“Our very life depends on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves.
Beginning precedes us, creates us. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning.
More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could."
John O’Donohue

8 November 2015: "100 Square Feet," Sermon at Tapestry Ministries

Jesus was simply not interested in people’s relations to God in abstraction from their material practices and conditions. He touched souls bodily, and bodies soulfully, as sites of spiritual healing and material well-being. ~Catherine Keller

Scripture: Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at the banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “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.”

Each of the narrative lectionary readings this week introduces us to the figure of the widow. The simplicity of that naming is deceptive. We could spend an entire sermon series exploring the person of the widow and what she represented for ancient Jewish morality and early Christian culture. We have glimpses of that depth here in the gospel reading. If we take a moment to see past the basic truth of her poverty, we see that Jesus names the widow as a moral exemplar and teacher of the gospel. She is honored for her courage and her faith. Jesus upholds her actions as a direct critique of the others gathered.

But if we read just a bit back in the story, we can see that the widow’s presence in the gathering guides us to much more than a trite stewardship sermon about giving until it hurts. Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes who…have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses…” Which is to say, those gathered are not worthy of blame only for failing to give sacrificially to the treasury. More importantly, Jesus points out that what they are hoarding is stolen wealth, acquired through active oppression of the most vulnerable in society. For a widow, a small dwelling may have been her only remaining resource for herself and her children in the wake of a life tragedy. The widow’s “mite,” as we have come to call it, could well have been compelled by a culture demanding tribute. But it can equally be seen an act of defiance, a claim to the blessing of God despite her dehumanization at the hands of speculators. It is a blessing that Jesus readily conveys and invites into his ministry.

The gospel text presents some familiar dangers. It is far too easy to read the story of the widow’s mite as one more instance of Christianity’s moral triumph over the iniquity of ancient Judaism—as the need for Christianity to redeem and redirect wayward Jews. The gospel also bears the danger of romanticizing poverty, suggesting to us that the widow’s destitution buys her easy moral standing. The theologian Amy-Jill Levine argues that it was precisely this question that likely shaped this passage historically. The disciples, as we know, defined themselves by their willingness to abandon incomes, property, and families to follow Jesus with nothing more than a staff and a robe. It is common for us as Christians to understand this refusal of the corrupting influence of the world, this willingness to live on the daily provision of God, as uniquely about Jesus—and therefore uniquely about us. But by the time of the writing of the gospels, there had been a significant tradition of Jewish voluntary poverty, and the Jesus movement owes no small part of its image of sacrificial discipleship to that tradition.

This choice of poverty surely stood in opposition to the excess of the Roman Empire. And the gospel often depicts Jewish communities as pawns of the empire, fully corrupted by the love of money and power. But a more historically accurate picture of the controversy, Levine argues, is that there was argument both for and against the abandonment of family and property as a means of devotion. I believe we have these same controversies now. There were and continue to be serious questions about whether poverty itself is sacred. And both Jewish and Christian traditions have built ethical frameworks to support families and communities through the thoughtful use of resources as an equally legitimate form of devotion. They suggest that there are ways of living in and of the world that are also the ways of God.

We also encounter the widow as a “type” in the reading from 1 Kings. Her circumstances are possibly more dire. The scripture tells us that she was gathering sticks to make a last meal for herself and her son with the little bit of meal and oil left for them, knowing that she had nothing more to provide. She hoped, we can presume, for a peaceful death. God offers her reality to Elijah as provision and as teacher. In nourishing Elijah through her, God also provides for the widow and her son, interceding in crisis and converting what little remains into enough for the family to contemplate a future. It is worth noting that no charity is active in the way we usually understand it. God saves those in need through those in need. God combines the resources of the marginalized to create abundance. And God would rather work there than anywhere else.

I can’t leave this passage without saying a word about what happens next. In the text immediately following where the lectionary leaves off, the widow’s son does die—or at least goes into respiratory arrest—presumably from the continuing effects of malnutrition and exposure. The widow blames Elijah, for offering hope only for her to suffer her son’s death shortly after. Elijah takes the boy away to his room and begs God to revive him, and God does. It is my sense that this passage was needed by the history writer to correct for any impression that Elijah’s magical powers were responsible for feeding the widow and her son, to make it clear that it is God’s movement working miracles beyond Elijah’s power.   

The scripture gives us the widow, then, as a model of faith at the absolute end of probability, the place where only God can turn despair to hope. But the scripture also continually offers the widow as the model of our shared social responsibility, the demand that we build a society that does not fail those who fall between the cracks. The widow was the mark of failure of a patriarchal system, a system that kept property and access from women except through their associations with men. The story of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, also presented in this week’s lectionary, demonstrates that women had to use incredible resources of will and strategy to secure their futures when their husbands died. This is, of course, one of the places where the historical scriptures routinely fail us by refusing to indict the system itself, by refusing to acknowledge that women with control of their own financial resources could much more easily bear the loss of a marital partner. And it cannot offer us an analysis of the wealth and privilege that inherently depend upon the disposability of some. Capitalism as it has evolved cannot proceed if everyone is provided for. It must extract from and discard many in order to enrich few.

Earlier this year, the New York Post published a profile of a young man from Wisconsin who had recently moved to New York City to pursue his dream of working as a chef in a high end Central Park restaurant. Grayson Altenberg had come from a small, rural community, with plenty of living space and close connections to family, friends, and neighbors. His encounter with the realities of the New York City housing market were harrowing. A studio apartment—averaging about $3000/mo in the outer reaches of the city—was an impossibility with his starting salary. He was determined to maintain some quality of life while contending with the challenges of the move, and he spent his early time in the city walking Central Park, talking to people he met in and around it, eating, reading. Eventually, he came across an ad on Craigslist for an apartment a five-minute walk from his restaurant for only $1,100 per month. The ad was humorous, describing the apartment as: “so small you can’t have three friends over at the same time; one of you will have to wait outside in the hall” and “so small you can’t gain weight once you move in.”  The apartment, which Grayson took in the end, was a total of less than 100 sq ft in size, a little smaller than many of the SRO units available here in the Bay for those transitioning from homelessness. It’s just large enough for a bed, a hot plate, and a small desk, with a standup shower in an adjacent room. Grayson eats his meals on his lap.

The question of small living in our culture has many dimensions. For some landlords, there is the opportunity to subdivide living space and garner more income. For some homeowners, there is the opportunity to reduce their own living space to get support with mortgage payments. For many renters, the decreasing size and amenities of living are part and parcel of a surreal housing market, and acceptance and adaptation are simply the only means of survival.

But there is also an intentional move to small living celebrated in architectural and interior design circles—mostly young singles and couples who have chosen to construct tiny, fashionable dwellings to reduce their carbon footprint and embrace their time outside of the home. Some are slightly larger than Grayson’s New York apartment, but it is not unusual for tiny homes for two to run about 250 sq ft, the rough equivalent of Grayson’s single dwelling. They include innovative storage and mechanical designs, lofted beds, multipurpose furniture and flexible floor plans depending on the habits and interests of the occupants. Some are fixed, some are movable. Some are urban, some are rustic. They represent a cultural urge to “live light,” to not take more than is our due, to immerse in nature and community out of the home, and a fascination with the gadgetry and efficiency that can make this possible. Tiny livers are generally zealous and evangelical. And they build their tiny houses often on vast stretches of unoccupied land.

But tiny living does not get universal rave reviews. Many find it unimaginable. In response to a recent Dwell Magazine feature on the architecture of tiny houses, one blogger expressed her incredulity: "Look, I'm not criticizing you. I commend you for making this giant leap. Since we humans seem comfortable with pillaging Mother Earth of all of her resources, I believe more people should think like you. But 250 square feet? What the hell happens when your tiny house partner farts Mexican food farts, huh? Where do you escape to? Nowhere. You have nowhere to run. All you can do is walk three feet to the other end of the house and pray. Or maybe you can run out into the tiny forest surrounding your tiny house."

We most certainly have a culture used to owning more, taking up more space. But we also have a millennia long tradition of people making life work with less and less space and fewer and fewer resources, squeezed by the pressures of consumptive economies. And we have evidence of survival despite the odds. As friends and internet commentators poked fun at his tiny dwelling in New York, Grayson Altenberg replied, “This is all I need for the time being. My routine works here. I can get up in the morning. I can still take my shower. I can still make my coffee. I can get myself to work in five minutes.” 

Surely we can and should expect more from life. Mere survival threatens isolation and despair, and more importantly continues to support systems that we know are wildly unjust. But I don’t believe our spiritual or ethical journeys really begin until we ask ourselves—or are forced to—how little we can actually live with.

It is undeniable that we have the space, the resources, the technology and the examples to provide all of the homeless, all of those who have been cut off, all of the abandoned of our society with decent transitional living spaces at the very least. A place to rest, a place from which to connect to the world with dignity and hope for the future, a place to call home. What we lack is the will to do so. We lack the urgency of God’s intervention in the life of the widow in 1 Kings—the story that tells us that we must make basic provision a reality in our lifetimes, now.

The great lie of the Bay Area housing crisis is an argument that proceeds from scarcity. It is true that we have underbuilt housing. It is true that we have wrongly built housing. But more importantly, we have failed to make housing a human right rather than a privilege of concentrated wealth. A few weeks ago in our faith journey discussion, we approached some important questions about Christian discipleship given the crises of homelessness and rising income inequality. We questioned the ability of a wage economy—built on efficiency and always to benefit large property owners—to provide for the needs of the most vulnerable. We questioned the concept of equality as a way to meet the ends of justice. We also shared some of our own sources of resistance to the gospel’s suggestion that financial provision should not necessarily be tied to the volume of work we perform. For many of us, that is a difficult pill to swallow.

One of the things that remained with me from that conversation and informed my reading of this week’s scripture was the idea that we are often doing two different things when we consider our own welfare and when we critique the system. It is not exactly hypocrisy, but it is more a dissonance. We know that the scripture asks us to resist injustice, and we sense ourselves to be both agents and victims of injustice. It can be difficult to know where to stand and how to act.

This is how the scripture spoke to me this week. We must work at times from frighteningly limited resources. Tapestry finds itself in that predicament periodically, as do many of us in our own lives. And the scripture assures us, first, that suffering is not God’s will for us, and second, that there is beauty and grace even, and maybe especially, in our places of deepest need. God did not send Elijah to a lavish home for a feast of beef and wine and Sleep Number bed preprogrammed for him, but into the arms of despair. And God sent Ezekiel to a desert of dry bones to practice resurrection. God deliberately asked the prophets to work from sites of crisis as nourishment and as promise. And today we see, in the widow’s tiny kitchen, God’s hands working to convert nearly nothing into sustenance, and sustenance into justice. May it be so for us as we pray over the future of this ministry and as we reach out to the urgent need that surrounds us.