Widows and Veterans and Scribes, Oh MY!

November 8, 2015

Bible Text: Mark 12:38-44 |

I’m not sure if it’s intentional that the story of the widow’s mite shows up in our lectionary cycle around the traditional time of a church’s fundraising efforts or not, but it hardly seems accidental.

 

Back when I was sitting where you are rather than standing up here, I had only ever heard sermons on the widow’s mite that extolled the virtue of the widow.  The message was loud and clear:  look how gracious, how generous this woman is; she has given everything she has to the temple.  Conversely, those with more gave comparatively less, so give more!  Give in faith!  Give generously!

 

Isn’t that the interpretation with which we’re most familiar?

 

It is certainly a direct, timely, message, but in the end, I find it vaguely unsatisfactory and even, in a way, applauding a blatant cruelty.

 

It is a cruel thing to be a person who is without voice or position in her society—who, without a man to protect her—whether husband, brother, or son, is dependent upon the offerings she receives from the temple.  It is a misery to be so vulnerable in a violent world while those in position—the scribes, in this case—are given every honor.

 

The scribes, those in the temple who prayed long prayers, flounced around in long robes, and were seated on the dais in the temple—in front of the people.  Sound familiar?  It should.

 

I have a couple of friends from seminary who, after they were ordained, wore their clericals—their collars and ‘clergy wear’ everywhere.  I know this because they would tell me stories about how people reacted to them once they were recognized as ‘clergy’.  Everyone from the orthodontist to the grocer treated them differently than they had before.  They received a bit more respect—a little more accommodation than they did out of ‘uniform’.  And they loved it.

 

Mind you, this was in Texas where clergy are still—to a degree—revered.

But I have to say, even here in the un-churched Pacific Northwest, I have experienced the same sort of phenomena.

When I happen to be out and about in my collar—usually on my way home from work, or in the midst of a workday—people tend to treat me differently than they ever did when I was merely “Laura of the Laity”.

 

They tend to say things, like, “God bless you” or they apologize if they swear in front of me—I can’t begin to tell you how funny my family finds this!!  Or, they engage me in conversations about a loved one, or their own search for a church, or their problems with God—or their ability to believe at all.

 

This summer I was at a friend’s house on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday.  I found myself in the kitchen speaking with two women I hadn’t previously met.  We visited for quite a while and I found out one was in public relations and another was hugely involved in her children’s programs at school.  Then, they asked what I did.

 

“I’m an Episcopal priest,” I said, and the looks on their faces were akin to what they might be if I’d said I was a colonizer from the planet Zorton.

 

“What?” one said, “That is SO weird!!”  Then came the reaction I’ve frequently noticed—I watched her facial movements as she began replaying our conversation in her mind—searching for clues, trying to remember what she’d said; had she said anything inflammatory?  Had she said too much about her life?  What was it I had said?  Didn’t I swear a moment ago?  How was she supposed to reconcile the shorts-clad, middle-aged woman standing in front of her sipping a Mike’s Hard Lemonade, with all her ideas around Church, and Clergy, and Religion and dour old men dressed in black?

 

The truth of the matter is that regardless of how authentically ‘regular’—how approachable—Eric, or Marilyn, or I want to be.  No matter how much we want to know you and be known by you, we will always—by necessity-- be set a tiny bit apart.  We will always be uncomfortably close to the scribes Jesus is decrying in today’s gospel lesson.

 

The very scribes who devoured widows houses and whose cultural standing was ultimately destroyed right along with the temple.

 

At the other end of the spectrum from the scribes, of course, is the widow.  She is offering up her very livelihood—the last bit of her security, any hope she has of a life, to a corrupt and condemned system.  Sound familiar?  It should.

 

And it is this idea of offering that I think is the most important for us today.  Yes, it is fundraising season, and yes, the Stewardship committee would be most pleased with me if I used the occasion of today’s reading to remind you all to turn in your pledge cards.  But the offering of the widow is so much more than two small coins, so much more than financial.  It is her all.  It is her life.  For good or for ill, whether the temple deserves it or not, she gives all she has.

 

Just as Jesus gives all he has to a corrupt, unrepentant world.

The temple doesn’t deserve the widow’s offering.  We certainly don’t deserve Jesus’ but it has been given nonetheless.

 

We are called to offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, for the furtherance of the mission of the Church in this world.  Is the Church perfect?  Of course not—it has a bloody, violent, history laden with corruption and schism.  It has been steered away from God’s desire by power hungry and frightened human beings.  And yet it is still worth our energy—it is still worth the offering of our lives because when it works, when the body of Christ operates as one living into the redemptive dream of the creator, there is nothing that compares to its sweetness.

 

This Wednesday, November 11th, we will celebrate Veterans’ Day.  The actual date, as you may know, commemorates the cessation of fighting between the Allies and Germany in World War I—at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

 

And in 1926 when Congress officially acknowledged the date, it did so with this language:

 

it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.

 

And I am struck at the similarity of this intention and the following question from our baptismal covenant:

 

Will you strive for justice and peace among all

people, and respect the dignity of every human

being?

 

The intent of the Church as well as the hope of the nation has always been bent toward peace; no, the Church isn’t perfect and nor, God knows, is our nation.

 

However, in their own ways, they demand our offerings.  In the Episcopal Church, we enter into covenant with God through the words of our baptismal vows – we make explicit our desire to live as an offering for the furtherance of God’s kingdom.

 

All who are enlisted in the armed forces promise to defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic.  Now we can argue til the cows come home about the finer points of the constitution—but it remains the best hope of a nation ever documented; it continues to reflect the desires of those who dreamt of something more, something infinitely more equitable than what had come before.

 

And we honor, today, those amongst us who have willingly offered their lives in service to the hope of a nation and the protection of its shores.

 

Will all veterans present please stand?

 

Let us pray.

Gracious God, we give you thanks for these your servants.  We have been blessed as a nation and as a community by their willingness to offer up their lives to a purpose that is greater than individual goals and to the ideal of freedom and peace.  We ask you to heal any wounds they may have suffered as a result of their service and to let light perpetual shine on those who have made the ultimate offering.  We also pray for the day we shall live in peace with all your children in the world.  Amen

 

Thank you all.

 

In a few minutes we will baptize baby Felix into the body of Christ.  We will stand with his parents as they offer up their son to God.  We will offer our support and our prayers as Felix is ritually united with Christ in his death and resurrection.  And we will offer up ourselves, once again, as we join with Felix in renewing our vows.

 

We offer up ourselves in full knowledge that we are part of a flawed Church with a dicey past and a present that sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable.  We are members of the communion of saints living out our lives in the midst of the incarnation.  We are not perfect; indeed, we all at times exemplify both the scribe as well as the widow.  But we show up nonetheless.  We say the words, we eat the bread, sip the wine, and, along with Felix, we experience the waters of our baptism and the smell of the oil in each moment of offering ourselves to this flawed and beautiful Church.

 

We offer our lives up in hope of the redemption of the world.

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