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The Widow’s Might

(a sermon for November 15, 2020, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 12:38-44)

In one of several essays he wrote about faith, theology and the Bible, the late author John Updike once made the apt observation that at its heart the gospel narrative is the story of “two worlds colliding.”  He wrote that in his teaching and by his very presence “Jesus overthrows common sense – and declares an inversion of the world’s order, whereby the first shall be last and the last first, the meek shall inherit the earth, the hungry and thirsty shall be satisfied, and the poor of spirit shall possess the Kingdom of Heaven. [This] kingdom,” Updike went on to say, “is the hope and pain of Christianity; and it is attained against the grain, through the denial of instinctive and social wisdom, and through faith in the unseen.”

Two worlds colliding – that is, worldly “common sense” running headlong against God’s “foolishness” – which, when you think about it, might well be the entire biblical message in a nutshell! It certainly reflects God’s action throughout history: consider, for instance, Abraham and Sarah, who held on to the ridiculous notion that although they were both in their nineties, God was not only calling them to leave home and kindred and wander off to a new, as yet unknown destination but was also about to make them parents of an entire nation! Or how about Moses, who by anyone’s standard would have been considered crazy for confronting the all-powerful Pharaoh with a clear ultimatum to “let my people go.”  Or, for that matter, think of the determination of David or Joshua or Daniel; the bravery of Esther and Ruth; the sheer audacity of Jeremiah and a whole host of prophets: these were all persons who lived in direct opposition to the conventions and standards and the politics of their time and their world, and did so out of a faith in the almighty and providential God, strengthened by the love and strength that this same God gave to them for the task.

However, nowhere was this “worldly collision” more apparent than in Jesus, who seemingly defied “good” sense and common sensibility every step along the way.  I mean, whatever else one might choose to say about Jesus – as a believer or even as a casual observer (!) – it certainly can be asserted that where the ways of this world were concerned, Jesus was utterly and relentlessly unpredictable. When it came to social acceptability, he’d do the unthinkable: eating with tax collectors and publicans, associating with prostitutes, lepers, the poor, the sick and the uneducated. And where the powers-that-be were concerned, Jesus regularly shook the tree branches of the status-quo, to say nothing of needling the religious establishment first to within an inch of its patience and then way beyond its tolerance. And in large part because of that the culmination of his life and work ended up being his death on the cross; but even then, in one final act of defiance against the world’s expectations, Jesus was resurrected and all of his creation was redeemed.

Jesus was a true radical; but understand, this was not merely for the sake of being radical for the purpose of instigating that worldly collision to which Updike was referring, but wholly for the sake of the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ was the very embodiment of God’s “foolish wisdom,” in which, according to theologian and historian M. Conrad Hyers, “the whole hierarchy of human values… human greatness and self-importance are inverted. [In the kingdom of God] servants appear in the stead of their masters and mistresses. Riffraff are admitted to the royal banquet table. The nobodies stand up and are counted. Peasants are crowned king and queen for a day, and a ragged band of slaves become the chosen people of God. The kingdom is a world in which beggars are more at home than the wealthy, sinners more than the righteous, children more than their parents, and clowns and fools more than priests and scribes.” Yes, here we have it again; that in the kingdom of God, “everything becomes topsy-turvey,” but it’s so that everything may be made right.

And so understand that when Jesus, as we read in our text for this morning, condemns the prideful posturing of scribes while making a point of lifting up the value a small but sacrificial gift of a widow who’d made her way to the temple treasury, he is not reflecting upon the amount of the gift, but rather commenting on the fact that what this woman had done was flying right in the face of everything the world respects and holds dear: things like wealth, power, abundance and the all too common obsession with “being seen.”

What we’re talking about here, friends, are two little coins; two lepta, representing about one fortieth of a day’s wage for unskilled labor (essentially two pennies).  And not only that, it should be pointed out that these were also very tiny little coins, so small and so light that it wouldn’t have even made a tinkle in the metal trumpets that served as offering receptacles in the temple. So understand that physically and economically, these tiny little lepta meant nothing in the worldly scheme of things, or at least nothing compared with all the other valuable and voluminous gifts ceremoniously placed in the treasury that day.

But here’s the thing: these two tiny little coins that amounted to next to nothing was, in fact, everything this widow had in the world, and she gave it willingly.  She gave it out of her great faith and devotion unto God; she gave it out of her confidence, a sure and certain knowledge, that in giving she would receive and because she’d already received much more than she could ever possibly give in return. Her gift was excessive and extravagant and much more than should ever be required; but then again, so was her love of God. And it’s this gift, this so-called “widow’s mite” that Jesus tells us is worth more than of the ample offerings given in the temple that day; its giver much more reverent than the learned scribes who regularly paraded their piety for the sake of “the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets,” and who “devour widows’ houses” for their own comfort. Upside down thinking, to be sure, to even consider that one elderly, poverty-stricken, powerless widow would give the greater gift, but such is the kingdom of God; where true abundance is measured in commitment and a widow’s “mite” becomes a “widow’s might.”

It’s an amazing concept; and one that most collides with the world in which we live! After all, this is the kind of world where wealth is power; where corporate CEO’s, movie stars and professional athletes command annual salaries far greater than the vast majority of others can even make in a lifetime; where the Jeff Bezos and the Bill Gates of this world contribute a billion dollars to charity and still be among the richest of all. We’re part of a society where too much is not enough, where need, want and avarice too often get confused as one and the same, and where the definition of financial security becomes broader with each passing generation.

But then into this world we know so very well comes Jesus, and he’s bringing us the good news that… wait for it… God does not care about our money!  Now I realize I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this today – it being stewardship season and everything (!) – but we have to be theologically honest about this: that ultimately, it does not matter to God the amount that we put in the offering plate (virtually or otherwise!).  How much or how little one gives, it doesn’t matter, because the fact is our God – the Almighty God who has created heaven and earth – doesn’t need our money.  But… hold on; for lest you think that we’re all off the hook where stewardship is concerned, understand that God wants something more: something more than our money, something more than merely the abundance of our wealth.

God wants the sacrificial gift… the sacrifice of our hearts… the sacrifice that comes with our trust… the sacrifice that’s offered up by our love.  

And that thing is, this is nothing new, because in scripture God says this again and again: you will be my people, and I will be your God. What God wants, you see, if for you and I to make a commitment unto him, to claim God as our own as God has claimed each one of us.  And that, you see, was what the widow was doing: by this gift of two little coins, everything she had in the world, she was in essence laying her very life into the hands of God, saying, “Here… I trust you. I am putting my life into your hands now. I’m yours.”

It’s a remarkable thing… and not only is it an act of true faith, it’s an act of… might!

And might I add here that ultimately, it’s what our giving and pledging and stewardship is supposed to be all about… about our trust in the God who continues even in these strange and uncertain days to bless us so richly, and about our sheer might in proclaiming the Kingdom of God in our midst. More than the giving of our offerings, it’s about the giving of our hearts; and of course, we all know that when we give our heart to something, we inevitably end up giving much more… perhaps even all that we have. 

William Willimon tells the story of an old friend of his he’d learned had been sent to the custodial care of a nursing facility.  The news came as something of a surprise, wrote Willimon, because as far as he knew his friend, though he was in his late seventies, was in perfect health.  The only thing he could find out was that he’d been sent to the nursing home because of his “distressing mental state,” which surprised Willimon even more; surely, he reasoned, age had not taken so high a toll!

Well, come to find out that apparently, his friend had volunteered in his retirement to work a couple of days a week at the church sponsored soup kitchen. “The next thing they know, John has gotten so involved over there that one day he sat down and wrote them out a check for $100,000! Just like that. With no discussion, no forethought. $100,000” which, by the way, was most of his life’s savings… and he handed it over to the soup kitchen. Of course, Willimon continued, “[his children] thought that he’d gone over the deep end. So, they forced him to go into a nursing home where he would receive proper supervision.”

Listen carefully there, and you might just hear the sound of a collision; for such is the upside-down, topsy-turvey world of the kingdom of God!

Am I suggesting this morning that we all sign away our life’s savings to the church, or to some mission movement?  No… but I would suggest that each of us look closely at the thoughtfulness of our giving; in our offerings and stewardship, yes, but most especially in the giving of ourselves. Do we give a portion out of our abundance, or do we give all that we have? Do we offer “first fruits” or just the gleanings of our lives? Is what we offer unto God today with our lives a sacrificial gift?  Do we truly give of ourselves?

I know that these are strange times to be asking these kinds of questions; uncertainty and fear and creeping “common sense” would seem to dictate that this year we quarantine our resources along with ourselves!  But our “kingdom sensibilities” would suggest otherwise and that now is the time to approach the temple of God with thanksgiving and gladness; that now is when we should be investing our whole selves into the Lord’s work in this place; that now is the moment when we are called to boldly be the church in a world sorely in need of what we have to give.

Now is the time, beloved, and I hope you will give prayerful consideration to how you’ll respond; but even more so, I pray that whatever “mite” each of us brings forward, it be a gift from our hands, our hearts and our very lives… and that first and foremost it be in response to what has already been given us “by the grace of our Lord  Jesus Christ; rich as he was, he made himself poor for [our] sake, in order to make [us] rich by means of his poverty.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)

For this will be the gift that show forth our might for the sake of his Kingdom.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 
 

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Made to Worship: What Shall We Bring?

(a sermon for October 21, 2018, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; sixth in a series, based on Micah 6:6-8 and Mark 12:38-44)

“The morning offering will now be received.”

It occurs to me that of all the usual things that get said during our times of worship together, aside from “let us pray,” “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and maybe “please rise and sing,” this is the phrase that’s most likely to be spoken regularly from service to service! And that’s because with a few exceptions throughout the year, there’s almost always going to be an offering as part of our worship!  Oh, there are churches that seek to find alternative ways of dealing with this part of their life together – from creating a faith-based “honor system” that assumes that the good stewardship of their members will happen without having to pass the plate every Sunday, to actually placing several electronic kiosks throughout the church building so that worshippers can conveniently give to the church with their credit or debit cards (no joke!) – but by and large, no matter the size or the tradition of a particular congregation, there’s always going to be a time in the midst of worship in which we are pastorally encouraged to give freely after the manner that we have freely received!

Now some people, as I’ve shared with you before, refer to this part of the service as “the collection” (a label which as you well know, I dislike intensely!); and then there was the man from a prior church I served who ever and always called it “the pew tax,” much to his wife’s consternation!   I even have a clergy colleague who speaks of it to her congregation as “TCB,” that is, “Takin’ Care of Business!”  My preference, of course, is simply to refer to this part of the service as our offering unto God, your and my tangible expression of thanksgiving unto the Lord for all of our many blessings and our continuance of the Biblical tradition of giving a portion of the “first fruits” of our lives back to God.  In the parlance of the Old Testament, it’ tithing, giving 10% of what we have unto God (and that’s to start, friends!); but if not that, at the very least a significant and sacrificial and above all, faithful, gift.

Of course, if we’re being honest, then we do have to acknowledge that there’s a practical component in having the offering: indeed, the financial gifts we receive through the offering and by our faithful stewardship as members of East Church is what keeps this church up and running from year to year (did I happen to mention that next Sunday is Stewardship Sunday?  Just sayin’!). The morning offering is meant for the support our shared ministry as part of our local church, as part of the United Church of Christ and extending out to the whole Body of Christ; and electric and heating bills, snowplowing and (if I might borrow a word from our church treasurer here, gulp!) even pastoral compensation is all part of that!   So there is the practical, real world component to consider here; but nonetheless we need to understand that from the very beginnings of our faith and the life of the church, the time of offering in our worship has always represented the very movement that we’ve been talking about all through this sermon series; going from praise and thanksgiving, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God, to finally responding to that Word with lives of faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And how is the best way to respond but by giving of ourselves in real ways and real time by our time, our talent, and yes, friends, our treasure!

So… as you and I are “made to worship,” it’s not a question of if there will be an offering as we do so; but of your and my response to those words that get spoken each and every Sunday morning: “The morning offering will now be received.”  Ultimately, for us as people of faith the real question is – as it’s always been for as long as people of faith have gathered to worship the Lord – “what shall we bring?” How are we to answer this call to give of ourselves?  Scripture is actually full of insight as to how we might respond to that, but this morning I want to focus on one answer that’s found in this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel, the familiar story of the “widow’s mite.”

But be aware, though… it may not be the answer you’re expecting!

You know the story:  Jesus is there at the temple in Jerusalem, taking the position of a fly on the wall as he watches the faithful bringing their offerings to the temple treasury during this celebration of the Passover.  And of course, from this vantage point he can see all the rich and powerful sauntering in, showing off their fine clothes and making dramatic gestures as they put their large yet ostentatious gifts into the treasury receptacles.  To this display of largesse, Jesus is profoundly unimpressed; but then, up walks this elderly woman, identified in scripture only as “a poor widow,” who quietly takes out two small copper coins – worth a half a cent each, if that – and places them into the receptacle and walks away without a sound.  A tiny offering, just a mite, made even smaller in comparison to all the other, much larger offerings that had been made that day; but this is the gift that Jesus praises over and above anything that the rich and famous offer up because, Jesus says, “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.”

Truth be told, however, there’s more to it than that.  It’s worth noting that just prior to Jesus sitting down to observe what was happening in this “service of offering” at the Temple, he’d actually been railing against the hypocrisy of the scribes; the scribes who, remember, were the educated class of religious leaders and were thought of as those who were pious and wise and deserving of respect (or perhaps more accurately, those who at least liked to think of themselves in that way!).  And yet, nonetheless, the scribes were also the ones who flaunted all of that; they were the ones “who like[d] to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” the ones who sought out the best seats in the synagogues and who loved sitting at the head table during the temple feasts, and who would do whatever they needed to do assure themselves a comfortable life in the seat of religious authority, even if that meant “devour[ing] widow’s houses.”  I dearly love how D. Mark Davis, a biblical scholar and an expert in New Testament Greek, describes these so-called religious leaders:  as “Pretentious Pretenders Pressuring Penurious Penniless Pensioners!”  And if that glorious alliteration weren’t enough, Davis adds that Jesus’ words about “devouring widow’s houses” actually was a very intentional and rather sharpened play on words on Jesus’ part, for the sad truth was that these scribes, all for the sake of preserving their own power, were feasting as much on the resources of the poor as much as that which was on the menu at the Passover meal!

So it’s wonderfully fitting that even as Jesus is right there, teaching his disciples all about the scribes’ hypocrisy, selfishness and utter abuse of power,  here comes this elderly, powerless and impoverished widow; quite literally bringing her “two cent’s worth” as her offering to God and it’s everything.  It’s everything she had to live on, it’s her whole life; she walks up to that offering receptacle and gives it to God and she does it faithfully and unselfishly.  It’s a monumental gift, to be sure, and utterly sacrificial, but the question is why? Why would she make that offering if that was all she had?  Karoline Lewis, professor of biblical preaching at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, wonders about that.  Was her offering made “out of obligation,” she asks.  “Respect?  Demand? Expectation? Religiousity? Piety?  All of the above?”  After all, the reality of the time and of the religious belief and tradition that righteousness would be related to one’s sacrifice at the altar!  No, this was different; Jesus could see that and so can we. In the end,  yes, the widow gave because she needed to; but she needed to because something deep within her knew that what she was doing, what she was bringing before God would “manifest itself in something beyond herself.”  It was her response to the very essence and the power of God in her life and in the world.

Not bad for a couple of copper pennies!

It turns out, you see, that it’s not the amount of the gift that matters as much as the way the gift is given.  In other words, the begrudgingly “generous” gift from the one who has money to burn might fill the offering plate but has far less meaning than the modest but heartfelt gift from the one who literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together; it’s the difference between reluctantly making a contribution and truly giving an offering unto the Lord, offering up your whole self in praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done in your lives!

What all this means is that whatever the gift we need to consider the motivation for our giving.  Because ultimately, you see, our offering is all about the grace of God and what we do with we received.  Scott Hoezee writes that “we all live immersed in the… grace of God in Christ” and that everything we do in the Christian life – including giving to the offering plate – is an outflow and an overflow of that grace.”  That grace, says Hoezee, “allows us to rest easy by taking joy in whatever we are able to do for God.  Grace gives us the freedom to be who we have become as new creatures in Christ.  We use our gifts and give of ourselves not because of some stern external obligation or pressure or because we’ve been made to feel guilty as we are manipulated by the church.  Instead we are free to be who we are, free to let the Spirit move us along in ministry.”

And what that all means, friends, is that every Sunday morning after we’ve prayed together as a congregation and I say a few words that lead up to the regular admonition that “the morning offering will now be received,” we’re not setting forth the requirement of doing the right thing and putting a few dollars in the offering plate.  What we’re doing is presenting the opportunity to let all that we’ve received in the love and care of God in Jesus Christ overflow into the life we seek for ourselves, for our church and for the world.

How would it be, I wonder, if we really did view our Sunday morning offering as an opportunity for a true spiritual blessing to take root and grow in the gardens of our lives?  For that matter, since it is stewardship season after all (!), what would happen around here if the pledges and promises we make for the coming year, be they financial or otherwise, not be made so much out of an obligation to the budget but rather as wholly embracing the possibilities of who we are and what we can do in this place as disciples of Jesus Christ and members of East Church?   What if our offering plates became more than merely the receptacle of this week’s (okay, I’ll say it…) “collection” but rather the place where hopes, dreams and prayerful intercession are transformed into Spirit-led action?

Well, beloved, the good news is it can and does happen when God’s grace is involved.  How else do you explain the strong stewardship of the people of this remarkable congregation?  How else can you describe how an initial offering made last year to help “lift the gift” in our church’s operating budget has expanded to the point where on many months we’ve been able to NOT draw monies from our invested funds?  How else could you ever say how, whatever the need happens to be, we have people in this congregation who do step up in miraculous and life-changing ways; and how that transforms us from, as we’ve often been know, from “the little church that could” to “the little church that can… and does.”  Yes, it happens because of your faith and your commitment and your hard work that it happens (and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that), but ultimately it’s because of grace revealed and responded to.  It’s because of what each one of you brings as an offering, in praise and thanksgiving.  It’s what illustrates, in wonderful and miraculous ways, the words of Micah who says that’s what’s required of is to “do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.”

You and I are made to worship… and as part of that, you and I are called to make an offering… this Sunday, next Sunday and truly, on every day of our lives as we walk faithfully with our God.  And as we do, may what we give be matched and increased by how we give, so that by grace our resources will grow.

And always, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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