Sermon Given at St. Mark, Copperhill, November 11, 2018
First, let me say it would be quite tempting to suggest that the Gospel lesson on the widow’s mite is St. Mark’s way of saying to remember to turn in your pledge card. Remembering to turn in your pledge card is greatly appreciated, but it is not the point of this morning’s Gospel.
Rather, I would ask that you allow me to describe a couple of scenes for you, to place you in settings that may or may not be familiar to you.
You are on a road trip. You have been driving now for some time and you find yourself needing gasoline for your car. So you stop at a gas station to rest and refuel.
Once inside the gas station, you quickly get your bearings amidst the corn chips and soft drinks and the breath mints and gum that promise to make your mouth fresher than God ever intended mouths to be.
After deciding on the appropriate amounts of sugar and caffeine that are necessary for you, you make your way to the cash register to check out. Next to the register, you notice a jar – a large mason jar. Inside the clear jar facing out at you is a picture of a man. Next to the photograph is a brief story about an illness or an accident that has befallen the man. The man’s family has no insurance and the medical bills for his care are great. The note asks for your spare change and ends with a promise that God loves you and will bless you.
So, what do you do? You stare at your change as your breath becomes fresh on the spot and maybe you doubt that your change will actually make a difference in the life of the man. I mean, how many countless mason jars would it take to heal all that is broken in this man’s life? Yet, all they are asking for is your spare change, which would otherwise forever be lost somewhere in your car along with the pens and paper clips and the other coins that live just out of your reach. So you drop your change into the jar as well as the few pennies resting in the need a penny/take a penny bowl. You have made your offering but you are not convinced that your simple gesture will mean enough to matter.
Or, consider another scene. You are walking with a friend on a city sidewalk. You notice a coin on the ground in front of you.
“What are you doing?” Your friend asks this of you as you stoop down to pick up the penny. “What are you doing?” You can tell he is not pleased. Before you can retrieve the penny, your friend begins to lecture you.
The lecture is a diatribe against pennies. He tells you that they are not worth the time to pick up from the street, and that they cost more to produce than they are worth and that the time it took to stop and pick up the penny actually, probably, cost you a much greater amount in lost wages and productivity. And he does not believe this is simply his opinion. He wants you to hate pennies, too. He is seeking a convert.
The widow is standing in line behind the others as they go to make their offerings in the Temple treasury. She notices Jesus is sitting near the treasury and that he will see her as she makes her offering. Of all the weeks not to have her offering envelope! He will see how little she has to give; he will hear the pitiful sound that her two simple coins make in the treasury. But it is all she has. These simple coins are not enough to sustain her. And she offers them to God. And Jesus watches her walk right in front of him, as the poor widow makes her exit. I wonder if she heard his praise of her.
We often think of the Christian faith as a faith concerned for the well being of the widow and the poor one and the outcast. We tell ourselves that our devotion to God should extend to our concern for the widow with little food or little money.
Yet, we might just have it backwards. We might actually be members of a faith first expressed by widows and poor ones, who offered simple and absurd gestures of hospitality to God’s prophets and simple and seemingly insignificant offerings to God’s work. Before the letter of James was written to the early Church reminding them to care for the widow and the orphan, a widow gave everything she had to God. In caring for the marginalized, we have the model of a marginalized one to follow.
The widows went first. The widow from the other side of the Jordan River fed God’s prophet, Elijah, with the last portion of food she had left. And the widow who stands before Jesus offered her gift to the treasury without promise that the Gospels would tell of her faith. The early Church gathered first, not in great cathedrals, but often in the homes of widows, who had nothing to lose. It is their faith and their story that we are invited to join. Whatever compassion we now extend to the widow and to the poor one was first taught to us by the poor widow.
But we must notice that Jesus is not simply commending the woman for her complete generosity. He is also indicting the corruption of the economics of the Temple and its treasury.
Before Jesus sees the widow, he sees the scribes, the religious leaders and he sees THROUGH them. He sees that they are much more attached to the fine trappings and perks of their work than they are attached to the vision of God who has always sought righteousness and justice for all. They pray long prayers, not so God might hear them, but they pray long prayers so that they might be heard. They love their own voice and they are willing to pray for the widow, but first it will cost her.
The Temple had turned into a pay before you pray enterprise. And the widow is faithful, sincere, probably much more sincere and faithful than anyone else Jesus sees that day. She believes she needs to make an offering. All that she has to offer is basically nothing, two coins, together worth a penny. But she needs to make an offering. That is what the scribes are saying. So, she trusts people who are not trustworthy. She offers them all that she has. They probably won’t even bother to count it.
So, on one level, this can be read as a lesson where we commend the faith of the widow, where we are deeply moved by her giving all to God. But if we are to be honest to the text this morning, we have to admit that Jesus does more than commend the woman.
He also condemns the Temple, the treasury that devoured the houses of widows in order to maintain the religious status quo, which had grown corrupt, a gross distortion of the story of the God who had freed the slaves from Egypt.
God had not called Moses to lead the people out of the slave lands of Egypt in order to take on new chains of bondage in the Temple. The story of God is not intended to simply comfort the slaves. The story of God is intended to liberate slaves, to set people free, to take off the burden.
Generosity is a good thing. When we can be generous, to each other and to God’s work, there is much to celebrate.
But our call as Christians, or rather as “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement,” to borrow a phrase from our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, also includes a fierce call to speak out against the neglect and abuse of widows and orphans, wherever we encounter it, especially if we find ourselves complicit in it, as the Temple had become, in the day of Jesus.
We are a diverse people in the Diocese of East Tennessee. But we share a common faith. We share a common life in our baptism and in our abiding at all the altars where bread and wine make us new each week. Because of that, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, the pocketbook and prayers of the widow, both then and now, are burdens we should bear with her.
Let us be a people, always open to conversion, to being made new, to see the world as the Christ sees it. Let us see the widow. Let us sing her praise. And let us protect her, for the sake of the Gospel.