Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dying to Give

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.”

Dying to Share
Today, on Veterans Day, our liturgy and special music gives us time to think about and offer thanks for all the men and women who have served in the armed forces.  We are grateful for them and for the freedom that we have in this country, especially for the privilege to worship freely.  But freedom is costly, and our prayers and litanies remind us that sinfulness leads us to war and to the tragic loss of life that comes in its wake.  Even as I say these words, I am flooded with contrasting images.  The first is the image of grand and elegant celebrations that accompany an unabashed pride in our country’s great heritage.  The second is the image of marginalized people living in poverty throughout this country and the world.   

Perhaps our Gospel lesson could not have come at a better time in the liturgical calendar.  Today, Jesus shows us another set of jarring images.  They are seen in the contrast between the temple scribes and the poor widow.

Jesus has spent the better part of the last few chapters of Mark challenging the religious leaders.  Earlier in the Gospel, he literally turned the tables on the money changers.  They had turned the temple from a house of prayer and care into a financial institution that had little regard for the poor or powerless.  In today’s text, Jesus is teaching in the temple.  It’s a wonder that he was even allowed to be there! 

Never one to be shy about creating controversy, he begins to warn the people to beware of the scribes – the educated men who are responsible for interpreting the law.  They parade around in their long flowing robes, a sign of their wealth.  They take the good seats in the temple and are honored and flattered by their high position.  They offer long prayers in the temple for the sake of appearance.  To make matters worse, their lavish and pretentious lifestyles are made possible through the generous donations to the offerings gathered there.  When he was done teaching, he moved to a corner of the temple where he could watch the people offer their money. 

It is hard to get a feel for what Jesus is seeing without a description.  In the temple, there were thirteen collection boxes located in various rooms.  Some were in area of the women’s court.  Each collection box was earmarked for a specific purpose.  Perhaps one was to collect money for outreach, another for education, and another for the maintenance of the temple. 

Since there was no paper money, the boxes had a system that allowed for the collection of coins.  Attached to each box was a wide mouthed metal funnel that looked like a trumpet.  When a person of great wealth dropped their offering into the mouth of the trumpet, everyone could hear the clanging of the coins as they circled the metal.  It was similar to what you hear in a casino when a slot machine pays out on a win.  No matter where you are in the room, you can hear the coins dropping from the machine.  Immediately, everyone turns their heads to see who won. 

Imagine this cacophony of noise in the temple.  Every time someone gave a large offering, everyone could hear it and see who was rich enough to offer such a gift.  The prize for such recognition was an honored place in the temple and a greater say in how the temple funds would be used. 

According to Old Testament law, the very law that the scribes so dutifully protected, offerings from the temple were to be used to support the priests whose lives were dedicated to God’s work, the widows who had no family to support them, the orphans, and the aliens in their community.  Jesus’ description of the scribes indicates that the temple’s collections were not being used properly.  Instead, they are devouring the widow’s houses. 

As Jesus watches the people give their offering, his attention is turned to a widow with only two coins in her hand.  Somehow, Jesus knows that these two coins are everything that she has, all that she has to live on.  Still, she offers it all.  Her offering would receive no fan-fare.  Except for one, no other head would turn to the sound of two measly coins being thrown into the trumpet. 

Barbara Brown Taylor described the scene perfectly saying, “As far as the widow knew no one ever saw her. But then again, no one EVER saw her.  She was all used up.  Only Jesus sees her and realizes that her last penny is a fortune in God's eyes.  She was a percentage giver and she gave 100%.   It took one to know one...she withheld nothing from God and neither did Jesus.”

He knew what she was giving up.  In fact, he and the widow seemed to be on a parallel course, and he didn’t want her decision to give all that she had to go unnoticed.  But why? 

We often hear of this story as an inspiration for good stewardship.  And the widow is certainly a model of sacrificial giving. She seems to have the kind of reckless trust that allows her to give everything she has.  But that’s romanticizing the story.  

There is another interpretation that is far more disturbing.  It is a story of lament – a commentary on the consequences of losing sight of God’s purpose for the community of faith, a purpose seen clearly in Jesus’ life and teachings.  The institution that should have supported the widow let her down.  It did not recognize the gifts that she had to share in that community, nor did it give her the opportunity to live her life to the fullest as a valuable member who had much to offer. 

For the people who followed Jesus from the beginning, the contrast between him and the scribes was quite clear.  Jesus lived a life of self-sacrifice, modeling the life of a servant as he washed his disciples feet.  He spent time listening to God in scripture and prayer…and moved out into the world healing, feeding, and offering words of forgiveness. 

His life, death and resurrection free us from bondage to our selfish desires and inspire us to give 100% of ourselves.  We are free to take notice of the systems and behaviors that marginalize others and to take extraordinary risks to change them. We are free to recognize the value of all people and the gifts that they, like the widow, are dying to share. 

One church in Nashville, Tennessee did just that.  They studied the needs of the community and discovered that affordable housing was critical and the town had little land available for such an endeavor.  Defying the church growth strategists, this small congregation gave land adjoining the building for the construction of five houses for the working poor. The land had been intended for expanded parking for anticipated growth. However, in a risky act of devoted ministry, the church gave up the land. Now, five families have homes who once had no homes. The irony is that the church is now growing as the often neglected and frequently rejected people of the neighborhood are finding a new community centered in grace and expressed in the willingness to give away its very self.

Their decision to give away their land was not made in order grow the church.  Instead, it was an act of self-less love in order to fill a need in the community.  They were willing to risk dying in order to give this great gift.  As a result, they received new life.

There has been a growing desire in our congregation to make a difference in the world around us. This past weekend, a group of fifteen of our members met with the Doing What Matters Team to talk about how we can best serve God in this community. 

Through prayer and Bible study, we sought to discern God’s purpose for our church.  The result of that work is printed on the first page of today’s bulletin.   It says:

 God’s purpose for our church is to strengthen our faith by gathering in worship,
reaching out as disciples, sharing our faith and serving all.

 Gathering, reaching, sharing, and serving

These are the things that we hear God calling us to do.  In order to live into our purpose, we discussed the importance of embracing and practicing God’s love and forgiveness; being flexible and open to God’s call in a changing world; breaking down the barriers that separate us from one another; giving of ourselves and praying always.  We know what we must do, but we can’t do it without identifying where God is calling us.  In the next few months, we will begin a process of talking to the people and leaders in our community in order to match their needs with the gifts that we are dying to share. 

Jesus reminds us that no life should go unnoticed and that ALL have gifts that they are dying to share too.  As we work together to serve God in this community, we are called to recognize the systems and behaviors that marginalize people, keeping them from becoming valued members in our society and the church.  May God grant us the courage to risk all, using 100% of the gifts that we have been freely given so that others might do the same.



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