Relationships Matter

St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minn.
Readings for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost: I Kings 17:8-16, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

Even as our universe literally expands before our eyes (a la the new findings of the Hubble telescope and space exploration via satellites), we are learning that relationships matter. All kinds of relationships. Even as our world expands, we realize that ethnocentric fanaticism has a stronghold in the Balkans; Palestinians and Jews are losing lives in the Holy Land; African nations are being split asunder by civil wars; racial discrimination poisons our own country; and the obsessive drive of corporations to make money has been set above human need or sustaining ecologies. In our universe, relationships matter. Each person matters. Little things matter.

When I was a child, I loved the long summer evenings in the South, when every kid in our neighborhood played hide and seek together. I had a special place I liked to “hide” where I could look up into the twinkling sky and see the stars. I remember when I realized how very tiny we are in the expanse of the night sky. I felt tinier than tiny. Wondered if we humans, if our whole earth, might just be just some speck under the fingernail of some character out of Gulliver’s Travels. Just tiny specks.

But we wonder what difference one person, one little speck, can make in the expansiveness of galaxies? Are there models of relationship and behavior that can inspire us to a higher plane of life together? How does God deal with our human frailty? Our mistakes and hard heartedness?

As I read Jesus’ condemnation of those who put on long robes and say long prayers, I am concerned. I seem to be wearing a long robe this morning and I often lead the prayers. I pray that despite these outward affects, my ministry and ours in this place will not be perceived as that of the scribes Jesus is talking about in our reading from Mark.

The two short vignettes described in today’s Gospel reading are placed in Mark after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which means he is on the way to his death the cross. Our stories are surrounded by Jesus’ parables about the wicked tenants and the watchful door keeper. These stories seem especially small as we realize they come as Jesus is thinking about his purpose and how his life and sacrifice fit into the will of God.

The scribes represent a religious elitism also shared by the Pharisees and Sadducees. They are educated ones, equipped to serve God’s people. But rather than serving, they have elevated themselves as better than others. They are just the opposite of Jesus, who modeled the way of service to all humanity throughout all time and space. Jesus’ sacrifice for us made a way for us to be received into God’s realm even though there is no way we can earn our way in.

“The poor widow catches Jesus’ eye because of her giving response to God. According to Jesus, she presented more than a proportionate gift, more than a tithe.” She gave the only thing she had — -two coins. Jesus elevates this poor widow above the wealthy contributors.

What are we to make of this? Are we to scorn those who give from the abundance they have received? Of course not! Every gift to support God’s mission of extending the good news about Jesus’ loving action on our behalf is to be received and well used. What God wants is a whole-life response from us. We are to give ourselves, our actions, our money, our talents; to give from deep in our hearts whatever we can to join in this mission. And I thank God for you all here at St. Paul-Reformation who do just that: invest your money and time where your convictions lie, working to extend God’s love to everyone without distinction.

In a similar fashion, our reading from the Hebrew scriptures this morning brings us to the same conclusion. The context for this story in 1st Kings has to do with the cosmic battle between our God and pagan gods and goddesses. “The protagonist on the Lord’s side is the prophet Elijah, and his pagan opponent is Jezebel, the queen of King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jezebel, you see, is the patroness of the fertility gods of Baal religion, a form of worship which believed that cultic prostitution and magic could coerce Baal, the god of nature, to bring forth good crops and lots of children. So the struggle between Elijah and Jezebel epitomized the struggle. Who furnishes life with food and goods? Who is the source of prosperity and vitality, the Lord our God, or Baal?”

“The questions we face in our time are similar. From whom or what comes the source of our life and good?” Do we rely on the free market economy? Or on the determinations of the World Trade Organization? Or on our growing scientific knowledge to bring forth perfect crops resistant to disease or medicines to wipe out illness and death? The question for us in the midst of an expanding universe is the same as when we thought the world literally was flat and had four corners. Will we acknowledge God as the source of our lives and welfare in life and death? Or will we turn to modern idols?

“Our text this morning addresses these questions. In the section preceding our reading in 1st Kings, God’s prophet Elijah had predicted a drought which had decimated the land for three years. Clearly God was winning over Baal in this case. But to make matters more decisive, Elijah was sent into the land of Sidon, Jezebel’s territory! Who rules there? Baal or God?”

“God sends Elijah to a poor widow for food and drink. But she is running out of meal and oil and expects to die along with her son. “Not so.” says Elijah. “From now until the end of the drought your meal and oil will never be spent.” And in this story we have certainty that God controls the world of nature and provides for us.”

Just as this Older Testament story shows the primacy of God in all things, we have Christ as the focal point of our ongoing story with God in the New Testament and now. Jesus overturns everything, uplifting poor widows and replacing self-justification and self-righteousness with the only One who can provide what is needed in this life and the next. Jesus turns us to relationship with God, whose love for us calls forth from us a whole-life response of thanksgiving for such abundant grace.

What difference can one person make in the cosmic scheme of things? In these texts we have stories of two widows whose actions made a huge difference. Both gave from their meager resources to find that they gave joy to the Divine. And more than any job title or economic status, to be able to identify oneself as a person who brings joy to God is an amazing identity. That’s the kind of relationship God wants from us. Jesus helps us notice that the little things do make a difference and do count in God’s scheme of things: two copper coins and the sharing of meager rations. And we are reminded that we are saved by one thing: the life and death of one person, namely Jesus Christ, the author of our salvation.

Two copper coins don’t seem like much, but they were just enough for the widow to be received by Jesus. I want this morning to tell you about a current day situation in which small sums of money can make a huge difference. As Dean of our South Central Conference of the Saint Paul Area Synod, I have twice had the chance to meet Bishop Mnegella, head of our companion synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. When I first heard him two years ago, he spoke of very concrete needs of his pastors and congregations in the Iringa Diocese. Many churches were able to build the walls to their buildings, which stood without roofing. The so called “iron sheets” which they needed cost about $60 apiece. It doesn’t sound like much to us perhaps, but it each iron sheet represented as much money as an adult there may make in a year. I am happy to report that Bishop Mngella said on Thursday that through the partnership with the people of our Saint Paul Area Synod, they have now received enough “iron sheets” to cover the rooftops of their simple churches across the diocese. He also said they’d been learning that mission across the ocean really means connecting people to people, not handling huge projects.

He also spoke of the need of each Pastor in the Iringa Diocese to have a cow. Yes, I said, a cow. Owning a cow can help a pastor and family survive. They will have nourishment for themselves. And by selling milk and calves, the pastor’s family can obtain the other goods they need to live on. It certainly is a different economy than ours, but understandable especially here in the Midwest where we are not so far removed from farming roots.

Cows cost $350 each. We can send the money directly through our synod. This fall, I spoke with our Sunday Church School Coordinators, Chris and Jon Stevens, about this “Heifer Project” partnership with Bishop Mngella and the Iringa Diocese in Tanzania as a project our children might work on this year. I wrote to Pastor Don Fultz, who is now retired and helping in Iringa to find out if there was still a need for a cow.

Pastor Fultz wrote back that the need is large and that our simple request for information generated much excitement. A pastor on the Bishop’s staff said that there were still 65 pastors whose families would be helped by a cow, and that more were graduating from seminary. He laid out a plan in which we could purchase 20 cows each year until every pastor’s family can be supported!

I wrote back saying that I would do what I could to spread the word, but noted that we were talking about the weekly offering of Sunday School children and that we might be able to support one cow. Since then, I’ve been haunted by the size of the need, and have decided to tell people wherever I go about the “Heifer Project” connection with our companion synod.

So we might help keep Tanzanian pastors and their families solvent, our church school children will be asking for a special offering in December when they present their program during our worship service. In addition, if any of you are interested in buying a cow, please let me know. It sounds like a little thing. Like two copper coins, maybe. But they can go a long way toward supporting the mission of the church and toward building relationships across continents from Minnesota to Tanzania.

Two copper coins. A cow. A widow. A child. Many small relationships. Can they change the world? Change our perspective from specks in an expanding universe? One life. One baby in the manger. One crucifixion. One resurrection. One relationship has changed the world. And we reap the benefit in our relationships with each other, with God, with ourselves.

On this Children’s Sabbath Sunday, may we find the ways to celebrate that it is the little things and the little ones who show us the way to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our soul. God calls us into relationship. God is still alive and well and offering us ways to see victory over the false idols of our time. Praise be to God! Amen.