Sunday, November 29, 2015

"What's the World Coming To?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyteria Church on the First Sunday of Advent

"What's the World Coming To?"
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

“The days are surely coming,” proclaims Jeremiah.  The days of promise and fulfillment are surely coming.  The days of justice and righteousness are surely coming.  The days of salvation and safety are surely coming.  
         But when? 
         The first Sunday of Advent each year features apocalyptic imagery and a sense of foreboding.  The gospel writers and the lectionary committee won’t let us get away with sentimentalizing these weeks of Advent and skipping ahead to the baby Jesus in the manger.  Earlier in this chapter of Luke, Jesus had told this disciples that the days will come when the Temple would be destroyed, and they asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will the sign be that this is about to take place?”[1]
         The earliest Christians thought the Second Coming would be immediate...  and they lived accordingly.  For many centuries, Advent was observed as a season of waiting.  The faithful waited for the feast of the Nativity, a time to celebrate the mystery of the incarnation.  They waited for the Second Coming of the Christ. 
         But over 2,000 years have passed since God came to dwell among us in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus hasn't come back.  And so we wait.
         Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets were preaching about waiting for one who would be like a light for the darkness.   Those who heard the prophets were weary with impatience.          “The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah had said. But when?
         We look around, and we wonder, “What’s the world coming to?”  I think this apocalyptic passage in Luke seems very relevant when we don’t expect it to predict our future—but rather to see how it states the truth of our life now. 
         It seems that every week there are terrible things in the news.  This week it was the release of the video of the squad car video of the shooting a year ago of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago by a police officer—16 times and the resulting community unrest.  It was the shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs that killed Officer Garrett Swasey, campus police officer, father of 2 young children, and a church elder… and 3 civilians… and wounded 5 police officers and 4 civilians.  Paris is continuing to mourn the mostly young people who were killed in the terrorist attack.  The conflict between the state of Israel and Palestinians continues to escalate.  Around the world, people live in fear of more terrorist attacks. 
         What’s the world coming to?
         People are “fainting from fear” and foreboding of what’s happening in the world… and what might happen.  The powers of the heavens are shaking.   As Karoline Lewis writes, the gospel lesson is profoundly relevant, because in and through it we hear the truth of our human brokenness.  Jesus speaks the truth “about our condition, about the world’s condition, that never really changes.”[2]

         The way Luke tells it, Jesus is deliberately vague about when Jesus will return.  He refuses to give his disciples any hint of a timetable.  Instead, he says, “When all these fearful things are happening, stand up…raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
         The Greek word translated here as “drawing near” is the word used in various places to talk about how the kingdom of God is near in a sense of immanence.  The kingdom is not far off.  It is right here in the Son of Man, and in his proclamation.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.
         Then Jesus tells them a parable of a fig tree.  As soon as the fig trees sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.”
         What is the world coming to?  I believe there are a lot of people here and out there who are genuinely worried about the direction in which our society and our world seem to be moving, and worried about what sort of future their children and grandchildren may inherit.
         Now, concerns about the state of the world aren’t new.   We’re not the first Christians to look at the world around us and see cause for alarm.  Like us, those early Christians would have been tempted to wonder where God was in the midst of a world where things seemed to be going from bad to worse.
         Luke probably had those early Christians in mind when he recorded the words Jesus spoke in today’s gospel lesson.  They’re confident words, words that offer reassurance and hope:  “Your redemption has come near.”
         It’s hard to wait and pray and hope and stay alert.  We have prayed for peace, and still we wait.  We have prayed for healing in the quiet corridors of the hospital.  We have prayed for the healing of the creation   and the healing of the wounds of racism.  We pray, and we wait.
         The church has always struggled with its pain over a future that fails to come.  “Come, Lord Jesus,”  the early Christians prayed...but it was Roman soldiers who came.  “This world is passing away,” they sang...but the world remained.
         If there is no God-shaped future at hand...if nothing is about to happen--  then there’s just a series of days.  All that’s left for the church  is to be another well-meaning institution.  All that’s left for the church to do is to get together for routine Sunday services, and keep the doors open and the roof repaired,  and have pot-luck suppers.  If nothing is about to happen.
         But if the church is standing at the threshold of God’s kingdom of justice and peace, then the church can dare to touch the wounds of lepers   and pour out its resources freely for the poor.  If the new age of healing and mercy is just around the corner, then the church can cheerfully bear suffering and persecution...and faithfully sing its alleluias.

         Today’s gospel lesson was written to encourage the early Christians during hard times and to call their attention to the signs of the forthcoming kingdom.  Although the promise of the second advent of Christ hadn’t yet been completely fulfilled-- it was forthcoming.  The harvest in a planted field is a forthcoming event.  What is forthcoming stands at the horizon of the present.  The signs are there-- if we look up and take heed of them.
         The signs of evil are still rampant in the world around us.  If we don’t look up-- they’re the only signs we’ll see.   That’s why we need to remember to look look closer, through the eyes of faith, for the signs of God’s kingdom, like the tiny buds of a fig tree.
         As Christians, we’re called into a life of hope and trust.  Each day brings an opportunity for us to experience the miracle of the dying and rising of Christ...and a new opportunity to live out Christ’s love in our lives.
         Jesus’ words invite us to have hope and confidence.  They assure us that-- despite the direction in which the world seems to be moving-- the situation is under God’s control.  Like a coach whose team is down at halftime, Jesus offers us a pep-talk.  “Stand up,” he says.  “Raise your heads.”   Don’t give in to the temptation of pessimism and despair.  The Lord will prevail, and for that reason, we can keep our heads held high.
         Each day we need to be on the lookout for signs of the kingdom of God.  “The days are surely coming”--     but we won’t notice their approach unless we’re looking for them...anticipating them...knowing that they are coming.

         I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with the short days and the long, dark nights this time of the year.  That’s one of the reasons I enjoy the Christmas lights.  Later in December,  I’ll be on the lookout for the winter solstice and how the days gradually start getting a little longer.
          Then, near the end of winter, I start watching the sunny places on the south side of peoples’ houses with great anticipation for the first snowdrops and crocuses to pop up and start blooming.  I’m on the lookout for signs that spring is coming. 
         I’m also constantly on the lookout for signs that people are growing, being transformed, becoming more Christ-like in our Littlefield community and elsewhere.   When someone tells me they’re becoming a better person because they’re a part of our Christian community-- it gives me as much hope and joy as seeing the first bulbs in the spring!
         If we look up, through eyes of faith, we see the signs.  We see groups of Christians, Muslims, and Jews building bridges through social media and personal relationships, forming friendships, finding ways to work together to work for a more peaceful world.  If we look up, we see people of goodwill working and praying together for racial justice and reconciliation.  We see people working tirelessly to bring peace to Israel and Palestine.
         If we look up, we see people from Littlefield and all over our presbytery working together to serve a delicious Thanksgiving dinner for over 1,700 people in need… and serving the people who come to Fort Street Open Door for various kinds of help.  We see our mission partners changing peoples’ lives by embodying God’s love.
         Look up, and see through eyes of faith.

         The season of Advent challenges us to know that Christmas is so much more than family gatherings and gift-giving.  Advent calls us to watch and pray-- to open ourselves to the presence of Christ in our lives now...and to allow our lives to be shaped by the anticipation of Christ’s coming kingdom.
         Be alert.  Pray at all times.  Pray “Thy Kingdom come-- because that is the shape of the future.  All the signs point to it. 
         I believe today’s gospel lesson has a word for how we are to wait in the meantime, between the past and future advents;  between God’s coming to us in the past and God’s coming in the future, as it unfolds.  Waiting and watching is the posture of God’s faithful people.  But how are we to wait? 
         I believe that we are called, not to a passive kind of waiting, but a vigilant waiting and watching. 
          “When these things begin to take place, stand up...”  I think this is the kind of waiting and watching Luke has in mind.  Our waiting and watching prepares us to join in at those points where God’s future is struggling toward fulfillment now.  The call to watch is a call to discern the ways in which we may be faithful to the way God has set before us.  It’s a call to be actively about the Christian life, to live into God’s future as it continues to come into our present lives. 
         Even when we see tragedy, cruelty, evil, and abuse all around us, and we wonder, “What’s the world coming to?”--  the Good News of Advent is that God isn’t finished with us yet.  God isn’t finished with the world yet.
         So, be alert.  Pray at all times.
         Pray that the Lord make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all...and strengthen our hearts in holiness, that we may be blameless before our God at the coming of our Lord Jesus. 
         Every word we say...every thing we do...every prayer we pray is important, because we’re called to live our lives in hope and anticipation, as we watch and wait for Christ to come again.
         So pray.  Pray for the coming of the Christ.  Pray for his rule in our lives...and in the world.  Pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”--  because that is the one prayer that we know will ultimately be answered.
         Come, Lord Jesus!

 Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
November 29, 2015

[1] Luke 21:5-8

[2] Karoline Lewis, “Why Advent?” at

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"When Did We See You, Jesus?" Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Matthew 25:31-46 on Christ the King Sunday


"When Did We See You, Jesus?"
Matthew 25:31-46

Today’s Gospel lesson is sometimes known as the parable of “the sheep and the goats”…  or as “the last judgment.”
            The passage we heard today is Jesus’ last formal act of teaching, and it sums up the major theological themes of Matthew’s gospel by presenting a majestic picture of the triumphant Jesus reigning in glory as king and judge at the end of time.  The Jesus who earlier in the gospel “had nowhere to lay his head” is now seated on the royal throne as king.  Jesus who was rejected even by his hometown is now exalted as the judge. 
            The Son of Man pronounces judgment on the sheep and the goats.  For the sheep—the righteous-- the news is good.  They’re given a divine blessing and told they will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.  To those at his left hand he will say “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Now, some people might hear this as a story meant to scare us into being righteous.  But if we interpret it that way, we might miss Jesus' plea for us to see.
Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty and give you something to eat or drink?  When did we see you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  When did we see you sick or in prison and visited you?"           
Jesus makes it clear that we will not literally see him. We will see or fail to see him in "the least of these" brothers and sisters in our midst. Jesus longs for us to see.  But seeing—really seeing—isn’t easy. 
Some might say that we've seen too much—too many photos of Syrian refugee children living in wretched conditions… too many people living in extreme poverty in Africa or Haiti… too many people lined up on the sidewalk waiting for the soup kitchen to open in our cities.
Some say we've been desensitized, our capacity for compassion short-circuited and overloaded.  We tell ourselves that our guilt won't feed anybody. Yet, the truth is that thousands of people who may have never thought much about hunger have been moved to donate money for food and medical supplies after seeing pictures on the news.  Seeing the people and seeing their needs can change peoples' hearts.
I think we’re seeing an increase in fear and distrust of people who are different.  We’ve been hearing some public officials and candidates for office wanting to put the brakes on welcoming Syrian refugees  and talking about special security tracking and ID’s for Muslims and building big walls on our borders. 
Yesterday the Presbytery of Detroit considered a motion from First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor to communicate with our elected officials, to tell them our faith calls us to welcome immigrants and that we want to give support to Syrian refugees in our country.  Although the motion passed, we heard in the debate a real mix of compassion and hospitality—and also fear.
 We’ve heard different political, financial, and logistical reasons for not welcoming refugees to the United States.   But no biblical or theological or faith reasons. 
When did we see you, Lord?
Whether we call the adversary Satan or the devil or evil or something else, I believe Satan wants to divide humanity and to instill hatred, and distrust.   We’re  tempted to demonize innocent people and falsely accuse them of being violent, evil, and dangerous.  We’re tempted to do nothing, to protect ourselves, and to withhold the love of Christ. 
When did we see you?   We learn to look away from the homeless person or quickly maneuver around the man who’s holding out his cup for donations.   We keep our distance.   Maybe we try not to see those people.  
Those people.  Human beings created in God’s divine image.  Individuals who are deeply loved by God.   Those people.
If Christians refuse to accept and help refugees, we are ignoring, misinterpreting, or even rejecting Jesus’ teachings and a variety of other texts throughout the Bible.[1]   Whether we like it or not, those who follow Jesus are called to help the world’s most abused, marginalized, helpless, exploited, and destitute.  We are called to glorify Christ through selfless sacrifice, hospitality, and love.
In an article published this week at Sojourners, Stephen Mattson asks:  “Imagine if Jesus limited his ministry based upon the conditions of comfort and security.”[2] 
Imagine it.  As Mattson imagines it, “There would be no traveling through Samaria—too hazardous.  No interacting with foreigners—too dangerous.  No helping strangers—too risky.  No healing the sick—too unsafe.  No attracting crowds—to insecure.  No performing miracles—too perilous.  No public speaking—too unprotected.  No giving to the poor—too wasteful.  No interacting with outcasts—to socially unacceptable.  No disciples—too untrustworthy.  No generosity—generosity—too wasteful.  No grace—too weak.  No forgiveness—too soft.  No death on the cross—too painful (to say the least). 
“If Jesus used the same stipulations for love that we do, the gospel never would have existed, because almost every single experience Jesus put himself  in required risk, sacrifice, and vulnerability.  And instead of being fueled by fear, Jesus was fueled by hope.”[3]
“When did we see you, Jesus?”
In a recent letter to the Presbyterian Church, our Stated Clerk, Gradye Parson, asks us to “Choose welcome, not fear.”[4]   Gradye  recognizes that we are a world grieving, following the most recent terrorist attacks, but we can choose how to react in our grief and fear. 
If we hear today’s gospel lesson as something to make us feel guilty… to get us to do what we should—we may not hear it as good news. 
But I believe today’s lesson is part of Jesus’ call to new life, a call to a new relationship with God, a new way to practice religion, and a call to follow Jesus in the way of love.  I think Jesus is trying to get us to think about what’s important in the Kingdom of God.
 Jesus wants us to know that God is here with us, in the messiness and ambiguities and fears of human life.  God is here, in your neighbor, in the one who needs you.  Do you want to see the face of God?  Look into the face of one of the least of these—the vulnerable, the weak, the stranger.  We are called to live in a community based on the God-given dignity and value of every human being.   
            In Matthew’s description of the final judgment, there’s not one word about believing certain things or following special religious practices.  We will be judged by whether or not we see Christ in the face of those in need and whether or not you give yourself away in love, in Christ’s name.
            God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love.  God wants to save us by teaching us to see the face of Christ in the faces of strangers and those in need and persuading us to care about them.  God wants to save us from obsessing about our own needs and safety and fears and free us to live in compassion and hope.

            On Christ the King Sunday,   we meditate on God’s power and the reign of God.  We look forward to Advent, a time when we ponder the mystery of the incarnation:  God embodied in a helpless baby born in a humble stable…    God on the cross, dying, in sacrificial, self-giving love. These are images of a very vulnerable God.   This is a very different kind of king, with a different kind of power.
            As we move through Advent, we practice waiting.  We hope.  And we ponder the mystery of a God so in love with us that he came to be one of us.  He came into the world as a baby, a love-child, in whom God shows us just how far God will go to save us, and heal us, and set us free.
            Come, Lord Jesus!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church 
Dearborn, Michigan
November 22, 2015

[1] Jeremiah 22:3-5; Zechariah 7:8-10; Isaiah 16:4; Matthew 25:34-40; Hebrews 13:1-2; James 2:5

[2] Stephen Mattson, “Rejecting Refugees, Rejecting Christ.

[3] Mattson.
[4] Gradye Parson, “Choose welcome, not fear.”

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Hoping Skills": A sermon preached at Littlefield Presbyterian Church on November 15, 2015

"Hoping Skills"
Mark 13:1-8

There will be wars and rumors of wars.  There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines.
            Just a few days ago, I was wondering what I would do with this passage on a Sunday when we consecrate our stewardship commitments and take some time for faithful imagination about the future of the church.  Then we studied it at the beginning of Evangelism committee meeting, and I started to see some possibilities. 
            Then it happened-- again.   Just this week:  Terrorist attacks in Beirut.  Baghdad.  Paris. 
            The thirteenth chapter of Mark has traditionally been called “the little apocalypse.”  This passage, along with the other apocalyptic writings in the Bible, has been what Lamar Williamson calls “a happy hunting ground for persons fascinated by the end of the world.   It figures prominently in books by doomsayers and in sermons by evangelists more interested in the next world than in this one.”[1] 
            “Apocalypse” can mean the uncovering or revealing of things that are to come:  like the wars and earthquakes and desolation of Mark 13.  But perhaps in a deeper sense it’s about how the vision of devastation transforms our vision of the things that are.  What is revealed is the true nature of the reality in which we live: its transitory, provisional character.   And so, it can be a kind of reality check.

            As Jesus was coming out of the temple, one of his disciples says to him, “Look Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Herod the Great had reconstructed the Jerusalem temple at immense expense, and it was one of the wonders of the ancient world.”[2]   It was designed to be the crowning glory of King Herod’s ambitious architectural program.  Herod probably didn’t want to be remembered for his legendary brutality, so these imposing structures were to be his lasting legacy.
            “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
            Jesus asked the disciples, “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another.  All will be thrown down.”
            “Tell us, when will this be, Jesus?  What will be the sign?”
            We want to know what the future will be.  We want to know what’s going to happen… and when it will happen.  We worry. 
            Instead of giving them direct answers to their questions, Jesus warns them against false Messiahs who may try to take advantage of excitement and anxiety about the end-times:    “Beware that no one leads you astray....  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”   Later, Jesus tells them it isn’t for us to know when the end will come.
            As one of my colleagues points out, “Worrying is a human pass time.  “It’s a way to cope with the reality that evil is in the world.  It is a tool that can be overused to the point where we worry too much and forget to live.”[3]
            I’m convinced that God doesn’t want us to worry or be afraid.  God wants us to live into hope.  Every time an angel shows up with a word from God, what do they say?  “Fear not.”  “Don’t be afraid.” 
            But that’s hard.  It’s hard when attacks occur around the world.  It’s hard when gun violence continues.  It’s hard when natural disasters strike.  It’s hard not to worry about all the terrible things that could happen.  It’s hard not to worry that we don’t have enough.   It’s hard not to worry about the future of the church.
            Yes, there will be wars, and rumors of wars.  There will be death…and disaster.  There will be all manner of things in this life to rattle our souls.  There will be terrorism…injustice…racism… and hatred.
            Don’t be alarmed.  Don’t be afraid.
            When we’re anxious or afraid, we make bad decisions.  I think that’s why we hear again and again in the scriptures that we should only fear God, and that we need to hope and trust in what God is doing.
            We need to trust in Jesus:  “Wars and rumors of war will not have the last word.  The storm clouds of war are not the last word.  There are people who are trampled down because of their race or their gender or their religious beliefs—but that trampling does not have the last word.  God has the last word.
            It is futile to try to put a time frame on when the end is going to come or trying to describe it in detail.  But as Christians, we are called to believe that we are headed toward peace and justice and the rule of love.  We are called to live into that hope. 
            When we show up on Sunday mornings--  which is a strange thing to do in our culture-- we are living our belief that the world is headed in a direction of God’s reign.   When we commit our lives to Christ and his way of love, we are invited into a way that can bring out goodness in us.   When we fill out our financial commitment card, we are living into hope for this congregation and for Christ’s mission of love and justice beyond this congregation.   When we witness as a congregation to Christ’s way of peace and justice and love, we are staking our lives on a path that goes counter to the direction of the popular culture.  
             Jesus tells us, “The end is yet to come.  Don’t be afraid.  This is not how the world ends.”  The world will end with peace—not violence. And that is the end of the world we can look forward to.
            Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation… there will be earthquakes and famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” These are the signs we need to watch for, these “birth pangs.” 
            In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul wrote, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains....”[4]
            In other words, God is at work where something new and good is being born, where new life is becoming possible.
            We look forward in longing to the end of violence in the world and the birth of a more peaceful world… the end of poverty, and the birth of a more just world…the end of hate, and the birthing of a world ruled by love. 
            As Christians, we expect trouble in this broken world.  But we can be confident that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  No one who calls upon God’s name needs to be hopeless.  We can trust the promise we hear through the prophet Jeremiah:  “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”[5]             
            We are called to witness to God’s love and justice and peace in the world.   Part of our witness is to let the world see us out-hoping our troubles…  and living into hope.
            We can’t do this alone.  But—with God’s help-- we can practice living into hope and faith and love.  We can help and encourage each other.  That’s why we need to be in community together.
            Even in the midst of suffering and turmoil, we can trust that God’s ways are rebirth and hope.  God is in charge.  Goodness is stronger than evil.
            Whenever we live in courage, whenever we trust in God’s promises as we make decisions, we are witnessing to God’s transforming love in the world and how God is birthing new life. 
            So let us keep practicing being faithful.  Let us live into hope.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
Nov. 15, 2015

[1]Lamar Williamson, Mark.  (John Knox Press, 1983), p. 235.
[2]Lectionary Homiletics, Nov. 16, 2003.
[3] #hopewins#notafraid#diwali Practicing Humanity & Defeating #terrorism.  Posted by on November 14, 2015.

[4] Romans 8:22

[5] Jeremiah 29:11

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Don't Be Afraid. There Is Enough" A sermon on Mark 12:38-44 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church, during stewardship season

"Don't Be Afraid.  There Is Enough"
Mark 12:38-44; 1 Kings 17:7-16

We don’t know this woman’s name.  We really don’t know anything about her, other than that she is an impoverished widow in first century Palestine, living on the margins of her society, with no safety net. No husband to protect or advocate for her.  No pension.  She’s part of a poor and vulnerable class of society. 
            So don’t you wonder what it means to point to a destitute woman who gives her last two cents to the Temple?  Should we applaud her self sacrifice—or see her as naïve and impractical?

            Mark only uses this word for “widow” twice in his gospel, both times in the passage we just heard.  Unlike Luke, Mark doesn’t emphasize a mission to “the poor” in his narrative.
             The first time Mark mentions the poor is when a wealthy man comes to Jesus asking how he can inherit eternal life.[1]  Jesus responds:  “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”  The man couldn’t do it.
            But this poor widow does just that. She gives it all.
            What do we do with this?  What does it mean?   Why would this poor widow give everything she had to live on?  Surely her small gift couldn’t make any difference to the Temple.   In ancient Israel, the “poor” were not required to give to the Temple.[2]  If they did give, they might have done so out of a sense of obligation… or a sense of hope.   We just don’t know.     
            Our gospel lesson today is framed by verses that show what Jesus thinks about what was going on in the Temple.  Jesus has visited the temple and cleansed it by driving out those who were selling   and tossing the tables of the moneychangers.  He quoted the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah to explain his prophetic action:  “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’”  But you have made it a den of robbers.”[3] 
            In today’s lesson we heard Jesus teaching his disciples to “Beware of the scribes,” those religious leaders who like to walk around in their long robes.  Jesus said, “They like to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”                             
            In the two parts of today’s lectionary passage Mark offers us contrasting examples of discipleship.   These are teaching moments for Jesus as he calls his disciples to pay attention to the scribes, who “will receive the greater condemnation.”   Then Jesus points to the widow’s giving.
            This is one of the widows Jesus had just accused the scribes of abusing—offering her copper coins amidst the grand displays of generosity from the rest of the temple crowd.         
            The widow gives sacrificially—all she has to live on.  Her sacrifice is complete—so complete that Jesus wants his disciples to witness it.   “Truly,” Jesus says, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For 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.”
            That is why we know about her today, this nameless woman—because she gave all the little she had, holding nothing back.
            But don’t you wonder?  Are we really supposed to admire a poor woman who gave her last cent to a religious institution?   Was it right for her to surrender her living to those who lived better than she did?   By ordinary human standards, what this widow did makes no sense.  Is Jesus saying we should all follow her example?  What does Jesus want us to learn from her?           
            Did you notice?  Nowhere in this passage does Jesus praise the widow for what she is doing.  Nowhere in this story does he say, “Go, thou, all of you, and do likewise.”   He simply invites the disciples to contemplate the disparity between abundance and poverty,  between large sums and two copper coins, between grand donations--and real sacrifice.   He doesn’t dismiss the gifts of the rich.  He simply points out that the poor widow turns out to be the major donor in the story.
            In Mark’s gospel, this is the last of Jesus’ lessons in the upside-down kingdom of God, where the last shall be first, and the great shall be the servants of all.   When Jesus leaves the Temple that day, his public ministry is over.  In four days, he will be dead, giving up the two copper coins of his life.  The widow withheld nothing from God; neither did Jesus.    
            In the scriptures, there are recurring themes of abundance and of trusting in God to provide what we need.
            In the Exodus story, the people begin to complain, afraid that they won’t have enough provisions for the journey ahead of them.  God responds by sending them manna—white flakes of bread falling from heaven—just enough manna for today.  The people aren’t willing to trust that God will  continue to provide, so they try to hoard their food for tomorrow.  But when they wake up the next morning, they find that the left-over manna has rotted overnight.  God was trying to teach them that hoarding and lack of trust deny God’s daily providing…the predictable and faithful grace of God.
            In today’s lesson from the Hebrew scriptures, God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath, and that a widow there will feed him.  The widow is preparing to bake the last little bit of meal and oil into a last supper for her and her son—everything she had—and then they would die.  Elijah says to her, “Don’t be afraid.  Make me a little cake, and then make some for yourself and your son.  God promises you won’t run out of meal and oil as long as the drought lasts.”  And it was so.  There was enough.
            Jesus, the one who gave his all for the sake of the world, for the sake of all of us,  calls us to follow him… and learn from him.  The gospel gives us clues about how to live joyful lives of freedom and trust. 
            Like the angels who keep showing up in the Bible, saying, “Don’t be afraid,”  so Jesus uncovers our motives, those habits of the heart that keep us holding on tightly to things, to money, clinging to the things we think might keep us safe.  Then he invites us to care for the poor, and he  offers us a new life of  freedom from fear-- an abundant life of gratitude and trust.
            So how are we to love God?  With trust, instead of fear.  With gratitude, instead of demands.  With hope instead of despair. 
            How do we comprehend the poor widow’s offering in the Temple?  I think we can see it as a statement of radical trust.  She chooses not to play it safe.  Instead, she gives her love gift first, trusting in God to provide what she needs. 
            But how does this happen?  How could she give everything?
I wonder if she somehow has come to feel that she has enough, and that she will have enough.  I wonder if she has allowed herself to experience life as a blessing.  I wonder how this poor widow has come to trust in God as the one who blesses and provides—abundantly, predictably, faithfully. 
            I wonder if she has discovered something about the ultimate meaning of life-- that when we give,  we are most like God.  Could it be that she has come to see that--  when we are lavish and gracious and generous--  we are most like our lavish and gracious and generous God? 
            How much do we love God?  How much do we trust God?  These are ongoing questions that we encounter on our journey of faith.  No one can answer these questions for you.  I don’t have an easy, pat answers for you today.  But not to keep asking the questions is to shut God out of some of the most intimate details of your living.
            Like many of you, I enjoy supporting charitable and social causes I think are important, causes that help me to live out the Christian values that shape my life.  But my main giving is focused on the church, in the local congregation, as well as several church-related missions.  There is something about putting a check into the offering plate as part of worship that gives focus to my life and to my faith.  It’s part of my spiritual discipline to write the check each week.  It’s part of my spiritual growth to increase my giving each year.  I believe that my giving is a witness to the gratitude I have for life…and the joy and freedom that I experience when I give my money to the church and the causes that express my faith values..
            You and I have received commitment cards in the mail.  Sometime between now and next Sunday morning, I hope you will hold it and pray over it…and then fill it out with joy and gratitude.  Then, I hope you will offer it with great joy during worship next Sunday.   
            How do we love God?  Let us count the ways.  And then let us respond with the offering of our very lives.
            May it be so.
 Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
November 8, 2015

[1] Mark 10:17-24
[2] Emerson Powerey, Commentary on Mark 12:38-44 at

[3] Mark 11:17