The Rev. Jennifer Adams – November 11, 2018 – Proper 27, Year B
Proper 27, Year B: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and 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. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, 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.” (Mark 12:38-44)
Once every three years in the lectionary cycle we get this story from the gospel of Mark, the story that tradition calls, “The Widow’s Mite.” Which roughly translated means the widow’s very, very, little bit. It’s a tiny story really, only six verses in Mark and so comparatively speaking, this is a very, very little story about the widow’s very, very little bit.
But even given all of that which has to do with size, this story shows up in almost every curriculum there is from those geared toward the very youngest of us to those geared toward the very oldest. And there are actually portraits of this story that have been painted in various times in history. One artist depicted the widow with a gentle glow around her head as she reached out with the coins. The artist obviously making the statement that there was a saintly quality to her actions. Another artist quite movingly portrayed the woman as a young widow, which hadn’t occurred to me until I saw it. In this painting, the woman comes forward with a baby in her arms and gives her coins while holding the child.
There is much that we don’t know about the details of this story – her age, her particular life circumstance, were there any other family members or not? And yet, we know enough to make this story matter to us. So, let’s listen to what it has to say.
“Many rich people put in large sums,” the gospel says. Contributions were apparently pouring in! And as we sit here early in the pledge drive, I would imagine there was some relief among those synagogue leaders who were watching that happen. Who am I to knock contributions coming from wherever they come from, whomever they come from? Such contributions help the sails rise a little higher in support ministry and in support of mission. “Please give all you have!” is a sentiment to which I can relate.
But that system was different in ways that need to remain different. This is a story about what is given, but even more so it’s a story about what and whom the community values.
In the approach of the temple in that time and that place, everybody saw what everybody else put in and all of the leaders knew all of the details. Giving was a public act which is not in itself an entirely bad thing, but at times giving was a comparative and even competitive ritual. Right there are some major differences from here. Here at Grace, by policy, only a few people actually know the details of financial amounts pledged and contributions given, and that’s for the sake of making sure our records are accurate and Grace remains accountable to all of you. It’s also a pastoral gauge so that we can know if people are hurting.
In that system, comparisons were made and the competition could be public too, all based entirely on what one might call “worldly standards” of quantity. And assumptions undergirded the system so that often, the more given by an individual, the more that person would then receive – more attention, more access, more religious honor and prestige.
And theology played in there too. In that belief system, to have “more” was a sign of God’s blessing. And that perhaps was the most dangerous assumption of all. The slope in that system was a very slippery one: to be able to put more into the treasury could also be an opportunity to show publicly how well one was with God.
And before we go too far talking about “that system,” we should say that this approach isn’t entirely foreign to us, culturally anyway some of the language rings true. We can be a little loose with the language of “blessing,” equating blessing with abundance or quantity. And it just isn’t so.
So enter Jesus into the system. And after commenting on the hypocrisy of the scribes, he decided one day to sit down right next to the place where the contributions were being given. That’s an image, isn’t it? And Jesus, being Jesus, happened to catch a moment when a widow did a very brave thing.
She “put in two copper coins,” the gospel says. A little more on that: The coins were “lepta” and they were the very, very smallest and least valuable coins in all of Judea. In our terms, this woman’s donation totaled about a dollar. Which was significantly less than the “large sums” which were put in just ahead of hers. So, this pledge wouldn’t have moved the sails much, right?
Again – to us. Sometimes people like this widow don’t even come forward in communities of faith, because they know that comparatively, their gift is “less.” But to those widows and others out there hear this: After that woman gave her gift, Jesus said loudly, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” MORE than anyone else. Jesus flipped the whole financial and theological system on its head and suggested it was time to value gifts in a different way: “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance;” Jesus said, “but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
While our approach to giving isn’t quite what theirs was in the synagogue, (hopefully it’s not much like that at all… There is very genuine gratitude that runs through this place and while we miss at times, we do everything we can to keep that spirit alive.) And yet, this gospel passage gives us important things to remember, perhaps even to learn.
We will be pushing this congregation to give we you can in support of the mission and ministries of Grace and I am thankful for the people who coordinate those efforts. We will continue to raise the sails on the Steward-Ship in the Commons, as we hope to reach the goal we’ve set for this year’s pledge drive. And sometimes the sails will leap, sometimes they will inch up, and occasionally they’ll crawl. We might even get stuck before we reach the top, but stubborn flock that we are, we will remain explicit about the goals we’ve set and the reasons for them. We’ll tug on the ropes bit to help raise those sails as absolutely fully as possible.
And yet, I promise that there will be no comparisons made. This is not a competition. It never is. The numbers are communal. You give from your place and I give from mine, but what we share is ours. And what keeps all of this in the right place among us is what we heard from the gospel today: we need to also invite each other to give out of our poverties. That invitation might be the most important check and balance of all. And so we need to have a sense of what it actually means.
For some that poverty is financial. There is a wide range at Grace and that’s good. Remember that every gift makes a difference and that amounts aren’t signs of how much an individual has been blessed. Instead, each gift, regardless of worldly size is a sign of Grace being blessed. By the giver. By you. If we don’t hit our goal, we are still blessed. If we far surpass our goal we are still blessed. We are those whose very central act is thanksgiving. And that thanks runs through Eucharist, and pledge drives too.
Our poverties, like our wealths, come in different shapes and sizes and categories. And according to this gospel, we’d be wise to know the shape our own poverty comes in. This is a story about giving from empty places – and for the widow it happened to be her checkbook. For some it’s a poverty of time, or friends, or voice, or direction, or hope. For some it’s a poverty of health, or understanding, or vision. And so what does it mean to give from those places? What does it mean to give while on empty?
It means that we have to be not only generous but brave.
A story for you that I heard on the radio this week. It’s a story that comes from a recently published book called, “Postcards from the Trenches.” It’s a book about a man named Auto Schubert whose poverty came from being a soldier in WWI. Given the anniversary of Armistice Day this weekend, the story is timely.
Auto was about twenty years old and a soldier on the front in the war. He had no money. He had given his life for a cause and so there was an absolute poverty of certainty. Auto’s world was being destroyed around him and so he didn’t know if he even had a tomorrow to offer.
He was far from home with no money to send, but, Auto had stories to tell. And so Auto collected blank postcards that the army distributed to soldiers. And while in the trenches, literally in the trenches, sometimes for hours and hours at a time, Auto would watercolor on those cards. And he numbered each card, and addressed each card, and he sent each card. And Auto’s fiancé received them as the most precious gift you could imagine.
She knew some of what he was experiencing and feeling and got to hold the color and shapes he was seeing. Out of Auto’s poverty, came gifts that told stories and embraced love. The two were married when Auto came home. And they lived for decades together until she died. Auto remarried and when his second wife found the postcards, she recognized the treasure that they were. She convinced Auto to share them beyond their own household and that’s why his art is in a book that’s available to us now.
These postcards and so many things like them aren’t the kinds of gifts that raise the sails, but they are the wind that fills them. And the boat, our boat won’t move without them. We won’t have life without such gifts. And we all have them to give.
Please pour in the largest sums you can into this pledge drive! I’m not going to discourage that. But there is more to all of this, there always is. Give from your poverty too. And help us help one another do that. If you are in foxhole, share your art. If you are low on health or on hope, tell us and the words you speak from those places will breath something holy among us. If you are down to one dollar to live on, tell us your story and that will be a gift that blesses Grace Church. These are the gifts that fill the sails. They help get us all where we need to be.
The gospel tells us that the little, little bits we offer from our poverties are of unsurpassable value in the eyes of Christ. In such giving, the Body learns a new way to count, a new way to set sail. And then the winds carry us to holy sorts of places we never imagined we’d go.