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Small Clarifications

October 23, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 22, 2017

Mark 12: 38-44

I knew five months ago that the text for our annual stewardship sermon would be this story about a woman and two small coins. About that time Miranda B—- and Steven D—- met me at the back door of the sanctuary, as they do almost every Sunday. Miranda always asks me to remember her to my wife, Noelle, and asks after my son August. It’s weekly gesture that means so much to me. But on this Sunday so many months ago, in addition to their greetings, they handed me an envelope. Inside was a small coin, about the size of the nail on my pinky, a first century B.C.E. coin made of bronze, two of which, our gospel story tells us, were worth a penny.

widows-mite-ch2279

This was the smallest coin in circulation in Jesus’ day, and unlike the coins we were talking about last week that bore the image of the Roman Caesar, this coin was struck during the period of Jewish Independence, during the reign of the Hasmonean kings. The oldest coins bear an image on one side of a double horn of plenty with a pomegranate in the center, symbols of abundance from the Temple in Jerusalem. On the other side is written in Hebrew the name of the high priest. (The coin above, like mine, bears Greek influence: there is a ship’s anchor of trade on one side and an eight pointed star on teh other, also bearing the name of the high priest who now calls himself a king). Miranda and Steven said they had searched long and hard for it, knowing what it would mean to me, and I was deeply touched by their effort. It is a gift I value because of the spirit with which it was given.[i]

It is certainly true, as John Calvin said of our gospel story about a woman and two coins, that the gifts of the poor are valuable even if small, and that the rich should not be proud just because their gifts are large. Many small contributions can make a political campaign, as we were reminded by Bernie Sanders, or can sustain a church budget. In fact, as our congregation has fewer and fewer large contributors, the participation of everyone, at every level, is important. Sustainable ministry and mission involve everyone doing what we can.

And I can tell you that when I think about your church council’s stewardship of your financial gifts, or contemplate purchases for the office or outreach, it is the smallest gifts, given in faith and love, that I remember. Is this program really worth someone’s entire pledge? Would he, or she, or they, be proud to have made this mission possible?

True as all this may be, it is not what this passage in the gospel is about. What I want you to do right now is to throw out all you have ever learned about the story of “the widow’s mite” and forget every stewardship sermon you have heard that used this woman as an example of faithful giving. Because Jesus is not lifting this woman up as a model of faith; he is showing his disciples that the religious and political system that is supposed to take care of her is actually exploiting her, and Jesus is redirecting his disciples toward true religion.

This story takes place during what we think of as Holy Week. Holy Week begins with Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers – disrupting the practices of those who bought and sold and profited from the religious obligations of others. For three days Jesus sits in the temple debating the nature of religious authority, and the purpose of religious practice, and the failures of the religious elite. He is asked questions about the public role of religion, paying taxes, the nature of marriage, and the importance of law – and Jesus notes the insincerity behind each and every question. The greatest commandment, he says, is love – but love in biblical, covenantal religion, carries obligations to care for those Jesus elsewhere calls “the least of these.” Instead, what he sees is a whole host of hypocrisies.

So Jesus sits down opposite the treasury – opposite, as in opposed to – and watches people putting in money. The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez suggests that this may be the main teaching of the story – the Temple was the heart of religious, economic and political power in Jerusalem, and a very large place, but Jesus’ chooses to sit down in a specific place, in the right position to be able to see (as Marvin Gaye put it) “what’s going on.”[ii]

Jesus sees the gifts of the wealthy, given out of their abundance, and then he sees a widow – putting inout of her povertyeverything she hadall she had to live on.

This is not right. This is not the practice of biblical, covenantal religion. It is exploitation. She is a widow, as in “the widows and orphans” – the biblical way of saying “the poor of Israel” who the abundance of others is supposed to lift up and protect, not take from.

If there is a contrast between the two types of characters, between the scribes and the widows, it is that the scribes make a show of their faith, praying ostentatiously, seeking public recognition, enjoying the best seats at the banquet tables, all the while devouring the homes and livelihoods of the poor, while the widow, her poverty and her need, is barely noticed. In fact, Jesus has to point her out to his disciples who would otherwise have missed her. But Jesus knows how to see what really matters, and how to teach us to see. Biblical, covenantal religion sees the poor, the widow, the orphan, those without other means of support, and cares for them – it does not exploit them, or ignore them. Sustainable ministry not only involves everyone but sustains us all.

In a few moments we are going to stand and sing together a song that grew out of the renaissance in hymn singing that took place in Spain during the 1970s. This renaissance grew out of the reforms of Vatican II and the rise of liberation theology, reforms that reminded us to focus on social action rather than individual salvation as the place to look for evidence of God’s activity. While this hymn is identified in our hymnal by its first line – in English, “When the Poor Ones,” in Spanish, Cuando el pobre – the original title was Pequenas aclaraciones, SMALL CLARIFICATIONS. Think about that for a moment. It makes a series of small clarifications about true religion, about where God is to be found; it is clear about the ultimate value of seemingly small things.

When a poor one who has nothing shares with strangers,
When the thirsty water give unto us all,
When the crippled in their weakness strengthen others,
Then we know that God still goes that road with us.

This is, first of all, a [somewhat ironic] reminder that evidence of God’s sovereignty in our lives often depends on small deeds of mercy and generosity rather than on grand gestures. The emphasis is also an [indirect] reference to the biblical basis of this song in Matthew 25:31-46, the reminder that Christians are called to behold Christ in “the least of these.”

The theme of recognizing Christ, connects the stanzas with the refrain,

Then we know that God still goes that road with us.

This, of course, is a reference to the road-to-Emmaus story, where two followers of Jesus fail to recognize him even while he is telling them how his life and death fulfilled “Moses and the prophets.” But their eyes are opened in the sharing of simple gifts of bread and wine. In the third verse, we join Jesus at the table, the visible sign of invisible grace

When our joy fills up our cup to overflowing,
When our lips can speak no words other than true,
When we know that love for simple things is better,
Then we know that God still goes that road with us.

From seeming poverty to true abundance, the whole song is set up to show us that when the events describes in the stanzas happen, when we who have been created by God and given to one another share our lives together in joy and in sorrow to build the coming reign of God, then the assurance declared in the refrain will be evident.  Then we know that God still goes that road with us. [iii]

All of us at some point in our lives wonder – what is our legacy.  Long after we’ve departed this earth we wonder, will our lives have made a difference?  Will we, through our words and our actions, have helped sustain the earth and all its people?

As members of this church, right now, you are building this church’s legacy. 20 years from now, 200 years from now, what will the history books say about this church?

I think they will say that we understood the precarious moment we are in, where earth’s very ability to sustain itself hangs in the balance.  I think history will record that we invested in a future that is not dependent on the fossil fuels that have so squeezed our planet’s resources, but that we invested in the future; that we installed solar panels to generate over 80% of our energy not simply because it was cost effective but because it was necessary for our earth’s survival. I think they will look back on the lawsuit which came from our oil spill and say, the question was not, did it spill, but what did the church do.  And I think the future members of our church and community will say, “they did all they could to repair the damage and to build a new future.”

I think 20 or 200 years from now, people will look back and say, “they decided that standing up for what is right, for the kind of strong, inclusive, and loving community that God desires” was critical at this time. To speak the truth in love; to not stay quiet when rights or livelihoods are at stake; to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbors, affirming the image of God in all of us and say, “we all belong” – that will be the litmus by which future generations will be able to tell – we did not swerve from the hard demands of love, even at risk to ourselves.

Financial stewardship, at the end of the day, is about sustainability, about involving everyone, in every way we can, for the good of all. It is about what we are prepared to contribute to ensure that the vision of God’s good purpose can be realized today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Most of you pledge so faithfully that all I need to do is thank you, and I do thank you, encourage you to get your financial pledge in on time, and to consider a modest increase. A number of you give faithfully but do not pledge, and I thank you, and I would encourage you to consider making a pledge for 2018 to help our church council better plan for the coming year.

We have some financial challenges ahead, to be sure, but the investments we are making in our building, our life together, our children and youth, and our democracy are made as a witness to God’s love in difficult times and a pledge that says to our membership and to the broader White Plains community: we will be here, with faith in the city.

Friends, I have no doubt that Christ goes this road with us, because I see him in every act that you do, small and large. God created us and made us for relationship with one another. Our love of God is bound up with our love of neighbor. In our practice biblical religion, our love is guided through covenantal relationships that are more than random acts of kindness, that seek to preserve the dignity of all involved when charity is given, and has a long vision that tends toward justice.

 

 

 

[i] There are several different types of Widow’s Mite coins. (http://www.jtv.com/library/widows-mite-history.html)

[ii] Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year. (Orbis, 1997).

[iii] The allusions in this hymn are elaborated, much as described here, in Carl P. Daw Jr. Glory to God: A Companion. (Westminster John Knox, 2016).

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