Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Widow's Mite

My sermon for November 11, 2012

Today’s gospel is really familiar—we’ve all heard the story of the widow’s mite. But I don’t think we often consider this story in the context of where it sits in the gospel—or about what the scene might have actually looked like. This is Mark chapter 12, which is pretty late in that short, 16-chapter Gospel. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on a donkey to cries of Hosannah, and then spent a few days cleansing the temple and arguing with various powers-that-be about authority. As soon as this story ends, Jesus launches into the “apocalyptic discourse”—a prophecy about the destruction of the temple and the end times—which leads directly into his arrest and crucifixion.  

So the scene is very tense because life and death are at stake, and it takes place in a location that Jesus has already effectively said is corrupt and expiring—he compares the temple to a fig tree that he the curses and causes to wither; and then to a vineyard whose tenants kill the owner’s son. But he’s still there, in the section of the temple known as the Court of the Women, teaching his disciples and anyone who will listen—and you have to imagine there would be quite a curious crowd after all that has taken place in the last few days—will he turn the moneychangers’ tables over again? Will he finally get arrested? Will the scribes or Pharisees debate him again? What will happen? 

Into this heightened scene, Jesus offers the first teaching today condemning the scribes. it’s a teaching about how we do things. About using God as a way to make yourself important.  

And then he sits down and watches. Now, from what I’ve gathered from my studies this week—perhaps Dr. Shaner can give us a better vision of the temple treasury after church—Jesus is in the Court of the Women, which is where the treasury is. The treasury consisted of 13 chests that were shaped kind of like upside down trumpets, so the top was tall and pointy and narrow and the bottom was large and where the money was collected. Each one was marked with a different number, and was dedicated to a different purpose. Some were for obligatory offerings, others for incense or for the golden vessels of the sanctuary, some for sin offerings, and some for voluntary offerings. So it would have been clear to Jesus—and to those who watched—who was giving for what purpose.   

Now picture someone coming with a large offering—a bag of coins. No subtle paper money or checks here—a bag of gold. Maybe even several bags of coins. And the owner walks up to the designated chest and begins to pour them in—clankity, clankity, clankity—it sounds like a slot machine paying out. It attracts attention. Then the widow goes up to one of the chests… Plink goes one tiny coin. Plink goes the other. Only Jesus notices, and begins to teach again.  

We don’t know which chest the widow put her offering in—if it was an obligatory gift or voluntary. So we can imagine that the widow gave out of a sense of obligation to the law. Or we can imagine that she gave out of a sense of generosity. She might have given because it was expected of her—or because she felt guilty. Or she might have been so grateful for an answered prayer that she responded with the only kind of extravagance she could. We don’t know. But something is driving her to offer those two coins to God. 

Why do you give? When that offering plate comes around, what inspires you? Is it obligation? Gratitude? Guilt? Faith? 

Epiphany’s alms basins—the brass plates we use to collect the offering—have a collection of three Bible verses on them. They are intriguing glimpses into different theologies of giving—different ideas of “why” the people in the pews give to the church. 

Two of the plates have the following quote: “He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord.” It’s from Proverbs. I always try to keep these two alms basins on the bottom of the pile so that they don’t get used but they always sift up despite my best efforts. It may be from the Bible, but that doesn’t mean it’s good theology—it’s backwards. Because if by giving to the poor we are lending to God, the implication is that what we have belongs to us, and not to God. All we have comes from God. “He that giveth to the poor, returneth to the Lord” might be a much better theological explanation. But—if this is your theology of giving, there’s a place for it at Epiphany. 

Two other plates say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). It is certainly blessed to give—and if you give because you desire blessing, I believe you can often find blessing through giving. Giving feels good. I know many of you have been very generous in your giving after the hurricane and felt the blessing that came with that. I find in our cultural context, though, that it’s harder for people to receive than it is to give. We’d all rather be givers than receivers. And this goes not just for money—receiving gifts, love, help, even attention sometimes. It’s even hard—and maybe especially so—at the level of pastoral care. I hear so many people say “Well, I didn’t want to bother you, you’re so busy—there are people who need you more than I do.” I am never too busy to see you in the hospital; or pray with you over something that is on your heart; or listen to you when you are confused or scared or lost.  

The final quote on the alms basins is from the letter to the Hebrews: “To do good and to distribute forget not.” The rest of the verse continues—though not on the limited format of the offering plate—“for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased” (Hebrews 13:16) The key word here isn’t on the plate—the key word in that verse from Hebrews is “sacrifice”. The key problem that Jesus has with the wealthy givers is that they are not sacrificing. They are giving generously out of their abundance, but they are giving of what is left over after they take care of their temporal needs. They are not sacrificing some of their temporal needs for the benefit of God. The widow is sacrificing. And so is Jesus—he is about to sacrifice his life for us. Do good. Disribute. Sacrifice. Please God. It is perhaps particularly good to remember the concept of sacrifice this weekend as we remember our military Veterans, who embody the meaning of sacrifice. But we are all called to sacrifice—perhaps not at the level of the widow or Jesus, but we are all called to sacrifice. 

And we all have something to distribute. A few years ago I heard a story about a church in this diocese—I think it was in the Bronx—who had signed up to partner with the Carpenter’s Kids in Tanzania, the same way we did. They were collecting the $50 per child it took at that time to send them to a year of primary school and the guests at their homeless feeding program heard about it. Those guests—the homeless and hungry people who were there for a free meal—took up a collection of the change in their pockets, and by the time the hat got passed all the way around, they had the $50 to send one child to school. A widow’s mite if there ever was one. But also a sign that abundance is relative—a homeless person here is abundantly wealthy compared to an AIDS orphan in Tanzania, and that there is no one who cannot be both a giver and a receiver and find a blessing in both. Collectively we can do so much more than we can alone. A room full of homeless people in the Bronx can transform the life of a child in Africa. 

What can the people in this room do?