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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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The Faithfulness of Exuberant Giving

One springtime some years ago I was asked to lead a graveside committal service for an 89 year old man from Florida who had passed away earlier that winter, and whose dying wish had been to be buried in the cemetery of our little town in Maine where he was born and raised, with the service led by the pastor of the church where he’d grown up; this despite the fact that he hadn’t even visited our town, or the church, in at least 70 years.  However, this was the one place he’d always thought of as home and it was very important to him that at the last, he would return there. When I spoke with the man’s widow about the service itself she suggested that perhaps I could look through church records to find some “historical reference” to her late husband’s activity in our congregation those many years ago; a task that in all honesty I was already thinking was going be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack!

And I’ll admit, it was difficult; in fact, all I could manage to find was a reference to this man’s third-grade Sunday School class being presented with Bibles on a church “Children’s Sunday” way back in 1908! It wasn’t much at all, but it was enough; in one of those wonderful moments of grace that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit, it turned out that the man’s family had brought with them that very same bible so they could show me!

The service ended up both a fitting memorial and a true celebration of life; and when it was all over, the man’s widow came up to offer her sincere thanks and presented me with an envelope which contained a very nice financial gift which was meant as her family’s contribution to the church’s work.  I thanked her very much for her generosity, passed on the money to our church treasurer and figured that was that.

Except it wasn’t: a few weeks later, I get this registered letter from some legal firm in Florida which contained another check from this woman in the amount of… well, let’s just say, a rather sizeable amount of money; designated specifically for the church’s restoration project. Moreover, the enclosed letter explained that there were to be more checks coming to the church in the future, the only request being that the money be put to good use and that the giver remain anonymous.  And if that weren’t more than enough, for a number of Christmases that followed Lisa and I would find this huge box of Florida grapefruit delivered to our doorstep, accompanied by a handwritten card from this same woman wishing our family well!

It was, to say the least, a wonderful series of gestures on her part; in fact, one day a couple of years in (!), one of her lawyers called me to confirm the church’s address; and in the course of our conversation, I made the comment of just how incredibly generous she had been to us.  The lawyer simply laughed and said, “Oh, Pastor, you don’t know the half of it!”  He went on to explain that some years before this woman had determined that her children and grandchildren were all financially comfortable on their own and thus in no need of her or her husband’s money.  So since as the saying goes, “you can’t take it with you,” she was determined to use up all that money before she died; making donations to countless charities, schools and churches, all with the stipulation that no “big deal” be made out of it.  The lawyer went on to describe how this old woman (who was in her 90’s at the time, mind you!) would walk into his office once a month with a brand new list of places for him to send more of her money, adding with a chuckle, “I’ve never seen anyone so happy about giving everything she has away!”

Even all these years later, I still smile when I think about it; and I have to confess that the memory of her extravagant giving always puts me in mind of the gospel story of the “Widow’s Mite” (Mark 12:40-44).  Granted, there are fundamental differences in these two widows: unlike the poor woman that Jesus honored for her supremely sacrificial gift at the temple treasury (“two small copper coins,” says Mark, “which are worth a penny.”), our benefactor from the Sunshine State was most definitely not poverty stricken and certainly had an abundance of resources at her disposal; so perhaps her giving was not wholly sacrificial. Nonetheless, there was in her own motivation a joyful exuberance for giving that both praised and served God; an utter gladness about what she was doing which was surely grounded in a true and active faith.  One thing was for certain: all we who were the recipients of that gladness were most certainly blessed because of it!

In a smaller church like the one I am now privileged to serve, where budgets are always tight and stewardship is an on-going concern, so much of the important work of ministry we do together is both equipped and empowered by this same kind of exuberant giving. Of course, these things don’t always happen on the grand scale of what I described above; most often around here it’s done quietly and without much fanfare, usually as a response to a specific need in the church or the result of someone taking notice that something wonderful could happen in our midst “if only” there were the proper resources available; sometimes it’s simply been an instance of good people showing up to help out at exactly the right time!

But no matter the variety of the gift, I’ve found that there’s always this joyful extravagance in the way that it is given; and as a pastor, I stand in wonder at just how representative it is of the kind of exuberant, faithful giving that not only builds up the church, but also ends up a true expression of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Certainly by any measure, that makes us supremely blessed indeed!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2017 in Church, Joy, Ministry, Reflections, Stewardship

 

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