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Everything She Had

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

November 11, 2018
Mark 12:38-44; 13:1-2

A Reading from the Gospel of Mark

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and 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. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “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.”

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The thing about this story is that Jesus could not have seen it happen. The Jerusalem temple is sectioned off, and the treasury itself would have been behind several walls behind where Jesus and his followers were sitting, and so if you want to fall into a rabbit hole where we do a CSI-style diagram of the scene it’s simply not physically possible for Jesus and his crew to have seen what they see.  And frankly, even if they could have seen it, we would still have to explain how Jesus begins to exercise a degree of clairvoyance that doesn’t show up anywhere else in Mark’s gospel. He knows exactly how much money she puts in.  He identifies her as a widow without so much as a conversation. And somehow he knows that the coins she puts in are the very last coins she has. This is some exceptional detective work, even for Jesus. Mark doesn’t give any good reasons for him to know all the stuff he knows. He just knows her, sight unseen.

By now, of course, we know her too, very well. This woman and her last two coins have become the paradigm for church fundraising. I didn’t seek out this story for preaching this morning; the lectionary presented it to me; nonetheless, it sort of is the story for how we’re supposed to talk about the money we put in the church treasury, it’s got that special church math written all over it. The wealthy folks who drop big checks because they don’t even feel the impact, and here, this poor woman, whose two coins won’t make a hill of difference to the mission of that place, this woman whose two coins won’t pay the light bill for an hour or run the photocopier for a minute much less pay a days’ wages for any of the priests running around but this woman’s two coins go through that special church math and they become invaluable, they add up to something bigger, they multiply like the loaves and fishes that came before, because she feels the cost, because she gives of herself, and there’s a fine sermon here wherein we are all called to give in ways that cost something and won’t you do that with me here at University Presbyterian Church but that is not quite the sermon I want to give today.

The question I have is a little different, because it starts by wondering how it is that Jesus knows all the stuff about this woman that he could not possibly have known. Modern scholarship argues that the most likely explanation for Jesus’s sudden psychic power is that the story itself is really more of a parable, maybe it’s a parable that Jesus told, the parable of the woman giving at the temple, and now Mark has retold it as part of Jesus’s actual ministry. But notice that Mark has spliced this parable in a most peculiar spot. As you heard in the beginning of the reading, the tone that immediately precedes this story is quite different; just beforehand, Jesus is preaching with anger about the hypocrisy of the religious scribes who go around looking for respect but then turn particularly on the widows and take their fortune. And then immediately after this story one of Jesus’s disciples remarks at the craftsmanship in the temple and the city and Jesus prophecies that not one of the stones will be left upon another, all will be thrown down. So in the middle of this, with Jesus talking about the corruption of the religious leaders on one hand, and with Jesus predicting the collapse of the whole institution on the other hand, in the middle of that mess Mark puts a story about Jesus lifting up this widow who gives her money … to the church. And so the question I have is not “how much does she give?” and “how do we do the math?” but rather “why would anybody give to that temple in the first place?”

Why indeed? And it’s not an antiquated question. It’s an entirely too familiar one. Every time I read the news I see some story about some religious leader using the name of God or the name of Jesus or the authority of the church to accomplish something that seems to me entirely dissonant with the message of the Gospel but of course that’s not a new problem, here in this passage we’ve got religious scribes running around pretending to look holy while tramping on the very widows whom Jesus then lifts up as paragons of stewardship. And every time I read the news I see some story about the demise of the church, about waning institutional affiliation, about waning religious identification, about how none of these stones will be left one upon another, all of them thrown down by the slow advance of generations or the slow demise of America or you can just sort of pick your argument and somebody on the internet will have written it for you. The point is that we find ourselves in the very curious position in this moment in time of seeing the brokenness of the church as it is and has been while also fretting and worrying over the church yet to come and the point is that Jesus has been there already and into that moment he tells a story about this widow who knows all those very good reasons not to give and goes to the treasury anyway. With everything she has.

I think she must be able to see something that we can’t always see. I think Jesus must be telling her story to help us see something that we can’t always see. “Truly I tell you,” he begins, which is the phrase he uses whenever he’s about to say something that sounds totally ridiculous. New Testament Scholar Joel Marcus compares this passage to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke’s Gospel, where the Pharisee thanks God for not being like other people and the tax collector asks for God’s mercy and Jesus speaks to the fate of each of them in the unseeable time to come. Which suggests perhaps that the temple to which this widow makes her humble offering is not just the temple full of corrupt scribes and doomed to collapse; it is also the temple full of the promises of God for the time yet to be. She is not just giving to the church as it is. She is giving for the church as it should be, as it could be, as it will be in the hands of God’s unfolding. She is giving everything she has, to something she is unlikely ever to see. This is a story about things we can’t always see. And so the widow starts planting seeds.

Presbyterian pastor Mark Devries tells this story, the story of planting seeds and the tall oak trees. The story goes like this. Among the various dormitories and classrooms buildings at Oxford University is a great dining-hall at New College, and if you picture something like the Great Hall in the Harry Potter universe you won’t be far off. Build in the late 1300s, and like many great structures of the time, the dining hall relies for its architecture on this series of huge oak beams, forty and fifty feet long and several feet wide, that lay across the ceiling to give the roof the support it needs. Unfortunately, some years ago, five and six hundred years into its existence, some nosy interloper discovered that those five-hundred-year-old oak beams had become infested with beetles, and were losing their structural integrity, and would have to be replaced. The problem, of course, is that they don’t grow trees like that anymore, not to the size required, not two-feet-wide, fifty and sixty-foot tall oaks. They couldn’t just go down to Home Depot and order them to spec. These trees literally take hundreds of years to grow to the size that this architecture would require, and it’s hard to imagine that a bunch of steel reinforcement wouldn’t sully the feel of the old great dining hall. And so the folks at Oxford start to scramble.

In their scrambling, somebody starts rummaging through the old architectural plans for the college, trying to find out just what kind of problem they have on their hands, trying to figure out if there are any ancient remedies that could help them avoid total architectural catastrophe, and then among these old dusty files, somewhere in some unloved cabinet that should probably be in a museum, somebody and finds this old handwritten note, old parchment, easily five or six hundred years old, and as they read it, as they carefully unfold it and decipher what remains from the ravages of time, what they find is a deed. It’s the deed to a field that records had long forgotten, a field bequeathed to the college. And so of course, bursting with curiosity, the school administrators go on an excursion out to see this mysteriously deeded field, and you already know what they found when they get there, a whole stand of oak trees, sixty, seventy feet tall, several feet across, five hundred years old. It turns out that when the college was build, somebody had thought, well, you know these oak beams get kind of beetley after a while. Let’s plan ahead. Let’s dream ahead. Let’s believe in the long arc of God’s promises for something we may never see. Let’s plant acorns. Let’s plant seeds.

And so here at UPC our motto for this stewardship season has been planting seeds. Planting seeds and harvesting hope. And of course sometimes those seeds turn to sprouts very quickly. Last year about this time I stood here and asked you all go to all in on your commitment to UPC and you responded in kind and some of those results were immediate and palpable. For several months we have been enjoying the new UPC logo and bulletin, explicitly designed to help us communicate who we are better to folks who walk in the door for the first time. We’ve also been enjoying the audio/visual upgrade in so many of our church classrooms, allowing us to gather and teach and communicate with so much modern ease. Not to mention that, thanks to your response a year ago, we were able to make some substantially-needed staffing upgrades: to bring Frank on as full-time sexton, to install Krystal as full-time associate, and even to resurrect the UPC handbell choir under Kim Vitray’s wonderful guidance. All of these are the direct consequence of the generosity you showed to this church over this past year and I do not want any of those fruits to go unseen.

Moreover, I want you to know that as I stand here a year later all of those seeds still need your attention. Yes, we have a beautiful new logo, and beautiful new bulletins, but that’s just the first step, and your session has said over and over that we’ve still got work to do to help communicate to the world about who we are, and that means rethinking the church website, and it means rethinking the signage around the building, and that means money. And for all the audio/video upgrades in our classrooms, there’s still lots of investment to be done in the building we have, whether into the sound system here in the sanctuary itself or into any one of the dozens of windows in the church that need to be replaced, and of course that means money, too. And as proud as I am of the staff here at UPC — and as proud as I hope you are, too — you should know that no staff member at UPC has had a cost of living salary adjustment since 2015. So we are three years, going on four, as Austin has gotten more expensive by the day, and your staff has worked for less and less. So there are some seeds here that need attention, and I want you to know that your session is just as all-in now as we were a year ago, fully committed to this vision of UPC rooted, growing, and connecting here in the heart of west campus.

We just need you. We need your help so that we can put that beautiful new logo on everything we can think of. We need your help so that we can keep loving this building that has loved us so well for so long. We need your help so that we can support ministries like Uplift and Micah 6 to the degree that they deserve. We need your help so that we can support our staff to the degree they deserve. But something more than that. Because some of these seeds will grow into fruit quickly and you will reap that harvest immediately. And some of them will grow into oak trees that take generations. That’s the real challenge of stewardship. The easy part is where I stand here and tell you the budgetary priorities your session has set forth for the year to come, and we all get excited. The hard part is where I tell you that some of your support will go to things you may never see. That’s where the widow’s mite comes in. Not just because she gives everything she has. But because she gives everything she has to the church that should that should be, and could be, and will be, for God’s promises that unfold in their own stubborn time.

So maybe instead of just thinking about websites and windows, we remember the tall oak trees. Some of you have heard part of my own journey into ministry which includes a walk into the back of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia in May of 2006, and the organ prelude came on and something about my soul that had finally found a church to call home cracked open, and I have told the story that contains that moment so many times but the truth is that my story began much earlier, long before I got there, it began generations before I got there, it began the day that somebody at Westminster decided that the church needed a new organ. And I am sure there was a new organ committee. And I am sure the new organ committee had something to say about the stewardship campaign. And the truth is that I am standing here now in this place where God has called me in no small part because of the seeds planted in stewardship sermons not unlike this one in long-ago generations not unlike this one. I suspect that’s the reason you’re sitting here, too. I suspect you are also here because of some moment, because a church choir nourished you in some thin moment or because the bread and wine fed you in some empty moment or because the water in the font ran over you in some desperate moment and I am here to say all of those moments of grace began in moments of stewardship just like this. When the saints before you decided they wanted to plant seeds. And here you are, a beautiful field of tall oak trees.

And now we begin again. Because that’s the Gospel, we begin again because somebody we will never meet in some season we will never see, we will never enjoy will someday walk into the back of University Presbyterian Church and that person will have an experience of the grace of God in part because of the commitment you make this season. Because like that widow, you can decide to give everything you have to something you will never see. That’s how the story goes. These Oxford bureaucrats pull over and stumble out of the car, amazed at the harvest they have found, amazed at the scope of it, that somebody had the foresight, that somebody did the work. Those trees needed guarding and tending. Somebody hired a caretaker. Somebody had paid for a caretaker, and the caretaker after that, and the one after that, for generations, all leading to this moment, when the bureaucrats stumble out of the car and look around in shock at the height and depth and length and breadth of God’s promises which go from everlasting to everlasting, and sometimes they take a while. And then this man comes out of the forest, into the parking lot, this man who is just the latest in the long line of folks who had tended to this little corner of the kingdom. And he looks them up and down. And he stares them he says, “Well, we’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

Thanks be to God,