Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Don't Be Afraid. There Is Enough." A Sermon on the Widow's Mite from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"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 would 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…and 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.  I don’t have any easy, pat anoswers 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 this local congregation, as well as some 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 to 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 consider what level of commitment will help you to grow in your faith and trust in God… 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.
            Amen.


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
November 11, 2018


[1] Mark 10:17-24
[2] Emerson Powerey, Commentary on Mark 12:38-44 at www.workingpreacher.org
[3] Mark 11:17