Text: Mark 12:38-44 (a poor widow’s offering)
Last year when I turned 60, I started thinking more seriously about retirement. I calculated the savings Kim and I have; thought about the best time to apply for CPP; estimated the value of our house; and wondered how long we might live in it.
But as those who are retired know, there is more to retirement than just finances. There are also questions of physical health, of where family and friends are located, of what might occupy one’s time, and of finding a new identity after career.
Nevertheless, finances play a significant role for many of us.
When I was growing up, my family was poor. My mother had worked as a teacher before marrying. But after that, she had five children in eight years; and raising them consumed most of her time and energy.
My father was a United Church minister, so his salary was modest. We lived in nice houses – usually a church-supplied manse; and my father’s status as a minister meant that we considered ourselves to be middle-class. But my parents often struggled to stay within their budget.
I remember that when I was entering Grade 7, I got a new pair of pants and a matching shirt; and I wore them to school every single day between Labour Day and Christmas. Some memories just don’t fade . . .
Happily, when it came to retirement, my parents were fine. In one of the six congregations that my father served, there was no manse. So, in 1972 my mother and father bought a small suburban home. This was difficult for them financially. But four years later, they sold it at double the price. It was on the basis of this real estate windfall that my father and mother were able to live comfortably in retirement for 20 and 30 years respectively . . .
In thinking about today’s Gospel reading, the question “How do we measure wealth?” came to my mind.
In the reading, Jesus is impressed by a tiny offering given at the Temple in Jerusalem by a poor widow. The small amount she gives, he says, represents everything she has. He compares her offering favourably to the offerings of rich people.
It is easy to see how this text could be used to try and guilt people to give more money to the church.
But that is not the angle I pursue today. Instead, I reflect on poverty and abundance and how they encompass much more than just annual income and savings.
Poverty plays a key role in many spiritual paths. Catholic nuns and priests take vows of poverty and they are expected to live simply and humbly until death. Buddhist monks who spend much of their time praying or meditating spend much of the rest of it begging to sustain their lives.
The material poverty of religious people is thought to highlight the spiritual riches that are available to us regardless of the size of our bank accounts. All people are dependent on the Source of Life and Love we call God. All of life is a gift from the past – from our ancestors, from the web of life of which are part, and from the history of the earth. The gifts of human culture come to us unbidden. Whether rich or poor, all of us are blessed by the collective knowledge of humanity and the wonders of the human and natural worlds.
Both rich and the poor enjoy blue skies and brilliant sunsets. Both give and receive love. Both are children of God.
When we remember the Grace upon which life rests, we may be able to experience infinite riches even in deprived conditions and know eternal love in any fleeting moment.
Perhaps the poor widow gives everything she has because she realizes how blessed life is and how eternally grateful she is for the presence of God’s Spirit at any moment of need or joy.
Perhaps the rich people whom Jesus sees at the Temple have a more difficult time counting these same blessings. Perhaps people who worry too much about savings and the financial needs of retirement become blind to the beauty, love, and support available to us right here and now.
Most of us here today cannot number ourselves among the world’s poor. Baby Boomers like me have seen astonishing increases in wealth. The Canadian population has more than doubled since I was born, and since the number of hours worked is a key measure in the crazy calculus of the market, Canada’s economy has boomed. Then there is the ever-expanding knowledge and technical expertise applied to the production of goods and services.
When I was a child, our black and white TV offered two stations and poor reception. Today, our TV has millions of colours, crystal-clear reception, hundreds of broadcast channels, and access to much of the world’s film and TV library via Internet-based services like Netflix and iTunes. How does one measure such an increase in wealth?
When I was a child, I didn’t know anybody who traveled by plane. Today, it is rare for me and my peers to not fly thousands of kilometers a year.
When I was a child, the average Canadian had about 30% of the living space that we enjoy today. And so on.
Most of us enjoy more health and wealth than the Sun Kings of 18th Century France.
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of poor people, both here in Edmonton and around the world. The poorest of these are probably the world’s 70 million refugees. Increases in the number of refugees since 2011 have resulted from war in North Africa and the Middle East and violence and corruption in places like Central America. Many of the causes can be linked to the military actions of the United States and its allies.
Since the beginning of October, a group of 5,000 have become the most infamous of the world’s 70 million refugees. They are a caravan of asylum seekers who have fled the violence and poverty of Honduras and Guatemala and who are now walking 2,500 KM through Mexico from their devastated homelands to the United States.
The U.S President has demonized this group as dangerous criminals who bring disease and evil with them. But other observers see them as desperate people who are trying to protect their children from rape and murder.
Central America has been a victim of U.S. military and diplomatic interference for more than 150 years now. U.S. invasions, occupations, and support for dictatorships have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and in governments that are either implicated in organized crime or are powerless to control it. Murder rates are often shockingly high. Economic development is a small fraction of what it would have been if these countries had been free to evolve without U.S. interference.
Because of the violence and corruption in much of Central America, I can understand why a family there might want to flee north to a country with the rule of law and greater opportunities.
I am saddened by the ability of the U.S. President to stir up fear of these desperate people especially given how dependent countries like the U.S. and Canada are on immigration. There is no doubt in my mind that the people in the caravan would be a blessing to any country that took them in. Instead, the President demonizes them as terrorists and criminals.
But can we consider these poor refugees as wealthy despite their economic privation, the rigors of their long walk through Mexico, and the uncertainty of their future in the face of official hostility?
I would not be surprised if many of them saw themselves as wealthy even in this terrible moment. They have demonstrated courage and initiative by fleeing their homeland. They are living in community for safety and to provide mutual aid. They are receiving help from churches and other charitable organizations along the route. Many of them have a deep faith in God and in the goodness of most people.
Like the poor widow in today’s reading, these Central American refugees have given everything they own in an attempt to provide safety for their children. I pray that they find asylum in a place with greater safety than the countries they have left behind. I also pray that they realize that life, despite its difficulties, is a precious gift. As long they have each other and are aware of the presence of a Spirit of Love among them, they can trust that all is well and that all will be well.
Many of these refugees probably understand that moments of loss and sickness come to billionaire racists as much as they do to impoverished refugees. In such moments, the billionaire and the refugee are equal. Many of them probably know that moments of love and learning come more easily to them than to billionaire racists, in which case they are the wealthy ones.
Those in the U.S. who succumb to fear because of the President’s racist lies are spiritually and morally impoverished as a result. But those who perceive the President’s lies for the poison they are increase their ability to mine the treasure available to us. This treasure is built of trust as opposed to fear; charity as opposed to hostility; solidarity as opposed to division; and love as opposed to violence.
From the vantage point of spirit, wealth is faith and faith is wealth. A powerful billionaire is a spiritual pauper when he gains power through bigotry and fear; while poor refugees are wealthy when they remember that any of us can see the divine in the people we meet. All we need do is look at one another with compassion, curiosity, and wonder.
As for those of us who are neither billionaires nor refugees, I pray that we never lose sight of our true wealth. May our anxieties about finances recede as we face the glory of this eternal moment of love.
May it be so. Amen.