November 7, 2021 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text

Scripture:  MARK 12:38-44                                              


     OK, so I have to admit that I had just a teensy feeling of relief when I realized Judy was going to be leading our prayers this morning, and I was mercifully going to be spared any charge of leading what Jesus criticizes as “long prayers” (Mark 12:40). Yes, I thought! Judy can be the butt of those jokes! And then I thought, “Oh, no, I’m still preening about in my long robes (12:38)! And I’ve got the best seat in the house (12:39), to boot! I’m never going to escape the mockery Jesus’ words might well bring my way!” Arrogant? Pretentious? Be gentle with me!


     And then I thought: But this is the week before Federated receives its intentions to give financially for 2022, and we have this story about a poor widow who gives everything she has. That makes it so easy, I thought! Forget the part of the story in which Jesus blasts the scribes. No, celebrate instead how this woman gives everything, and remind us all that we, too, need to give everything. A perfect passage for today so I can avoid the part of today’s reading that might make me look bad, and focus instead on the gift of the poor widow.


     And that might all be fine, leading to a perhaps formulaic sermon about giving. Except for this: biblical scholars are not at all sure that this widow is indeed a model for us. They’re not even sure that Jesus actually praises this impoverished woman. Most of us, if we have even a nodding acquaintance with this story, just assume that this woman is lifted up as a paragon of virtue. The King James Version of the Bible, for centuries the standard in English, talks of the two “mites” she puts in the treasury—a mite being the very smallest coin in the land. So when we hear about the proverbial “widow’s mite,” we are reminded that she puts a mere penny in that figurative offering plate, and we conclude that she is praised to the hilt for her extravagant generosity. Impossible though her selflessness may seem for most of us, she is nevertheless evidently lifted up as the model of virtue. Or so we assume.


     The thing that’s not at all clear from the story, though—and it’s why biblical study is endlessly fascinating to me—is whether Jesus actually praises her for that gift. We presume Jesus does praise her. Here’s what the story says, though, and I’m going to read it again so you can judge for yourself: “Many rich people put in large sums. A widow who was poor came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then Jesus called the disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on’” (12:41-44).


     What Jesus does is report what he sees: she gives all she has to live on. But does Jesus praise this woman for doing that, or might there be here more than a hint of derision coming from Jesus about a system in which this woman has so very little? Nowhere in this story does Jesus commend her for what she does. He doesn’t say “Go and do likewise,” or “Isn’t her faith astounding,” or “This is the way we all should be.” He just tells the disciples that what she gives is a lot, that it is, in fact, “all she had to live on.” And numerous scholarly observers say essentially that there’s something deeply wrong with a system in which such an impoverished woman gives up all her resources while those who are wealthy and comfortable skate by without any apparent cost or penalty. Far from praising what this woman does, these scholars think Jesus is actually condemning a system that has gone off the rails, that he’s saying that something needs to be done to overhaul a communal way of life that has gone so terribly awry. 


     And I confess that the preacher who is presented this story in the middle of what we have traditionally called “stewardship” season and what we now call our season of “generosity”—I confess that that preacher quakes in his boots! “You can’t tell the congregation,” I think to myself, “that the gifts of people who are wealthy”—which, after all, in the terms of this story includes virtually all of us—“you can’t tell them that those gifts don’t matter. You can’t tell them that Jesus doesn’t value sizable giving—your Generosity Commission will kill you! They’ll say, ‘You are never preaching on this subject again!’” And as I ponder how to proclaim this story, I think: “this is going very badly indeed!”


     So: deep breath for the preacher, and certainly for the Generosity Commission, and likely for you, as well. Hidden underneath all this complexity, I suspect there’s a word for you and me today about the place and significance of our own giving. It’s likely a nuanced word, and maybe not what we first thought it was. But it’s a word, nevertheless, of hope and self-giving and generosity.


     And it may well be that some of the bracing wonder of this story may be unlocked by paying attention to an unobtrusive phrase that has likely escaped our notice. While Jesus observes that the more wealthy and comfortable visitors to the treasury have given “out of their abundance,” this poor and widowed woman has given how? “Out of her poverty” (12:44).


     Now, I think in our world it’s not at all inappropriate to lift up what the wealthy people in this story do, the notion of giving “out of [our] abundance.” The faulty message we so often get in our world is that our resources are insufficient. We live in a culture that proclaims a kind of anxious scarcity. It is breathlessly conveyed to us that you never have quite enough, you always need more, be sure to guard what you have. And at some level, we must wonder: if it’s true that we never have quite enough, then how can we ever really be generous?


     So for us it’s crucial to be reminded that, with few exceptions, we do have enough, that we have sufficient resources to be able to give substantially, that, no matter what the cultural messages may be, we are indeed blessed with an abundance of assets. Twenty-first century Christians, tainted as we are by that flawed message of scarcity, could stand to be reminded that we are rich beyond measure, and that we are thus freed to give liberally. In many ways, it is a gift to give, as the wealthy people in this story do, from out of our abundance. Let’s never sneeze at that.


     There’s another angle on this story, though. When the woman in Mark’s story is said to give “out of her poverty,” I suspect Jesus is picking up on something else entirely. Yes, we all need to get the message that, from a material standpoint, we have a staggering abundance. With regard to our things and our bank accounts and our investments, most of us have more than enough to be able to give substantially. At the same time, though, we may also need to get an entirely different message, and that message is this: that, from a spiritual standpoint, there may be a gift in accepting our poverty, there may be a grace in acknowledging how utterly dependent we ultimately are. Much as we likely hate the notion of being poor, our very internal, spiritual, poverty may itself, in truth, be a springboard to a deepened generosity. Acknowledging what we are missing may be a catalyst for seeing what we do, in truth, have.


     I know this sounds strange. It sounds strange to me, too. That phrase—that this woman gave “out of her poverty”—has haunted me this week. When we think of poverty, it is always a negative. In what possible way could our poverty ever really be a gift? 


     Spiritual poverty, though, may be a strange kind of blessing. That sort of poverty acknowledges that I don’t have all the answers. It admits that I make mistakes, sometimes big ones. It grants that I hurt people, and am never fully the person I want to be. When I confess my poverty, then I can let go of the guilt and shame and incompleteness that stalk me, and can instead bask in the love of the One who holds me close always. Admitting my spiritual poverty is my saying to God: ‘I am not what I had hoped I would be. I am not what you had hoped I would be. And you understand that, God. You simply know that that’s always going to be the case. And you say to me, to all of us: It’s OK. I love you just the way you are.’


     We’re all incomplete in some ways. When I was a young pastor, the world was my oyster. I thought I could do great things and make the churches I served boom numerically. And then the culture changed, and for so many, the church and God receded in importance. And I came to see my limits, and saw that it wasn’t all about me and my abilities, because my abilities were limited. The church wasn’t about what I could do. It was, instead, about what God could do. If the church and I were going to survive, and even thrive, then together we had to let go, and let God.


     I came to see, in all sorts of ways, my poverty—that I can’t make things be what I want them to be. I can’t produce “love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land” (“If I Had a Hammer”). I can’t stop you from hating me (if you do) or make you love me (if you don’t). I can’t slow or stop the aging process such that I can again bound up the stairs two or three at a time. I can’t stop the heartrending truth that in some finite number of years, I will no longer be alive to walk in the MetroParks and eat apple crisp and converse animatedly about the latest streaming series and see my children and grandchildren becoming fully themselves and gaze into Mary’s eyes or watch her sleep peacefully in front of the TV or share a moment with her that makes time stand still.


     I am poor because I can’t do or alter or accomplish what my heart yearns for. I am simply not capable of making happen all of what I most deeply wish would happen. And there is, to be honest, an intensely wrenching sadness in that realization. My world is not what I had hoped it would be. I am, in some inescapable way, impoverished.


     And yet it’s in just that poverty that, just perhaps, my life is at its richest, that I am made most whole. It’s just when we stop trying to save ourselves, it’s just when we realize that saving ourselves isn’t really possible—it’s just then that we make room for God to come in and do what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. The wealthy people in Mark’s story likely think they’ve passed the test because they have given “out of their abundance.” They’ve done what they need to do, so they’re OK. What the widow knows that they don’t is that it’s not really about what they do or don’t do. What she knows is that it’s all about God and what God does. She puts her trust in, in truth, she cedes her whole life to, God.


     Maybe this is really what it is to be a saint. We think saintliness grows from being an upstanding member of society, one who does everything right. My guess is that widow, and all the saints who have passed before us, know something entirely different. They know that the verdict has already been returned, on all of us. And the verdict is: Innocent. Adored. Beloved. For you. For me. For all of us.


     This nameless widow seeps under our skin, doesn’t she. She trusts in grace so much that she needn’t hang on to anything. So she gives and she gives and she gives. She gives so much that, in her apparent emptiness, she is fuller than we could ever ask or imagine.

   This is simply what saints do. They trust and they give. As we ponder, this week, our intentions to give to the magnificent mission of Federated Church, may we confess our poverty, and may we be so enamored of gratitude for overflowing grace that, like our gracious forbear at that ancient treasury, we might gratefully give and give and give. What could be more saintly?!