Sunday, August 19, 2012

Faith Countdown: Two!

Scripture can be found here...

Yes or No. Black or White. Right or Wrong. Up or Down. One of the first lessons we learn as children has to do with understanding opposites. Dark or Light. Happy or Sad. Dirty or Clean. Good or Bad.

Some of those opposite pairs come with hard lessons attached. Gentle or Rough. Kind or Mean. Winner or Loser. Living or Dead. And sooner, rather than later, most of us, at a very young age, learn which of those is preferable, like my next door neighbor, who learned, to the eternal consternation of his mother, that Dirty was definitely preferable to Clean, because it usually meant he’d been having more fun playing at the beach or running through the marshes.

The number two seems inevitably to be the number of  “Either/ Or.” It seems to represent a “this way or that way.” Two presents us with a choice. Two is the number of difference or division.

Let’s take, for example, the election season, which is now upon us, much like an outbreak of the plague. I know that you know that I have my political opinions. It has ever thus been so. And I know that you have your political opinions. And my guess is that some of us agree with one another in lots of areas, but disagree in others. And some of us agree on nearly everything, or perhaps disagree on nearly everything. And yet… here we are on a summer morning, when we might instead be out on the links or sleeping in or enjoying a tasty brunch somewhere. We are able to come together to sing, to pray, to worship God, because it is meet and right so to do. We are able to gather as one, despite our political differences.

And such togetherness does not require church to make it happen. On Thursday evening three hundred or so people of many ages, and, I imagine, many faiths, and many political persuasions, too, gathered at Arnold Park to hear a concert by the Vestal Community Band, a truly lovely and consummately American pastime. And as we enjoyed the strains of music by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa, we came together as one.

But to read the newspaper, or to listen to the radio or TV news or, heaven forbid, to get a taste of politics as it is manifested online, in places like Facebook and Twitter, one would have to believe the political divide of this country is an infinitely large chasm between the two major parties, a gap that nothing can bridge. To choose one candidate is Right and the other is Wrong. One candidate is Hitler and the other is Jesus returned. One candidate is the Everyman, and the other is Hopelessly Elitist. Or even, one candidate is on the side of the Rich and the other is on the side of Everyone Else—the 1% versus 99%.

In our reading from the gospel of Mark, Jesus seems to be highlighting this particular divide.

“Beware of the scribes,” he says, “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”  [Mark 12:38-40].

Beware, Jesus says. Beware those who get a little too excited about the fancy clothes they’re wearing. Beware of those who get a little too pleased with themselves when John and Jane Q. Public recognize them on the street. Beware those people who always get the choicest tables at the fancy restaurants, just because of who they are and the power and influence they wield. They are not just eating the good veal; they’re eating the poor for supper (metaphorically speaking). God is not pleased.

Then Jesus positions himself where he can watch people making their financial offerings to the temple. And many people place large amounts of money in the treasury. Just then a woman walks up to the offering box and places in it two copper coins, valued at precisely one penny. She is described as a poor widow. “Poor”: we know what that means. She doesn’t have enough to live on. That’s what it is to be poor: to not have enough. As for “Widow”: In the biblical era, to be a widow means to be cut loose from the protection of the extended family unit. A woman’s value in that era resided primarily in her connection to a man, whether her father or her husband or even her son. A woman who is described as a widow is outside that system. She has no one.

Here is how Jesus describes the woman’s gift to the temple treasury:

“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” [Mark 12:43-44].

In a gesture that might, to us, seem foolhardy, an act that, frankly, I would discourage anyone in this congregation from making, the poor widow has given away money that she needs. We are used to interpreting Jesus’ words about her as being high praise. Look, we think Jesus says. How generous. Be more like her. But in good conscience, I have to tell you that not all scripture scholars interpret what Jesus says here positively. Some hear in his words anger that this woman is bankrupting herself in the presence of those who are giving so extravagantly. The sale of a fancy item out of one of their closets could feed her for a year.

I think it’s important to hear exactly what Jesus says here. He gives no evaluation of the widow’s gift, good or bad. He simply states a fact: She has given more than the others, because what she has given costs her more personally. Her gift is a sacrifice. Jesus doesn’t say whether that’s good or bad. He just describes what he sees.

Still, it’s hard to hear these verses all together—the condemnation of the scribes side by side with the description of what the poor widow gives—without drawing some conclusions. And we’re back to division. The Rich versus the Poor, the 1% and the 99%.  Can the number two possibly get us out of this bind? Can we, somehow, get beyond this Either/ Or scheme of things? Remember that lovely evening in Arnold Park? Can’t we all just get along?

As it happens, the number two has two main meanings. Either it means division and difference. Or, it refers to the double portion.

The double portion shows up in scripture in all sorts of ways. The double portion was the typical inheritance of the oldest male child. Then there is the double call—“Moses, Moses,” [Exodus 3:4], or “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” [Acts 9:4]; God making sure we hear the divine voice.

And the double portion shows up in Ecclesiastes:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?” [Eccl. 4:9-11]

But the double portion is most significant in the familiar story of the manna. When God’s people were wandering in the wilderness, and they had no food, God sent them manna to eat, a flaky substance whose name in Hebrew seems to mean, “What is that stuff”? It’s described as being “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” [Exodus 16:31]. Elsewhere it is described, simply, as bread from heaven. And to ensure that the people did no work on the Sabbath, on the day before the Sabbath God sent a double portion of the manna—they could gather what they needed for two days on that day. But if they gathered a double portion any other day, the manna spoiled and rotted [Exodus 16:1-36].

I think these stories are connected.

The poor widow puts in two copper coins, and they carry with them layers and layers of meaning. They signify her poverty, yes. But they remind us of her trust as well. They tell us that what looks to us like a paltry offering is, in fact, a sign of her trust that God will provide, just as God rained bread from heaven in double portions for her ancestors. The two coins signify division—the Rich versus the Poor, the Self-Aggrandizing versus the Self-Emptying. But they also remind us that two are better than one, because if one falls, the other will lift her up. They remind us that we are better together than we are apart.

In this already fairly poisonous political season, it is easy to fall into the belief that what divides us is more important than what brings us together, that it really is Either/ Or. Republican or Democrat. Liberal or Conservative. Rich or Poor. I hope that we can thoughtfully examine that belief. I hope that we can carefully weigh what we say. We can choose to speak and to act, even across that mythically large political divide, in a way that either brings us closer together or a way that drives even more and larger wedges between us.

One way to bridge the divide is to seek with sincerity to understand one another better. There’s a new book called, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and it offers some insights into, not simply the positions, held by different groups, but the essential values underpinning those positions. Author Jonathan Haidt makes the case that liberals hold dear the essential values of fairness, caring for the weak, and liberty. Conservatives share these values, though they are nuanced slightly differently, but they also highly value respect for authority, loyalty and sanctity. And here’s the part that excites me: the author finds that people are able to speak across divides and build bridges to understanding when they start to recognize and respect those motivating core beliefs.[i]

Our God has created a world of stunning and amazing diversity and distinctiveness. To believe that we can only see ourselves and one another as “Either This Or That” is to ignore the resplendent beauty of God’s creation, and, frankly, to ask very little of ourselves. We can be both distinctively who we are as individuals, and we can come together as one, to worship our almighty and all-generous God, or to hear the strains of music as they float through the soft air of a summer night. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[i] Nicholas Kristof, “Politics, Odors and Soap,” The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, March 21, 2012.

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