(This sermon concluded with the last of six FrostianaR Thompson pieces, in which the autumn preaching has been embedded. Our thanks to Mr. Jarrett and the Marsh Chapel Choir for their spirited, fine music this year, and through this season)
Twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, somewhere in the hills of Palestine, or perhaps in Jerusalem, a small group of radiant women and men gathered for worship. We are gathered here, 2000 years later, as descendents of this alto-voiced primitive Palestinian church. After song and prayer, a preacher stood to speak. Like all preachers he was carried both by memory and hope. His memory was as it was. Human, no doubt. His sermon was hope, all hope. And his hope was his sermon, too. In Christ Jesus, the preacher announced the possibility of living with hopeful abandon. We need to hear his word of hope. For we are a people in need of a rebirth of hope. On reliable hope hangs the future. To speak of hope, the preacher remembered, or realized, a story about Jesus and a widow, a poor widow, who lived with hopeful abandon. She gave all she had. She gave out of her poverty. She gave even her whole life.
I have felt her eye me—and you—all week. Are we living with abandon? Are we living with hope? Are we living with hopeful abandon?
Neither hope nor abandon accrues to most of our thinking about money. And whatever else may lurk within the phrases of Mark 12:41ff, the gospel seems to be about money.
Asked to speak to his Rotary club about sex, the preacher replied, ‘it would be my pressure—I mean pleasure’. So, too, with money. It would be my pressure…
People are funny about money.
Jan and I are tithers. We have learned, from others, over time the freedom and joy of giving away 10% of the year’s motley earnings. I encourage all Christians to begin the walk of faith by giving away a percentage—a tithe—however you finally want to calculate it. For your sake. For your own joy and health. Some generosity is a preamble, call it a prevenient discipline, a preemptive overture, to the obedience of faith. It is habit that produces virtue, not the other way around.
2. Money (can’t buy love)
Yet the widow sees deeper into us. For though some of life’s problems can be solved by writing a check, most cannot.
Neither getting nor spending, nor giving nor receiving, warns our widow, will give us life. You cannot take it with you.
My friend David Mosser is a pastor in Dallas. He has a unique sense of humor. He and others, from Texas to Maine, are trying to raise church budgets this year to pay for staff and for service to the poor, and a whole lot in between. David’s strategy—he claims—is to visit in each home, aided only by the presence of a single layman. His strategy succeeds. So I finally had the insight, the presence of mind to ask him who he takes along. ‘The undertaker’, he says.
I have done 30 funerals a year for 30 years, more or less. Not once did the hearse have a trailer in tow. Nor did any hearse of 2” or 1 1/2” trailer ball. Nor did any have a car top carrier. Nor did any have a luggage rack. Not one in 900.
I find it remarkable, truly uncanny, just how few men and women, daily, understand this.
None of the real, abiding matters of life give way before money alone…
Who am I?
What do I believe?
Whom can I trust?
To what may I give allegiance?
Where is my loyalty?
What is love?
Where is love?
Shall I ever truly be loved?
To whom shall I offer friendship?
With whom should I share my whole self?
And where and when and how?
Who will remember that I have lived?
What will he or she remember?
Who cares that I live now?
Will I ever escape the loneliness of freedom?
Is there truly a way to forgiveness?
Which matters more: how smart I am in the prime of life, or how dead I am at the end of life?
Does love outlast death?
Is it better to love and lose, or never to love?
Can I trust my own experience?
Can I trust my conscience to be my guide?
Is there life after blunder?
Where is love?
No, the limits of lucre are lucid. Money does not buy love.
Yet here is the widow and here are her two copper coins and hear them clink and jingle in the midst of the gospel. What does the widow mean? She looks deeper into you. Will the preacher please interpret the text?
It would be my pressure…I mean pleasure.
3. Interlude: An Alto Voice
Hers is a second level voice. Not originally that of Jesus—not soprano. Not written only by Mark—not tenor. Not absorbed in the history of interpretation—not bass (only one Commodianus, of all the early Christian writers, fully cites this passage—Commodianus, ANF IV, 221)
This minatory saying is like others from the gospels: woes for the cities of Galilee, woes for the rich, criticisms of the current generation, threats to this generation, threats to Jerusalem, woes to the daughters of Jerusalem, woes to those who say ‘lord, lord’, rejection of false disciples, warnings about the parousia, and others (RB, HST, 49).
Following Bultmann, regarding this biographical apothegm, the widow came to life in the experience of the Palestinian church—a true alto. (“There are objective criteria which yield the sure conclusion that at least the greater part of the doubtful passages were formed in the Palestinian church.”) Furthermore, this is the kind of narrative which best supports Dibelius otherwise overwrought argument that this material originated in sermons. Here his ‘theory of sermon paradigms has its greatest validity…they are best thought of as edifying paradigms for sermons…They help to present the Master as a living contemporary, and to comfort and admonish the Church in her hope’ (RB, HST, 60)
Matthew has censored the widow. Luke keeps her. Mark puts her in here, because of the use of the word widow earlier. “Jesus is the champion of the people against their extortionate and hypocritical leaders”…. ‘To do nothing where an act of love is required would be to do evil’…“At the sight of the actual state of the leaders of the people and of the great mass of the people itself—at the sight of religion frozen into ritualism, at the
sight of superficiality and love of self and the world—Jesus’ message
becomes a cry of woe and repentance”. (IBD, Mark)
4. Just Concern
The coins still jingle.
She looks hard at us, this widow does. Do you not wonder whether Jesus objected to her naïve piety, since it was not reciprocated by the rich?
I heard a speech last Sunday night, delivered in Topeka, Kansas. My wife was born while her family was in Onega, Kansas. My son-in-law, a Chicago preacher, was raised in Olathe, Kansas. One favorite theologian, Dorothy Gale, came from Kansas. No place like home. The blood of abolitionists, and the preaching of Boston University School of Theology graduates, formed an earlier Kansas. Whatever happened to Kansas?
In Topeka, the Kansas capitol, a leader made promises about taxes and terror—fewer of the former, and none of the latter. You keep your money, and we will keep you safe.
Two further readings of the widow are possible. One justice, the other, hope. Paradoxically, they contradict one another. They may reflect different strata in the gospel history, a soprano voice, to one side, an alto to the other. They are not the same sermon at all. So here they both are, and you make take whichever you need home, or both, or neither. Uncannily, though, they both reject Topeka. One rejects our materialism. The other rejects our fear.
First, while this has seldom been preached, the widow may represent Jesus’ further skepticism about political and religious materialism, that causes a poor woman, naively pious, to impoverish herse
lf in order to feed hypocritical scribes and other leaders, religious and political. Here is how such a reading would sound…(harsh voice) This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. They have given out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
Here is Jesus the Sabbath breaker, Jesus the friend of outcasts, Jesus the consort of the poor, Jesus the prophet, rising up, flaring up in Mark against a country in which the great have much and small have little. What one of us today truly, truly wants to face eternity, God, heaven, Jesus, or even the bathroom mirror lusting for tiny taxes in a rich land where urban children cannot read, where executives earn 250x the salaries of workers, where 30% have no health care, where infrastructure, environment, and communal interests go begging? Frugality we all affirm. But injustice? We have not looked hard enough at the widow before us today. Here she is, looking us in the eye. Here is the widow whose life has been taken from her by our various inverted pieties. (The second use of the word ‘widow’ here at least makes this reading possible). Do you really want to be remembered as a generation of people who, when push came to shove, preferred to tolerate grave injustice rather than shoulder taxes for the common good? Look…she has lost her whole living…
5. A Common Hope
Yet the concern for justice—one every pastor who has watched lonely parishioners send money off to television land has known—is not the widow’s might, or mite. It is a just concern, to be sure. But her lingering eye upon you bears something more. She looks deeper.
That is, second, it may be that this dear widow is truly a reminder of the joy that comes from tithing, from living with abandon, and giving with freedom. “She has given out of her poverty”. On this reading, not justice, but liberty is hailed. Do we want to be remembered as a people and a generation who let a few suffer in uniform for a war most have long since judged mistaken? As those whose hope was limited to security for ourselves, with little thought of those policing for us, let alone those maimed along the way? As those so imaginatively starved, so hope deprived, so love limited that all we can see is the fencing in of our own position? All protection and no risk?
This poor widow, like the babushkas of Russia who kept the Orthodox church alive under Stalin and Kruschev and Kosygin, stubbornly hopes. She embodies a hope that gives her courage, not cowardice. She lives with abandon. She lets her life speak. More: she lets her life preach. Do you? Do we? Do we glisten with that common hope that is the hallmark of the friends of Jesus, the communion of saints, the good church of every age, and the bones of Marsh Chapel?
For once, the lectionary does help us by retelling the story of Ruth, whose story is well worth your afternoon re-reading. Ruth and Naomi cross boundaries, love one another, and live with hopeful abandon. Our text today carries the culmination of that hope, Ruth’s reward. With the poor widow, Ruth lives leaning forward. Do we? Do we live with hopeful abandon?
Do we lean forward with the craggy chin of Elie Wiesel, who gently said on Monday, 10/23/06…Respect is the contradiction of fanaticism…information leads to knowledge, and knowledge to sensitivity, and sensitivity to commitment (2x)…I thought anti-semitism would have died in the camps but it did not…(RAH lecture notes)
Do we lean forward with the riveting gaze of Cardinal OMalley, who said on Tuesday, 10/24/06…What young people lack and need is a sense of calling, of vocation…I am speaking not of religious calling only, or mainly, but of a sense of purpose, of direction in life, of the investment of life in something of meaning and depth and power…What students need is a sense of calling, of letting their lives speak…(RAH lecture notes)
Do we lean forward with the English humor of NT Wright, who said on Wednesday…Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise…It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning. (Simply Christian, 229)
Do we lean forward with the spiritual and mental openness of John Macquarrie, whose book I finished that Thursday…With decline of myth as an intelligible form of discourse, religious faith too has tended to decline and Christianity has become less and less intelligible. On an ability to reformulate the insights of biblical faith in an intelligible, non-mythical way that will nonetheless avoid the reductionist error…may well depend the question of whether our Western culture will continue to hold to its Christian heritage in any lively way, or whether it will turn increasingly in the direction of a pure secularism. (God Talk: 180-181)
We are a people in need of a new rebirth of hope.
Hope that is responsible, communal, sacrificial, and orderly. Hope that moves us from political cowardice to religious courage. Look: she has given her whole life. Hope that, with Ruth and Wiesel and OMalley and Wright and Macquarrie and—especially—a certain watchful widow– asks of us a certain height.
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud –
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.