Monday, November 12, 2012

The Things That Matter

11 November, 2012 –– 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 17:10–16 / (Hebrews 9:24–28) / Mark 12:38–44
The Things That Matter

In my “previous life” I was overly-aware of image. I recall classmates in my high school who were obsessed with the right “look” to earn the yearbook’s official title of “Best Dressed” and, while my family didn’t have the money for me to be a candidate, I copied the preppie style.  For the next forty years my oxford, button-down dress shirts were always laundered with heavy starch. Non-liturgical Protestant pastors do not have a fixed dress code –– but usually it’s shirt and tie, so as I both progressed into my pastoral years and intensified my avocation of bird hunting, I dressed as a country gentleman with tweeds, my starched shirt and a club-style tie with bird, bird-dog, or shotgun motifs on it. About ten years ago, as the Lord began to take my conversion deeper, I quit wearing a tie; I didn’t think as pastor I should present myself as looking like a country gentleman (or a Wall Street broker or a Mormon missionary).

We live in a culture that makes a big deal about appearance. Certainly we cannot avoid personal appearance, and as the saying goes, there’s only one chance for a first impression, but obsession with public appearance does not mix with a Christian attitude. In today’s Gospel Jesus criticizes people –– and pointedly, the religious leaders –– for dressing to get attention and positioning themselves to be honored. Claiming expertise with the Scriptures, it seems they did not comprehend what God had spoken hundreds of years earlier through the prophet Samuel: Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1Sam 16:7). Negating Mark Twain’s famous quip, clothes do not make the man.  When “appearance” and “success” and “power” rank high on a person’s value system, the good news of the Kingdom of God has not been embraced.

We live in a world that tries to maintain an illusion that we are here forever.  Part of this is good –– there is an eternal yearning in all of us –– because we were created to know God (who is himself Eternal Life) and, as the Psalmist said, to finish, I must be eternal, like you (Psalm 139, The Grail). But when we try to grasp the eternal apart from God we are only reaching for bubbles. When we seek the euphoria of the eternal in the world’s counterfeits deftly presented by slight of hand –– things like “appearance” and “success” and “power” –– we are left with emptiness. While it’s true that a bit of recognition and honor and deference can feel exhilarating (for a brief while), it does not last and it cannot satisfy. 

Some people do see beyond the shallow pursuit of an appearance that is contrived and looks that will only fade away. Even then the world tries to snare us with our desire for “security.”  This is far more basic. We really do need to eat and to have income for the “basic necessities.” The world takes this and offers us the “Survivalist Mentality” that led to stockpiling during the approach toY2K, or more recently, the “end of the world” scare with the Mayan calendar (or any number of similar things). What shall we who follow Jesus do if something horrible happens and we have food while our neighbors have none?  Will we shoot them if they come for our food?  Or will we share what we have and then see what God will do next?

It is good for us to think about things like this. Do we in the Church really think through the things that matter? These were my thoughts as I read the Old Testament story alongside the Gospel. The widow in Zarephath was faced with a decision: to “take care of Number One” or lay aside her inclination to put her and her son’s self-interest first and give all she had to the prophet.  She chose to let self-interest die, partly because she had the clarity of understanding to know she would die anyway. This is foundational for anyone who really wants to know the things that matter. Sometimes I ask myself in a given situation: what difference will this make tomorrow.... or next week.... or next year?  What will I wish that I would have done when I’ve passed from this life and face our Lord God? The Epistle for today reminds us: it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment....  I want to live in the here-and-now on the basis of the things that matter.

While the scribes and their kind were basking in the privileges of their position, Jesus turned his disciples’ attention to a woman that no one else would likely have noticed. She had not just left the beauty salon, and she was no candidate for a magazine cover. She had next to nothing, and the tiny bit she did have she willingly gave as an offering. Some commentators have suggested it was just this kind of people that provided the scribes’ opulence. There were laws that governed the temple tax, and the scribes knew how to use the law to force widows to liquidate their houses in order to pay the taxes –– which padded the scribes’ pockets. This is likely what Jesus means when he says, They devour the houses of widows....  and then they try to hide it as they recite lengthy prayers. This is not the kind of religion that honors God and fulfills the character of Jesus. James tell us in his letter: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (1:27).

“The world” in this sense is a spirit of rebellion against God that is obsessed with privilege, applause and “places of honor.” Conversely, the Spirit of Jesus is the epitome of love, and St Paul tells us that, among other things, love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude (1Cor 13:4b,5a). Each of us lives in this world every day by choosing, either intentionally or by default, the things that matter. We can easily find ourselves giving deference to power and arrogance instead of recognizing the Spirit of Jesus in whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.... (Phlp 4:8).

This attitude starts with embracing Jesus as Model, as Savior, and as Lord. The corollary to that is to turn away from selfish concerns of how we look to others and trying to manipulate our own security. Like the widow of Zarephath recognized, we are going to die –– but the one thing we have some control over is how we respond to God and others while we are alive.

After I was ordained to the diaconate I heard that someone from my past said something to the effect, “Well, David will like this; he always enjoyed dressing up.”  I do admit that I take a bit of refuge in vestments; it means I do not have to think about my “image.”  I do not have to be concerned with what tie I should wear or what kind of statement my suit might make.  And I openly confess that I delight in the white alb –– it’s meant to symbolize the righteousness of Christ that is ours by his forgiving death, and there is never a day I do not need that.

May our Lord save us from being consumed with how we look.... how we can impress others. And heaven help us to know that we cannot secure ourselves in this world; Jesus meant what he said: It is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Life in this world is not about me (and I say that both for myself and inclusively for all of us). Our concern needs to be the things that matter. I had rather have the commendation of Jesus than the applause of people; I’d rather be welcomed into the Kingdom than leave a legacy of worldly success. It’s not okay to be religious on the outside, but not give the Lord our whole heart. We have this Gospel to help us remember that.

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