November 11, 2018

25th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Mark 12:38-44 

Let’s just put it right out there.  It’s a rough day to have a chair up front and wear a long robe and have to lead the prayers, most of which probably seem too long. Beware of Pastor Lois.

The church I served in Atlanta had a partnership with ILAG, the Lutheran Church in Guatemala, just like Gloria Dei does. One year, ILAG was raising money to build latrines in rural communities.  The simple addition of clean bathroom facilities affected the health of the whole village.  They called the campaign, Año del Baño, the “Year of the Bathroom.” We decided to get a small child’s potty and put it in the sanctuary to remind people of the special collection.  You were supposed to put your donation right into the toilet.  Since the sanctuary was in the round, and the little potty was at the backwall, people could pour their change into the potty anytime they walked by. Consequently, the service was often interrupted by the sound of change being added to the potty.  It interrupted our “flow,” so to speak.  It made us notice, and it brought neighbors in Guatemala into worship.

Likely, no one heard the widow’s tiny coins drop into the box.  The temple was a large and busy place.  Likely, most of the attention was at the offering box where the richest and most prestigious temple visitors had their amounts announced out loud.  The gospel text says that Jesus sits down and watches what’s going on. Then he tells the disciples, who are just about to comment on how beautiful everything, “Beware of the scribes.  And notice what is happening to the widow over there.”

We often hear this text used to describe great generosity.  The rich, especially the outwardly religious ones, give in a way that hardly affects them. The woman, on the other hand, gives sacrificially.  She gives all that she has.  Her whole life.

It’s a popular interpretation, and it does serve a prophetic function. Virtually every study shows that the poor are more generous than the rich, giving away higher percentages of their income, sharing less anxiously what they have with those who need help.  It may be that “giving all you have” is impossible, but true generosity comes out of sacrifice and an appreciation for the community around you.

But there’s a problem with this interpretation.  What’s happening isn’t necessarily an offering like we have on Sunday morning, in which everyone is free to give what they can or desire.  Jesus is noticing the payment of a kind of tax for the temple-banking complex.  He wants the disciples to notice how the world works.  The wealthy get all the credit and glory, without sacrificing much of their own comfort, and the poorest of the poor pay for it.  The scribes can afford to be all showy-talk because their shady economic practices won’t hurt them or threaten their futures.  They have more than enough. The widow ends up without both, the means to take care of herself, and, what’s more, her future.

A modern day equivalent is payday lending.  Payday loans are usually for smaller amounts of money, maybe $250 or $500, due on your next pay day.  They’re usually taken out by people who struggle to live from paycheck to paycheck.  One doctor visit or car repair can create an emergency situation.  Rates and fees can amount up to 450%.[1]  In many instances, people can’t keep up, and they fall farther and farther into debt, with fees and interest often far more than the original loan amount.  Exodus Lending, a non-profit started by Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, calls it a “modern form of slavery.”  It’s an industry that claims to help, if you read the marketing, but ends up devouring the future. There are nations that do the same thing with their tax or economic systems, enriching those who are already the most wealthy, leaving the poor to pay for it all.

This is what Jesus wants the disciples to see with their own eyes:  Industries, institutions, religions, nations that wrap themselves in long robes of respectability and endless self-congratulatory rhetoric, but devour the future of the most vulnerable.

Every system, whether it’s religious or economic or political has a tendency to keep us looking away from its darker truth. The latest campaigns were an example of that.  “Look this way and focus on this pressing and horrible issue.”  Don’t look at what’s really going on.  Don’t look over there.  Don’t look at what we’re doing to your future.

Jesus is saying to his followers, “I don’t want you to look away.  I want you to be interrupted.  I want you to see what’s happening to the least.  Your eyes will be drawn to the flashy displays of wealth and abundance, but I want you to keep your eyes on the widow, the child, the orphan, the one who is quickly forgotten in the rush to make more money. It’s the sound of those little pennies dropped into the box that I want you to hear.”

This is not turning out to be the standard Stewardship sermon on the text of the widow’s mite.  But it does make me think about what we’re doing with the offering. We pay attention to money in every worship service.  I suppose you could think of it as utilitarian; the way to collect money to pay the bills, the salaries, the supplies for our work.  You could probably also think of it, as we usually do around Stewardship time, as a moment of grateful giving.  We respond to God’s grace by offering our resources and our lives, the procession of bread and wine and money a symbol that we’re all laying it down before God in a Great Thanksgiving.  Trusting that God is going to do something amazing with whatever it is we give.

But this text makes me think of it a little differently. Maybe passing the plate, handling money, is actually an attempt to resist the ways money is used in our culture: to build status, to overindulge, to evaluate our worth, to create levels of shame for rich and poor alike. Instead of looking away and pretending money isn’t one of our greatest spiritual problems, we make ourselves look at it, touch it, deal with it IN CHURCH.  Collecting an offering is a countercultural act–giving something away in a culture that expects us to accumulate.

The solution for the widow is, indeed, when the entire community says, “We will not look away from your plight.  We will take your poverty as our poverty, your need as our need.  You may well, dearest sister, place your whole life into our care.”

The offering is when we give of our own selves for the life of another.  Indeed, the sound of coins became the sound of health in a Guatemalan village.  The click of the keys making on online pledge is the click of a locked future being opened.  The passing of a basket becomes the sharing of a meal, $49.12 the price of Thanksgiving.  Suddenly, hungry people on University Avenue near the Keystone Food Shelf are with us. Money turns into comfort for the dying, visits to the homebound, prayers for the sick.  Money becomes, in the grace of God, the tool for healing, justice, and love.  Not for the perpetuation of an unjust system, but a breaking of it.

An offering in the temple turns out to be a prophetic act, an overturning of the order, a sign of God’s coming rule of love and justice, self-giving instead of self-serving.  An offering in the church turns out to be a sign of what the Jesus-world looks like: a community of people willing to give its collective life for the healing and resurrection of the whole creation.

Jesus never looks away, even as he is being silenced on the cross.  Three days later, God said, “Now watch this.”  The way of Jesus is the way of the future. All debt is wiped away.  Every widow, every life, is free from the past.  The stone is rolled away.  The future is open.t

Since then, we’ve been handling money as if it were part of that new world. When you touch the plate, open your eyes, it’s your interruption in the middle of worship to see, to join, and to live.  The reign of God in your hands.

[1]Information from Exodus Lending, Minneapolis: https://exoduslending.org.