Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27B] - November 8, 2009 (Mark 12:38-44)

Biblical scholars and historians tell us that the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was a bustling place of business and politics, as much as it was of religion or faith. Mark alludes to this quite frequently in the last chapters of his gospel as Jesus comes into Jerusalem during his final days. Almost everywhere he goes, Jesus is confronted with the oppressive and hypocritical expressions which faith in his Father’s name are taking. Whether it is the Pharisees and their strict, draconian interpretation of cleanliness codes, or the chief priests and their collusions with the Roman authorities, most religious authorities in Jerusalem were not, in Jesus’ view, upholding a true, living, life-giving faith in God. They were, rather, upholding a system of domination and control that often exploited the weakest in society.

That’s what at the heart of this morning’s criticism of the scribes, perhaps Jesus’ harshest yet. As he tours the heart of the capital with his disciples, they observe the powerful scribes hanging out in the marketplaces and in the places of honor in the synagogues. They are recognizable because of their long, flowing robes, and it is clear that they are using their influence as educated, religious clerics to gain status and wealth. They drop names and say long, showy prayers that can give the impression of closeness to God. They stand in the doorways and shake hands with as many as they can. Hmmm…long, flowing robes…showy prayers…shaking many hands…I’m going to have to take a closer look at this text!

Then, as Jesus and the disciples take a ring-side view of the Temple treasury, they watch as the people walk by to drop their alms into the long, trumpet-shaped, bronze collection box. Coins clattered and jingled noisily down its neck, a contraption which was designed, archeaologists tell us, precisely to announce how much each person was giving. Like those change machines in the grocery store which convert your coins to green cash—for a small fee—the collection boxes in the Temple Treasury made donating to God’s cause both a visual and auditory experience…for everyone! How fun!

This is why Jesus and his disciples can discern the amounts different people are giving as they make their donations. Large sums make a large clatter. Two small coins clink pathetically down into the box. Jesus’ final words in the temple are surprisingly not directed at the wealthy contributors or the scribes who maintain the collection, but instead they have to do with the seemingly insignificant contribution of the seemingly insignificant widow. In the new math of Jesus’ kingdom, two coins from a woman with no financial status, little legal status and no social status equal more than all the loud, clattering donations given by all the others.

These are comforting words to hear in this time of recession, of increasing unemployment and decreasing 401k’s, when the concept of wealth and abundance seems to change at every “ding” of the stock market bell. These are comforting words, perhaps, to kick-off a congregation’s Stewardship campaign, a nice instance of timing when the lectionary readings line up with budget realities. Comforting words—and true, no doubt—that God recognizes the wealth in each person’s contribution, regardless of the size of the dollar sign attached to it.

Yet, a closer look at this teaching moment at the Temple treasury might suggest more is going on here than we realize. The widow’s two-coin contribution turns out not to be so much a lesson about how much Jesus wants us to contribute to his ministry as it is an illustration of trust in God. And the widow’s sacrifice is not so much some kind of stewardship sermon from Jesus’ lips as it is an example of where the Church’s true treasure is found.

It would be impossible to prove, but it is highly likely that the two coins that the widow plunks into the Temple treasury were likely the leftover amount of the sum she that she had been given by the Temple treasury to live on. They were not, in any modern sense, her savings, but part of the paltry allotment the Treasury had dispensed to her so she could buy food. In Jesus’ time, that is what the Temple Treasury was intended for: to tend to the welfare and champion the cause of groups like widows and orphans, people who were, in those days, vulnerable and unvalued. Although the scribes denounced by Jesus often helped to maintain a corrupt system that devoured widow’s estates and kept them poor, one of the main purposes of the treasury was still to support them, for God’s law was their defender.

Therefore, we see in the widow not simply someone who is generous with what she has been given, but someone who is wholly dependent upon God’s grace and generosity, and knows it. Two coins in the coffer? She might as well be throwing her whole self in, for that is what she lives. She lives a life utterly dependent on a God who saves, or, as it says in our psalm appointed for today, a God who “watches over the strangers, who upholds the orphans and the widow” (Psalm 146:9). She knows her life is in God’s hands.

Lowell Almen, former Secretary for the ELCA, tells the story of going to sub-Saharan Africa on an official tour to see how the Church was doing in several countries there. Of course, he found congregations that were growing by leaps and bounds and seminaries that were struggling to find enough professors to keep up with burgeoning enrollment. A good portion of the finances that help fund those ministries come from the coffers of congregations in more affluent, western countries. But out of all this that he saw, Almen relates that he was most impressed with the work the ELCA was doing to cope with the ever-prevalent AIDS epidemic. He talks of church workers who go each morning into the villages and bring back more orphans to a children’s home that has been built and is run by the Lutheran Church. Each night, more parents in the city die of the disease. Each morning, more orphans rescued from the streets. Each year, another class of students for the school. Each life given hope and future—a whole community of children literally raised and defended by the Church, Almen reflected—because there is a God who upholds the orphans and the widows, whose hand embraces his true treasure.

As we look at a budget for the coming year, as we consider new leaders and our apportionment to the wider church body—as the affairs of business and perhaps even politics once and ever again enter the picture of religion—the challenge is to see the church’s true treasure with the eyes of Lowell Almen, and not as the scribes. As we seek to re-energize our congregation’s long-range planning and re-consecrate ourselves to the tasks of the gospel, the challenge is to let the widow’s dedication frame our mission. That is, to see we’ve been given gifts, too, and the church’s mission is somewhat compromised when we hold ourselves back.

So often congregations urge involvement from their members only by trying to convince them that participating in church is “worth it,” that taking part in Christ’s ministry can make a difference in their lives—which indeed it does. Congregations focus their message solely on the spiritual experience or sense of belonging that a congregation can offer the individual. Sometimes I wonder if the church shouldn’t couple that message with one modeled on the call to hold nothing back. The church should remember to say to God’s people, “You—each of you—are part of the church’s treasure.” In fact, each of us has a certain constellation of Spirit-given gifts that no one in the history of the world has ever had. Who are we to withhold those gifts from the life of this community and its ongoing work of restoring the world to Christ? Who are we to think that our participation doesn’t really matter, that someone else can just take our place? Who do we think we are? Unvalued?

On second thought, now that I hear it out loud, I suppose that approach sounds a little hard-edged, a little pushy. A little too pushy…in the way that Elijah pushily demands the widow at Zarephath to give him a piece of bread from her last meal. But, you see, she does trust to give it and not hold it back. She miraculously trusts God’s word will suffice when it says it will suffice, and she opens up the jar and the jug. And she sees it miraculously become a fountain of blessing that sustains the community for days.

I imagine that you could testify to this about your own lives—just like the poor, exploited widow Jesus glimpses in the Temple Treasury, just like the unwitting AIDS orphans that overflow Almen’s schools from the streets of Nairobi and Arusha, like each of us baptized treasurers that we are—we each become an opportunity for God’s grace to flow and flow and flow.

And our call is to realize, in the midst of our calculations of copper coins, that we have been claimed by a God who, himself, has held nothing back on the cross, who places his own life in the hand of the Father so that mercy and forgiveness flow inexplicably without end. To us. Through us. Clank, clank, clatter clatter clatter…Body of Christ, given for you, Body of Christ, given for you…loudly and mightily proclaiming there is a God who upholds the widow and the orphan, the stranger, the sinner…there is a God whose true treasure is his people.

Praise Him!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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