Long robes, puppies, and joy

Proper 27 B
Mark 12:38-44

In the name of the God of joy.  Amen.

There are two times in the course of the Christian year when the readings in the church leave me feeling… convicted.  Times when the readings seem to be standing in exact opposition to our own practices as a church.

The first time each year is on Ash Wednesday, when we read, “Beware of practicing your piety in public,” and, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray in secret, and God who sees in secret will reward you.”  We read those words in a public service of worship and prayer and then proceed to smear black stains of ash across our foreheads as an expression of our piety – right there for everyone to see.  We hear the same words year after year, but then we go on and do the same things…  I’ve never really made peace with that.

The other time when the lessons of the church leave me feeling convicted is when we read what we read today: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes…”  One translation I read this week called the scribes the “legal experts”, but another one – one that I think is probably a little more onto the right point in this instance – called the scribes “religious authorities”.

So I read these words periodically in the church, as a religious authority, after walking in a procession to the center of the room, while all eyes are on me, and my long, fancy robe.

Every time it strikes me as odd.  And yet, we just keep doing it.

The thing about these fancy robes, and our special windows, and our silver, and all the other trappings of our expressions of Christianity…  The thing about them all is, they’re for us.  They’re not for God, but for us.  We use them as tools to help us understand and experience that there’s something different about worship as opposed to everyday life.  We use them as tools to help differentiate this space and these actions and this mindset from all the other things and times of life that can sometimes drown out our experiences of holiness.  God doesn’t need them, even if we sometimes do.

One of my favorite things about being a “pet parent” is that it’s so easy to make our dogs happy.  One of the surest ways to set off riotous joy in our household is to let our three dogs know that it’s time for their nightly treat.  They get these sort of gross looking little pieces of dehydrated chicken, but each night, when they’re passed out to the three of them, you’d think they’d won the lottery.  All we have to say is, “Hey boys” – and all their heads perk up, even from a dead sleep, and they stare at us in rapt expectation… They don’t exactly know what’s about to happen, but they suspect it might be something good.  Then one of us will say, “Do you want a chickie?”

It’s pandemonium.  Barking...  Running in circles...  Leaping into the air trying to be nearer to us…

I never used to have the habit giving out special treats – not even in a limited way like we do now.  But Michael rightly pointed out, “It takes so little to make them happy.  Why not just make them happy?”  So we do.

I think God’s joy works in the same way.  It has that same purity and simplicity.  The story of the widow’s mite isn’t so much about pitting the poor, vulnerable widow against the powerful, exploitative leaders of society.  There’s certainly a social justice sermon in here, and maybe one day I’ll give you that one.  But today, I really think it’s more about the joy.

Jesus’ joy at their generosity didn’t come from the bottom line – the measure of who gave more and who gave less.  Jesus’ joy came from the thing that most of us would say didn’t matter much.  But to this widow, it was everything.

The “chickies” that we give our dogs don’t mean much to us.  They’re not fancy or extravagant or expensive.  But to our boys, they are more prized and loved and sought after than we can imagine.  And while the joy those dogs give us doesn’t cost them a penny, it means more to me and Michael than we can express.  Value is always relative.

While I’m certain that God doesn’t care in the slightest bit what any of us wears to church on Sunday – even these long, expensive robes don’t mean much to God; what does matter to God is what we do with it – what we do with these tools.  Do we come in here mindlessly or habitually?  Do we spend our time admiring (or criticizing) the tools of worship, rather than engaging in the worship itself?  Or do we come to give ourselves over: to the worship, learning, and prayer – everything we have – in body, mind, and spirit?  Do we come so that we’ll leave here changed?  Going back into the world a bit more prepared to give ourselves over to God and God’s works in the world a little bit more than we were before.

I think that when that widow tossed in those two tiny coins, it made God leap for joy.  She was all in.  And God was as happy as a puppy getting a treat.

May we all find ways to devote ourselves more and more to the ministry of Christ.  May we all find ways to deepen our commitment, and to move closer, still, to being “all in” to this ministry, the way that widow was.  May God leap for joy!  Amen.