Serving in the Midst of Our Deficit

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November 11, 2018. Do we know God? Guest pastor Rachel Asen preaches on the story of the Widow’s Mite and of her dying father’s last request, and says that to know God is to serve others through our gifts, even in the midst of our deficit.


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Good morning, everyone. Thank you for having me here today. It’s truly an honor to be here. I pray that the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart might reflect even a morsel of the everlasting love of Christ. So I watched a video not too long ago of a social experiment, in which someone pretended to unknowingly drop money from their pocket while walking down a busy street. Time after time, the hurried pedestrians watched the money fall, they picked it up, and they placed it in their own pocket. The only individual who returned the cash was homeless. All he had were the clothes on his back and a small duffel bag filled with treasures that many of us might simply view as trash. When asked why he did this he answered, “I might not have much, but I have more than nothing.”


When we hear the word “poverty” we often assume it’s referring to economic lack. After all, we don’t have to go far to witness the impact of its devastation. Every day on my way to school I’m met by faces of those without shelter, without food, without medical care. Our brothers and sisters stand in the midst of idle traffic, draped in cardboard signs and weathered smiles. May we remember that each of us is merely one tragedy, one choice away from laying our head alongside them on a concrete pillow in the chill of night. Economic poverty is real and it’s crippling. Yet so too is poverty of the spirit. I spent the majority of my life running from my gifts. Some of us jog. I preferred to sprint. Nonetheless, I was desperately trying to find a way out of what I consider to be God’s suffocating embrace. I was a wayward lamb, smothered by the gift of my woolen coat. Our society is ever seeking ways to escape spiritual poverty, through social media, entertainment, drugs, alcohol — each an attempt to evade the discomfort of our reflection, a reflection often fractured by personal and societal expectations.


Yet, in our brokenness, in that debilitating state of loneliness and self-doubt, there is hope. Leonard Cohen writes, “There are cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Though poverty restricts our movement in society, it is not an absence of strength. Let us consider for a moment the word “mite” from the Widow’s Mite story, not merely as mite, M-I-T-E, a few meager coins, but rather might, M-I-G-H-T, as in courage and vitality. When we acknowledge that lack is in fact not weakness, we divest ourselves from the shame that hides in the shadows of our inadequacy.


Through faith, we are offered freedom to transcend terrestrial boundaries, despite the narratives into which we were born, and even those we’ve written for ourselves from remnants of our wounds. In the words of Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Christ is the sacred salve that fills our cracks, turning rivers of our brokenness into gilded veins of grace undue.


There was a time, not too long ago, when I felt my own gifts were greatly insufficient. During my father’s illness, he suffered from frequent bouts of uncontrollable sorrow. I would visit him often, and there at his feet listen to the pain of his neglected wounds and do my best to reassure him that, despite his perceived failures, he was loved. “What happened to you?” he asked me one evening. “You weren’t struck down like Paul on the road to Damascus. Something happened. Well, what was it?” I smiled softly, “I found peace.” “How?” he pleaded tearfully. “I learned to love myself,” I answered. My father began to cry. “Rachel, I don’t know how to do that,” he said. I leaned over, I gathered his hands into mine, and I seized his gaze. “We’re going to do it together, Daddy. We’ll build a bridge from your head to your heart.” During my father’s memorial service, I raised my eyes to the heavens and I asked God if I had been enough. Could I, amid the debris of my own poverty, have added even a mite to his eternal treasury?


In the midst of my uncertainty, a family friend began to tell a story describing his final visit with my dad. My father shared with him that the longest and most challenging journey of his life was in fact, not his disease. He said, “Johnny, the longest journey is from here to here.” In that moment, like a jewel interred in ice beneath the noonday sun, my inadequacy melted away. I began to weep. Yet my tears were not born of anguish, but a blessed joy, gratitude for the gift of reconciliation, and reverence for the miracle that lives within the power of selfless love. We have nothing to give but all of our self.


Jewish Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless, are the true gold mines of a culture.” In many cultures around the world, both impoverished and otherwise, elders are revered. Their wisdom is prized. They are not cast aside, but embraced. They are not forgotten, but admired. To discount the value of our elders is to effectively devalue ourselves, our poverty magnified by our unwillingness to treasure that which is most valuable.


Three days prior to my father’s death, he requested a bath. My mother dipped a blue washcloth in a tub of warm, soapy water and she offered it to me. I paused and looked down at my dad. “Are you sure you want me to bathe you?” I asked. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.” He nodded and whispered softly, “Just don’t forget the cologne.” As I swept the cloth across his chest, my hands seemed to capture the gravity of his condition in a way my vision simply could not. Mapping the peaks and valleys of my father’s frame with my fingers formed a land defined by ubiquitous shadows of the setting sun. I paused as I neared his hips. “Would you rather have Mom do this part?” I asked. He shook his head. “Are you sure?” He nodded. I continued to bathe him and with every stroke, I became increasingly aware of the blessing that lay before me. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “For what?” I asked. “That you have to do this.” I turned to meet his gaze. “You did it for me,” I said through silent tears, “And now it’s my turn.” The act of bathing my father was one of the most sacred moments of my life. It was an honor to prepare him for his eternal journey home.


I inherited a few pretty amazing friends after my father’s death, one of whom died in hospice just a few short weeks ago. Her name was Marie, and she was a beautiful soul. During one of my last visits with her, she asked a question which encompassed the crux of nearly every conversation we had ever had. Her eyes filled with heartfelt wonder as she asked, “Rachel, do you know God?” True to her nature, she embodied the essence of a curious child, hungry for the zest of knowledge. And true to mine, I grinned playfully. “Well, that would depend on one’s definition of ‘no.’ ” She flashed her beautifully crooked smile, shook her head in a gesture of joyful exasperation and chuckled. “I’m so glad we’re friends,” she said. Marie was a widow, and through her gifts she enriched the lives of many.


Still, her question lingers. Do we know God? In our poverty, will we add to the treasury both earthly and divine? Will we care for, and seek to learn from the gold mine of which Rabbi Heschel speaks? In the classic Christmas song “The Little Drummer Boy” the child sings, “I am a poor boy. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give the king.” So he plays his drum for him. He plays his best for him. And then Jesus smiles at him. The Little Drummer Boy had nothing to offer but his gift of music. He had nothing but everything to give.


To know God is to serve others through our gifts, even in, and especially within, the midst of our deficit. Just as the widow gave out of her poverty, we too must give of our lack, knowing that we will never be empty in the arms of Christ.


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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Rachel Asen, Anthem, Mark 12:38-44, Widow’s Offering