A Widow’s Mite- and what this might say about our time and talents

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Outside American Lutheran in Lincoln before worship on a beautiful and crisp late fall morning.

I had the privilege of being with the good people of American Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska today (Sunday November 11, 2018), thanks to the invitation of Pastor Carla Johnsen, and Stewardship Committee Chair Colin Wiggins. It was a great day of worship, as we remembered Veterans Day, but also celebrated the congregation’s “Time and Talents” survey and its stewardship focus. It was an honor to share the message, Children’s Sermon, and lead the Adult Bible Study conversation between worship services. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the Gospel of Mark 12:38-44, the appointed gospel from the revised common lectionary for the Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 32B).

Grace and peace from the Crucified and Risen God in Christ who loves you, is with you, and is for you. Amen.

Good morning American Lutheran. It’s great to be you. Thank you so much Pastor Carla and Colin and the Stewardship Committee for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings this morning from Bishop Brian Maas, your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Megan Morrow, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. I am excited to be with you on this your time and talents Sunday and to think some about stewardship and how we use all that God entrusts to us; to wonder a bit about dreams and how we are part of the church together, and to dwell in our gospel story today, a story especially about a widow and her two coins.

Neighbor Love and The Commandments
This week’s story picks up right after Jesus was asked by a scribe which commandment is the most important. To that question Jesus says, “The first is… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[1] It’s this question and then some theological discourse that follows that leads into today’s teaching from Jesus.

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The beautiful sanctuary before worship at American Lutheran.

While Jesus was teaching, he said “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes… and have the best seats…They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”[2] Jesus isn’t holding back today. And to be honest, we might all need to look in the mirror after reading this.

To some extent, we’re all hypocrites. Anyone in leadership or authority is rightfully subject to an increased level of scrutiny. It comes with the territory. But if you don’t practice what you preach and say you believe, if you don’t care for those God calls you to care for, and to be an example for others in your stewardship and care for your neighbor, woe to you. There will be consequences. There will need to be a great deal of confession and forgiveness. There will need to be changes.

Admittedly, like the scribes, subject of Jesus’ rebuke, we’re all sinners, and fall short. It’s important to admit that. But even when acknowledging that, that does not allow us then to just go about life and ignore those in need around us. If we know there are problems and evils like that of injustice, fraud, theft, and we don’t change or work to confront them; if we disobey Jesus’ summation of the commandments to love God and love your neighbor as yourself… well, again, there will be consequences.

A Woman and her two coins- one of the best Gospel Stewardship Stories
This all sets the stage for perhaps one of the best stewardship stories in the gospels.  Jesus today sits down opposite the treasury, the place where money is collected probably near the temple’s entrance. He wanted to sit and watch. Do some of you like to people watch when you are out and about? Perhaps when you’re traveling? Or maybe you’re like my grandma who loves to watch people and cars outside of her front window.

Jesus is kind of doing that today. But I think he is doing this, because he knows he’s about to witness something incredible. While sitting there, he “watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”[3] These woman’s coins were worth a penny, perhaps even less, because they were “the smallest unit of money in use at that time.”[4]

From a justice perspective, this widow is being taken advantage of here by the scribes. She is being scammed of her little wealth. She is giving all she possesses to the religious authority, not all that dissimilar to the way people prior to the Reformation paid for indulgences and in effect built St. Peter’s in Rome. It’s why Jesus is so hard on the Scribes. They should know better and care for the widow, orphan, and marginalized by society, yet, here they are, taking the little bit of money from a widow in deep poverty. These scribes, are not following Jesus’ summation of the law at all. And this widow deserves justice.

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A beautiful scene of fall, harvest, and Thanksgiving themes in the corner of the sanctuary. It’s an example of prayer, gratitude, and God’s abundance. How might this widow be an example of gratitude and trusting God’s abundance?

But I think there’s something else going on here too. Lost in most Bible translations, but more directly from the Greek, it says that Jesus “was watching HOW the crowd casts money into the treasury.”[5] Jesus isn’t looking at how much each person is giving, but how they make their gift or donation. Jesus is watching this woman, because he knows that he is witnessing God is up to something through her in his midst. And when we take the time to stop, quiet ourselves, and watch and listen, we too might sense and witness God up to something, like in the miraculous giving of a poor widow’s mite.

Jesus sees this, and tells the disciples what has happened. He 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.”[6]

This woman is giving all she has away to God. God is receiving 100% of her financial assets. Why? As a human being, I would say she is crazy. But as a faithful steward, I think she is exhibiting the deepest of faith, recognizing God’s power and ability with what she had. She wants to be part of something bigger than herself. But she also may well know the wisdom of the psalmist, who says that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…”[7] Put another way, “all that we have, and all that we are,” is God’s.

She understands that what she has, is in fact, not even hers, but God’s. So, what she is doing, is returning that which God has entrusted her with. That’s a different mindset than the rich people who gave before her. And that’s certainly a different mindset than that of the scribes, with their rich and flowing robes and long prayers. Jesus is making this clear to help the disciples see and understand this.

Time and Talents Sunday
Thinking about this woman, I wonder, what dreams does she have? It doesn’t say for sure, but by going all-in, I suspect she is a joyful yet quiet and humble giver. I wonder, what are the widow’s dreams for those two coins she offers? In giving all she has been entrusted with by God back to God, what is driving her? What vision has she seen? What might the Holy Spirit be up to in her life?

This woman is most certainly a steward. She is an example of faithful living and stewardship. And counter to the “buy, buy, buy” message in the Christmas shopping ads all around us already, this woman is all-in on God. How often can we say that we are all in? That we have put everything that we have, all that we are, for God’s work?

God doesn’t ask that you give up all that you have. God wants you to live abundant and full lives. But God also calls you as stewards to love and serve your neighbor. And to that end, God grants us so much- our time, talents, and treasure, but also God entrusts us with our: lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our stories, ideas, dreams, questions, strengths, passions, and vocations; and all of creation that surrounds us and we are a part of. All of this, makes us who we are. And when we think like this, we start to get a glimpse of our whole selves as stewards, much like this widow in this story.

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The people of God gathered together in worship at American Lutheran in Lincoln. Between the gifts of music and worship, and all of the other gifts in the pews, think of how many different talents this congregation has to offer in doing God’s work together.

I wonder, what all makes you who you are? And what unique talents, gifts, time, treasures, might you offer and enjoy sharing as part of God’s work? And especially as part of God’s work here together, as the People of God of American Lutheran in Lincoln? What kind of church do you want to be a part of? And where, what, or how might God be calling you to share through your unique selves as part of God’s work?

In our baptisms, we are swept up in the water and the word, and promises of God. As we are claimed, sealed, and marked by God, we are called into relationship not only with God but with all of God’s children. And when this happens, we are turned outward towards our neighbors near and far. So, as God entrusts us with all that we have, to live meaningful and abundant lives, God does so in part because we are called into relationship not only with God but our neighbor, and through that relationship God often uses us as God’s hands and feet in the world, bearing God’s love and mercy, meeting our neighbor’s needs through our various gifts, strengths, passions, talents, time, and treasure.

Our Response to God’s Love
This is our stewardship. It’s a rich and deep thing. It’s also what life as a disciple and Child of God is like, living in response to God’s love for us. God has done the hard work once and for all. The widow in today’s story offered her whole earthy worth, I believe because she was deeply moved and overcome by God’s love for her. Likewise, we give and offer our whole selves- our time, talents, and treasures and all that makes us who we are, because we are so moved by what God has done for us, continues to do, and promises to do.

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From my vantage point behind the pulpit, I wasn’t able to see the whole youth vocal and chimes choir that is American Lutheran’s “Joyful Noise,” but as you can see on the far left, and one head over the pulpit on the right, they provided a beautiful and meaningful performance of “Dona Nobis Pacem.”

God becomes incarnate and born for us, God comes as one of us, and walked and lived as one of us, God was handed over, crucified, died, and buried, for us, and of course as we know the rest of the story, was resurrected and ascended for us. God does all of this, as only God could do. Because that is God’s work. And God does this, out of a deep and abiding love. A love for all of God’s people and creation, that leads to turning death and the world’s assumptions and ways of thinking on their heads. Using the ugliness of a symbol of death, the cross, God turns it into a means by which with hands and arms outstretched, God says “I am for you,” once and for all, offering life abundant.

We could never earn any of this. This is a gift, pure and simple grace. But when we acknowledge this, it’s impossible not to be swept up in gratitude, and joy, enfolded in God’s love. And when that joy catches us, we want to be a part of God’s work in the world. We can’t help but share with our neighbors. And we, like the woman, can’t help but participate and do what we can, as God calls us and entrusts us, turning us outward to the world, as bearers of God’s love, with open hands like Christ himself.

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American Lutheran’s current cause of the month, is our church’s serving arm partner, Mosaic.

We Are Church Together
On this Time and Talents and stewardship Sunday, our story is also a good reminder of how we are church together. I know you understand this. You have a special cause of the month each month, and this month you are focusing on our church serving arm, Mosaic. Thank you for being the faithful stewards of God’s love and of all that you are here in Lincoln. And, thank you for deeply considering all your gifts, passions, and vocations as you fill out your time and talents surveys. By sharing what makes you, “you,” God’s work is done here locally and globally in new and exciting ways.

One of those ways is through your congregation’s continued participation in mission share. Mission share are the offerings that your congregation shares with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA, through which you do ministry that spans the globe changing lives. Through it, you raise up new leaders, pastors and deacons. You support missionaries and new and renewing ministries here in the Big Red State and around the globe. Through it, you support your neighbors in need through our church’s serving arms like Lutheran Camps Ministries, Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries, Mosaic, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Family Services, and so much more. Thank you for being a part of this work, and for truly being part of the Church Together.

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The worship ensemble leading the contemporary service was wonderful- a great team of disciples sharing their musical gifts. Not pictured, but at 11:00am, I stopped in the middle of my sermon as Taps was played from the balcony on trumpet, marking the 11th Hour of the 11th day of of the 11th month, marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Putting It Altogether
In today’s story, God works through a widow, a marginalized person in her world, to show what the life of service, discipleship, and stewardship looks like. It might be quiet, and from the outside world might seem small. But if you look a little deeper, there’s a deep joy and a deep story of God at work in that widow, just like we’re all a part of God’s work in the world as stewards and disciples.

If God uses her, how might God work through us in bringing food, life, and hope for our hurting and broken world in need? There are so many ways that we bear this out. Thank you for being the stewards that you are, returning to God a portion of what is God’s, and for being joyful co-workers with God, through whom some of God’s kingdom building work is done. Thanks be to God for all of you, and thanks be to God for this life together that we share in the One who gave himself for us. Amen.

Citations, References, and Notes:
[1] Mark 12:29-31, NRSV.
[2] Mark 12:38-40, NRSV.
[3] Mark 12:41-42, NRSV.
[4] Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman, Lutheran Study Bible, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 1684.
[5] Thanks to friend and colleague Rev. Juliet Hampton for making this connection and observation for me.
[6] Mark 12:43-44, NRSV.
[7] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.

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