Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16 | Psalm 146 | Hebrews 9:24-28 | Mark 12:38-44
The following sermon was preached by the Rev. Jen Rude, an outreach minister at The Night Ministry and rostered by Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. Pastor Erik was at the 2009 Emerging Leaders Conference in Minneapolis, MN co-hosted by The Plymouth Center for Progressive Christian Faith and The Beatitudes Society.
If you are someone who has grown up in the church, maybe you’re like me and you have a hard time hearing this text about the poor widow from Mark’s gospel without hearing all the stewardship sermons that this text has given rise to. And, if you’re like me, maybe you start to feel guilty before the preacher even starts. Here’s a woman, a poor woman, a widowed woman, who gives all she has – her whole life! You start to think about what you give your whole life to. And if you’re like me, God is not the first answer most days. We may give our whole lives to our families, jobs, worries, helping others. (If we don’t know what we are giving our lives to these days, we can check our bank accounts and our schedules for some hints.) So here we have another shining example of what we cannot live up to. We hear the text and if you’re like me, you quickly, but reluctantly, identify with those who give only a bit out of their abundance – because even if we are not feeling abundant in comparison to our neighbors, surely we recognize our enormous wealth compared to our global neighbors. And at this point, if you’re like me, you’ve tuned out. But today, let’s try something new. Let’s not go that route. Let’s enter into this text and our world and see what we can come up with that might be different. Because I’m not sure guilt and inadequacy were the main points of Jesus’ message and ministry.
But why do we so often hear such things in this text? Perhaps it is because many of us have inserted with our minds what is not there. The whole part about Jesus lifting up this woman as an example. Jesus doesn’t actually say “go and do likewise” or “woman, great is your faith.” He makes no comment praising this woman as someone to emulate. I imagine, rather, Jesus’ heart ached for this poor widowed woman who was down to her last 2 coins. Could we imagine then, it is not praise in his voice, but perhaps sadness or lament. Why in a faith community that is charged with caring for the widow and the orphan does this woman only have two coins? The key is in the beginning of the passage. Before we see this particular widow, Jesus was just talking about widows. Or rather talking about the scribes’ treatment of widows. The word he uses is devour. They devour widow’s houses. And if one thought this was simple hyperbole, we have case in point right here standing in front of us. A widowed, devoured woman, with her last 2 coins. In those days, when women were not trusted to take care of finances and property, when a woman’s husband died, the scribes took over the management of the estate. Which of course they would charge a fee for. And on top of that, this system was notorious for embezzlement and abuse.
Meanwhile, the same scribes like to say long prayers – for the sake of appearances – implying that they are not really praying. Only pretending to pray because it looked good. What does it mean to pretend to pray? Perhaps we have just seen it as religious leaders who surely offered prayers for justice, for the poor, for the oppressed – but then did not seek to live that prayer out.
This woman has been robbed by her community, robbed by those who pretend to pray and yet devour her. Devoured to the point of 2 copper coins for today and no hope for tomorrow. But still something seems missing in this story. Because even though we recognize the injustice and her suffering, I can’t just see her simply as a victim. Perhaps because I know too many strong and amazing women. And while the scribes’ treatment of her explains why she only has 2 coins, it still doesn’t explain why she gave them.
Some have even considered her foolish – giving her last 2 coins to the temple. She could have even given 1 and still have been more than a tither. If we saw a member of St. Luke’s giving their every last cent each week, we’d probably have a conversation with them about giving beyond their means, and assure them that God doesn’t expect them to be broke. I know a woman in her 90s who gives so generously that people are always telling her, sometimes even scolding her, “you can’t afford to be so generous!” But take one look at her smile and her spunky-ness, and you see she is certainly not suffering because of her generosity. She just politely listens to their concerns and then carries on about her life.
Why does this widow generously give all she has? Foolishness, duty, desperation? 2 copper coins, which are worth a penny, weren’t going to save her from her poverty. She couldn’t buy anything with them anyway. These 2 copper coins would not have saved her life. But still, why does she give everything?
A friend of mine was telling me about a church where right before the offering, the pastor said – “If you are a visitor today, we are gifted by your presence. Please just let the offering plate pass you by.” This was part of their commitment to hospitality and welcome for visitors. But one woman got all fired up by this and said to the pastor, “who are you to tell me I can’t give? Who are you to take away my joy of giving?”
Mostly everything she’d had had been taken away. Her husband dead, her house devoured, her friends gone. But she could still give even up until the last – the last 2 coins. Was there joy in her heart, defiance in the face of those who had almost rendered her unable to joyfully give – almost, she thinks, as she puts in her last 2 coins, the metal hitting the treasury and echoing, more quietly than those before her throwing in large sums, but making noise nonetheless. She would not go out silently.
But still, why does she give those last two coins to the temple that had contributed to her devastation? In the passage right before this, in the temple, Jesus tells the crowds that the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and with all your strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself. When those listening seemed to understand, Jesus said, “you are not far from the kingdom of God.” Had she heard those words? Had she prayed them in her heart and then lived it with her feet – the same tired aching feet that brought her to the temple that day?
Having worked at The Night Ministry for 4 ½ years, I am continually being taught about generosity and love of neighbor – not only by those who donate their money, food, time, and supplies, but by those very folks we are seeking to serve. Just this past Thursday night, a woman who is revered as the “mama” of the street kids was rounding up the 5 or 6 young people who were going to stay with her that night, in her new studio apartment. She herself has been homeless a long time, so this apartment was something of a miracle in her life. The folks she gathered up were young people who would have otherwise had to ride the El all night, or gone without sleep, or huddled
at a bus stop. As she was coming around to say goodnight to all of us, she saw that I was talking with a new youth, someone who had just come for the first time that evening. He had just finished telling us that he was kicked out of his house for being gay and he’d been homeless for 3 weeks now, and hadn’t slept in days. With deep care and concern in her eyes, she asked him, “Do you have a place to go tonight?” He looked down, “no.” She took a deep breath and said, “Yes you do. Come with me.” Amazingly generous. Somewhat irresponsible. Jeopardizing her lease, lessening her chances of making it work in the long term. But her reply is simple – these people are my family. I can’t leave my family out on the streets. Mama, you are not far from the kingdom of God.
Seeking to live the kingdom of God. Perhaps that’s why she gave her last 2 coins. The kingdom of God where love of God and love of neighbor means you take care of each other. You give to the community and the community gives to you. She is doing her part – giving to the community, trusting that others will do the same so that all will be cared for. She’s counting on them. But sadly, Jesus shows how the community is preoccupied with long robes, good seats, fancy dinners, and the appearance of prayer. All over the scriptures repeatedly is the charge to care for the widow and the orphan, to care for all the poor and oppressed, to care for the whole community. This woman is living as if this idea of community “works,” as if the kingdom of God were possible, and maybe it would be if everyone did as she did – faithfully bringing their whole lives to the community. But others have let her down. And more than not helping her, their practices have contributed to her plight – that has brought her to this day. Has brought her to 2 coins. She is part of a broken community. This widow knows that. But she is giving to God all she had to live on, her very life – because she knows it all belongs to God anyway. She is not far from the kingdom of God. Because she is seeking to live it now. The kingdom of God where one person doesn’t have 2 coins, while another has 2 million, where those with health care stand in solidarity with those who are buried by medical bills, where one person’s fridge isn’t stocked while another’s pantry is empty, where one isn’t homeless, while another has 2 homes.
Building a community where all have enough and even if by chance someone gets down to their last 2 coins, they could count on the community to take care of them. Since mostly we are the ones with the 2 million coins instead of the 2, it means that our community is counting on us.
For over 20 years, the Logan Square community has counted on Elijah’s pantry at St Luke’s for a bit of the kingdom of God. Where even without 2 coins in your pocket, you can still be fed. Who else is part of the community that is counting on us? Here at St. Luke’s, in Logan Square, in the ELCA, in Chicago, in the world? Who is counting on us to live as if the kingdom of God were a prayer worth trying to live?
And yes, we too may at times be down to our last 2 coins, if not literally, then symbolically– having run out of energy, mobility, work, hope – and then we are challenged to count on the community, which maybe is even harder than having others count on us. Perhaps that is why the widow is so amazing. With humility and trust she lives as if she can count on the community, and in so doing, she is our teacher, showing us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God that you have to strain to hear and see sometimes – because it doesn’t always make a loud noise. Sometimes it’s really quiet – like the sound of 2 small coins in a big metal bowl.