Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27), 11 November 2018

November 11, 2018 | by Bruce Epperly

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Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 Psalm 127 Hebrews 9:24-28 Mark 12:38-44 1 Kings 17:8-16

Greatness often hides beneath what is apparently unimportant or unnoticed.  Abundant life is often waiting to burst forth from what appears to be meager.  Small steps lead to great adventures. The eyes of faith often see more than meet the eye.  Small is beautiful and a great movement arises from a modest beginning. Process theology asserts that God is providentially moving in every moment of experience. While our behaviors, past history, and context are the source of limitations, within the concreteness of limitation God is at work, providing possibilities and the energy to achieve them. Every moment of experience gives birth to an array of options, the “growing edge” of freshness and novelty which is the source of hope in challenging times.

This preacher will struggle in choosing between the continuing story of Ruth and the story of the widow of Zarephath. Then, again, who says an imaginative preacher can’t focus on both of these powerful scriptures and their vision of greatness hidden in the insignificant and inconsequential?

The story of Ruth (Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17) continues with Ruth’s seduction of Boaz. Romance leads to marriage, and while we little is said beyond that first night about the relationship of Ruth and Boaz, they have a child, who becomes the grandfather of the great King David. A foreigner, an immigrant, is the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king.  This passage awakens us to the possibilities available to those who courageously emigrate beyond family and familiarity toward new horizons.

Those who act on their dreams – and in today’s political landscape “Dreamers” – hold the nation’s future in their imaginations and model courage to step forth into foreign environments.  God’s vision is as real among the children of undocumented immigrants as it is among those at Ivy League colleges. Every moment reveals a God-ward tendency, even when we fail to see or act on it. What possibilities are we neglecting through our failure of imagination or inability to support the gifts of persons at the edges of society?  (For more on the story of Ruth, see Bruce Epperly, Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure.)

The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-16) is one of my favorite Bible stories. Briefly put, it portrays the contrast between abundance and scarcity thinking. The widow initially views the world in terms of scarcity. She is a realist and it is important for us to be aware of our concrete personal, financial, professional, and health situation. Yet, initially, she has left one factor out when contemplating her situation – the deeper realism that emerges when we trust God with the future, awaken to possibilities within limitations, and then act on these possibilities to midwife new and unexpected futures.  At first, she sees a dead end lying before her, literally and figuratively, but God and Elijah, and her own willingness to take chance, make a way when there was no way.

The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath is lived out on a daily basis in our personal and corporate lives.  The concrete realities of life can stifle us. We have only so much time and energy, and we aren’t the people – speaking for myself on the edge of 66 – we were as young adults.  But, within the limitations of age lie possibilities for wisdom, creativity, generativity, and optimal physical health appropriate to our age and health condition. Like most churches, the congregation I pastor struggles to balance the budget and to maintain a vital membership.  But, within these challenges are talented people, possibilities for service, and loving acts that transform lives on a daily basis.

Hemmed in by scarcity thinking, leaders cry “nation first” when dynamic global partnerships can feed the hungry, provide jobs, and secure peace in our land and throughout the planet. Virtually every great movement has begun as dream, improbable to the scoffer, yet when joined with the moral arc of history – the lively and providential adventures of ideas – becomes seedbed of planetary transformation. What limits are you placing on possibilities in your life or congregational setting? Are you paralyzed by limitation or open to divine possibility? Even incremental change – awakening to the best for that impasse, as Whitehead says – can be the catalyst for great change over the long haul.

Psalm 127 celebrates the birth of male children, but more than that affirms that peace and prosperity come when we trust God’s ambient and relational vision rather than our narrow self-interest.  When God “builds” the house, we go beyond individualism to care for the greater good, and discover the relationship between our well-being and the well-being of the larger community that includes everyone on the gender spectrum.

The passage from Hebrews (Hebrews 9:24-28) initially seems irrelevant to most progressive preachers.  We struggle with seeing anything positive in sacrificial atonement theory and blood sacrifice. But, if this passage is read in church, you need, at least, to briefly address it and find some point of contact between Hebrews and our time. I believe that this point of contact is found in God’s intimate relationship with the world. The “high priest,” Christ, is embedded in the life of pain and suffering. Christ experiences the results of sin, all too real in hunger, poverty, violence, racism, misogyny, and environmental destruction, and takes these into himself as the catalyst for new possibilities. While we may not have confidence in the future, the “priestly” God is providing images of hope and agency that may motivate us to take our place as God’s companions in healing the earth.

The gospel passage (Mark 12:38-44) is both political and personal. In the spirit of the prophets, Jesus condemns greed that leads to poverty. The gap between the rich and poor widens. Families live from paycheck to paycheck. Homes are foreclosed while lenders get rich. The bad news for the poor is often good news for the wealthy. The poor are tempted to give up hope altogether. Indeed, as Howard Thurman asserts in Jesus and the Disinherited, a seminal text in liberation theology, one of the greatest evils of poverty and injustice is the deadening of children’s imaginations. Limitation resulting from the machinations of the powerful can stifle all hope of change, making survival in a violent and oppressive society our only goal. Yet, there are consequences for heartless leaders and apathetic citizens, those who profit from others’ poverty will have the “greater condemnation,” they will gain the world but lose their souls.

The passage ends with a vision of hope. A widow, trusting God for her future takes a risk and gives everything she has to support God’s work. While we not emulate this passage, there is wisdom in sacrificial living, in letting go of our stranglehold on our time, talent, and treasure to open to God’s spacious world of abundant life. In sacrifice, we break down the walls between ourselves and others and may experience the peace which comes when we die to the small self and are reborn as part of God’s infinite realm.

Today, in our abundant land, we often cry poverty. We act as if our budget priorities come from on high or are set in stone, and rob from the poor to give to the rich in terms of government services and subsidies. Worse yet, we often choose poverty for the poorest among us, cutting taxes for the wealthiest leading to cuts in education, social services, and medical care. We need to realize that we always have enough when we share enough. Abundant giving leads to abundant living.

Our national and personal abundance comes with the call to great generosity.  While we need to care for our own, we stifle our souls if we only care for our own. Nation-first is a recipe for national and planetary disaster. Such individualism on a personal and national nature goes against the interdependent nature of the universe and closes us to the lively creative energies of God. Today, we need to ask how can we be wisely generous and creatively sacrificial so that the planet may flourish and every person receive adequate sustenance? We must reclaim the vision of greatness in small beginnings, the beauty of small things, and the life-transforming power of simple acts of sacrifice done with great love.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, UCC, Centerville, on Cape Cod, MA, and professor in the D.Min. program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure with God, and The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh.