First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Galveston
November 8, 2015
OUR WHOLE LIVING
This story, which has been archaically called The Widow’s Mite, is a classic Gospel story, often during Stewardship Season. Who hasn’t heard the moving account of the widow who slips quietly into the Temple, drops her meager offering into the treasury and slips quietly away? Who hasn’t squirmed when a well-meaning pastor brings the story to the inevitable segue about our own giving? If a poor widow gives so sacrificially for the Lord’s work, how can we who have so much more, not give much more?
One thing I have learned from a lifetime of serious biblical study is that there is always something new in the text for me to consider. The Holy Spirit continually brings the most unexpected things out of the text for me. That requires continually approaching Scripture with new eyes and ears, trusting that God has something new to teach me. When I was a child I heard magic in Bible stories that demonstrated that anything is possible. Feeding people with a basket of fish and bread or walking on water taught me that Jesus can do things no one else can. But the magic of Jesus also took me into the holy presence of God. I remember talking with my older sister, Ginny, on the evening of our grandfather’s funeral. She said that Grandpa was with God, and that gave me great comfort. Jesus’ magic extended to the life and death of my grandfather, something that my 10-year-old heart needed to know.
As I grew older, as I entered seminary, I learned a new way of regarding biblical narrative. A new word, μῦθος (mythos) was added to my vocabulary. Mythos does not mean that the Bible is full of fairy tale myth, but that biblical narrative points beyond itself to a larger eternal truth that transcends human experience. The way in which God interacts with the people in the stories may or may not be factual, but they always contained sacred Truth. Moses parted the Red Sea for the people to escape the Egyptian army intent on enslaving them again. The sea gave them safety and swallowed up that army. But more importantly, the story is mythos, pointing to a loving God who saves his people from all the perils of human life. These accounts of God’s providential hand in human history help us to see that these events are not just from some ancient dusty time that has no bearing on our lives. They teach us that we, right here and right now, are in the presence of our Holy God. The magic, if you will, of God’s Word is available to all who believe that God’s miracles still happen in abundance. Our biblical forebears point the way for us to be in righteous relationship with God.
Most of them had no earthly power, and they stand in great need of divine intervention, elderly childless couples, slaves, shepherds, poor people, widows and orphans. Somehow being on the bottom of human social strata makes people more open to the power of God. And so this widowed woman who had nothing was able to discern the presence and grace of God much more than the wealthy ones who made a grand show of their giving.
We have heard the stories of two widows this morning. Neither woman is named, signifying just how low they were in human society. In I Kings, the widow of Zaraphath not only has no husband, she is a foreigner, which made her a pariah in Hebrew society. The widow in Mark lives in extreme poverty. These women had no future, no potential for survival beyond begging for mercy. There will be no more family, no more stability, no more new life for them.
And yet, for both something unexpected occurs. As they face their ends they discover new beginnings. As their stories unfold these women perceive something new that they had not seen before. God used the woman in I Kings to feed Elijah from her empty stores, leading her to discover the blessing of having more than enough when hungry people share. The poor widow in Mark did not know that Jesus was watching people come and go with their contributions to the treasury. She, without knowing that the Son of God takes note of her, understands that hoarding her meager stores will not bring blessings. She dares to trust that God will walk with her in her extreme poverty and need.
When we read stories, we expect an ending of some sort or another, but mark does not give us how her story ends. But Mark invites us into the mythos of another ending when we hear Jesus commend her faith. Truly I tell you this 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. The Greek phrase, ὃλον τὁν βἰον αύτής (holon ton bion autous) literally means she gave her whole living. Her gift encompasses more than her tiny offering. She gave all of herself, a foreshadowing of what Jesus will do on the cross, giving his whole self for the life of the world.
As children we looked for magic in the stories. I remain one who loves magical stories. They still remind me that the child-like wonder of encountering mystery, of not knowing all the answers still brings delight in the unexplainable. As adults we know that magic does not exist, but we do not always have the vocabulary or heart to draw us into the miracles. I had the rare pleasure of sitting in on a class taught by Professor Lew Donalson at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary some years ago. He taught me the difference between magic and miracles. Magic is a manipulation of the natural world, or of the gods, to force them to act on our behalf. This is what a shaman or maegi purports to do. The odds are against them, but hope is a powerful incentive to people. Occasionally, something will turn out as the shaman promised, which adds to his reputation of having the power to control the gods.
Miracles happen by the divine intention of the Lord God Almighty. We know that God cannot be manipulated to bend to our will. Miracles are about God bending us to his will in these holy moments when heaven touches earth, when the kingdom of God breaks forth into temporal human life. So when the penniless widow acts in faith, and when Jesus holds her up as the embodiment of faith, where children see magic, we can discern the miracles that transpire.
We have a choice here, as we always do in relating to God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We can either believe that miracles follow faith, miracles which transcend human limitations. Or we can reject miracles as a game of odds that shaman play with desperate people. Jesus taught us that faith gives us the eyes to see and the ears to hear. With our faith senses, we have the gift to see God’s miracles everywhere. Miracles can bring down a giant with a stone, create a path within the sea, provide an unending supply of oil and meal in empty pantries and they can bring us into the holy presence of God.
This story of the widow and her gift is a stewardship lesson, because she shows us that stewardship is about how we live our lives. That involves monetary gifts, but mostly it is about how faith impacts our whole living. It is about living the miracles that Jesus gives to us out of extravagant love. God is working miracles at First Lutheran Church. They are there for those who have the eyes and ears of discipleship. As I prepare to leave you, I invite you to keep your eyes fixed on faith, your hearts open to hope, your hands ready to receive and share. God is doing a New Thing here. Part of it involves bringing Richard Rhoades to you. But most of it is what is happening among and between you, each other and God himself. Ministry is not just what he will do, but is the shared faithful response to God who gives us life. There is nothing we can give back to God except our whole living. To the God of miracles be the glory. Amen.