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“What do you do?” Sermon on The Widow’s Mite

November 08, 2015

Thank you for inviting me to your beautiful cathedral to reflect on the Widow’s Mite. I bring you greetings from the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monks, who live, pray and work in two monasteries in Massachusetts.

I am employed by the Brothers, as the Director of the Friends of SSJE.  I went to work for the Brothers in 2006 to help with their fundraising; their beautiful monastery in Harvard Square was in terrible shape and needed lots of money to restore it.

So if we met socially, and I hope that I will have the pleasure of meeting many of you, and you asked me “What do you do?” I can answer, “I am a fundraiser for an order of monks.”

Please take a moment and think about how you would answer me if I asked you in return, “What do you do?”

Please make a mental note of your answer about how you would you answer me.

I should add that I have not been asked to give a Stewardship sermon but to talk about how I have been changed by a group of monks and why I think monks matter and to meditate on today’s readings. Readings in which we hear people doing life in very different ways; we hear of scribes, of well-to-do people, and of poor widows.

Today I want to explore the question, “What do you do?” in a number of forms. “What do the scribes and the well-to-do do?” “What do the widows do?” “What do monks do?” “What do I do?” And finally, “What do you do?

In today’s Gospel story today we hear Jesus speak of two contrasting ways to live, two ways to do life.

Jesus says, "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 banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

What do the scribes do? We hear Jesus describing a system of people accumulating status and wealth; they are spending time gaining respect in both the marketplace and the synagogue.

Then we hear that Jesus, “… sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people – well-to-do 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."

Sitting opposite the treasury, the church cash box, Jesus is describing two systems. In the first we see what do the well-to-do do. They have built up abundance and from that they give a portion out of their abundance. They accumulate wealth and give of their surplus. This is the economy of trade. In the economy of trade you rely on your bargaining power, your status, your acumen, your skill, your earning power, and your capital. Once you have piled up enough, you can give of your abundance relying on the rest of your pile to look after you.

In the second system, Jesus observes the widow. What does the widow do? “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." She gives what she has. She gives what little has. She trusts. This is economy of gift. She sees what she has as a gift from God and lets it pass on. We hope, but she knows, that she is reliant on her family, her neighbors, her community and God.

I do not know what is your situation is. But I do know that we live in a world with these two contrasting economies. We always have and we always will. There is the economy of trade and the economy of gift, Caesar’s economy and God’s economy, the economy of reason and the economy of the heart.

In the trade economy, Caesar’s economy, we humans name a price for everything and then trade. This allows us to bring our gifts to bear to earn a living. I am not the farming type, so I value being able to exchange what talents I have to buy stuff like food.  I have to be honest I am quite enamored with the economy of trade. I like being respected in the marketplace and the church. I like accumulating wealth, for good reasons, I have a teenage daughter who I would like to go college, I don’t want to retire destitute, my wife and I like living modestly but comfortably. Presumably I have earned enough respect to be invited to be your preacher. So I find Jesus’ upholding of the widow daunting. Am I really called to up give everything? Do I just stand before you as a scribe, to receive the greater condemnation?

So if you ask, “What do you do?” and if I am answer you truthfully, then what I do a lot is what the scribes and well-to-do do. And at the beginning of this sermon I answered this question in way that is defined by money and accumulation. I told you that I trade my time to be paid by monks to gain money for them. I let money and trade explain my answer to you for “What do you do?”

Living in the gift economy, God– not us–names the price: we are all loved; we see beauty in the world and each other; we care and are cared for; we rely on each other; we give as we receive, living in a cycle of kindness; we deepen relationships and understand meaning. Sounds nice doesn’t it. Sounds really scary to me. Can I rely on you, my neighbor, and God? Will you really look after me?

So at this point I want to explore what it is like to live in the gift economy. Is it truly scary? Could I live in the gift economy? Could I get close to living with the trust in God that the two widows we hear about today do?  To explore this I want to try to answer “So what do monks do?”

Now I have had the privilege to serve the Brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist for nearly ten years.  The Brothers say that they seek to know and share an authentic experience of God’s love and mercy. They live a common life shaped by worship, prayer, and their Rule of Life. SSJE Brothers strive to be “men of the moment,” responding with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to contemporary issues and needs. They take the monastic vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience. They give their lives to follow Jesus, they give away their wisdom and they rely on friends. Their calling is to live in the gift economy. When you come to the visit the Brothers they will take the time to greet you in a way that reminds you that you are loved by God.

When I talk with people who give money to the Brothers I am often astounded to learn that many people have spent little time with them, maybe one or two retreats and then they give to the Brothers for the rest of their lives. What is it that the Brothers do when they met people that results in this incredible life-long bond developing so quickly and deeply? What I realized is that the Brothers do not judge their own lives by power, money or sex and they don’t judge others by power, money or sex.  We so need this lack of judgment to remind us that we are loved. This is at the heart of the gift economy. The Brothers show that you can live in the gift economy.

Now I also learned that the Brothers were not very good at the trade economy.  When I arrived at the monastery I learned that the Brothers were involved in the trade economy, in that they had a publishing house. It had started as a way of publishing a few spiritual books and had grown to have a staff and was losing a tons of money, so much money that the publishing house threatened the future of the Society.

What had gone wrong? Now when a monk meets you his primary thought is that you a person loved by God. Now if you are in business you need to have your wits about you. You need to be constantly be judging the worth of others by the worth of money they make or can make. The monks are not called to do this, and so they are not good businessmen. The Brothers sold the publishing business to a well run small publishing firm and went back to just giving away their own writings on the Internet and asking for gifts, to relying on friends. Freed of the trade economy, the constant judging of others, the Brothers are kind men, with hearts full of love whose interactions transform people, at least on good days and Brothers are the first to admit they have up and down days like we all do.

What do monks do? There is lovely story from the Desert Fathers – the early Christian monastics in the Egyptian dessert. A person asked. “ What do monks do?” And the answer came “They fall down, and they get up.” They fall down and get up with the help of their fellow monks and God. They fall down and get up in community.

So I think that monks and nuns exist to show us that living in the gift economy, living as the widows we hear of today, is possible and not as scary as we fear.

Now it is important to emphasize that Jesus respected the trade economy.  In Luke 14:28–30 he says, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’” But Jesus’ wisdom was that he knew the limit of the trade economy and that we have to distinguish between the two economies. We have to know how, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

My understanding of how we can move in the widow’s direction was crystalized at a party after a Jewish ceremony for welcoming a baby girl. At the meal afterwards I was at a table with a couple and a single young professional woman, who started asking around the table, “What do you do? The man of the couple explained that he was a lawyer and proudly said that his practice was growing fast. Then his wife was asked, “What do you do?” She paused awkwardly, “I am a stay at home mom.”  Then the mother recounted how she was having a challenging time helping support her daughter who was having a big row with her Rabbi. The daughter had done a community service project on homelessness, started a year previously and had been told to pick another project for this year, to which she had told the Rabbi she would not, as homelessness was not solved. The husband then piped up that he was struggling because his firm took so much time that he had little time for his family and that was painful. And a wonderful rich, multifaceted discussion bloomed because the married women, dared to answer “What do you do?” in a way that is not defined by money or getting ahead.

What I learned was that if we answer, “What do you do?” with just how we trade our time for money and how we trying to get ahead, we end up with a half-human answer. But if we dare to answer the question “What do you do?” with an answer to addressed to both economies, of how we trying to get ahead and also how we fall down and get up with the help of community and God’s love, we get more of a whole answer.

What do I do? I exchange my time for money helping a bunch of monks raise money and communicating their wisdom. What do I do? I am a father. The father of a fifteen year old teenager, Alexandra, who I love but who has given me permission to tell you that I sometime call her “Horrenda” and she reminds me that I must tell you that she sometimes calls me “Ogre Dad.” “What do I do?” I am a lover of God, of poetry and of course, my wife. Through being a lover I try to stay loving and kind. What do I do? I aspire to be a forgiver, to let go of my anger when I fall down or am pushed down, but I know with your help, in community, not judged but loved, I can get up.

What do you do? How are you getting ahead AND how do you fall down and who helps you get up?

I think our problem is that we forget we live in two economies and that we let the economy of trade, we let money dominate our lives and define our worth. We let it dominate our answer to “What do you do?”

I look forward to meeting many of you and asking the question “What do you do?” and hearing what happens when we give both answers. When our answer is defined by money and when our answer is defined by God’s love. When we answer both as the scribe and the widow.


Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:28-44

Reference: Luke 14:28-30, Mark 12:17

Jamie Coats serves as the director, Friends of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastic community of the Episcopal Church. Visit He shares his personal writing at


***An audio recording of this sermon can be found below.***

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.