Proper 27 (November 6-12)
Texts: Mark 12:38-44;
1 Kings 17:8-16; Heb. 9:24-28
MODELS OF GENEROSITY
Telling the story of Oseola McCarty, an African American woman who did laundry all her life and was able to donate $150,000 to start a scholarship fund for African Americans at University of Southern Mississippi. After hearing of Miss McCarty’s gift, Ted Turner, a multi-billionaire, gave away a billion dollars. He said, ‘If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.’ [full story and picture on half-sheet for children]
Models of generosity. Our theme began two months ago with Bev Dirkin’s newsletter story about her grandmother as a model of generosity. Last month, Don Jones continued with the story of Millard and Linda Fuller, the rich young couple who literally sold everything they had and helped to found Habitat for Humanity. Last week, Gary Bischof shared the wonderful story about his grandfather and the crosses he made. Last night, we heard more inspiring stories about parents and grandparents, employers and neighbors, and even of a whole culture of generous people, the Filipinos. I’m grateful to Jane Knuth for coming to share one of her stories that goes along with the poor widow in this morning’s Gospel. She told us the story of one of their impoverished thrift store customers who was so excited to find the bargains that would help her be more generous in her Christmas giving that year.
I had been reading Jane’s wonderful and inspiring books Thrift Store Saints and Thrift Store Graces — which I highly recommend — preparing to share more such stories this morning. Models of Generosity. But something disappointing happened on the way to the preaching. The story of the widow in this morning’s Gospel changed on me. I had wanted to tell more such stories because they are inspiring, but I was disappointed to discover that this Gospel story isn’t quite the story I thought it was.
So my task this morning is, in just a few short minutes here, to bring us all through the same kind of disappointment I experienced to the inspiration of an even greater story of generosity — which happens to be that same one we always gather to share each week here. I found, and I hope you do to, that going through this particular disappointment has deepened even more my appreciation for the singularity of that story of generosity which is our Lord’s Passion, the sacrifice of his life for us and for our salvation.
So what changed on me with this story of the widow? Like many others, I had grown accustomed to taking the last four verses of this Gospel to lift up and celebrate this widow as an extraordinary model of generosity. I was fully prepared to do that again today. Then, I began bumping into more and more commentators reminding me of the context of this story, which we can partially see in the first three verses of the slice that is this morning’s Gospel Reading. It starts out with an angry Jesus scolding the religious leaders for preying on the economically vulnerable, for “devouring the widow’s houses.” We go directly from that angry scolding to the scene of what? A generous offering by the widow, yes. But in this context it is also an example of how the system which the religious leaders presided over devoured the economically vulnerable. Do you feel my disappointment? The story changes from being primarily about a model of positive personal generosity to being primarily about an example of the oppression of the system.
And if you go wider then just these seven verses, the second reading is confirmed. What happens immediately after the widow’s offering is Jesus predicting the downfall of the entire Temple system. This whole portion of Mark’s Gospel has really been about just that, Jesus revealing the corruption and the downfall of their way of life as Temple centered. And, once again, understanding the First Century world helps. The Temple was not just the center of their religious life. It was the center of their economic and political lives, too. It was their central institution, and Jesus was revealing its corruption. Spirituality teacher John Shea puts it this way:
Throughout the Gospel Jesus has consistently championed human needs over the hardened practices of the synagogue. Now he targets the Temple treasury. When he sits opposite the treasury, it symbolizes that he is opposed to the whole temple atmosphere around money. It is a public affair with the rich parading their large sums. But Jesus is not concerned with the rich. They are never exploited. They give to the temple out of their surplus. … [T]he rich take care of themselves. But the widow divests herself of all support. Her generosity plays into the devouring greed of the Temple. Those who are supposed to protect her leave her, literally, penniless. What is most frightening is that she cooperates with her exploitation. (1)
Do you feel my disappointment? The story has changed on me from a positive story of inspiration to another story of challenge, another story of not just my sin as an individual sinner but of the sinfulness that has become embedded in our very institutions. Jesus is once again showing us that it’s not just us who are corrupt. It’s our very institutions, too.
So how can this change back once again to inspiration? For me it happened by going from our stories of generosity, as inspiring as they are, to that singular story of generosity, our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross. And it changes back to being inspiring only to the extent that Jesus died not just to save you and me but to also save our institutions. Because our institutions are every bit as much as what distinguishes us as human. The other animals don’t have institutions. We do, and its part of what makes us human. So if Jesus died to save you and me, he also died to save our institutions, too, because we are so completely bound up with them. It’s impossible to save us as individuals if God in Jesus isn’t also doing something to save our institutions at the same time.
Each and every Sunday we are presented with the mystery of the graciousness and completeness of this salvation, even if we aren’t fully aware of it. As much as our worship changes every week, every season, what are the words, the core of our worship, that is exactly the same every week? We call them the Words of Institution. “On the night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take this and eat. It is my body given for you.'” Words of Institution. In the simple act of eating and drinking each week, we are proclaiming Jesus’ salvation not only of us as individuals but also as individuals bound up in our institutions. His salvation of us includes a re-instituting of us.
How so? The long version is what we need to work out our whole lives through. The short version is summed up in the image of our Second Reading this morning from Hebrews. Here the writer is taking on that most central human institution of their day, the Temple (the same as in our Gospel Reading from Mark). It was central not only to the Jews, but the Greeks and the Romans and everyone else had their own Temples, too. And the writer of Hebrews is trying to help those early Christians understand how it is that Jesus came to fundamentally change our institutions, as well. At the center of our institutions are folks in control who preside over our spilling someone else’s blood, not ours. Jesus came with the act of generosity supreme that, as the Great High Priest, he spilled his own blood. He let himself be sacrificed. All this so that someday — and this is the unbelievable promise of God to us — someday no one’s blood will ever need to be spilled again.
On this Veteran’s Day, this is a tremendously important promise. Today we remember with genuine gratitude the terrible price many of our soldiers paid in letting their blood be spilled on our behalf. Their sacrifice is real, and it is significant. Our soldiers were willing to let their blood be spilled instead of their family and friends and fellow citizens back home. But we also have to recognize this: it also is not the same sacrifice that Jesus himself made, because he completely refrained from spilling anyone else’s blood. We have to face the fact that the vocation of the soldier is also to take someone else’s blood, if it comes to that in battle. Thomas Jefferson said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe that the writer of Hebrews would disagree with Thomas Jefferson. The really Good News on this Veteran’s Day is that God’s promise to us is that someday — and that day obviously hasn’t arrived yet — but someday we will no longer have a need for that terrible sacrifice of our soldiers. Because God in Jesus Christ has begun to turn our way of sacrifice into his, beginning to redeem not only us but our institutions, too. In this meal each and every week, we have the seeds planted in us of being re-instituted, of finding the ways, for example, in which poor widows are no longer sacrificed to the system but are properly cared for.
So as we pledge our support of this ministry in Christ’s name this morning as response not only to the models of generosity we have known in our lives, we also and especially celebrate that singular act of generosity in the history of humankind, the act of generosity which is changing history forever. It is our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross and God’s raising him to new life that truly has the power to save us, institutions and all. It was that singular act of generosity in history that has already begun to change things for the good, things like the abolition of slavery, the re-instituting of sexism and racism into a more true equity among God’s children. As we pledge to this ministry this morning, we also dedicate ourselves to being an institution of change for this world, of being a ministry that makes a difference. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 11, 2012