Sermon Archive

You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Why Did She Give?

Why Did She Give?
Mark 12:41-44
September 20, 2015
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

Some of you might have heard that Scripture reading and thought to yourselves “Did I miss something?”  Some of you may have read the sermon title and looked over the card inserted into your bulletin, and then leaned over and asked your neighbor “What date is it? September 20? Has the Stewardship Campaign started already?”

No, you can relax a bit longer.  The 2015 Stewardship Campaign does not start until the first Sunday in October. This passage from the Gospel of Mark is the basis of the iconic Stewardship sermon, but it comes to us now because we are coming to the end of a summer of reading and exploring Mark’s good news together.

If this was October and if I was asking you to think about your financial giving to the church, you would be justified in thinking that you were going to hear a sermon that you’d heard before…maybe several times before.

“This poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury,” Jesus says to his disciples. “All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

“And you?” the preacher asks, either directly or – more often – by implication, in this perennial Stewardship sermon. “Do you give everything?”

“Well no, of course not,” you might think every year. “Who in their right mind would do that? What’s the point of giving when you have nothing left to give?  Who sitting in the pews here, today, would give everything they possess and put it in the hands of the church? What kind of wise stewardship is that?”

We might admire the widow from this story, but we know we’re not like her.  We don’t really want to be like her.  It doesn’t actually make any sense to be like her.  We admire her, but we stand at a distance.  To be honest, I think we must admit that we also pity her. She is a very good woman, but she doesn’t seem to have much common sense.  She seems to us…a little crazy.

But this is not the annual Stewardship Campaign sermon!  So we are free to ask other questions of this passage.  It is September, not October, so it is possible to consider other angles of interpretation.

What we can we imagine about this poor widow? If we did not start by assuming that she was a little crazy,  but gave her the benefit of the doubt and began by thinking of her as in her right mind…what might the backstory be that results in her giving everything? What would lead someone to do such a thing?

I can think of a few possibilities…

Maybe she gives this way out of habit.  It’s how she was raised. Her grandparents gave this way; her parents gave this way; now she does. 

We’re using our imaginations here, right? So even though it doesn’t compute historically, we can imagine that when she was a little girl, she got an allowance.  A dollar maybe.  Her father would give her 10 dimes every Saturday: nine were for her to use for herself, one was to put in the offering plate at church.  She can’t even remember when that was explained to her, and she certainly doesn’t remember ever objecting to it. She loved being able to drop that dime into the plate as it went past. It made her feel grown up.

And now it has become part of her muscle memory, like riding a bicycle. It’s part of who she is; she doesn’t even think about it.  Giving at a level that others might consider sacrificial doesn’t feel sacrificial to her. She’s never felt deprived or disadvantaged.  Her financial habits mean that she’s always shunned an expensive lifestyle; she just never saw the attraction of it.

She gets up out of her seat to stand in the line of people waiting to give their donations to the Temple. She knows the people in line behind her.  She knows that they live in bigger houses, go on more expensive vacations and drive bigger cars. (We just imagining this, right?) But when she thinks about that very different lifestyle that they lead, she feels as if she is looking at them from up on a balcony; she has the long view. She is able to tell the difference between was is temporary and illusory and untrustworthy…and what is lasting and eternal and of infinite value.

In the widow’s life there have been times of plenty and times of want.  She knows firsthand that having more money doesn’t necessarily make you happier – there’s always more to want. She’s aware of how easily money can become a master.  She prefers to make it her servant, to possess it instead of being possessed by it.

As she waits in the line, holding her two coins, the widow remembers a story she read somewhere…so long ago she can’t remember where now. The story was about a man, Pakhom, who farms the land given to him by his father.  He wants more land, so he scrimps and saves and buys more land. But still it is not enough.

He sells his land and buys a bigger parcel on the other side of the country, where land is cheaper.  But still he is dissatisfied.

Finally, Pakhom hears about a place where the king is offering an extraordinary deal.  If you give the king all your money, you may take possession of all the land you can walk around in a single day.  Pakhom imagines how far he could walk in a day, and all the land he could own. So he sells his property and gives all the money to the king.

Before sunrise the next day, the king’s manager hammers a stake into the ground.  Pakhom must return to the stake before sunset, and all the land that he circles before that time will be his. The day dawns and he runs at full speed, covering as much territory as possible. 

As the sun rises and the day heats up, Pakhom slows down and begins to circle back to the stake. But then he sees lush pastures that he must possess, so he changes direction in order to include them. As the sun moves lower, he fears that he may not get back to the stake in time. He runs harder to reach it before sunset, pushing himself beyond exhaustion. With only minutes to go, he comes within view of his goal. Driving his body beyond its capacity to continue, he collapses and dies just beyond reach of the stake.

The widow edges her way in the line, coming closer to the treasury box.  She fingers the two small coins in her hand. She knows she can’t take them with her.

Or maybe she gives this way not so much out of habit, as out of a sense of responsibility towards and gratitude for this congregation.

She’s been part of this worshipping community for as long as she can remember.  It’s meant everything to her over the years.  She and her husband were married here; their children were dedicated here. The people of this congregation helped raise her children. Their support and care was how she made it through the death of her husband. They have been everything to her – her religious life, her social life, her understanding of herself, her identity.

Standing in line, she looks up at the ceiling and across, at the windows. All of this was built by people long, long ago – people who didn’t know her, but who knew how much this community might mean to someone like her. In exactly the same way, she cares about the generations that will come after her: her grandchildren, yes, but also her neighbors’ grandchildren, and people whom she will never know.

The widow laughs as she remembers the weekend prior, when she was helping in the kitchen for a community meal.  She’d sat down to rest her feet and noticed one of the younger mothers, struggling to pour the lemonade while balancing her 4-month infant on one hip. “Let me hold him,” the widow offered. She and the baby sat together watching the activity around them.

As people filed into the fellowship hall, picking up their plates and plastic ware, they smiled at the widow and asked “Another grandchild?” “When did this happen?” “Which of your kids does this one belong to?”

She found herself saying several times, “Oh, this one isn’t mine; I’m just holding him for a minute.”

Remembering that now, the widow tears up a little. She kept telling people that the baby wasn’t hers, but he was hers.  He was part of her faith family. She’d been part of this congregation her whole life, and in God’s eyes she was a grandmother to more than just her children’s children.

“This is for all my grandchildren,” she thinks, and she drops the two coins into the box.

The widow might have given her last two coins out of habit. She was raised to become the kind of person who believes that money is meant to be used; she knows that you can’t take it with you. 

Or she might have done it out of a sense of connection to her faith community and a sense of responsibility for the generations that will come after her.

She might also have been so generous out of gratitude to God.

When her husband was alive he owned the land they lived on and farmed. Now their son owns it, he farms it, too.  He has allowed her to stay in her house for as long as she can, and she knows there will always be a place at his family’s table, should she need it.  He is a good man, her son, but she senses that he thinks of the land he farms as his…while she has come to regard it as God’s.

That little patch of soil, she thinks, it doesn’t actually belong to any of us.  It didn’t begin with us; it won’t end with us.  We claim to own it, but it existed long before any of us used it and it will be used by others long after we are gone.  We can say that our property belongs to us, but really we’re just the temporary managers. If there was anything her husband’s death taught her it was that: God has given us the land and all that it produces for our use and enjoyment, just as God has given us the people we love for care and companionship, but ultimately, everything – and everyone – belong to God.

Returning to her pew in the sanctuary, the widow notices the young rabbi in the corner, standing with some of his disciples.  She wonders what they are discussing.  She’s heard that he is a wise man; people travel long distances to her him preach and to ask him for healing. Some have said he is a prophet, like Elijah or John the Baptist.  Some are even calling him the Son of David, as if he were the new king of Israel.

What does she know?  She’s only a poor widow who has foolishly given away her last two coins. Her son will no doubt disapprove when he learns what she has done. But God has gotten her through harder times than these; she trusts that God will do it again.

She is a poor widow…but she is also a child of God, and she knows it.  That, she thinks to herself, is why I gave my coins. Not because I thought I had to, or because I promised I would, or because I worry what people will think if I don’t… I give because I know that I am made by God in God’s image. And God has given me so much in this life – life, love, this community, God’s own steadfast presence through all that has happened to me. I give because God gives, and it gives me such joy to be the person God created me to be.

Take a minute now to consider why you give.  When you give to the church, or to another cause or organization you care about, or maybe to a person…why do you give? If you feel comfortable, please put the card in the offering plate as it passes by later in the service. You can include your name or not, as you wish. We hope to use some of your responses in our worship services next month, as part of our Stewardship Campaign.

None of what we have imagined about the widow is in the biblical text. The text doesn’t tell us why the widow did what she did. If we were Jewish we might use the word “midrash” to name this kind of imaginative “fleshing out” of the biblical story. It’s not biblical, but it can be, nevertheless, holy storytelling.

But since we are engaging in midrash, perhaps we can also imagine that the widow, if she had lived in the 20th century, might be an admirer of the great African-American theologian Howard Thurman, who wrote the following words as part of his book-length meditation called Deep Is The Hunger:

...I must let go of everything.
I must let go of everything but God.
But God--May it not be
That God is in all the things to which I cling?
That may be the hidden reason for my clinging.
It is all very puzzling indeed. When I say
"I must let go of everything but God"
What is my meaning?
I must relax my hold on everything that dulls my sense of Him,
That comes between me and the inner awareness of His Presence
Pervading my life and glorifying
All the common ways with wonderful wonder.
"Teach me, O God, how to free myself of dearest possessions,
So that in my trust I shall find restored to me
All I need to walk in Thy path and to fulfill Thy will.
Let me know Thee for myself that I may not be satisfied
With aught that is less."