Proper 27B, November 8, 2015

November 9, 2015

Divinely Invested
Mark 12:38-44

12:38 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, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 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. 44 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.”

I don’t have the skills to be an actual accountant, but I pretend to be one in my spare time. I never had the discipline or the aptitude to do the math homework that accountants have to do, and I don’t really like to sit still for long periods of time, but I do have some passion for financial details. I’m a little obsessive about tracking our home income and expenses.

I’ve got banking and credit card apps on my phone and I try to enter all of our receipts on my Quicken software. I don’t like Quicken as much as I liked my old Microsoft money program that went the way of the dinosaurs. I had to make the switch to Quicken about a year ago when I dropped my old laptop and had to get a new one. I was pretty dismayed to learn that my beloved home accounting program wasn’t available anymore, so I’ve been learning to use Quicken, but I miss my old Microsoft money.

I don’t consider myself to have an unhealthy amount of love for money. I love it as much as most people, but I’ve never been obsessed with making a lot of it. I’m not proud of that – I’m just not wired that way. I’m not very entrepreneurial, but as I say, I am a bit of an accounting geek.

And I have this friend who is an accounting disaster. She’s someone I got to know while I was in campus ministry. She was a perpetual student at UALR, and she’s probably the most astute student of literature I’ll ever know, but she is not so good at home economics. She’s about 15 years older than I am. She’s got some significant health problems, and she doesn’t have any known living relatives, but she’s got this group of friends that sort of look after her. Different people do different things for her, and my job is to help her manage her money. It wasn’t easy to get her financial house in order when I first began looking in to her situation, but we got things straightened out, and it’s not so hard anymore because she doesn’t have that much to manage, and she’s able to live within her means.

I helped her get in to Good Shepherd Retirement Center – which is a great place for her and her rent is subsidized. It wasn’t a very hard application for her to fill out because she gets one check per month and she has no assets. She’s got some medical debt, and she pays a little on her debts each month, but they only get what we’ve decided she can afford, and they accept it because she doesn’t have anything they can seize.

It’s actually been very satisfying for me to help her get her business in order, but it’s been an education for me as well. I had no idea there were so many predators out there. She doesn’t have anything, but there are these people who try to get what she has.

It’s happened on several occasions, but just last week she called me and told me they were trying to put her in jail. It really scared me when I heard her say that – she’s had those thoughts before when she needed her medication adjusted, but when I asked what was going on she explained that someone was calling her and telling her that she owed a bunch of money and if she didn’t pay it she was going to have to go to jail. This person said he worked with the police, and if she didn’t pay up she was going to go to jail.

I was happy to hear that someone had actually called her and made this threat. Crooks are easier to deal with than paranoia. I assured her that the police don’t call before they arrest you, and she believed me. She doesn’t answer that person’s call anymore. It’s terrible that someone would take advantage of someone like her, but apparently this has been going on for a long time. This is what Jesus was talking about in this very passage.

The man trying to take advantage of my friend wasn’t parading himself as a man of God, but he was portraying himself as a law enforcement official, and that’s not far from the position of the men that Jesus found to be so detestable. Of course the man who called my friend knew he was a criminal, and this is a bit different from the misguided religious authorities that Jesus was talking about. They somehow considered themselves to be serving God by taking advantage of disadvantaged people. And according to Jesus that’s the lowest form of human behavior.

Of course we all know what bad behavior looks like, and we all know that we should try to avoid behaving like that, but the really compelling part of this morning’s passage is the appreciation Jesus had for the woman who had so little but who gave so much. It is easy to give a lot when we have a lot, but it’s not so easy to give anything when you don’t have much – unless what you have is a profound level of trust in God. There are occasions when people give themselves so thoroughly to God, and this is a good thing for us all to remember, but I think what we experience more often is how perfectly God uses the small things we are able to give.

I was at a preacher’s leadership training event a few years ago when one of the participants told this story about the sermon she turned in to the Board of Ordained Ministry as she was going through the ordination process. One of things candidates for ordination have to do is to turn in a video of a live sermon they had preached, and she said she had put off doing that to the last moment, and she only had one Sunday left to record her sermon. I can’t remember what came up for her that week, but she had some kind of pastoral crisis to deal with, and she said she had very little time to work on her sermon. She didn’t have much a sermon prepared for that Sunday, and she was already intimidated by the thought of having her sermon recorded.

But she proceded to preach her sermon, and she said it was in fact one of the worst sermons she ever preached. She was feeling pretty awful about the whole thing, but as she began to wrap her sermon up there was a man in the congregation who had begun to cry and he made his way up to the front of the church, and when he got there he announced in this tearful voice that he wanted to give his life to Jesus. She had not planted that man in the congregation, but it was caught on tape, and it redeemed her terrible sermon.

I love that story. That’s the kind of story that enables me to be a preacher. I know I need to do my best to present the gospel in a compelling way, but I also know that God can use the most pitiful offering to do remarkable things. Sometimes I forget that it’s not entirely up to me, and that makes this work of preaching an unduly heavy load, but the truth is that my first task is not to get in the way of what the Holy Spirit is already doing in our midst.

The good news is that the work of God doesn’t depend on the quantity of what we have to offer. Jesus was more impressed with the pennies that the poor woman gave than the fortunes that the rich men provided to the treasury of the Temple. We are terribly misguided if we think the work of God depends on what we choose to provide. The only thing that really counts is the amount of love that is behind what we are able to give.

Few of us are able to give of ourselves as totally as this poor widow was willing to do, but God has blessed many of us with those experiences where we are able to see what God can do with the meager offerings we provide. Most of us can only stand in the shadow of this woman who’s gift revealed such perfect trust in the love of God, but I know how good it can feel to be giving in a genuine manner.

It’s all but impossible for any of us to match the total giving that this poor widow demonstrated, but what she primarily revealed is the attitude we are to have when we give to God and to our neighbors. We are to give what we have with love. Giving is not to be a way of putting ourselves on display or of inflating our standing among our peers. Our giving is to be a way of expressing our love for God, and when we do that we are investing ourselves in something bigger than ourselves and we are making ourselves available for the kinds of dividends that bring joy in to our lives and wholeness in to the world.

We shouldn’t be overly impressed by anything we are able to offer, but you can never underestimate God’s ability to use what we provide to do remarkable things. And it’s not our job to try to measure what we get in response to what we give, but I don’t think it’s so bad to try to keep track of ourselves. We need to pay attention to the ways in which we are investing ourselves, and it’s not so bad to pay attention to the ways in which the small things we are able to do are multiplied by God to produce astonishing yields. We’ve probably all got a little bit of an accountant in us, and these are these types of transactions we need to be tracking. Thankfully God’s economy is driven by grace, and we receive so much more than we provide.

Thanks be to God.


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