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Sermon for Sunday 11 November 2018

FIRST READING 1 Kings 17:8-16

8The word of the Lord came to {Elijah}, 9“Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” 11And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12And she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” 13And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’” 15And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.


PSALM Psalm 146

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 2Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. 3When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 4Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God; 5Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; 6Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. 7The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 8The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 9The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!


SECOND READING Hebrews 9:24-28

24For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.


GOSPEL Mark 12:38-44

38In his teaching, {Jesus} said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”



Today’s concluding gospel story of the widow’s mite stands out from our readings because it’s one we’ve heard time and time again. It’s an event that must hold some theological importance, because we listen to it in both year B and year C of the Lectionary that we use. After Jesus calls out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees’ actions, expectations and attitudes, Jesus points out what might be considered the penultimate example for us to follow. Over the past few Sundays, Jesus has been trying repeatedly, to get His disciples to understand where the path He’s on is leading.
Jesus is struggling to get His followers to understand that He isn’t headed to a political throne, He wasn’t sent to lead a military coup to drive the Romans out, nor was He destined for a place of earthly power or authority; Jesus’ path leads to a cross where He will be betrayed, humiliated, abused and killed. Jesus is trying to get His disciples to understand that in some ways, this widow is an example of what He has and is doing; holding nothing back and giving His all back to the Father. So here she is again.
Once again, we hear the story of the widow who goes up to the temple treasury to put in her two coins. And what’s interesting is that each time she shows up, it just so happens to be around stewardship Sunday. Later today the council and I will go over the proposed budget for next year and make decisions on what to bring to you, the congregation, next month. Decisions will have to be made based on our history of giving and we will once again bring to you a spending plan that in many ways is a statement of faith. In other churches there will be teachers and preachers who will take the opportunity to point and say, “Look at her!” And then repeat Jesus’ words, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box” (v. 43)
Now some will take Jesus’ statement as being absurd; there’s no way He was actually implying that the widow’s two mites were worth more than everyone else’s. Common sense tells us that in terms of quantity, many people in that line put in a lot more money into the temple offering. Jesus had something else in mind when He pointed out this woman’s gift; it wasn’t the monetary value Jesus was focused on, it was the sacrificial value. I wish I had been there that day to see and hear the story in person. One of the things that the temple money system employed, was to use different size coins to indicate value. The bigger and heavier the coin the more value.
So here Jesus sits, watching as people “pass by the plate” as it were. The larger the donation the more noise it made in the kettle. Can you imagine all the clanging, as those of affluence gave from their abundance and then comes the almost imperceptible sound of two tiny copper coins going in the coffer? Certainly this poor unsuspecting widow has earned an exemplary reputation through the centuries, as a good example of sacrificial giving. Yet, I have a hunch that this anonymous woman would be embarrassed by the recognition she has received in thousands of stewardship sermons. The fact is, this woman is one of the nameless saints in the Gospel of Mark.
The widow with her two copper coins stands in the same company with two other anonymous women. The first had a long-term hemorrhage, (Mark 5:25-34) and touched the cloak of Jesus to get well. The other anointed Jesus for death by breaking open a costly bottle of perfume (Mark 14:3.) Like them, this woman comes out of the shadows for a moment and then disappears just as quickly. Other than what we’re told, we know precious little about her.
Was she old or young? Did she have a house full of children or did she rock an empty cradle? We don’t know where she lived, what she did with her days, or what kind of support she received from the extended family. Mark suggests only three details about this mystery lady. First, she was a widow. Second, she was poor. And third, she gave everything she had as a gift to support her place of worship. For centuries, the question before the church has been, do we, or do we not, keep her on our list of saints. Is she really the kind of role model we wish to hold up?
What did she give? Two lepta, or two tiny copper coins. The total value in today’s currency is about a penny. That isn’t much. Many today see so little value in the penny that they simply toss them to the ground. Every couple of years, some treasury department official spreads a rumor about removing pennies from United States currency. Apparently, even to the government, pennies are too small and insignificant to matter much. As most see it, in a hungry, hurting world, small donations cannot make much of an impact. Here’s a question for you: have you ever noticed those fund-raising boxes by the cash registers of supermarkets and fast-food restaurants?
These boxes seemed to be filled mostly with pennies and nickels. How can any charitable organization address the great problems of the world if all it receives is small change? How can the church afford to reach out in mission if it nods to an impoverished woman and says, “Give like her!” At least, that’s what some companies claim, as they invite you to attend fund-raising seminars for non-profit organizations.
Their flyers promise churches a new approach to stewardship. According to these fund-raising experts, we can “Forget about the two-penny widows or the fixed-income people. Don’t even bother giving them a pledge card. Don’t bother to include them in your fund drive. They cannot give much, so it’s a waste of time to go chasing after them for money. What they might give will hardly cover the time and effort you expend in chasing after them.”
“If you want to raise funds for your non-profit organization, go after the bigger fish in your sea. Develop a relationship with the wealthiest people you know. Invite them to serve on your board. Cultivate their interest. After all, those who give the most have the greatest capacity to increase their gifts.” For those who are solely focused on increasing revenue, it’s sound fund-raising advice, especially in a world that values wealth, status, and prestige. But this advice runs against reality in the church.
When we look around at those who attend your average church, we see widows and those on fixed incomes serving in almost every capacity within the congregation. In most cases, these pillars of the church have neither “deep pockets nor great resources, but each make sacrificial gifts to their local parish. So much for the advice from fund-raisers in the world outside the church. Here, in the church, we have different values. We believe every person has infinite worth. Everybody counts, regardless of who they are or how much money they have. We can point to the poor widow and say, “Her gift matters, because she herself matters.”
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we want to look at the woman in this story as our good example for generous giving. Her presence, is a troubling presence. By giving her two tarnished coins, she gives proportionally more than the rest of us. Each year the press discloses the generosity of all the candidates in their respective campaigns. For example, this year the state of Illinois elected the richest Governor ever. If I understand it correctly, his wealth exceeds that of President Trump. However, just because you’re affluent, doesn’t mean you’re generous.
In years past, presidential candidates have had their charitable giving exposed during the campaign. For example, Gary Hart gave a total of $140 to all charitable causes. Jesse Jackson, an advocate for the poor, gave a total of $500 to charity, even though his taxable income was well over $100,000. Ronald Reagan, who advocated that private citizens should pick up the slack of slashed welfare programs, gave only $2000 to all charitable causes; this on an income of several hundred thousand dollars. The highest giver was Walter Mondale, who gave around $13,500 to benevolences, out of an income of $500,000.
Some people openly expressed outrage that misers and hypocrites were running for public office. But I submit, that they shouldn’t have been surprised. The truth is, the giving patterns of these politicians are typical for most Americans. Many of us calculate what it takes to live each week and then donate a little piece of what’s left. We give a portion of what we think we can afford and then we want the IRS to take note of every penny. But this nameless woman in the Gospel of Mark sees her contribution differently.
Our poor widow gives her money without any expectation of receiving anything in return. Her contribution has nothing to do with getting a tax break. She doesn’t calculate the monthly budget and then decide what she can afford to give out of what’s left. Rather she gives it all, and then she has to figure out how she’s going to live. In truth, this dear saint is committed beyond all calculation. This is of course troubling because it reveals a faith so sacrificial that it scares us to death. Does any of us here today want to give our money like she gave hers? It would be like giving away our very life!
A minister in Gary, Indiana, tells about a woman who came out of the shadows on a Sunday morning just as the worship service was coming to an end. She had two little boys in tow and told the usher that she wanted to talk to the pastor. Not only that, she wanted to pay her tithe. The usher told her, “You’re not a member of our church. You don’t have to give us any money.” But the woman insisted.
After the benediction, she was taken up front, where she sat in the front pew and spoke with the minister. After spending a few nights with her sons in a battered women’s shelter, she was taking the bus to Atlanta the next morning to start a new life far away from her abusive husband. She was leaving behind her friends and family. She had made arrangements to live in a shelter until she could find a job, get back in school, or somehow get her life in order.
“Before I leave,” she said, “I want you to pray for me, and I want to pay my tithe.” She pulled out all the money she had in the world, counted out ten percent of it, and handed it to the stunned pastor. The total was $30.56. “You can’t give this to us,” protested the pastor. “You need it. It can make a difference for you and your boys.” “You don’t understand,” said the woman. “Even if I kept that ten percent, I wouldn’t have enough money to provide for me and my sons. So, I want to give it to God. I trust that God will give me a new life. To show Him I trust Him, I want to give my money.” With that, the pastor took the money and said a prayer for that family.
Calling the disciples together, Jesus pointed and said, “Look at that widow. Take a good, hard look.” She was the kind of person the world ignores, because she had so little. Yet she was the kind of person Jesus noticed, because she gave so much. I believe Jesus saw in her the very thing He was trying to get His followers to see. Here was a woman who refused to play it safe, she was giving her all back to God. This was exactly what Jesus was doing, He came to give His all.
The widow did not or would not, hold anything back from God and neither could Jesus. She gave away all she had; and according to the Gospel of Mark, within a few days of leaving that temple, Jesus Himself would give everything away. “Look at her,” He said. “Take a good, hard look … because her sacrifice is a picture of what you’re going to see God do in me.”
As one pastor writes, Charity is not something that we wish to do, not some means toward an end. Rather, charity is an obligation laid upon us by the nature of God. We’re charitable because we’ve come to learn that this is the way the world is, now that God has entered it in Jesus Christ. We aren’t charitable in order to rid ourselves of guilt, since we know we’re guilty and that our guilt isn’t removed through our puny actions. Rather we’re charitable, because in being generous we’re most like the extravagant God who has been charitable to us. It’s all about commitment beyond calculation.
That’s what God shows us in Jesus Christ. Whenever we celebrate the central mystery of faith, we affirm a mystery that is the essence of generosity. Christ has died: He gave everything He had, all He had to live on. Christ is risen: He gives us the power to stand free from all the false attachments of this age. And Christ will come again: He will complete the generous acts that He has begun.
In Jesus Christ, we have seen a God who gives His very life to us. God continues to give us this gift of life, so that we can become the kind of people who give our lives for others. In the meantime, God will do whatever He can to get our attention. In one of his Lake Wobegon stories, Garrison Keillor tells about a Sunday morning in Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. The sermon has been droning on far too long, and Clarence Bunsen has checked out early. He realizes it’s almost time for the offering, so he quietly reaches for his wallet.
Upon opening his wallet, Clarence discovers he has no cash. He takes out his pen and hides the checkbook in the middle of his Bible, next to one of the psalms. He begins to scratch out a check for thirty dollars, because he almost had a heart attack that week, and because somebody in the church will count the offering and he wants them to see he gave thirty dollars. He tries not to be obvious, but a lady to his right sees him.
Clarence can tell she thinks he’s writing in the pew Bible, so he doesn’t look at what he’s doing. She gives him a funny stare, and turns back to the sermon. Clarence tries to quietly rip the check out of the checkbook with limited success, still not looking at what he’s doing so the lady in the pew won’t know he has written out a check in church. The offering plate comes by, and Clarence proudly puts in the check, only to realize a moment too late that he has just written a check for three hundred dollars. He accidently wrote three-zero-zero on two different lines when he wasn’t looking. But what could he do?
On the one hand, he couldn’t go downstairs after church and find the deacons counting the collection and say, “Fellows, there’s been a mistake. I gave more than I really wanted to.” On the other hand, he gave all he had in the checking account and a little more. Perhaps, Clarence thought, he and his family will have to eat beans and oatmeal for the rest of the month, taking comfort in the fact that the contribution was going to a good place. One thing was for sure, notes Keillor. In that moment, Clarence felt fully alive for the first time all day.
Commitment beyond calculation: that’s what God-in-Christ is looking for. Our God has been so generous in providing every gift we need. Every day He watches to see what we do with what we’ve been given. We can learn something from this nameless widow whom we hear about during every stewardship season. She didn’t merely give her money, instead she placed her faith and future in God’s hands; the money simply went with it.
The truth is, this is by far easier said than done. A lot of people will say, “I don’t have that much to give. I can’t afford to be generous. I really don’t have anything to offer.” Yet the promise of the gospel is sure. The Lord can do a lot with the little we have, when in faith we give Him our all.

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