I want to look at the scribe and the widow in our Gospel reading, but first I’d like to talk about Religion and Spirituality a bit and then kind of work my way back. They are both big words, and the idea of spirituality is very popular though it might not be easy to easy to define; for me it is what happens when the air gets fresh and you feel connected again. There are lots of definitions for it, and in any case, lots of people who say, “Well, I am not religious but I am spiritual!” Some spiritualities - Benedictine, Ignatian, Franciscan, Celtic - might come under the label of Christian, some are New Age and some are very Old Age, but they speak deeply to people who are looking for rituals and routines to help them connect with meaning, hope, life.
Celtic spirituality is a tradition that has become quite popular in the last 20 or 30 years. As I understand it, much of what comes under that label streams from early Greek, Orthodox and and Coptic monks meeting the poetic and love of nature already deep in the Celtic soul in much of Great Britain and Ireland in the sixth or seventh century. This connection led to a theological, prayerful and mystical community bound together by a love for the Trinity, for Mary and the Incarnation of Christ; as well as in a simple and eloquent tradition and practice of music, art, poetry and liturgy pointing to a sense of the Holy, of God and the company of saints as a continuing, helpful, personal presence; with very thin boundaries between nature, the most sacred and everyday life. So in the last few years this body of word and music has given life to many people, helped them connect with hope and happiness, need and neighbor, call and community. So it can be a spirituality that breathes with meaning and promise in daily life.
And we need that for the traditional religions have fallen on bad times. With an increasingly strident fundamentalism on one side of the religious spectrum and dwindling attendance and energy on the other, we don’t look too good lately, and for many, the scribe that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel looks like the worst of what is feared in religion; a deadly formalism: an empty love for dress-up and ritual, too much emphasis on looking good in public, long prayers, private rituals, hypocrisy.
Now we all know people like that in the church, and some (maybe most) of us are people like that, or have been, at least a little, at least some of the time. Because sometimes we need to be formal, to dress up, to take on roles and rules that don’t quite fit us yet, as a support so that we can stand up and become ourselves again, become who we ought to be, who God wants us to be.
In a world noisy with the common gods of the marketplace, such as money, power, pride and public opinion, good religion practice offers places, rituals, stories and support to take ourselves more seriously in light of the love of God: and sometimes people overdo it, get it wrong as they’re learning to get it right. But that can also happen in any spirituality.
So maybe religion can be defined as the way we organize, prioritize, tie up our world; the rules and roles we follow, to (quoting an Irish poet) “keep our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, let we grow hard.” But maybe spirituality fits there too, for many spiritualities turn into religions over a few years. So whether you practice spirituality or religion, yoga or morning prayers, go to church religiously, write poetry at dawn, or serve God in your tennis game; it is a good thing if it gives you heart, encourages you, lifts you up and connects you with your deepest goals and God and your neighbor. If it helps you to keep it together, it’s a good thing. But it is very important to note that it is only half the whole story of living life.
Here’s the other side. Thomas Merton writes that we have to know we have a heart before we can give it away. It’s a two part process, there are two parts to life: we take it all in and we give it all away.
There’s a joke I love that never gets a laugh: two people are attending the funeral of a woman, afterwards they start talking details of the estate. One asks: “Did she leave much?” The other replies, “She left everything” We leave everything! By hook or crook, whether we’re a tennis players, poets, third order Franciscans or fiddlers, Celt or Anglo-Catholic, in the end we give it all away.
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” That’s the other side of the story. The large and little ways we give ourselves away. The greek word is kenosis, to pour ourselves out as a sacrifice to God. We don’t know why the scribe needed to look so good to so many, any more than we know why the woman gave so much of herself away, that’s their story, but how do we balance these two ways of being in our story?
Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations in the 1960s wrote in his personal journal, “I don't know Who -- or what -- put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone --or Something --and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.” He was killed not long afterwards in a plane crash, on the way to make peace in an African civil war.
He gave what he could, the woman gave what she had, Jesus will give all he has, Peter and Paul and so many saints and martyrs in the Christian tradition over the last two thousand years up to people we might know, people who might be with us today, will give all they have; not only in dramatic sacrifice, but in simple daily disciplined acts of mercy and justice, ongoing calls to community and commitment in following the way of Jesus, in his self-giving, as best we can in all our days and ways. Maybe that pompous scribe even gave what he could.
Religion and Spirituality, knowing what you need to have and knowing when you need to let go; sometimes religion might be taking it in, giving it shape, and spirituality might a way of pouring it out with passion, letting it go freely. Maybe, in the end, life, our daily living and dying, is just like breathing, we take it in, we give it out; two sides of the same coins; like the life that Jesus lifts up and gives away, freely, and somehow shares with us on the cross and beyond, a mystery to which we need to say Yes, a living sacrifice, a contained and considered self-surrender that leads us to a union with God in Christ in all things, so that we may serve God, know God’s love, in all ways.
In the name of Christ.