Our readings today have three interlocking themes: value, trust, and service. Those are three big topics, and arguably any one of them would give more than enough material for a sermon. However, I don't think any of them can be treated in isolation, in the context of these readings. Our value to God naturally results in service; our service relies on trust; our trust comes from the value we believe God places on us.
There are two separate senses to value which I'd like to talk about today. They're often the same in the world's terms, but - as always - things are different with God. There's the value God places on us in terms of the love shown to us. We know that that love is immeasurable - as Charles Wesley wrote, even the highest angels cannot "sound the depths of love divine". This sense is hardly mentioned in our readings, but is immensely important when we think about how we treat others. As we sang earlier, we have been commanded to love one another as God loves us. That means valuing each other regardless of the way that the world thinks.
There's another sense to value though - the "purchasing power" type of value. How useful are we to God? That's the sense which comes through more powerfully from the readings. How valuable was the widow's contribution in God's eyes? Those two pennies were worth more than the large sums put in by the rich people, because she - like Caleb - was following God wholeheartedly. This is where the distinction between the two types of value is important. God doesn't value the widow more highly than the rich people - that would suggest that there's one type of infinite love which is greater than another - but the value of their respective service is a different matter.
This phrase about following God wholeheartedly is one that has floated around in my head since I started looking at the passage in Joshua. It's mentioned twice in the part we heard, and once in the rest of the chapter, using the same words each time. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that when looking at the rest of the chapter that the Gospel passage comes from, it includes the great commandments of loving the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.
What I haven't worked out is whether the widow knew the end of the parable - that God found tremendous value in the pennies that she gave; pennies that could not buy much, but were all she had to live on. Without that knowledge, why give at all? What difference could she make? And yet it was sufficiently against the recognised ideas at the time that Jesus felt it was a point which needed to be made to his disciples.
Whether or not the widow knew, we have no excuse for ignorance. We cannot and must not pretend to ourselves that we have no useful contribution to make to God's work, and can therefore ignore our call to service. Every single one of us can make a difference, and every single one of us is called personally, by the Lord of all creation no less, to put everything we have into the work of the kingdom.
We all have a deep desire to feel valuable too, of course. A minister told me just yesterday about how she'd recently run a confirmation class. Before the class, she'd written letters to all the members and adherents of the church who either had difficulty coming to worship or who were actually house-bound. She had asked them to pray for the class, saying how that was a way they could serve God, without even leaving the house. She had a reply from every single person, saying how they would all pray for the class, and how they felt honoured to be asked. Prayer is a gift we have all been given, and a duty we are all called to. Our prayers aren't categorised by God into those of sinners and those of saints, those of clergy and those of lay people. Each one is valuable, as are all the other uses of the gifts God has given us uniquely as individuals, from washing up to prophecy. Just as Caleb felt as strong at eighty-five as he did at forty, so we are all just as capable of responding to God's call to us, though the nature of that call is bound to change over time.
Follow God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your service will not go to waste, and is of great value to God and the kingdom.
Both Caleb and the widow trusted in God. We know Caleb's trust was repaid - he lived to a ripe old age, and was given the land of Hebron as he had been promised. We don't hear about what happened to the widow, of course. If we take the parable at its face value, she gave all that she had. Her next meals would have to come from charity. She had emptied herself for God, trusting that she would be sustained.
We don't know if she was sustained on earth, or whether she passed from poverty on earth into the great wealth we have each been promised as our inheritance in heaven. Either way, I would argue that her trust had been repaid. Our principle issue of trust is quite a simple one: do we trust in God's redeeming power, demonstrated in Christ's death and resurrection? Do we trust that God really does have a place for us in heaven? There are secondary levels of trust, in terms of God caring for us while we are here on earth, not removing all obstacles from our lives but being present with us as we face them, but arguably these aren't that important. If we trust in the value that God places on us; the love that has been shown for us by Christ's sacrifice, there should be nothing stopping us from truly giving all we have and all we are to God.
I'm not for one moment suggesting that any of us have that perfect trust - but if we at least believe we should have that trust, that must be a step in the right direction. The more we trust, the more generously we can give of ourselves, and the more valuable our service can become.
That service, along with the value placed on every member of God's creation, is what the passage in Corinthians is about. It's a great lesson in equality. Any time we assume that our gifts are more important than someone else's, we're spoiling things. I'm pretty active in the church, I preach, I'm involved in fundraising and the like, but I absolutely must not use that work as a reason to assume that either I'm valued more highly by God than others are, or that the service I perform is in any way more useful or valuable than the quiet prayers, thoughts and letters of someone who is called that way. It would be better for me to wash up wholeheartedly than to go off as a missionary but not put everything I've got into it.
When we recognise the need for everyone's gifts to work together, with no one type of calling taking precedence above others, we are naturally called to another form of work - building each other up. When each member of the body of the church is invaluable, we must look after each member. This is part of what makes it possible for us to follow God wholeheartedly in the first place. The widow gave everything she had, trusting that God would look after her. In practice, that's unlikely to mean God creating food for her out of thin air. Far more likely is that she would be looked after by men and women called to a mission of charitable works. We are agents of God's will, fulfilling his promises on earth. MHA is just one of the many Christian organisations dedicated to that work. This is a call which is not restricted to the few, but which every Christian must respond to. After all, it is the second commandment in Christ's words: love your neighbour as yourself. Imagine a world where that commandment is followed wholeheartedly by everyone. If we think of that as just a dream, imagine a world where that commandment is followed wholeheartedly - truly wholeheartedly - by all Christians. Our neighbours are the folks sitting next to you now. Our neighbours are the folks looked after by Methodist Homes. Our neighbours are the folks we see on the streets, the folks in Iraq and Dafur, the folks in Israel and Palestine. The widow whose generosity means so much to God - she is our neighbour, who needs our love.
God's will is for unity in both the church and the world. When we value gifts the way God does; when we value people the way God does, our mission of service is obvious and we must stand united in it.
Every one of us has a vital part in that mission. Every one of us must follow God wholeheartedly, responding to the love shown so clearly on the cross. It is both an honour and a challenge to be valued so highly by God. We can never earn the value placed on us, but we can recognise it in others, and work with all our being to bring the kingdom that bit closer to earth.
The widow gave her pennies, all that she had - what will you give?