Sermon by The Rev. Patrick J. Wingo
Sunday, November 11, 2018
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The Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
As Jesus taught, he said, “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.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor 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.”
Sermon for Proper 27B – Stewardship Ingathering- 11-11-18 Church of the Ascension PJW
Widows, like the ones in our Old Testament and Gospel readings for today, appear all through the Bible.
There are somewhere around 80 direct references to widows in the Old and New Testaments, and virtually every one of them is concerned with the plight of widows in a society where, because they had been dependent on a husband or son to care for them, they were in constant danger of abuse, neglect, and death if they were alone in the world.
In today’s Gospel lesson is a story about a widow that has been commonly referred to as “The Widow’s Mite.”
That phrase has been used as the title of novels and short stories, and it is often held up as an example when someone of limited means acts in an extraordinarily generous way.
How much is a “mite”?
If we are to really understand the offering of the widow in the Gospel it might be useful to know that.
The actual word that is used in the Greek says that the widow put a “lepton” into the treasury at the Temple.
A lepton is equal to 1/128 of a denarius.
A denarius was the equivalent of a day’s pay for a laborer, so the amount the woman put in was 1/128 of a day’s wage.
To put that into perspective, if a laborer earns minimum wage in Tennessee and works an eight-hour day, that person would be paid 58 dollars a day before taxes.
If you divide that amount by 128, in today’s dollars the woman put in about $.45.
And Jesus says that this mite, this lepton, was all she had to live on.
She was faced with the choice of offering all she had, which wouldn’t even buy a black coffee at the local Jerusalem Starbucks, in order to be faithful.
She certainly knew that her survival in that society was always a risk, and yet she chose to trust God.
I can picture this woman, because I believe I came very close to her not that long ago.
Last fall I went to Antigua, Guatemala, for two weeks of intensive Spanish language immersion.
On the Sunday that I was there, I went to church at the Roman Catholic cathedral next to the parque central (and that’s all the Spanish I can manage today).
I got there a little early, about 15 minutes or so before the 10 am service.
It is an old cathedral, several hundred years old, that has been shaken by earthquakes and partially destroyed and rebuilt in one way or another many times.
But it retains the unusual beauty of the Roman Catholic Church in that part of the world, beauty of another time and place, almost as if you have gone into a great-grandmother’s ornate and antique Victorian house for the first time.
I sat about halfway back in one of the very old, hard-back, hard-seat pews on the aisle.
After I had been there about five minutes, the bulk of the congregation started to arrive.
I could tell it was going to be a big crowd, and there were all types of people filling in the pews.
There were quiet greetings, whispering about where to sit and an occasional giggle from a child.
Suddenly I heard whispering very close to my right ear on the aisle.
I turned slightly to see if someone wanted to climb into my pew, but what I saw was a native Mayan woman, with a deeply wrinkled face that spoke of a long and hard life.
She was walking on her knees—not on her hands and knees, because her back was straight and upright as she went.
But she moved forward on her knees with short steps, painfully, it looked to me, down the long hard-tiled aisle.
She was dressed in more traditional clothes than most of the people there, muted brown, patterned clothes that many of the native women wear on the street in Antigua as they sell the jewelry and textiles that they have made.
On her head, in a bright contrast to her dress, was one of those colorful textiles, folded, so that she would be modestly attired as she approached the crucifix on the wall behind the altar, from which she did not remove her eyes.
In her right hand was a thick lit candle, and with her left hand she steadied herself on each pew as she made her way.
She was whispering prayers as, knee by knee, she moved slowly toward the image of the crucified Christ.
A woman dressed in neat contemporary clothes came in and passed her, and sat down three pews in front of me.
In a moment her distinguished-looking husband came in and had to wait to join his wife until the native woman moved past the pew where they would sit.
The native woman slowly passed the pew, the man sat down, and just as he settled in the beautiful, folded hand-weaved textile fell off the native woman’s head.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the man jumped up, leaned down, picked up the cloth and handed it to the woman so she could continue to make her pilgrimage toward the cross.
Nothing else of consequence happened, but I found my eyes welling up as the woman continued on her knees with her candle, her prayers and her faith, toward Christ.
She arrived at the crossing, stared at Jesus on the cross for a minute or so, then got up and moved off to the left where I assume she took a seat.
The man and his wife sat through the service, as I did, and we all received communion.
I understood virtually none of it as my Spanish is still in it’s infancy and the sound system was bad.
But I went to church, and something happened that I never expected.
I was in a foreign country, trying to learn a foreign language, and what I expected was to be fed with the Body of Christ, and that was about all.
But what I experienced was a woman—who was probably a widow—receiving an act of kindness in the community of gathered believers.
She moved toward the altar on her knees to offer herself, and the distinguished man in the pew offered her his act of kindness.
And so today we offer our pledges at the altar.
The Widow’s Mite story does not come up in our Lectionary cycle of readings because the people who put it together wanted a story that might apply to stewardship to be read this time of year; it just comes up as we read through Mark’s gospel more or less in order.
And perhaps it is a good story to instruct us about sacrificial giving, and certainly it is an important story to help us be inspired to trust God.
But the point of all those stories is to open our eyes and hearts to how we can offer our selves—our souls and bodies as the traditional Eucharistic prayer puts it—so that in offering of ourselves we become changed people who somehow make a difference in the world.
Ultimately, all of our offerings point us to the offering of Jesus, who brought life out of death through his miracles, who gave his life so that we could live, who trusted that God was with him and would bring new life out of death.
Jesus, who himself was raised in resurrection life.
Jesus, whose own act of self-offering did indeed change the world forever.
Any stewardship message has got to begin and end there, because that is our call as well.
We, all of us, are people on a journey, even if we have only taken a baby step, even if we have stumbled along the way.
We are on a journey with Jesus to make the vision of God’s kingdom a reality in this world.
It is a kingdom where widows and children and hungry people are fed, where sad people are lifted out of their despair, where each of us leave here, week after week, to be leaven in world, to be light, to be salt.
To be Jesus.
That’s what all our offerings must become.