November 8, 2015 – 24th Sunday after Pentecost
In 23 years of preaching, I’m always surprised when there is a gospel passage in the lectionary that I haven’t preached from. 23 years is nearly 8 times through the lectionary cycle. But I can’t find that I ever preached this passage.
Probably for good reason.
This is one of those stories in the Bible where you start out thinking it’s about one thing and then the more you sit with it, the more you realize it’s about some other things and, at least initially, you wish you hadn’t chosen this passage.
I mean, I’m just speaking hypothetically, of course.
So here we have this widow, who comes to the Temple. Jesus is there too and he’s watching what’s going on. The woman drops in two tiny coins—the smallest value coins available. Like two pennies. And Jesus says, “Do you see what she just did? She put in all the money she had left to her name. She gave more, proportionately, than the people who put in bigger sums but still have lots left to live on.”
So you might say Jesus was noting the woman’s sacrifice. You could say he was highlighting that not all small gifts are small. You could wonder if Jesus recognizes the value of gifts that are large. You could also wonder if we’re supposed to now be like that woman, giving all our money—so we have nothing left to live on.
Also note that the first part of this story includes Jesus’ comments on the actions of the religious leaders. Some commentators are not sure if Jesus is describing all the scribes or just some scribes who like to walk around in long robes, command respect in the marketplace, get the best seats in worship and impress people with their long prayers. (Which, I will tell you, makes me self-conscious about my attire this morning and you can count on my part of the prayers of the people being short.) At least some of them are guilty of devouring the houses of widows which probably has to do with the scribes being legal writers so a widow might come for legal assistance and the untrustworthy scribe writes a legal document that takes advantage of her house, personal property and land, thereby exploiting the vulnerability of the widow and padding the Temple bank account.
And then the widow turns around and puts the tiny little bit of money she has left into the offering plate of those who have exploited her.
Just to clarify, the exploitation in this passage is not unique to any one religious tradition or any one group of religious authorities or any one point in time. I suspect we can all think of examples in our lifetimes where religious authorities have exploited and harmed those who are vulnerable. This is not a Jewish problem as one might casually, and erroneously, assume from this story. This is a human problem.
Has there ever been a generation in time where there wasn’t corruption? Ever since people existed and could figure out how to take advantage of one another, we have done that—individually and collectively. “Acts of violence, the mistreatment of the vulnerable…the greed built into economic systems.” It’s not new to us nor is it limited to the past.
And it’s human nature to get hung up on looking at what’s bad. Obsessing about what went wrong. Focusing on problems and blaming others. I heard someone say recently “One bad apple can spoil a barrel, but one good egg does not make a dozen.”
And there might have been just the tiniest little bit of this getting hung up on looking at what’s bad, say late Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning this week.
When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, there was a lot of euphoria among people I knew. I remember hearing a lecture at Princeton Seminary shortly after that election in which the speaker reminded us that no political party or political candidate was ever going to usher in the realm of God. Because politics will always be corrupt. It will always leave somebody out and always sell someone short because that’s how politics works. Because politics is a human endeavor.
Of course, there’s also great good that comes through political action and political leaders. I am not anti-government nor would I ever suggest we ignore politics or not get involved in political action.
This week’s elections may have turned out differently than you expected, better than you imagined, or worse than you imagined. Depending on your perspective, the names and faces in this story from Mark’s gospel could be changed to reflect two very different Christian convictions in these days in Kentucky about who is corrupt and who is not; who is faithful to the Gospel and who is not.
So what are we do to with that?
I said in another venue this week that we Christians are part a religious tradition that for 2,000 years (and Christianity, of course, was born out of Judaism which for a few thousand years longer than that) has looked at the world and said, “This is not all that God intends” and for all those thousands of years our ancestors in faith, in one way or another, have committed themselves to enacting change in the world that we believe more fully reveals the love and justice of God. So no matter who is elected, what do we do today and tomorrow and the next day? We commit ourselves to joining with our sisters and brother as we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
And because our commitment is not simply to oppose what we believe thwarts God’s desires for the world, as we walk humbly with God, we pay attention and speak about the goodness and blessing of God in the world: the justice and the kindness that has taken root and is sprouting and flourishing.
Emilie Townes, the dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, suggests we think about the two small coins of the widow as an offering, not a sacrifice. The woman gives all that she has—literally, verse 44 says “the whole of her life.” Dr. Townes writes, “the coins represent faith-filled offering found in presenting all of who we are and all we hope to become to God for service to the world.” And that kind of offering is not dependent or constricted or determined by one’s circumstances. That kind of offering of ourselves and of our lives comes from a place of gratitude and hope and generosity and love.
The Apostle Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully…God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (9.6,8) This does not mean there will not be suffering or disappointment. There will be because that is part of what happens in life. But suffering or disappointment is not the overriding story of the people of God.
The bigger story in which we make the offering of our lives is this: In life and in death we belong to God. God adopts us into God’s family, calling us and claiming us as dearly beloved daughters and sons. Not because we have earned it but because God is gracious and loving. With gratitude for God’s grace and love, we respond with our whole lives, committing ourselves to know and follow Christ and to be God’s people in the world. And along the way we find blessings in abundance to share.
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 Robert A. Bryant, “Mark 12.38-44 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 289.
 And it’s not limited to religious corruption. I read this article, “Real Estate Shell Companies Scheme to Defraud Owners Out of Their Homes” right after I finished writing this sermon. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/nyregion/real-estate-shell-companies-scheme-to-defraud-owners-out-of-their-homes.html?ref=realestate&_r=0, accessed November 7, 2015
 “Unoriginal sin” Christian Century, June 11, 2014.
 OnBeing interview with Adam Grant, http://onbeing.org/program/adam-grant-successful-givers-toxic-takers-and-the-life-we-spend-at-work/transcript/8064#main_content, accessed November 7, 2015.
 Pete Peery, “Mark 12.38-44 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 287.
 Emilie M. Townes, “Mark 12.38-44 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 286.