This is the text of the sermon I preached on November 11th about my trip for Arbaeen. The readings are attached.
Today’s gospel reading is from the lectionary. It appears once every three years right around stewardship time. I have heard a few sermons on this passage as encouragement to give like the widow. Give all you have. You cannot look at the total amount. It is about the gift as percentage of one’s wealth. The wealthy give a large amount, but for them it is not nearly as much as the two quarters given by the widow. For them, it is surplus. The widow, on the other hand, gave all she had. She is in 100%.
Sermons on this passage in relation to stewardship invite us to be mindful of our giving, disciplined in our giving, joyful in our giving, generous in our giving, and mostly aware, that as much as we think we might give, few of us, none of us, give like the widow. As generous as we may hope we are, the widow sets the bar.
Those are good sermons. It is probably the wrong text, however.
Jesus wasn’t praising the widow for her giving as he called the disciples to witness the activities at the temple. Jesus was making a comment on temples, and scholars, and money, and poverty. Why is this widow giving money to the temple in the first place? Does the temple need her money? Who convinced her that it did? Is the temple doing the work of God?
Jesus has just finished offering a scathing critique of the scribes and their pretentions. They prey on widows and their families. A sharp critique from Jesus. The scribes and the temple go together, all part of the same matrix. At other points in Mark’s gospel, Jesus overturned tables in the temple, criticizing those who used the temple as a cover for their profit-making, a den of robbers, a pious place to hide one’s sins. When the disciples ogle the temple and are impressed with its grandeur, Jesus doesn’t seem to care. He predicts its demise. It will come tumbling down, not one stone upon another. We can’t quite tell whether or not Jesus will be happy with that or not.
Jesus, at best, has an ambiguous relationship with the temple, on one hand a holy place to connect oneself with God, on the other hand, a building, a structure, a system, that has forgotten its purpose, that has become self-serving rather than people-serving, or God-serving.
In this reading of the text, Jesus is not praising the giving of the widow to the temple, he is criticizing the temple itself that would take the last widow’s quarters and leave her completely impoverished. There were other uses for those quarters one might think than keeping scholars in fancy robes.
The questions that Jesus raised among his disciples were those that would get them to think about systems such as temple systems and their function. Who is served by them? Who gets richer? Who gets poorer? Jesus is raising questions for us as well. What are the temples in our time? Who are they serving? Who is getting wealthy and at whose expense?
How can our temples, our holy places, our sacred sanctuaries, be places of justice? That question should always be in the forefront, because every institution needs to examine itself as to its message and function. That to me is the stewardship message of this text. Sure, a text about giving, but ultimately, about to what are we giving? We who are stewards of the sacred space, perhaps in our case, we might think about this church as that. How is our church a place of empowerment for the disempowered, a place of hope for hopeless, and a place of truth-telling in a time of false witness?
As we give to the work of our various temples, including Southminster, it is also our stewardship responsibility to reflect and engage in conversation with one another about our commitments as keepers of a temple, and what our temple is to be and do in the world.
I want to take a turn now and talk about the giving that I witnessed in Iraq. Talk about poor widows giving all they had. Karbala is a city of about a million residents. During the holy period of the 9th of Safar to the 20th of Safar, Arbaeen, the fortieth day of mourning for Imam Husayn, over 15 million people entered the holy city. They say the city itself expands.
This happens without any centralized organization. There is no concern about what the people will eat or where they will sleep. It just happens. It happens because the people of Iraq give of what they have, preparing all year to serve those who visit their imam. They do it for the love of Husayn. They are hosts to the Holy. Let me say that again: The people of Iraq are hosts to the Holy.
I have been changed by this experience. Exactly how or what that will mean, I don’t know, but I do know that something is working within me. I have been asked why I went on this trip. It wasn’t a planned thing. It fell into place. I don’t know how these things happen, how it is you meet people who end up pointing you to something else that makes you see something you hadn’t seen or feel something you hadn’t felt. And then you say, “OK, I will do that.” And then, you realize, you might not do that, because in the end, Insha-Allah.
How do you live by Insha-Allah? Insha-Allah is a word that means if Allah wills it. If God wills it. It is in the words of the poem by Danusha Lameris, about holding hope lightly, it is knowing that our plans may not be what happens, it is trusting (and oh is that hard) that Allah is the sea upon which we float.
A few protesters gathered a few years ago when I first arrived at Southminster. They were yelling about a number of things. One of those was the minister who didn’t believe in God. I wonder what would be worse for them, a minister who doesn’t believe in God, or that the god the minister now discovered is called Allah?
No, I am not going to become a Muslim. Insha-Allah. Switching religions, trading one set of rituals for another set of rituals, exchanging one creed for another, is not of interest to me. But sometimes it takes another to find the depth of one’s own. To find, in another’s tongue, divine words.
You don’t make the ziyarat without an invitation. It is important that the Imam invites you and the Imam grants permission. So all of the visitors, all 15 million plus, are believed to have been invited. No visitor is unwelcome. No visitor is anything less than a blessed beloved of Allah. Of course, you feed them. Of course, you shelter them. Of course, you care for their needs. You love them, because they are on a divine mission, a sacred journey, in which they will be blessed, be a blessing to the world, and you will have a part in that, not because there is anything extra special about you, but because, Insha-Allah. You do it for the love of Husayn (alayhi s-salaam). The people of Iraq know this.
Whether you are making the ziyarat or serving those who do, it is a divine interplay, a unchoreographed dance of love.
But lest we get caught up in the romance of it, let us remember who is this Imam who invites visitors from all over the entire world. Imam Husayn (alayhi s-salaam) refused to submit to the authority of Yazid, who he believed to be unjust. Husayn refused to allow Islam to be directed by tyrants with small minds and large greed.
His brutal slaughter and the slaughter of his 72 companions on the plains of Karbala 1400 years ago was a tragedy—a tragedy of cosmic significance. But it was something else. It is a victory. It is a tragedy that repeats itself all over the world and it is a victory in the hearts of those who will not allow that tragedy to be the final word on the matter.
The invitation to visit Husayn (alayhi s-salaam), is the invitation from his own lips. As the battle ended, and Husayn faced his own end, he called out to the world, to future generations, “Is there anyone who will help me?” The response is from any in the world, regardless of religion, or culture or language, “Labbayk ya Husayn.” “Here I am, Husayn.”
And what is that response?
Well, that is your journey and mine.
“Here I am, Husayn,” can mean so many things in a world that is soaked in the blood of injustice. It can mean that I will bear witness to what I think is true, what I think is just, what I think is good, even if it means I will have to give up my own life. I will fight the Yazids of the world on behalf of the poor even if the odds are 30,000 to 72. Insha-Allah.
The victory is that the response to the call will not end. Arbaeen is the symbol of the path toward redemption for our world. What I learned is that I don’t lead it. The West will not lead this. The rich will not lead this. Empires will not lead this. It will be led by those who the so-called powers of this world ignore, suppress and distort.
A popular phrase is “Every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala.” Ashura is the day Imam Husayn (alahi s-salaam) and his companions were brutally murdered. Karbala is the place. Every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala means that every day we are called to take notice of our moral compass. To reset it. To recommit to it.
I discovered that my understanding of Jesus is not unlike that of Husayn. They are brothers. In fact, Shias believe that on the last day, the Imam Mahdi will return with Jesus. They are on the same team. They have the same goals. They live in the same love.
Finally, this experience was joy. The story of Karbala is a tragedy, but it is a story of joy. It is as our guide, Maulana Baig, said, a gift wrapped in grief. Mourning leads as it always must, to joy. The ultimate victor is not Yazid and his minions who make the world suffer. The ultimate victor is Husayn who lives in each of us, and who summons the world to love.
For that I am eternally grateful.
The people of Iraq have given me a glimpse of what that love looks like.