say. It happened when he was just a very little boy and his grandmother, whom he loved deeply, was seriously ill. Jack told of standing outside of her bedroom door while nurses and doctors with long, serious faces rushed past him, tending to her needs. Finally at the end of the day, one of the nurses came out and said to him that he could go in. There was a bitter smell in the room, he could remember, and the lights were dimmed, and she was lying very still and tiny in her enormous bed. Someone lifted him up to sit next to her, and she turned and smiled at him with a weak and tender smile. He was so relieved to see that face and that smile that, without thinking, he reached out his teddy bear to her (and it was his favorite bear), he reached it out to her and said, "Here, Grandma, you can have it if you'd like." Telling me this story decades later, he said, "And you know, she kind of smiled and put out her hand and took my bear! I couldn't believe it!" Now as it happened, in time she got better. And for almost a year, Jack said, she kept that bear right on her dressing table, and it was clear that it meant to her everything it had meant to him - and even more. It was a rich gift out of the few beloved possessions of a child, and it was precious and powerful indeed.

Well, I think it's the same with us. When we offer to God whatever it is that we may have to give, however small or however precious it may be, God receives it and blesses both the gift and the giver. We need not be ashamed of our poverty. We need to be generous with it!

So what, I wonder, what can we, this parish church, offer to God that can even begin to be an adequate gift? As I ponder this, I am aware that we seem to be rich in so many ways: We have a rich heritage - this beautiful sanctuary, the great company of saints who have preceded us and who still are with us now. We are blessed with good people here, with good teaching and learning, with good music, with good food, the litany could go on and on. Yet mixed in with all of these blessings, there are nonetheless pockets of sorrow and of fear - people who are grieving and lonely, who feel unheard or un-noticed, who are lost and afraid, who are trying to hold on to the hope in their lives which seems to be slipping away. Can we offer these to God as well? Can we entrust these manifestations of our human poverty, along with the manifestations of our many blessings, can we offer all of these to God with confidence that God will receive them and transform both the gifts and the givers?

The Gospel story doesn't say what happened to the poor widow who gave her mite. But it does say that she offered it to God, and that it was sufficient, and that Jesus praised her for her generosity, for she had done a beautiful thing.

Today's Gospel reading invites you and me to do so as well - to give hope out of the poverty of our own fear; to give direction out of the poverty of our own confusions; to offer clarity in the midst of unexamined assumptions; to pour out love wherever we encounter loneliness, and courage where there is only fear. I believe that we are called to stand together before God in our emptiness and to offer nothing less than ourselves - both to God and to one another - trusting in the power of love and the assurance of God's unconditional acceptance.

So let us close in singing together a closing prayer. It's a child's prayer and a prayer of trust. I'm sure you know it. Let us pray the words of the song "Jesus loves me."

Copyright 2000 Calvary Episcopal Church

Gospel: Mark 12: 38-44
As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." NRSV

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