Sermons

« "Faithful Extravagance" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

"Provoking One Another" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland »

"Giving It All" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on November 11, 2018 by Kathy Miller

Mark 12:38-44

“Giving It All”

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

November 11, 2018

This week I was listening to a This American Life podcast and one of the stories was about a sting operation where the FBI caught a con-man responsible for predatory telemarketing scams.  Basically, this man called people on the phone and got them to “invest” in his various plans and then just took their money.  It was a whole ring of predators, who by the time they were caught, had scammed millions of dollars of people’s life savings.  I was listening with general sadness at this story but felt really outraged when they played one of the recorded phone calls and I heard the lengths to which this man was willing to go. In the recording, the con-man was trying to convince a person he believed to be a wealthy elderly lady to give her entire life savings to him.  He told her she needed to go “all in” or do nothing because this was such a good opportunity.  When the woman expressed concern for the possibility of losing everything and being destitute, and suggested she put in a lesser amount, the man continued to press her telling her she had a responsibility to make as much money as she could and all other kinds of things to try and convince her.  He didn’t just want some of her money – he wanted it all and seemed to have no concern for what this would do to this woman.  And while in this recording the elderly woman was actually an FBI agent, there were lots of people who did fall for this con – who gave everything they had and then lost everything.[1]

And then I was reading the scripture for this week and I heard similarities.  Some because of the widow who gives her last two coins, but more because of the part right before the widow where Jesus condemns the scribes.  He says: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

To better explain what Jesus is getting at, one pastor described the scribes this way:   

“they were the clergy, who wore long robes…however they were not paid the way our clergy are.  They were, in fact, forbidden to receive pay for doing their jobs, so they lived on subsidies instead—a little from their students, a little from the poor box, a little from the temple treasury.

Some scribes were not content with a little, however, and found ways to make a lot more—by using their positions to wrangle invitations to people’s homes, for instance, where they accepted the best seats, the best cuts of meat, the best cups of the best wine.  When they wore out their welcomes, no one dared to tell them so, least of all their poorer parishioners, who were glad to spend their savings on such esteemed guests. 

So, while the scribes may have been without money, they were not without honor, honor that some of them—not all of them, but some of them—turned to their own advantage.  When they felt that advantage begin to slip, they could always say, “Let us pray,” reminding everyone whose side they were on.”[2]

These scribes – again, not all, but some, and definitely the ones in the temple that day with Jesus – were predators, people using their power to get more out of others, unconcerned about what they took from others, even when those others were already poor and struggling.  These scribes were con-men, out for their own good alone. 

And sadly, it wasn’t just the scribes.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus was regularly pointing to the many people who abused power to oppress or take advantage of others.  And he didn’t just point to individual people. Jesus pointed out how individuals made up whole systems of oppression and power abuse.  Institutions and systems like the temple or the tax collectors or the whole government structure. 

Which brings us to the widow.  Most of the time, the widow is held up as the hero of this story, someone to admire and emulate, and that she might be.  This woman who gave her last two coins, quietly, without any big show.  This woman who gave it all.  The original Greek this passage was written in could have been translated to say she gave her whole life. 

But some scholars wonder if Jesus was pointing to the widow as a hero or if maybe he meant to contrast her with the scribes and say she was a victim.

One preacher said, “Jesus isn’t lifting this nameless widow up as a paragon of virtue…Though by highlighting her he does show her piety and devotion…Nevertheless, he is identifying with her as a victim of a system that has failed...of society’s failure…of the religious community’s failure.”[3]

Jesus contrasts the widow with the scribes to show that she is a victim of a system which would take her last two coins to increase the wealth of the corrupt scribes.  A system where she felt obligated to give to the point where she had nothing left.  A system which devoured the poor and powerless for the sake of those with a seemingly endless appetite for more – more money, more status, more power. 

And if we pay attention to when Jesus is saying this in the gospel of Mark, we would notice that Jesus is just a few days from his own crucifixion.  This is the last time he will use words to teach the disciples a lesson about the topsy turvy ways of God.  He has told them in many different ways how the first will be last and the last will be first.  Here in the temple, he showed them that while everyone is paying attention to the scribes as they parade around making a show, they should really be watching the poor, unassuming widow if they want to see what it really means to love God.  And just days after this, he stopped using words and instead showed us with his whole life.

He gave his life because those in power were threatened by him and didn’t want him to point out their corrupt and abusive ways and he wasn’t willing to stop preaching that they were going against God’s ways.   Jesus himself was devoured by these people, this system, where the rich and powerful would do anything to keep themselves from being like the widow, who they view as one only to be pitied. 

The scribes and widow are another example of what Jesus has been saying again and again: God does not operate like the world operates.  What is important on earth among people: money, status, power; does not matter in God’s kingdom.  Jesus taught of a God who invites us into a different way.  A way where our relationship with God is at the center, is the most important, and is what informs everything else.  A way where our trust in God offers us a peace no matter what our circumstances may be – whether we have a lot or a little, whether we are powerful or weak, whether we are well known or as invisible as the widow in the temple seemed to be.

The widow seems to have this kind of relationship with God.  She gives her last two coins not knowing what the next day will hold for her, but willing to believe God would take care of her, whether she lived or died.  She believed her whole life was in God’s hands with or without those two coins. Which Jesus believed too as he offered his whole life – his body and breath, his mind and soul – into God’s hands. 

So, here’s the thing:  this story is usually told during stewardship season – that’s when it comes up in the lectionary.  And here it is today, Commitment Sunday at Covenant and sure enough we are reading the story of the widow who gave her last two coins.  And it would be easy to just hold her up and ask you all to give a little bit more to the church this year – sacrifice a little more like the widow.  That’s the typical sermon for this story and this time of year – that we should sacrifice like the widow, like Jesus.  And that is a fine message – sacrifice is one of the components of our faith.  And sacrifice for the community where we can do things together – like all of the things Nancy reminded us we do – is a good goal.

There are lots of good reasons to pledge and give.  We pledge because we want to have this community to be a part of and we want for it to do good in the world. We pledge to remember God has given us everything we have and to show our gratitude by giving some of our blessings back to a place which will use them for God’s work.  We pledge to practice stewardship – to practice looking at all we have and making sure we aren’t only using it for ourselves and our own wants.  We pledge so together as a church we can try to build an institution that doesn’t take advantage of people or try to oppress people or abuse its power, like the scribes in the temple did.  We pledge in hopes of creating a place for our spirit to transform and grow and where we can come together to serve others.  These are all excellent reasons to pledge or give, but I’m not sure any of them are the message of the widow.  These are all reasons based in what WE can do – WE can be a part of creating a good church, WE can express our gratitude, WE can together do more good in the world. 

But the widow’s story reminds us that our pledges, our gifts and offerings, are also about having a place where we give enough to remember that there are plenty of things WE can’t do.  That no matter what protection we’ve set up for ourselves, no matter what we build, no matter how hard we work or how good we are, we cannot stop all or even most illness or troubles, tragedies or death.  That no matter what WE do, ultimately, our whole lives are in God’s hands. Whether we have very much or very little, we are in God’s hands.  Whether people think of us well or don’t think of us at all, we are in God’s hands.  Whether we do all the good we can or no good at all.  Scripture reminds us: whether we live or whether we die, we are in God’s hands. 

The widow knew this.  Jesus knew this.  And they lived like it. 

So, what would be different in our lives if we believed it too – really believed it?  Believed it enough to let go of the things we hold onto so tightly hoping they will be what save us. Maybe it’s our money.  Maybe it’s our home.  Maybe it’s our relationships, or our status, or our power or our health.  And what would happen if we stopped having faith in those things, uncurled our fingers and let them go, and trusted God would still be holding our life on the other side?  Your pledge, our stewardship season, this story of the widow and the scribes, are all opportunities to practice holding our things lightly and our relationship with God tightly.  They remind us to work on who we really want to be and how we really want to live.  And most of all, they serve to remind us of who we really belong to, where our faith and trust should be, who holds our lives each and every day.  May it be so. Amen.



[1] "Hoaxing Yourself." Interview. The American Life (audio blog), November 2, 2018. Accessed November 8, 2018. thisamericanlife.org.

 

[2] Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Preaching Life. Norwich: Canterbury, 2013.

 

[3] Kirby, Michael. "Northminster Presbyterian Church - Evanston." Northminster Presbyterian Church Evanston. November 8, 2015. Accessed November 8, 2018. https://northminpres.org/.

 

 

 
Newsletter
Calendar
Contact Us