Sunday, November 19, 2017

"The Life That Really Is Life." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church, on November 19, 2027.






"The Life That Really Is Life"

Mark 12:38-44; Matthew 19:16-30




            We don’t know the 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.  No Social security. 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 coins 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?  Why would this poor widow give everything she had to live on?  Surely her small gift couldn’t make any difference to the Temple, and it wasn’t required.   In ancient Israel, the “poor” were not required to give to the Temple.[2]

            In the two parts of the story from Mark, we hear 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 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.[3]
           
            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., and he talks a lot about our relationship with money and possessions.  The gospel gives us clues about how to live joyful lives of freedom and trust. 

            Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story about a rich man who came to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life? Jesus told him to go and sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and he would have treasure in heaven. “Then, come, follow me.” When the rich man heard this, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
            The rich man went away grieving.  He couldn’t trust in God’s generosity and abundance.  What a contrast to the stories about the poor widows!  Friends, these stories challenge us, don’t’ they?
            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 contentment.
           
            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 don’t have a simple answer for this. But I wonder if she somehow has come to feel that she has enough, and that she will continue to 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… that when we are lavish and gracious and generous, we are most like our lavish and gracious and generous God. 
            We don’t need to have a lot of money or possessions in order to trust in God to provide what we need. To the contrary, in the story about the rich man, Jesus is showing how having many possessions can keep us from a life of freedom and trust.
            Those of us who have attended presbytery meetings have worshipped together with our brothers and sisters from around the presbytery. One of the things that we’ve learned from our African-American brothers and sisters is a call-and-response affirmation from their tradition.
            “God is good--All the time.”
            “All the time--God is good.”
            Many of the congregations who say this often as an affirmation have a number of poor people in their midst. And yet, they can say in faith that, in the midst of troubles and challenges, they can find things to be grateful for and reasons to trust in God’s goodness.
            God is good--All the time.”
            “All the time--God is good.”

            During stewardship season, we are challenged to hold our relationship with money up to the light of our Christian faith.  Our faith challenges us to strive to overcome our tendency to live out of fear, guarding whatever wealth we have left-- and instead open our lives more fully to the truth we hear in this year’s stewardship theme taken from First Timothy: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”[4]
            What is the life that really is life?  It’s the life that focuses on the only true security that human beings have in this world, the completely reliable love of God.  “Take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you were made,” says First Timothy.
            It’s one of the many paradoxes of faith that-- at the very times when we feel most anxious about our own sufficiency-- the act of sharing and generosity can give us great joy and peace.  It changes the lenses through which we see our own situation. 
            It is an act of freedom that can replace false security with the real security of God,who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” It is an act of faith to commit ourselves to giving God the first fruits of our lives.
            “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”[5]
            The “life that really is life” is a life of contentment.  The “life that really is life” is a life of trust in our gracious God to provide what we really need.
            So-- let us be generous in our giving.  Let us open ourselves to the riches of the “life that really is life.” 
            Amen!
           


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
November 19, 2017


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


[3] 1 Kings 17:7-16

[4] 1 Timothy 6:18-19   
[5] 1 Timothy 6:6-10