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Community-Care in a World of Systems: The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 17:8-16
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

There was a summer camp. A relatively small affair, created and maintained by a little trailer park community, on the outskirts of a city not unlike ours. This thing, it had grown over many years. It started with one woman babysitting her grandkids. And then some of their friends. And then some more kids from the trailer park. As it grew some of the parents and siblings and other residents helped out. Older kids organized games. People brought over snacks and co-ordinated meals. Crafty people showed the kids how to make crafts. An art teacher led activities on painting. Bird watchers and science teachers took the kids on hikes in the woods, through the bog, and up and down the hills.

Within a few years what started out as a little babysitting gig turned into a full camping experience with food, and sports, and activities, and wilderness excursions; and campers, and volunteers, and budgets.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that as it began its second decade of operation, there was a movement toward making everything more ‘official.’ As someone put it, they had to move away from being a “mom and pop” operation. Though ironically, it was largely moms and pops that had been doing a lot of the work, and they were kind of offended. In the end they decided to follow the more professional path. They aligned themselves with an established camp, and became a subsidiary of it. Out of this they automatically gained uniforms, and policies and procedures, and promotional materials. And programs — computer programs to help with lesson plans and registration. Lots of things to help the camp run more smoothly, and ideally, to grow.

But this is not one of those ‘happily ever after’ stories. All was not well with that camp as it navigated this new way of being. There were some changes that seemed less than helpful, but that they had no choice but to accept. The larger camp that they answered to had strict requirements for recruiting and training counsellors. This, they were told, ensured that staff were responsible and well-trained. What this actually did was tie their hands, because short-term, last-minute volunteers were no longer allowed to help, unless they had signed up before the April cutoff date.

It also affected the food. The camp now had to order all of their food from one particular vendor, two hours away. It was a very slick operation — everything neatly packaged in vacuum-sealed baggies — but with little in the way of choice or flexibility. This meant that Mrs. Smith’s homemade butter tarts could no longer be provided at meal times, and that the kids had to say goodbye to some of their favourite activities like the pie baking contest, and even making snacks like ants on a log, because all of that had been given over to the professionals.

So the camp grew. And everything went quite smoothly. But there was a feeling that they’d lost something: that inner spark that made the camp so special. In the old days the signs were hand-painted and messy. The meals were unpredictable, but everyone was a part of making them. And the activities were simple, but the fruit of the gifts of the community around them.

And so, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that in a few years a handful of kids migrated over to an elderly lady’s trailer. And instead of enrolling in the big fancy camp, they stuck to little things, like going for walks, playing games, making snacks, and enjoying nature. Without the bother of computer programs and policies and procedures, and packaged butter tarts that aren’t nearly as good as the real thing.

That’s just a little story — I’m not going to tell you if it’s real or not (because no matter what, I think it’s ‘true’ in some sense) — it’s a little story that helps me, and I hope you, to begin to wrap our heads around what’s a difficult, and in some circles, contentious gospel story. I say that because in some circles there’s some debate about the story’s intention. I remember hearing this story as a kid, and understanding it to be a lesson about the importance of giving. About how no matter how much we can give, the important thing is to give from our hearts, because that’s what counts.

But as time has gone on, some Bible scholars will point out that, as we heard, the story happens right after Jesus has warned his listeners — and us readers — of the hypocrisy of the scribes. How they might seem very professional and official, but if you dig deeper, he says, you’ll see that they “devour widows’ houses.” And this leads right into the sight of the lady putting her two last pennies into the Temple treasury, giving everything she has to survive to feed the institution of which the scribes are apart. So, the scholars will say, maybe this is a story meant to critique the religious establishment. After all, he’s just flipped over a bunch of tables and driven out animals and money-changers, and, in not too long, he’s going to be betrayed into the hands of the religious establishment, before being handed over to the state to be crucified.

But, even here there’s some more debate, because it’s a bit curious that Jesus — again, who’s not above causing a scene in the Temple — Jesus doesn’t stop the woman from handing over her money. If the system’s corrupt, you might expect him to intervene, and maybe invite her to follow him.

So the reality is that, personally, I’m undecided about the primary purpose of this story; about whether it’s a story about generosity, or of institutional greed. I do think that it’s possible that it’s about both. It’s undeniable that the story falls in a chapter where rival after rival challenges Jesus, and so the undercurrent really does seem to be one of critiquing these religious rivals. But I also think that the widow is the hero of the story. She “put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” And in a couple of chapters, Jesus is going to give up everything: his very life, on the Cross. And so in a sense, the widow is a Jesus-figure; a hinting at what is to come. And I do think it’s possible that the widow is a model of extravagant generosity, even if the recipient of that generosity is imperfect, like the Temple system was.

Because, I think that’s the reality of the situation, and our situation. All of us are surrounded by systems. It might not be as obvious as with the woman in the story, surrounded by the huge and impressive structure of the Temple. But our lives are surrounded, or maybe we could say, ‘infiltrated’ by systems. All sorts of systems, good, bad, or somewhere in between; like the medical system; the banks; academia; the courts; Rogers or Bell; Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. These are all systems and institutions that we created (or someone created), and that we engage, but oftentimes, it feels like they’re systems that we end up serving. Kind of like the summer camp in that earlier story that thought they were going to get lots of help, but ended up being constrained by the institution’s requirements and limitations regarding who could be staff, and what kind of food they could serve.

So the message might be a bit ambiguous, with Jesus criticizing the Temple, but then not stopping the woman from supporting it, and even seeming to praise her generosity. But all of us live in this ambiguity in our own lives. We might get a bit (or a lot) nervous about Google or Facebook collecting and studying our every move on the internet. But we also can’t imagine our lives without the good things that the internet provides. We’re reassured that we have cellphones, especially should our car break down on the road, in the middle of winter. But we’re also worried about our shrinking attention spans, and our addiction to these tiny screens. Or we’re thankful for our healthcare, and education, and insurance systems. But at some point we, or someone we know, have probably felt like a number; felt like a cog in a machine, when dealing with these big systems.

The system way of life revolves around things like: consistency; efficiency; privacy; and evaluates success with numbers. But the community way of life — the way of life that Jesus lived, and that I think the Church can still live out, at least to some extent, in our day — is about the diversity of everyone’s gifts; and participation; and bearing one another’s burdens; and it evaluates success through stories; stories of lives changed.

This is all something that we can do in our part in the life of our church, and in our lives outside the church. We can all give of ourselves, make an offering of ourselves in service to others. That’s what the widow does in the gospel story, and she gives, as Jesus said, “everything she had.” The system way of thinking doesn’t get this; because it measures value in the number of coins. But the community way of thinking isn’t preoccupied with coins, but with people. It cares about people’s hearts. And where people’s hearts are, the coins, presumably, will follow, naturally.

So today we look to this unnamed widow. (Two unnamed widows, actually, both in our Old Testament and Gospel readings.) How they make self-offerings that show a trust in God that we might find hard to fathom.

And by a simple coincidence in the lectionary, we hear these stories on Remembrance Day. Scriptures on the themes of sacrifice, and of the fragility of life that is known by so many who have gone before us, and so many who, whether due to famine, or flood, or fire, or war, live on the fine borderline between life and death.

And we honour them in occupying this space of uncertainty, and ambiguity. We recognize the brutality of the world, but also the blessings of life. And we remember those who were called upon to make sacrifices that are near-unimaginable to many of us. And with those who gave all they had, or simply, who gave all, we look in faith to God’s mercy that we know in Jesus, who, “having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Amen.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter