Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Sermons I Write

I used to write pretty good sermons. That's my opinion I guess but once in a while I'd write something I could be pretty proud of. Lately I've not been so proud of my sermons though. It's probably a combination of laziness and being pressed for time but often I'll piece together things from various sources, change them a bit to sound more like me or to agree with my/our theology, and expand on something here and there, and then get up on Sunday and preach it. They're usually pretty decent sermons but rarely something that's all mine.

So much for confession time. Here's the sermon I preached on the 12th. Again, gathered from a few different sources with some editing and additions but I thought it was pretty good. I don't even remember where I got some of the bits and pieces so I can't attribute them. If anyone recognizes anything you can give credit where credit is due in the comments.

23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 12, 2006
Mark 12:38-44
Thomas Arth

She was a woman.
She was poor.
These are two facts anyone could tell that day
in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem.

She was also a widow who was down to her last two coins.
These are facts that Jesus also knew about her.

She was a woman of great faith.
She became a living sermon.
She remains an icon of faith
as she put her whole trust in God,
not holding anything back.

So often in these Bible stories we don't get a name.
Oh, there are portions of the Bible
that go on and on with genealogies
and names we have a hard time pronouncing,
and frankly nobody really cares what a lot of their names were.
But it's too bad that often we might like to know a person's name
and we don't get it.
This unnamed woman is known now
by her marital status and her coins rather than her name,
for the story is "The Widow's Mite"
and she is "The Widow."
The King James Version says
"there came a certain poor widow,
and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing."
One of my commentaries says
she gave two lepta which make a quadrans,
which was worth one-sixty-fourth of a denarius,
the pay of a day labourer.
If you did some crude math,
you're talking about the value of about 10 minutes' work.
What's even more amazing
is that she gives both of these two coins.
She could have kept one.

Mark briefly sets the scene for us.
Jesus has been teaching in the temple courts.
Now, on his way out, he pauses by the treasury
to watch as offerings are made.
Each person would walk up
to one of thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles,
which were lined along the wall of the Court of the Women.
Apparently, as they tossed in their offering,
the person was expected to say aloud
the amount and purpose of the gift
in order to be heard by the priest overseeing the collections.
I don't know how that would work here.
As the offering plate is passed down the row
one person says "here's $500 to pay the gas bill"
another says "here's $150 to pay the hydro bill"
another says "here's $100 to tune the organ"
another says "here's $80 for communion wine"
another says "here's $ 50 for paper to print the bulletins"
another says "here's $20 to pay the pastor."
I actually heard of a church where the treasurer
pinned copies of the various bills on the bulletin board each month
and people could then adopt a bill and pay it that month.

We don't do that kind of thing and I don't think we should,
but something I read suggested
that's what happened in the temple in Jesus' time.
People walked up to these large containers
and dropped in their offering,
calling out the amount they were giving.
It would have been an impressive sight
to see people in fine clothes tossing in large sums,
calling out for everyone to hear, how much they gave.
And in such a group, who would notice the widow
tossing the two smallest coins in the realm into the offering?
Yet, in a move that is so like him,
Jesus notices and calls attention to this act of faith.
And it was an act of faith.

Jesus calls his disciples together and says,
"Truly I tell you,
this poor widow has put in more
than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
For all of them have contributed out of their abundance;
but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had,
all she had to live on."

Jesus knows that these are not any two coins,
but the woman's last two coins.
The text says, "All she had to live on,"
but the Greek is starker still.
What is really said is that she put in her "bios."
It's the word from which we get "biology," the study of life.
Sometimes our English Bibles lose something in the translation.
I think there's quite a difference here.
The New Revised Standard Version I read says
the widow put in "all she had to live on."
The Contemporary English Version says
"Now she doesn't have a cent to live on."
The New Jerusalem Bible, "all she had to live on."
New International Version, "all she had to live on."
New Living Translation, "everything she has."
The good old King James Version, "all her living."
I don't go back to the original Greek every week
to come up with my own translation,
and I admit that I didn't come up with this myself.
Something I read suggested an alternate translation
so I checked the Greek to see for myself if this was the case
and sure enough there it was, ‘bios.'
What Jesus tells us is that the widow put her "life"
into the temple treasury that day.
She walked up to the offering bowl and gave her life.
In one paraphrase of the Bible called "The Message"
written by Eugene Peterson
I found a phrase that comes closer to that meaning
than any of the other translations I checked.
In it Jesus says,
"The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection
than all the others put together.
All the others gave what they'll never miss;
she gave extravagantly what she couldn't afford—
she gave her all."

Now this is not a sermon about tithing,
for the woman did not give ten percent of her income.
We often talk about proportional giving
and the tithe, or ten percent,
is the best known of the Bible's teachings
on proportional giving.
This story is something else entirely.
In terms of actual dollars,
the widow's pennies are nothing
compared to the large sums being put in the offering by the rich.
However, in terms of percentage giving,
the offering of the poor widow
dramatically exceeded the larger sums of the rich.
See, percentage giving, tithing, is a two-edged sword.
For those who don't have large financial resources,
percentage giving is a word of great comfort.
Such people can know that in God's eyes
their "small" gift is not small at all,
but incredibly generous.
For those who have greater financial resources,
percentage giving calls them to account
if their gift is larger in dollars
but still quite small in percentage.
Jesus singled out the widow for praise.
For a poor widow,
the gift of $5.00 can involve a much greater sacrifice
than that experienced by a millionaire
who gives $50,000.
These were her last two coins to rub together,
and rather than keep one back,
she tossed both into the temple treasury's coffers.
The widow gave 100 percent of her money.
The widow is down to two practically worthless little coins,
and she trusts it all to God.
If this were a gamble,
then the widow would be laying all her money on God.
But this is not a gamble,
for the widow does not bet her money;
she trusts her life to God.
Her offering was an act of faith.

It would be nice if Mark filled in more details for us.
Was Jesus' arm around the woman as he said,
"This poor widow has put in more …"
or was the woman blending back into the crowd,
never to be seen again?
Maybe Jesus asked his own keeper of the purse, Judas Iscariot,
to give something to this woman
so that she wouldn't go hungry that evening.
Or better still, did the widow come to be a Christ follower?
Did she join with the other women who journeyed with Jesus
from Galilee to the cross and beyond?

The Gospel never answers these questions.
The nameless widow who gave two small coins
fades into the background.
We may want to know her name
in order to name churches, schools, and hospitals in her honour.
We may want to give her a place of honour in Jesus' stories
alongside disciples whose names we know.
We know something about their faith.
Their trust in God wasn't always such a great example.

Maybe namelessness is appropriate for this living parable.
And maybe it is best, too,
that we don't find out how her story ends.
The nameless woman whose ultimate fate we never know
is perhaps an even better icon of trust,
for her story was a precarious one.
She went to the temple that day
not knowing if she would ever have two little coins
to call her own again.
It could have been her path to a life of begging
or even a station on the road to starvation.

But in facing an uncertain future,
the widow reached out to God.
She trusted that if she gave everything she had to God,
even the little she gave would be honored.
And whether she was repaid handsomely by Jesus himself,
or God cared for her in some other way,
we, too, have to trust.
We trust that the widow's story turned out all right.
We trust that whether she lived or died,
she was God's.

And by her example,
Jesus shows that what we withhold
may matter more than what we offer.
The widow was a woman of great faith,
who held nothing back.
She knew what Jesus' disciples were just learning:
we are to give,
knowing that everything we have is God's already.
We can't give God anything.
But we can offer our very selves to the Kingdom of God,
holding nothing back.

She was a woman.
She was poor.
She was a widow down to her last two coins.
She was a child of God
who placed her whole life
back in her loving creator's hands.


Inheritor of Heaven said...

Very interesting that the first time I stop on your page, I am thinking about this very story. I was asked to take over the youth teaching time this week for the youth pastor. The topic is "The miracle of giving, subtopic the miracle of giving money" If you don't mind I would like to quote portions of your page, especially your teaching about the word 'bios' in the context of the widow's giving. Thanks for sharing your sermon with us on your blog.

Toto, We're Not In Kansas Anymore said...

Enjoyed your sermon - just in time for my SS (another ELC in Ontario) lesson, for 5th & 6th graders. I enjoyed your contrast of different translations, especially the Greek, and will use it tomorrow. Thanks!