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Sermon for 25th Sunday after Pentecost 2018

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 Psalm 127 Hebrews 9:24-28 Mark 12:38-44

A teenager was sitting in church, and when the collection plate was passed around, he quickly pulled out a dollar bill from his pocket and dropped it in the plate. Just then, the man behind him tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a twenty dollar bill. The boy smiled, placed the $20 in the plate and passed it on, admiring the man’s generosity. Then the boy felt another tap from behind and heard a whisper. “Son,” the man said, “that was your twenty-dollar bill that fell out of your pocket.”

The teenager in the story was technically doing the right thing, putting a dollar into the offering plate. And the man behind him who inspired him so much actually brought that inspiration to reality when the teenager learned that it was his own twenty-dollar bill that he offered. Sometimes it takes others to help us become as generous as we hope to be, but it should always be a part of our discipleship to be careful and generous with our finances.

In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes about her struggle with word “righteous”. “The word righteous used to grate on my ear; for years I was only to hear it only in its negative mode, as self-righteous, as judgmental. Gradually, as I became more acquainted with the word in its biblical context, I found that it does not mean self-righteous at all, but righteous in the sight of God. And this righteousness is consistently defined by the prophets, and in the psalms, and gospels, as a willingness to care for the most vulnerable people in the culture, characterized in ancient Israel as orphans, widows, resident aliens, and the poor.”

Norris goes on to remind us that much of the fabled wrath of God in the Bible is directed against those who preserve their own wealth and power at the expense of the orphan, the widow, the resident alien and the poor.

As we hear this passage read, Norris’ words ring true. Jesus warns the scribes who walk around in long robes being greeted with respect and sitting in places of honor will face the consequences of devouring widow’s houses while saying long prayers to keep up their righteous appearances. Few of us have problems with this. We don’t like hypocrites – those folks who are pretentious and show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate. This kind of display differs from the self-righteousness that Kathleen Norris describes. Less judgmental and more eager to help.

Later, Jesus comments on a widow giving two small coins to the temple treasury. Some may read this passage as Jesus commending the widow for her sacrifice, but those who read the text carefully realize that Jesus does not do that. He simply tells his disciples that the two small coins she gave are worth more than the gifts of the rich people who gave much more money but sacrificed very little.

On the whole, Jewish authorities have a hard time in Mark’s Gospel. The scribes tend to represent those who are pretentious. Jesus is unequivocal. All those who are religious for the sake of appearance are not getting it right. All those who insist that their status as religious leaders requires a place of honor are not getting it right. But most seriously, all those who exploit are definitely not getting it right. And this is where the widow’s offering comes in. This is an example of Temple exploitation: she is giving everything she has. She isn’t given the credit for such generosity. And the Temple authorities consider the gift insignificant. The Temple exploits and does not recognize the significance of the gift. However, explains Jesus, God sees everything. God sees the exploitation: God condemns those who exploit and God will recognize the poor widow.

This passage reads as a lament for and an indictment upon any religious system that results in a poor widow giving all she has so that the system’s leaders may continue to live lives of wealth and comfort. The attack is not on Jewish religious practice. The attack is on any religious practice that masks egotism and greed. The scribes are like leeches on the faithful, benefitting from a religious system that allows poor widows to sacrifice what little they have. We should be enraged by any system that appropriates the property of the poor and the near-destitute to perpetuate wealth for the elite. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, this is a particular dilemma for a lot of folks today.

Scribes were officially copiers and keepers of records whose further skills would lead to their official advancement. At the time of Jesus, they came mainly from the Pharisees, and with the chief priests and elders made up the 71 members of the Sanhedrin or supreme Jewish council in Jerusalem. Because of their work in interpreting and applying scripture, they were known as “doctors of the law” or “lawyers.”

Readers of this text must reflect seriously upon their own complicity in current systems of violence and oppression. But reflection alone is not enough. Reflection must lead to specific and sustained action by engaging spiritual practices that challenge political and economic systems in the church, the nation, and the world. Feeding the hungry and providing clothing are important practices, but the church must come to view these acts as more than programs. The church must come to understand these practices as the very life flowing out of its worship. The church must call all of society to care for the orphan, the widow, the resident alien and the poor as its primary purpose. In this way, the church not only exhibits God’s righteousness but shapes a politic that is in itself righteous.

“Why don’t you go to church?” the Lutheran pastor asked the man with whom he has struck up a conversation in the grocery line. “All I have are my work clothes,” he said, looking down at his dirty jeans, muddy boots and sweat-stained tee shirt. “I can’t come to a Lutheran Church like this.” The pastor then collected some nice clothes from the congregation and gave the man- quite an upgrade in his wardrobe. Several weeks later the pastor bumped into him again. This time the man wore a pair of khaki slacks, penny loafers and a button down shirt. “Why didn’t I see you at church?” the pastor asked. “Well,” the man began, “Last Sunday I showered, shaved and put on the clothes you gave me. I looked so dang good I decided to go to the Episcopal Church instead.” We all want to put our best foot forward when we meet Jesus.

As we try to follow Christ in worship, in our work lives, and in our families, we can remember the gift of the poor widow. Maybe we don’t have a lot of money we can give…we have gifts…we have time….we have ideas…we have hope. If graced with a memorable encounter with God, perhaps our response will be as joyous and generous as the widow.

Today is the official end of our Stewardship campaign. We will be blessing the pledges on the altar. To date we have only received 29 pledges totaling $87,485 and that is not enough to meet our budget. Last year’s budget was around $124,000. I know folks have been praying and pondering on their giving and for that I am grateful. Giving is a very spiritual thing. I was raised to give back. I truly believe that God blesses us when we share what we have with others and the church. I know that God smiles when we step up and meet a need.

We have seen folks step up to meet a need a number of times at Grace – a much needed new coffee maker appears, Advent devotionals come in the mail, a roll of stamps, ink for the printer, a new computer is donated and so much more. Some of our needs are covered in the budget, but others fall outside the budgeted expenses. That will definitely be true for next year’s budget.

Billy Graham wrote, “God has given us two hands – one to receive with and the other to give with. We are not cisterns made for hoarding; we are channels made for giving.”

Henri Nouwen said, “As a form of ministry, fundraising is as spiritual as giving a sermon, entering a time of prayer, visiting the sick, or feeding the hungry.”

Please prayerfully consider your giving to Grace and the glory of God for 2019. John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all ways that you can, in all the places that you can, to all the people you can, as long as you can.” We are a community of faith and need each other and each others’ support to continue God’s mission and ministry here in Waycross. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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