TITLE: Advanced Poverty SCRIPTURE: Mark 12:38-44
At the temple one day, Jesus sits down in a place where he can see the long line of offering receptacles. These are metal and shaped like trumpets. Into them people throw coins which clank inside. Large heavy coins make a loud clank. Small coins make a little clank. Listen and you soon figure out who are the big shot contributors.
And you also figure out who throws in small change. So what Jesus says to his disciples on this occasion comes across as remarkable. The rich people tossing in heavy coins are not the ones he commends. Instead, he singles out for praise a poor woman whose donation is only two small coins.
What's Jesus getting at this time? He's not concerned with the dollar amount. The big givers donate out of their abundance. They have plenty, and what they give does not put a squeeze on them. The poor woman donates out of her poverty. Her gift is truly generous. She may even have to go without lunch or without more than that because of her decision to give.
There's a reminder here about proportional giving, the percentage approach to stewardship, but something else is involved as well. More is at stake here than money. It comes down to an issue of trust.
Recently I encountered the term advanced poverty. This term does not apply to destitution in the usual sense. It does not describe the plight of people who are homeless or starving or who shiver for lack of a coat.
Instead, people experience advanced poverty when they rely on themselves, on what they have, on what they just bought. Their poverty is advanced, it is severe because what they rely on is certain to disappoint them. They have chosen not to depend on the grace of God. They may be rich in things, but they are poor in what really matters. [Robert Bellah in Alan Jones, The Soul's Journey (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 129.]
So Jesus sitting there in the temple does not only contrast the donations of the widow and the rich people, he also contrasts what they rely on. These particular rich people give substantial sums; their coins clank loudly in the metal receptacles. But he also recognizes that they do not rely on God, but on themselves and their possessions. They impoverish themselves, not by their giving, even when the gifts are substantial, but by a failure to trust. This is advanced poverty.
The widow, on the other hand, not only risks by the size of her gift, but she gains treasure by relying on God who alone will never disappoint her.
This evaluation surprises the disciples gathered around Jesus. It runs into resistance today as well. But advanced poverty is real and it destroys people. Advanced poverty is the nightmare side of our affluent society. It becomes apparent in our fear. How preoccupied we have become with security: national security, airline security, financial security, online security, and countless other variants, all of them attempts to escape from fear, and all of them ultimately unsuccessful. Our problem is not that we are a society with wealth, but that we fail to rely on God. That is the poverty at the heart of our consumer culture. This causes the fear that rages inside us like a fever.
Albert Borgmann, who teaches Philosophy at the University of Montana, sees advanced poverty manifest in two social characteristics. One is sullenness. The other is hyperactivity. [Jones, p. 129.]
Consider how much people are afflicted by these characteristics. Do you notice people throughout the week who seem to be sullen(moody, angry, gloomy) almost as a matter of principle? Do you notice people who live in a hyperactive way and seem constitutionally unable to stop? What about us? Don't we sometimes show these symptoms, signs that we live in a world where advanced poverty is as widespread as the common cold?
We believe we should do something to help the poor, whether we find them at the Community Action or in Richmond, South Africa. We are right, of course. Call it charity, call it justice, we need to take action. But we must also help people overcome by advanced poverty. Many are afflicted in this way. We may suffer from it ourselves. Our culture and our society are a mill that grinds out advanced poverty, reliance on self and stuff, as predictable as other mills produce steel or flour.
As I was preparing this sermon last Wednesday afternoon in my office, I heard the voices of young children singing on the radio. The sweet song they sang kept repeating in its refrain that God is love, God is love.
A biblical and orthodox notion, to be sure! Some would even dismiss it as a platitude. But, I thought to myself, what a countercultural activity this singing is, how it subverts messages we receive through many channels every day.
- If God is love, then God is not me or my possessions. God is not the things I cling to tightly, nor that I desire to buy, nor the purchases I bring back fresh from the mall.
- If God is love, then I never need to experience advanced poverty. Rather than practice the religion of consumerism, I can rely on God and gain true wealth and live a life of love.
In our Sunday School Time, we should vaccinate kids against Advanced Poverty, that widespread and virulent soul disease, by helping them to know the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We should invite them to throw the pennies of their little lives into the safe receptacle God provides, just as the widow did in the temple, and thus make the best investment possible. Self and stuff will disappoint you every time, but you can rely on the God of love, who invites us out of fear and into faith.
Our Sunday School Time carries a message as well for those of us who are older. The way to overcome Advanced Poverty and the sullenness and hyperactivity that accompany it is through care and celebration, care and celebration practiced in communities, communities such as Children’s services, communities such as local missions.
Care enables us to spring back from sullenness. Celebration enables us to halt our hyperactivity. When we receive care and offer it, then we find real reasons to celebrate, then Advanced Poverty is on the way out. We return to life, the fullness to life.
A community that practices care and celebration shows us through what it does that we can rely on God. We break free from undesirable alternatives, such as relying on ourselves, what we have, and what we can get.
A community of care and celebration gives us the vision and the strength to march in a direction that may be unpopular but proves fulfilling. We find that life contains something worth singing about.
The poor woman in the temple threw in everything she had, two coins. She could have kept one for herself. She could have kept them both. She chose not simply to give them as a gift, but to rely on God. We also are summoned to this adventure.
I Surrender All UMH #354
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling UMH #384
HYMN STORY: The Strife is O'er, the Battle Done
This is often sung as an Easter hymn, but a hymn about the resurrection is appropriate any Sunday -- every Sunday.
Published anonymously in a Catholic hymnal in 1695, the hymn was translated into English by Anglican minister, Francis Pott, in 1861. An organist, William Monk, then added the Alleluias (meaning, "Praise the Lord") and set the words to music that had been written much earlier by Vatican choirmaster, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
The hymn celebrates the battle fought and won at the cross. "The powers of death have done their worst," but Christ has won the victory. "The three days (in the tomb) have quickly sped; (Christ) rises glorious from the dead."
The last verse is a prayer -- a prayer that Christ, by his death, might set us free from death "so that we may live, and sing to thee: Alleluia!" Amen to that!
William Hart, in his book, Hymn Stories of the 20th Century, which was published in 1948 (not long after World War II had ended), adds the unusual note that a soldier's chorus sang this hymn at the funeral of General George Patton on December 23, 1945 after his death in an automobile accident. Whether that seems significant to you or not, it is significant that this hymn and others celebrating the resurrection have been a strength and comfort to many who have had to face the death of a loved one.