Sunday, November 11, 2012

From Emptiness to Fulfillment

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 11, 2012

Year B: Proper 27 – The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
(Hebrews 9:24-28)
Mark 12:38-44
From Emptiness to Fulfillment
            Well, it’s been a rough couple of weeks.
            Nearly two weeks after the “super storm” hit, many of us are still reeling from the loss of life, property, business and electricity.
            Maybe more than anything else, though, the storm battered our sense of stability and security.
            We find ourselves living like so many people around the world, wondering – worrying - what’s next for us. We’re not sure if our homes and possessions are safe – or can ever be truly safe again.
            On the other hand, many of us have a renewed appreciation for the so-called simple things of life: flicking a light switch and a light actually comes on - pulling into a gas station without waiting for hours – finding cold leftovers in the fridge – calling friends and family on the phone – getting to know our neighbors.
            And it hasn’t only been the storm. We also had to endure the last few weeks of a truly dismal, and obscenely expensive, presidential election. Whatever you think of the final result, I think we’re all glad it’s over.
            All of this has left me drained – has left me feeling empty. Maybe you feel something similar. Over these past few days I’ve wondered and prayed about how to get from emptiness back to fulfillment.
            From emptiness to fulfillment.
            Today’s lessons are filled with people experiencing emptiness. But, unfortunately, only some of them are able to get from emptiness to fulfillment.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is teaching in the Jerusalem temple where he has some not very nice things to say about the scribes. Since we think of a scribe as simply a writer, Jesus’ indictment seems over the top. But, in those days scribes we’re actually lawyer-theologians – people with a good bit of power and prestige in that time and place.           
            Yet, all of that power and prestige doesn’t seem to be enough for them, does it? It seems that, like some of us, they had a sense of emptiness. But, unfortunately, the scribes tried to fill their emptiness in all the wrong ways.
            The scribes tried to fill their emptiness by puffing themselves up; by drawing attention to themselves and by accumulating wealth as they greedily swindled others.
            I’m sure it didn’t work. It never really works. Those things – those actions – don’t fill the emptiness. Jesus says that they will receive the greater condemnation. By trying to fill their emptiness at the expense of others the scribes have already condemned themselves.
            And then there is the poor widow. Actually, a better adjective would be destitute. In that time and place widows owned little or nothing themselves  - and were at the mercy of their families.
            At the temple, people deposited their coins into metal trumpet-shaped receptacles. So the clinking noise would have sounded all too clearly the size of one’s donation. Compared to the deep sound of the thick coins deposited by the rich, the poor widow’s little copper coins must have resonated as tinny and pathetic.
            Yet, Jesus points out that since she gave everything she had, the widow was the most generous of all.
            Notice, though, that Jesus doesn’t say he approves of what’s just happened at the treasury. In fact, the implication is that the widow has been taken advantage of by the corrupt religious establishment.
            And, actually, this passage isn’t so much about the widow – who, we could argue, was generous to a fault. No, this passage is mostly about the scribes, the religious leaders and the rich who tried to fill their emptiness in all the wrong ways, ending up condemned.
            So, we know what doesn’t work.
            But, how do we get from emptiness to fulfillment?
            Today’s Old Testament reading is from the Book of Ruth – a book that has a lot to say about moving from emptiness to fulfillment.
            Do you know the story?
            It begins with Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons leaving Bethlehem during a time of famine and going to Moab, a neighboring land on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.
            Both sons married local Moabite women but then both sons and Naomi’s husband, Elimelech died.
            Talk about emptiness! It seemed like Naomi had lost everything – she had lost her husband and her sons and was living in a foreign land. She understandably decides to return home to Bethlehem. Naomi urges her Moabite daughters-in-law to stay in their own country. But, one of the daughters-in-law, Ruth, in an act of extraordinary generosity, insists on accompanying Naomi to Bethlehem.
            In the best-known passage from the Book of Ruth, Ruth says to her mother-in-law: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
            Naomi reluctantly accepts Ruth’s generosity and together Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth make their way to Bethlehem.
            In Bethlehem the foreigner Ruth goes to a field where she takes advantage of the Israelite law that required farmers to leave part of their harvest for the poor, the aliens and the widows. Ruth, of course, is all three.
            Fortunately, she goes to a field belonging to a man named Boaz – who goes beyond the law by warmly welcoming her, protecting her and sharing his meal with her.
            As we heard in today’s lesson, Ruth and Boaz end up married and had a son, Obed, who will be the grandfather of King David.
            The Book of Ruth tells the story of going from emptiness to fulfillment. Naomi and Ruth had nothing and yet by the end of the story their lives are fuller than they could have ever imagined.
            How did it happen? How did Naomi and Ruth get from emptiness to fulfillment?
            Ruth could have stayed with her own people in Moab and yet she chose to stick with her mother-in-law.
            And it took some generosity for Naomi to accept Ruth’s love – to accept her help and loyalty. How many of us have trouble asking for or accepting help?
            Boaz could have just followed the letter of the law and simply allowed Ruth to gather the leftovers but instead he generously welcomes her into his home and into his life.
            And what was true long ago is just as true today.
            We’ll fail every time if, like the scribes, we try to fill our emptiness by just accumulating wealth and prestige – by trying to convince everyone how special and impressive we are. Instead, we simply condemn ourselves.
            But, we move from emptiness to fulfillment through generosity.
            Look at the generosity we’ve seen in the aftermath of the storm!
            As most of you know lifelong parishioner Don Van Court died on the Thursday after the storm. That morning, as the word got out, in the midst of toppled trees and downed power lines, so many neighbors – some of whom only knew Marge from seeing her walking her dog – offered help – charging phones, hauling over piles of firewood, sharing a generator, and bringing over a little care package of snacks and bottled water in a basket wrapped in cellophane.
            From emptiness to fulfillment through generosity.
            Yesterday some of us from Grace and other local Episcopal churches went to the Community Food Bank in Hillside where we and other volunteers packed over 500 emergency boxes of food for hurricane victims. It was the most fulfilled I’ve felt in weeks!
            And we’ve even seen some generosity of spirit in the days after the presidential election.
            In his concession speech, Governor Romney congratulated the president and his campaign and offered prayers especially for the president and his family.
            In his speech on election night, President Obama said this: “the Romney family has chosen to give back to America through public service, and that is a legacy that we applaud and honor tonight.”
            I know politicians are expected to say those kinds of things on election night. But, imagine if we had seen that kind of graciousness and generosity from both sides throughout the campaign. Imagine if our leaders behaved that way all the time! Imagine if we behaved that way all the time!
            From emptiness to fulfillment through generosity.
            These last few rough weeks may have left us feeling drained – may have left us with a sense of emptiness.
            But, we know the way from emptiness to fulfillment.
            It’s the way of Ruth generously giving herself to her mother-in-law Naomi. It’s Naomi accepting Ruth’s love and loyalty. It’s the way of Boaz who went beyond the law to welcome the stranger.
            We know the way from emptiness to fulfillment.
            It’s the way of a group of neighbors on the hill in Madison, who in the midst of devastation, generously reached out to a grieving neighbor.
            It’s the way of volunteers helping people we’ll never meet.
            We know the way from emptiness to fulfillment.
            On this Veterans Day we especially remember that it’s the way of men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for our safety and freedom.
            And, most of all, it’s the way of Jesus who gave away his life for us all – and calls us to give away our lives in loving service.
            From emptiness to fulfillment through generosity.