The Widow’s Might

The following is the sermon I preached on September 11, 2011 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond, KY.

Sermon Audio can be found on the FCC sermon page.
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Mark 12: 41-44

Prayer:  Spirit of the Living God, prepare us to encounter you this morning.  Grant us ears to hear and eyes to see you through the holy scriptures.  And now may the meditations of our hearts and the words of my mouth be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and Redeemer.  Amen.

Two men were marooned on an island.  One man paced back and forth worried and scared while the other man sat back and was sunning himself.  The first man said to the second man, “aren’t you afraid we’re about to die?”  “No,” said the second man, “I make $100,000 a week and tithe faithfully to my church every week… my pastor will find me.”

Ministers, many ministers, really don’t like talking about money.  Many of us don’t know much about it,  other than it is one of the most talked about issues in the bible.  Many of us are afraid that church members are skeptical about any talk of money; we are afraid that you will find us intruding upon your private lives.  We are afraid you will think of us as slick-haired televangelists only interested in securing a raise for ourselves.  We definitely don’t want to be like the scribes Jesus criticizes in the gospels for their interest in wealth, power and prestige.

Yes, we are afraid you will tell jokes about us rescuing the best tithers from remote islands… and that’s not the pastor we hope to be.

But are ministers really that different from anyone else?  How often do any of us talk about money?  Money is kind of a taboo subject for all of us, isn’t it?  Like sex and politics we just don’t talk about it with each other in polite company.  It’s rude.  Money is a private affair.

So if it weren’t for these stewardship campaigns, we ministers might not ever talk about money.  And maybe you’d be happy that we left well enough alone.  Maybe you’ve already tuned me out.

But I wonder… what does it mean if we don’t talk about money?

The Hebrew people understood the very name of something as revealing it’s being and character.  To have a name for something is to know what it is and thereby better know how to use it.  This is why Moses asks for God’s name in Exodus 3—if he can just know who God is, Moses can figure out how to use God—and this is also why God responds so elusively: “I am that I am.”  The true God is not so easily named and controlled.  And so a tradition arose in which Jews to this day refrain from spelling the name of God, some even go without uttering God’s name.  A reverential silence surrounds what some Jews hold most dear.

What if… what if this is also true for us.  What if our silence as people of faith actually reveals what we hold most dear—or at least what holds us captive?  Could it be that our reluctance to talk about money reveals money’s power over us?  Could it be that our silence indicates what we unwittingly worship?

This question about money’s power to silence is at the heart of our scripture passage this morning.  The widow’s offering—a passage many of us know—invites us to wonder about what it means to give of our money as part of our religious life.  Now our familiarity with this story might lead us to the simple conclusion that we should give of our money like the widow—don’t hold anything back.  But maybe there is something else, something quite surprising going on with this story…

For starters, a new light is cast on the story when we focus on the term “widow” in our text.  Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, widows and orphans receive God’s attention and compassion.  They were especially vulnerable without the support of a husband or parent.  How society treated its most vulnerable members was how God measured that society’s justice.

This is why Jesus, who is God in human flesh, pays special attention to this widow.  He embodies the very attention and compassion of God.  Thus, Jesus measures the justice of the religious society by its treatment of vulnerable persons—like this very widow.  And crucial to the story of the widow’s offering is the passage that comes just before it, where we find Jesus teaching, “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.”

Jesus criticizes and condemns the religious system that fed on the vulnerable to prop up those seeking prestige and honor.  This is the backdrop to the widow’s offering, which is a story about a widow’s livelihood, her last two coins, her “house,” being devoured by the temple treasury.  We have here an example of one who is victimized and exploited.  The religious institution of her time should have extended support to her, not demanded the last of her money, as if God requires such things from the poor of the world.  In this context, the widow is not a shining light of discipleship as we often imagine her to be—no, she is a casualty of her own vulnerability.  Those who take her money under religious pretense rather than offering her relief in the name of God, as Jesus teaches, “will receive the greater condemnation.”

We might stop here.  We might see this story as a tragedy, a tragedy of exploitation; and we might only know the widow as a powerless victim.  We could see this story as yet another example of slick-haired religious leaders looking for a quick buck and a way to make their own name shine. But this would miss what Jesus is doing with the widow’s story.

After all, beyond the critique of temple exploitation, Jesus still lifted her up and commended her gift.

We do not know what happened to the widow.  We do not know if she experienced God’s provision in her poverty.  We do not know if anyone cared for her after her house was devoured.  We are not left assured of her well-being.

What we do know is that Jesus finds great meaning in her act.  We know that her self-giving in the context of corruption eerily foreshadows what will soon happen to Jesus himself.  His life will be stripped and emptied—he will be demeaned and exploited, too.  He will hang in poverty on the cross.

The widows gift reflects the poverty of the cross.  But the poverty of the cross is the power of God.  The cross breaks the very powers that bind it.  The powers that obligated her mites and remained silent about her plight were shattered as Jesus told her sotry.  Her gift was transformed by the strength, the might of the cross to be an act of freedom in the face of exploitation.  Jesus brought the Word, his Word, to her act and made it a spiritual act of discipleship.

On this account our widow is still not a moral exemplar for us to rigidly follow, as if we should furrow our brow and try extra hard to be like her.  The story remains a warning about exploiting the poor and those who are vulnerable.  But the story of the widow is a also window into the meaning of generosity.  She gives us a partial glimpse into what it means to embrace our stewardship theme:  “Saints Alive—Living Generously.”  A theme Betsy will help us unpack over the next two Stewardship Sundays.

Living generously is about the cross reflected in our giving, the fact that God’s love for us is ultimately secure and unwavering in Jesus Christ.  In the context of the cross’s might, its strength, our gifts break the power of money over us.  In a way, the widow’s gift broke her—yes, we must admit that—but through Jesus Christ her gift also broke open the meaning of our giving:  freedom. Freedom from the power of money to silence and stifle.  Freedom from the power of money to order and control our lives; freedom from the need to hoard up and find security in our own means. Freedom from the fear of not having enough or not being good enough.

As a minister, her gift reminds me that I am free me to say boldly and truthfully that pledging, tithing, and giving to the church is necessary for the church to enact its mission; there is no shame in that so long as the gifts we receive are used for God’s compassion and justice.  As people of faith, the widow’s gift also reminds us that giving of our money is a spiritual act of discipleship in and of itself, something that liberates us from the power of money to control and dominate our lives.  By the might of the cross our gifts can work against exploitation , bringing life and healing to a hurting world.

Two men were marooned on a back pew.  One man rocked back and forth worried and scared while the other man sat calmly and quietly.  The first man said to the second man, “aren’t you afraid that one day we’ll die broke and alone?”  “No,” said the second man as he placed his humble gift in the offering plate. “I am not afraid.”

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