“Breathing Space”

Kids: let’s talk about money. In our house when kids or grown-ups get money, we put it into three categories: spend, save, give. Let’s say we got $10 each week, we might spend most of that, like $8. Then we might set aside $1 to save for later and $1 to give and share. It’s important to spend money so that we can have the things we need like food, clothes, and a place to live. And it’s good to get a few things we want, too. Like Halloween candy or a new toy. Saving is a good habit to learn because sometimes we need something that costs more than the $8 we have to spend each week. Like, if my car breaks, I need to have some money to use to fix it. And giving and sharing is a habit that feels good, that helps us trust God, and that makes the world more fair.

In today’s Bible story, Jesus talked about how rich people with piles of money would come into the temple and give some money. And then Jesus watched a woman who was very poor. She only had two tiny little coins. That was all the money she had in the world. And she gave it all. I think Jesus was saying it wasn’t fair that she gave everything she had while the rich people still had so much. They weren’t doing their part. The woman should have had been able to keep some of her money too. Today the grown-ups are making pledges to First Church—we are saying how much money we will give to support our church over the coming year. We don’t all give the same amount; what’s important is that we each do our part. If you have money, will you also make a habit of giving and sharing some of it?—with the church, or with another organization you care about.

Friends of all ages, over these last weeks, we’ve heard some beautiful reminders about what the First Church community means to us. Greg said: First Church has been a “bastion of support and bedrock for hope” in these “tumultuous, discouraging, distressing, even terrifying” times. Carl said: “I’ve always found this to be a place of refuge for me, where I can live my truth and be accepted for it.” Linda, speaking of our commitments to justice and reparations, said, “First Church gives me many opportunities to practice what is preached here.” And, this morning, Doris described a lifetime of friendships and community that have nourished her at First Church.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus saw that the temple was a corrupt system with leaders whose hearts were not in the right place. He lamented that an institution that should be life-giving was instead bringing death. In the first part of today’s passage, Jesus pointed out the scribes’ problematic behavior. They wanted privilege, status, and wealth—long robes, respectful greetings, banquet invitations. In order to gain that power, however, they were willing to ignore one of the most central teachings of their Jewish faith—care for the vulnerable. When Jesus accused the scribes of “devouring widows’ houses,” there are two probable meanings. Often when a husband died, someone was appointed a trustee of the widow’s resources. Who better than a reputable scribe? But it was easy for the trustee to steal from the widow, by taking a large percentage of the estate as payment for their work. Jesus was probably also referring to the fact that the temple system exploited the poor by demanding that they contribute, even if it harmed their well-being. The widow in the second part of the story today has often been treated by preachers as an example of devotion and generosity. That doesn’t seem fair. Jesus noted that the two small copper coins represented “her whole life.” That’s what the Greek says. Not “all she had to live on.” “Her whole life.” In other words, she, like the widow in Elijah’s time, was literally so poor she was about to die. The temple’s greed took her life rather than supporting her well-being.

So, from Jesus, I am hearing a warning: well-groomed appearances, respectful greetings and nice long prayers can cover up the worst kinds of hypocrisy. What matters is not how things look, or even what we intend, but the actual impact our choices make. How are we using our resources—our trust fund and annual budget, our church building, our worship service and staff time, the gifts and talents of our community members? Is the church giving life or taking away life? Do we support the vulnerable or exploit them? It’s not about perfection. We will mess up. Over the centuries, the church has oppressed many a widow and orphan, blessed many a war, baptized white supremacy, cut people off from their land, and engaged in genocide. We are entangled in all this harm. What brings life out of death is a commitment to actively struggle with our heritage of harm, to recognize it, repair it, and move ahead in a new direction.

In her chapter titled “Breathe,” Valarie Kaur portrays a religious institution that is powerfully life-giving. In the 1990s, in Oak Creek, a mostly white suburb of Milwaukee, immigrants from India established the Sikh temple of Wisconsin. A tragic massacre occurred inside this sacred space, called the gurdwara, on August 5, 2012, killing seven people and injuring many more. “The FBI typically cleans crime scenes,” Kaur explains, “but the Sikh community insisted on doing this labor themselves.” On that fourth day, Kaur recalls,

Prayers sounded softly over the loudspeakers. I watched the same aunties and uncles who had survived the shooting roll up their sleeves and get to work. Over the next few hours, I watched this community literally rebuild itself before my eyes, reciting and breathing, “Waheguru, Waheguru” [the name of God] as they worked. They were restoring the gurdwara, and they were restoring themselves. By midday, they were already cooking langar and serving food. . . . On [the following] Sunday, exactly one week after the shooting, the community reopened the gurdwara. (229) (See No Stranger, pp. 225, 229)

Kaur recalls how the community prayed that day for the dead and the injured, including the gunman. She tells the story of teen brothers whose mother died in the massacre:

For a fleeting moment, these young men wanted to find the white power group that radicalized [the gunman] and exact revenge. But that impulse had receded. They were surrounded by sangat—community—and breathing as one. They were breathing through the guilt and rage and grief and letting breath anchor them. “I don’t think much about the gunman anymore,” [one of the brothers] later declared. “Our community is not about retaliation, just love.” (p. 231)

All that the Sikh community does is anchored in breath, Kaur says.

Breathing creates space in our lives to think and see differently, enliven our imagination, awaken to pleasure, move toward freedom, and let joy in. For those of us who live in bodies that are denigrated by society, breathing like this is a political act. . . . Taking the time to breathe—literally and metaphorically—is a way to assert  that our bodies are worthy and beloved. (pp. 216–17)

 I want to return for a moment to the scene of the woman placing her last two coins in the temple treasury. I think when Jesus looked at her, he saw someone without any room to breathe. And when he looked at the scribes, he saw leaders who did not themselves know how to breathe. And when he looked at the temple, he saw an institution that did not value life—the life of the widow, or anyone’s life. Our family supports the two churches to which we belong with pledges that are significant for us, that represent about 10 percent of our income—we also support other community institutions. We do this because we are breathing here at First Church, and over there at University Lutheran Church of Hope. We are using the resources of our institutions to create breathing spaces for everyone, the powerful and the vulnerable alike. In all that we do, we seek to give life rather than take it away. Our world needs us to continue breathing and needs our labor to come from that place of breath. As Kaur says,

You don’t have to make yourself suffer in order to serve. You don’t have to grind your bones into the ground. You don’t have to cut your life up into pieces and give yourself away until there is nothing left. You belong to a community and a broader movement. Your life has value. We need you alive. We need you to last. You will not last if you are not breathing. (247)

Amen.