Sunday, November 12, 2006

Nov. 12 Sermon--Two Pennies

1 Kings 17: 8-16
Mark 12: 38-44

For some reason, this scripture reminds me of the time when I was in high school Sunday school class in Arkadelphia, when my teacher, Rex Holbrook, opened up his wallet and distributed all he had among each of us youth. I remember looking around the table in wide eyed disbelief as we at first were dumbfounded, then trying to protest. “No, no, you can’t do that!” Rex, I think I remember, had been teaching us about the parable of the talents—when the landowner distributed his wealth among the workers and promised to return. What I remember taking away from that lesson was that all that we are given is a gift, and we have the honor and privilege to share those gifts with others.
I Googled Rex to find out how he was doing. In my Google results, I came across a newsletter that said that his dad had recently passed away in August. He was still living in Arkadelphia, so I found his number and decided to give him a call. I hadn’t talked to him in 10 or more years!
I told him that the lesson he had taught that day had made a deep imprint on me, and that I would be sharing it in a sermon this week. He was delighted to hear from me and remarked that he had just been thinking the other day that most of us (his students) were now the age that he had been when he taught that class.
So why did this scripture remind me of that particular Sunday school lesson more than 10 years ago? I suppose it did because I remember the look in Rex’s eye when he handed me and every other student in that class of 7 or 10 youth a $20 bill. It was a look of complete trust and hope. It was unsettling—especially to a teenager! I imagine it was the same look in the eyes of the widows whom we heard about in today’s scriptures.
The widow that gives hospitality to Elijah and the widow whom Jesus observes giving money to the temple are linked across the centuries—both give what little they have and are blessed by prophets—both also are connected from across the millennia to us today.
Widows in the times of Elijah later in Jesus’ time had a difficult situation—they were reliant upon male children or brothers or other family members for their provision. This is why the widow who feeds Elijah was justifiably concerned that her hospitality of Elijah not interfere with her provision for her son. That son was the key to the survival of the whole family. Some Biblical scholars have reckoned that the reason Jesus says the scribes “devoured widows homes” was because there were social customs in which the scribes were charged with providing for the widows, or held a widow’s belongings in trust if there were no other males to look after finances. In any case, it is safe to say that widows had nothing, especially in comparison to the rich who gave large donations to the temple treasury. The priests and scribes used the temple treasury to provide for a lavish lifestyle, while the widows suffered.
The end result is that the temple authorities came to surround themselves in comfort and distractions and the widow who gave everything was completely vulnerable. It wasn’t as though the two pittance made the difference to the woman between poverty and sustenance though, there was essentially no difference between the widow keeping the two pennies and putting them in the treasury. The difference was in the posture of giving versus the posture of hoarding.
You see, Jesus’ lesson is that in the act of giving, the widow puts her complete trust in God’s mercy and grace. Really, it makes no difference if it is 2 pennies or 2 million pennies—all will eventually disintegrate into dust—our souls on the other hand, will be gathered in the treasury of heaven or the treasury of hell! Our spiritual selves are affected by giving—when we turn things over to the will and purpose of God, we place ourselves in the complete trust of God. If we grasp, hold on to, become preoccupied with money or anything other than God—we will sink.
Picture a great sailboat loaded down with treasure—when the boat needs to get somewhere quick and there is not much of a breeze, what does the captain shout? Lighten the load! Treasure overboard! It is then that the wind is able to pull the ship along where the captain wants to go. Belongings weigh us down, they create concerns. This is why Jesus says, “do not be concerned with what you will wear, or what you will eat.” Consider the ravens—they neither toil nor reap, but are fed by their father in Heaven. Consider the lilies; they neither spin nor clothe themselves, yet even Solomon in all his splendor could not match the beauty of one of them.
This is a difficult lesson for us to hear! It is hard for us to give up our belongings—they are comfortable, they bring us security and safety. Perhaps one way to reorient ourselves and our lives is to cultivate a different attitude toward our belongings.
What I hear most often from those who have lost their homes in a fire is that they find out that all they really cared about were the photo albums. What does that tell us?! It says to me that even though we spend so much time and stress and effort worrying about money and possessions, deep down in our heart of hearts what we are really concerned about is relationship! Lord, give us a sense of these priorities in our daily lives! God, our Father and our friend, help us value our relationship with you as much as you value it!
Mary Anderson, a pastor in Columbia, SC wrote in an article in Christian Century, “The widow wasn't dependent on her money or her status in life; she had none of these. She was dependent on God and her neighbor for everything. She didn't have two feet to stand on, she didn't have bootstraps to pull up. She was totally dependent—and that's what Jesus pulls out of her story like a pearl of great price. This is what we are to be like before God—dependent on nothing but the grace of God. We are to be people without any resources except the riches of God's mercy.
The issue is not how much we have in the bank, but what that money is for us. Is it our heart, our security, our source of power, or is it a tool for our stewardship? Are we dependent on our money to give us all we want and need from life, or are we dependent on God to make us rich? If you follow me, Jesus teaches, you will walk in the way of the widow. Live lives that show in everything you do and say that you are dependent on God for all you have and all you are.”
This relationship with God is the model that Jesus set before us with his life. It is the radical trust, hope, and attention on God’s presence that make up a life well lived. When our lives are crowded with things—distractions that tend to displace our relationship with God to the sidelines, Jesus says, “it becomes harder to enter the kingdom of God than it is for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle.” We need to pay attention to the heroes of faith that Jesus points out, and whom are pointed to in the scriptures of our spiritual ancestors. The widows in both of these stories lived Christ like lives—they put their trust in God instead of in their material possessions. They gave when common sense might have told them to hoard. Jesus, too, gave when common sense would have told him to keep for himself. Paul tells the Phillipeans that “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Here after all, was a man who was literally infused with the one and only God, but who came to earth as a poor man, a rambling healer who had nothing to call his own, nowhere to rest his head or to rest. How he must’ve felt like that widow when he was nailed to the cross—hoping this somewhat anonymous life given in totality would have some bearing on the kingdom. We are here because he did—and we look to him to guide our way. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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