The Widow's Mite

November 22, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister


Luke 21: 1 – 4

Some of you know that the Muslim Community Network offices with us here at Judson. We have been together for about four years now, in one room or another. They now live in the garden room, which is right off my office. You probably also know how you can be in an office with someone and rarely cross paths. I had not seen one of them since the attack in Paris.

I ran into her on Friday, finally, and all I had to do was look into her eyes and begin to cry. We held each other for a long time and when the tears stopped, we found a way to talk. “I haven’t been wearing my scarf outside, Donna. I’m too afraid. A woman with a scarf was pushed down on Thompson Street and a man was so angry he put his foot on her chest. My mother called me and begged me not to wear my scarf outside. . .” And she went on. Our tears finally stopped.

If you’re not worried about the deep reach of terrorism, then you are probably worried about the deep reach of racism, and if you are not worried about the deep reach of terrorism and racism, you are probably worried about climate change and whether your grandchildren will be able to breathe. And if you’re not worried about terrorism, racism and climate change, you are probably worried about the half dozen of our own members who are right this minute being actively gentrified out of their apartments and worried about Friday showing up because they won’t have enough to eat. Or you could worry about two of our members who have health insurance and can’t get home health care that they need. I could give you more reasons to worry but you didn’t come here for more reasons to worry.

Instead I want to help you turn the page, change the course, give you a spiritual anti-anxiety drug. First I will set before you an image. On the Barnard campus uptown, there is a phenomenal magnolia tree. Gigantic. Multi armed. Swirling around itself. Two stories high and three stories wide. It has been moved. It has been moved about 20 feet from the center of the lawn to the side of the lawn. The hole that was dug to get it and its roots out was as big as an apartment. Why move a tree? So that graduation and other large events could happen more easily on the lawn. So that people could gather more comfortably.

The spiritual anti-depressant is as large and magnificent as moving the magnolia so people can gather more comfortably. It is digging a hole down deep inside yourself and feeling the connection of your trouble to the trouble around you. It is a kind of confession. I am in the wrong place. I need to move. I need to make space for others in my life. As our modern testimony says, the violence all around us is not outside us. It is in us as well. Whenever you are worrying you are engaging a kind of violence towards yourself and others. You are living pre-faith. You are living from a place that is not good for you or others. You are living in the Grey Zone, the maybe, maybe not place. You are being a moderate – and passionate people won’t like you.

Matt Stinchcomb, my colleague in, describes this phase as the degenerative. We degenerate. We use fossil fuels that hurt the planet. We waste time worrying. We imagine the trouble all around us is is larger than we are. We don’t pull together so much as pull apart. We have fights, even here at Judson, about the right way to be against racism. We have mites that we imagine our mites. We refuse to believe with the widow that our mite is mighty. More, we let the beautiful tree stay where it is, in the way of our gathering. We don’t imagine we can move, even 20 feet. We consent to the way things are and say, “That’s just the way it is.”

Now I’d like to get real with you. I am more than a little frightened by the size of the hate unleashed on the world. I am not sure that even with all our mites collected and regenerated that we can assure breath to our grandchildren or safety in our streets. It may be too late. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be put back in their bottles. The hatred in Syria can’t be blocked with mites. The multiplying hatred from Syria – where in rejecting people who are fleeing from war, we are probably actively creating new terrorists – joins the multiplying hatred against immigrants in the U.S. bringing us so close to the folly of our previous treatment of the Japanese that you have to tremble.
Thank you, Congressman Nadler and Governor Cuomo, for leadership on this matter. We are proud of you.

We could move all the magnolias in the world 20 feet and still not be able to stop the hate we have for some people and the hate they have for us. It is probably way too far-gone to put the hate back in the bottle or to foolishly ask questions of blame. Today I would like to stop that question of blame and start the question of aim. Where do we want to move our tree? Like you, I would love to find someone to blame for these interacting messes. I would love to get super angry with you and name the sin and the sinner and be done with it. Especially as long as it didn’t include me.

The open exciting American narrative is lost: who’s to blame? Many of us imagine there will not be a future. Who’s to blame? The fact that the political discourse from the Democrats and the Republicans remains the question of blame is the most terrifying part of the mess. There are no leaders and there are no people willing to be led.

Anything less than a more horrifying crisis than the ones we have already seen will not work to take us out of these stuck conversations. We actually need a truly big crisis, not just these ongoing small ones. Without that big crisis, the leadership will not emerge to manage the trouble and to move the tree so we can gather to graduate from our own permission and ourselves to violence. Sandy Hook? Guns? Seriously? We give permissions to guns, not gathering, in small and large ways all the time. Why? Because we prefer to worry instead of move.

So I prefer that you not worry. I prefer instead that you be genuinely scared. Truly scared. Worry is not a motivation to move the tree. Fear is. So is hope.

I may be more pessimistic than you knew about the human condition. I do have something called faith in our capacity. I do have faith in what we could do. I just don’t know that we will do it. There is a difference in knowing humans have the capacity to drink water out of fountains instead of walking around with water bottles in their hands, imported from Maine to New York city, than believing we will use that capacity.

The question that emerges for those of us who believe in the God-given human capacity to fear not and to be free is how to create the conditions that allow that potential to emerge. Some would call it education. Others would call it parenting. I would call it

Spiritual formation, which is the development so fully of the spirit that we encounter the violence within us, successfully. That means at least a handshake with some version of the Almighty, the Ontos, the what’s it all about, Alfie, kind of ultimate.

Spiritual formation is all about little steps. It takes a whole life to become a spiritually rich person, and I don’t mean just non-stop bible study, although that is included. It means the full spiritual disciplines of prayer and protest, constant engagement with each other about the meaning of what’s right, and all that done within a fully loving community. It means knowing people well enough to know that they have forgiven us and that we can forgive them. That’s what is so great about our anti-racism conversation right now. We are finding out that we do not agree about many things and we are being given serious opportunities for mutual forgiveness. Someone said to me that it is embarrassing to think that “even” at Judson we have to have hard conversations about race. I am thinking that we get rid of those fantasies about “even” at Judson, move the tree of our conceits about ourselves out of the middle of the room, and start talking. It’s going to be great. Spiritually formed people are glad at the arrival of conflict. They know it is a time to grow. By the way, spiritual formation is not just about little steps. It is about a large decision to turn towards the Almighty, dig a hole and move the old tree a ways. Spiritual formation is as much an ecstatic, mystical adventure as it is a slow and steady personal development. It too that tree weeks to actually move. It also moved all of a sudden.

I want to convince you that heaven is just two miles East. And I believe it is. I even believe we have the capacity to get there. I don’t know if you have seen the newest gizmo, which I am sure will be the biggest holiday seller. It is a

Thing, where you can charge all your things at once. That’s what we need.

We need to see that the central issue is the way we come together, not just locally, or in families but across the many divides of race, class and cult. Matt Stinchcomb says that the way he did the original marketing for, a platform now for 300,000 artisanal teams around the world, was to imitate religious cults. He saw that at their core was a connection of the religious product with social processes. If you connect the buyer to the seller to the employer to the worker, you get the kind of density that grows people and things. Like permaculture, at the edge of a forest when two parts of system come together, there is strength. The word right relation comes to mind. Or good relationships. Or safe spaces. Or the Pope’s most often used word, Dialogue.” Spiritually formed people are not afraid to talk with each other across divides. We expect them. We know they are there. We are thrilled when they come to the surface. We want them out and up because we want the crisis that will bring the heaven.

We are so close to the end of the time when any one religion thinks it has it right. This last gasp of ISIL is a piece of that old way to be religious. We who are faitheist need to connect not just with other religions but with those fed up with religions – precisely because ISIL is just acting like Christians did under Hitler or during the Crusades. Here we are trying to figure out how to talk to each other about police violence without condemning all police. What better thing could there be to do? Than to talk to each other about the wide brush and the terrible violence that comes from some? And to talk about the violence as though it was part of our own personal and religious history as well.

At a recent speaking engagement I was approached by a well-dressed woman in her late 60's. She said "We are willing to do whatever it takes to get the next generation of leaders involved. We will invest our time to train them, equip them, and guide them as they learn how to run this congregation. It's their turn to step up, just like we did when we were their age." She winked at me and moved on.

It seemed like a noble gesture on her part, her willingness to invest in the next generation. But there was an unstated assumption beneath her offer. Did you hear it?

They will have to learn how to run the organization our way, before we yield the leadership of the congregation to them. She didn't consider that the next generation of leaders might remold and reshape the organization in significant ways, before they accept the leadership reign. ISIL youth are also asking for a way in, for something more exciting than a shopping mall in which to hope. They too are looking for a narrative that is beautiful.

Like the Second Avenue Subway, which has had at least two groundbreakings already, we need inter generational, inter racial, and inter religious groundbreakings. We need to move whatever is in the way out of the way. We need to live our life in such a way that God can spend us, while we head towards each other and release the enormous social capital of people who know how to come together, people who know the deep longing of humanity to get along.

Someone said that we should behave like a family, here at church, and treat each other as though we were siblings. Ah. Another asked, how long have you been worshipping here? 20 years. When did you quit? 16 years ago. What about really worshipping here? If you are here. And giving our spirits to each other to tend and befriend?

Two authors are helping me understand how I got so troubled. It’s not terrorism. It’s the trouble all around, like it being Thanksgiving and the leaves still being on the tree. One is Paul Krugman from the New York Times. He is arguing that millions of people have lost their “life narrative.” If you had a life narrative, would you wake in the night and just “check” what came in? Another comes from a book Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future by Hal Niedzviecki. He argues that our obsession with electronic contact comes out a deep fear that we might be left behind. Hmm. Am I afraid of being left behind? Yup. What if that darkness will not be cured by the cell phone but by restoring the narrative? And there is no way to restore the narrative without talking to each other.

Let me lay out a picture first a big one, then a small one. In our work with spiritual entrepreneurs, we are working with a framework that analyzes the current economy and environment as degenerative. Fossil fuels are like worry. They just drain the swamp, and all is left is the swamp. Every minute you are not spending on developing renewables, you are pouring your energy down the drain. That is spiritually true as well as materially true. Every dollar you spend on security, and securing what can’t be secured, is money poured down the drain. That is money that could go to peace keeping or educating young men, who without education are going to hurt you and themselves. Of course, right now, everybody wants to beef up security and spend more money on security, etc. etc. etc. I know that will happen. I also know it is degenerative. It wastes money, time, energy, hope and causes more worry than it can assuage.

Degeneration is where we are now. Sustainability is where some of us moderates would like to be, not just environmentally but economically and also in that we we are begging for a “normal” right now. Sustainability doesn’t move trees or really help as a direction. But it reduces the number of water bottles we use. It diminishes investments in fossil fuels. But most of us know that these won’t be enough to save the breath for our grandchildren.

We need things that are not just less bad but genuinely good. We need to move the tree and see that what is truly needed is people talking to each other. Hopefully on a nice lawn. We need to ratchet up the matter of cultural and religious exchange so much that it becomes like a crisis to us. I know we will stay in the sustainability frame for quite a while but what is truly needed – in lieu of the crisis that is coming that will change us – is regeneration. Regeneration is adding energy to the system. It is in line with the theory of permaculture, where you go to the periphery and bring that energy into the middle and keep exchanging the peripheries and the centers. The place of maximum energy is where things meet. We need to meet each other, especially the people who hate us and whom we hate. Regeneration is like the old boy scout motto of leaving the place better than you found it. Now that degeneration, sustainability, regeneration progression is a kind of spiritual formation. We actually improve spiritually over time if we are willing to be constantly formed or if we see life as a constant graduation and gathering. We don’t just go from lots of worry to a little worry. We go from worry to joy.

Regeneration can also be defined in delightfully capitalist terms. It asks us to create value and to add value – whether materially, or spiritually, or culturally. We can add value without going nuts over it. The widow’s mite is mighty here. Adding just a little value will regenerate you and others. Going to one rally to support immigrants or Muslims or to welcome Syrian refugees would be quite enough, thank you. Many of you are overwhelmed by the muchness of the current mess. Don’t’ let yourself be overwhelmed. Do one thing and do it well. Tuesday there is a gathering downtown. Adding a lot of value puts you in a degenerative phase. You lose energy as you excessively try to expand it.

So in conclusion. I am anti-worry. I am pro-spiritual formation, especially if we do it as genuinely good and not just less bad. I am thinking regeneration and I know you can do it. I know we all have the capacity to regenerate. I’ve watched broken bones heal. I have seen you do physical rehab. How about some spiritual rehab too? I didn’t say it was easy. There is a big hole to dig. There is dirt to move. But then there is open space. Enter it. Enter it with the courtesy and self-definition it deserves from you.

Of course you could continue to abuse the space that is truly open, reject the heaven that is two miles East. You could continue to say, “It’s not my fault,” which of course it is not. You could continue to defend yourself on the great shelf of worry; so afraid are you of digging a hole. Or you could dig that hole in yourself and learn to say something different than, “it’s not m fault.” You could say instead, every time you want to say it’s not my fault, It’s not my faith…” My faith is in God-given human capacity. I was created by a good God who wants me to thrive. I shall thrive.

I shall thrive mightily by thriving mite by mite. Even Jesus may say something nice about me in the end. The widow’s mite can become mighty. And that tree will be beautiful in its new spot.







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