Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Generous Widow

"The last strains of the sermon hymn died. I strode forcefully to the pulpit, plopped my manuscript down, looked hard at all those faces in front of me, and felt a power in me that could only have come from the Holy Spirit. As I gazed around the packed church, I knew how much they were spending on rent, mortgage payments, food, liquor, clothes they would only wear once, and trips they didn't enjoy but made in order to impress the neighbors. I remembered the news last night, with the refugees from flooded out villages in the Philippines, and the threats of worse famines in Africa. I thought about how little we give in our parish out reach budget and to Episcopal Relief and Development, and about the struggle to pry another dollar from the Vestry for the neighborhood feeding program.

So it all came at once to me, and I preached as I've never preached before or since. I preached my heart out, and even the ushers listened without yawning. I preached about how much God had given them, how badly they used it, and what good they could do in the church with their time and talents and money. Before I could even finish, people were throwing cash, checks, and pledge cards at me. They were weeping and cheering and signing up to pay the church budget for the next five years. I've never needed to preach a stewardship sermon again."

So reminisced the happy old rector, in the air-conditioned study of his busy and well-maintained old church!

That fantasy description, written by the late Rev. Patricia Wilson-Kastner, expresses every pastor's wildest dream of the ideal Stewardship Sunday! Yet it's tragic if the only thing clergy or lay leaders convey to other parish members regarding stewardship is something about cash and checks and pledge cards. They deserve to go forth from their church, not only at stewardship time and at Thanksgiving, but every Sunday throughout the year, with a much deeper understanding of personal stewardship.

Mark's Gospel for today's liturgy [Mark 12:38-44] is a reminder to you and me that, both in fact and in faith, you and I often live beyond our means. The story of the "widow's mite" serves as a kind of link between Jesus' public ministry and his passion/death. As he describes Jesus' public ministry coming to a close, Mark relates several incidents, each raising a question, which focus on the question of faith, incidents which define faith in terms of ownership and stewardship.

Mark 12:1-12: Who owns the earth? The parable of the vineyard makes it clear that "the earth is the Lord's". When the vineyard stewards stop being stewards, when they presume to take control of what belongs to Another, when the vineyard's produce is hoarded in careless disregard for the welfare of others whom the owner would feed, when our relationship to the earth isn't one of stewardship or gratitude or humility, but one of selfishness, greed, and pride, then the end result is destruction and ruin.

Mark 12:13-17: To whom does the realm of human affairs, of politics, of economics belong? There's that whole discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians wherein they ask "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?" Jesus, by the way, never really answers the question. He simply uses it as an opportunity to raise the more fundamental question: what happens to the sovereignty of Caesar in relation to the sovereignty of God, before whom, as Isaiah says, "the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and...the rulers of the earth as nothing." You and I are still grappling with that today. How do we come to terms with the subordination and accountability of Caesar and Caesar's kingdom to the kingdom of God?

As the Romans did, we continue to put Caesar's image on our coins and currency. We add "In God we trust", perhaps with more emotion than real comprehension of what that might really mean for the undoing and redoing of our national life, and for the undoing and redoing of our priorities as a nation, under our current or any other administration.

Mark 12:18-27: Who owns time? Who rules history? The Sadducees' question about the resurrection and the giving
and taking among brothers of a widow as wife betrays their assumption that time is defined in relation to our lives, in terms of the relationships which make up our particular history. Jesus says, in effect, that time belong to God, along with life and relationship. It belongs to the same One who owns eternity. Our lives and relationships are in God's keeping.

Mark 12:28-34: Who has my ultimate allegiance? Who commands my heart, soul, mind, and strength? Whose command directs my life and relationships? The question of the commandments, raised by the teacher, isn't really a question about which is the first or greatest commandment. It's a question about whose commandments they are, whose command we hear and obey. To whom does my life, and the lives I touch with my own, belong?

Mark 12:35-37: In this strange passage about the Messiah's relationship to David, the question of ownership again arises: To whom does the Christ belong? Does he belong to some culture, or nation, or to some religious tradition? No, the Anointed One of God belongs to God, and therefore, to all the world across boundaries of tradition, nationality, culture, gender, sexuality, and even religion.

Finally, there is Mark's passage in today's liturgy. Again, the issue is ownership and we've come full circle. Who owns us? To whom do you and I belong, not just on the inside, not just with heart, soul, mind, and strength, but to whom do you and I belong with all the things to which we cling and which cling to us? -- Wealth, possessions, abilities, expectations, plans for the future, goals, relationships. To whom do we belong with all that we have and all that we are? Here Mark pushes the question of faith, of ownership, of stewardship to its deepest level. Is life and faith finally within our means, or do we live, in fact and in faith, beyond our means?

The humble widow provides a contrast to the Scribes who loved to be "somebodies". They hardly thought about life and faith as beyond their means. They dressed up in long robes, signs of professional status. They loved notice and salutations in the marketplace. A kind of lust for titles and rank lifted them above the crowd, above their colleagues. Not only did they seek out, they expected the front seats, the preferential VIP treatment in public and at private (exclusive) parties.

Even some of Jesus' Twelve were scheming for places of honor, as we saw a couple weeks ago in the Gospel. Jesus asks James and John, "Are you able to drink the cup with me...?" "Oh yes, we're up to it!" they reply without blinking an eyelid. Apparently there was no sense, even among his own chosen ones, of being beyond their means in living and believing. But from that same circle of Twelve came betrayal, denial, and in the end, the forsaking of Jesus in his hour of greatest need, to the point that they fled.

The widow stands over against the many rich people putting large sums of money into the treasury. Please notice: Jesus doesn't in any way denounce the gifts that were given. There's no indication in Mark that "the rich" were anything but generous. If anything, Mark highlights their generosity. The point Jesus wants to make is simply that true giving is to be measured not absolutely, not by the size of the gift, but proportionately, relative to all with which people have been blessed.

Widows, in Hebrew society, were entirely dependent on the charity of family or others. They had no status before the law, no right of inheritance. This widow's git was two small, thin coins, called lepta. A lepton was the smallest coin in circulation, with a diameter of about the size of a pencil eraser, worth maybe about 1/8 of a cent in our currency. But in Jesus' eyes this was a lavish gift. The widow could've given only one coin and kept the other: a 50/50 ratio of outreach to current expenses. Even by today's standards, for an individual or a congregation, that's way beyond a tithe! But as Paul Scherer notes, "Love is a spendthrift. Love leaves its arithmetic at home. Love is always 'in the red'". "Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all...she [has given] out of her poverty all she had..."

Soon Jesus the Lord would give his whole life, body and blood, all that he had, for her, for you, for me. The Letter to the Hebrews, appointed as today's second reading [Hebrews 9:24-28], holds up for us the sacrificial giving of Jesus, "once for all", the only gift in light of which all our giving, all our acts of stewardship, make any sense at all. God holds nothing back in love for us.

When it comes to thinking about our personal or our ecclesiastical stewardship and the thanksgiving we feel in our hearts for God's blessings, we need to go beyond budgets and percentages, bottom-lines and net incomes vs. gross incomes vs. adjusted gross incomes. Our reflection and prayer must take each of us and each of our churches to the heart of faith, to the heart of ownership, to the heart of gratitude. That means that it must lead us to the heart of Jesus who "puts away sin by the sacrifice of Himself," who now appears "in the presence of God on our behalf," and who "will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who eagerly await him."

Isaac Watts, in the 17th century, expressed the heart of faith and stewardship in a beautiful hymn which is sung from time to time:
When I survey the wondrous cross
Where the young Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

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