Preached by Michael Cheuk, November 8, 2015
Taken from Mark 12:38-44
We are in the midst of our stewardship season here at University Baptist Church. A church’s stewardship season is like a public radio or public TV’s annual fund drive. Regular programming is interrupted and there is a sustained appeal for members to submit a monetary pledge. There are programs, building, and staff expenses that are directly supported by the contribution of members. During campaign drives, there are often gifts to be raffled off for those who pledge. Now, UBC does not have coffee mugs with Alba’s picture on it or handkerchiefs that I’ve prayed and cried over to give away, nor do we have religious relics from the Holy Land to raffle off. We do have testimonies and sermons during worship, letters being sent to members of the congregation, invitations for members and regular attenders to estimate their financial giving to UBC for the coming year. Let’s face it, for some, stewardship season in a church, like public radio or TV’s fund drives, is a time to be endured and not eagerly anticipated. And if we’re honest, we would change the channel and avoid all that money talk if we could.
This puts a preacher on the horns of a dilemma. One could avoid talking about money, but the institutional life of a church is dependent on the financial giving of its members and regular attenders. In fact, let’s name the elephant in the room. The lion share of congregational giving goes to pay for the salaries of the staff. Our livelihood and what we have to live on depend on your contributions. Which leads a preacher to the other horn of the dilemma. Talking about money in church by the preacher can be perceived as self-serving. So what to do?
Then there’s the Bible passage that is the assigned Gospel lesson in the lectionary for today. It is often described as the story of “the widow’s mite” m-i-t-e, which in Old English, literally refers to a small copper coin. For the preacher, at first glance, this text offers the perfect scriptural basis for a sermon on giving. We have a scene in the Temple, where Jesus observed people putting money and offerings into the Temple treasury. According to Pete Peery, “Indeed the whole fall stewardship program that many congregations conduct is not unlike the role of the treasury of the temple in Jerusalem. That treasury was there to underwrite the religious [establishment] of that day, just as most stewardship programs are designed to do in our day.”
The scene continues with many rich people throwing in large amounts of money. But then a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. We then read in Mark: Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” Many a preacher has walked down the well-traveled sermonic path of seeing Jesus praising the widow as a role model of sacrificial giving, and warning those who only give out of their abundance, presumably for public recognition and approval. Therefore, such a sermon concludes, we ought to follow in the example of the widow because she literally gave everything she had to live on for the Temple and its religious institution. Amen. End of sermon. Let’s now take up an offering!
Well, not so fast. For you see, there is much more to this story than meets the eye. The more I read the Gospel of Mark, the more I’m amazed by the literary skill and artistic mastery of the author of this book. Mark narrates this incident almost as a Rorschach test, the psychological test consisting of inkblots printed on cards. People taking the Rorshach test look at the inkblots and describe what they see in them. Similarly, how we see, describe, and interpret this story may say more about us than about what Jesus was trying to teach.
First notice what comes immediately before this incident with the widow in the Temple. Jesus warns against “the teachers of the law,” the religious professionals and leaders who run the Temple institution. They are all about themselves and the trappings of status, and “they devour widows’ houses.” Jesus warned that they will be punished. Immediately, the scene shifts to the Temple treasury with Jesus calling attention to a particular widow who is being devoured of everything she had to live on. When we read these two sections together, it is very doubtful that Jesus was commending the widow as a model for sacrificial giving. It is more likely that Jesus pointed her out as an illustration of the point he just made. The widow is a tragic example of how an inward-looking religious institution can suck the life out of people in order to maintain its outward trappings of wealth, status and power. Jesus was warning against religious leaders who benefit from a religious system that exploits the poor and the widows to sacrifice what little they have in order to accumulate wealth for themselves.
This alternative interpretation is bolstered by what comes immediately after this passage. In Mark chapter 13, as Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his disciples marveled at it and said, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Jesus replied, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Last May, when a group from UBC went to Israel, we visited Jerusalem. Jesus was right, not a stone of the actual Temple building was left standing. Buildings aside, from Jesus’ perspective, the widow gave all she had to an institution that was going to be utterly destroyed. Jesus did not recommend donating to the Temple, because its leaders were unjust and the Temple itself was not going to last.
So far, I’ve preached the worst stewardship sermon ever, probably in the history of Christendom. However, today’s passage from Mark does not allow me to preach a typical stewardship sermon. In today’s passage, Jesus is warning me and other church leaders all over the world to not be like the teachers of the law, seeking honor for ourselves, enjoying our affluence, all the while holding up the ideal of sacrifice. Jesus is challenging me and other leaders of churches all over the world in our stewardship of the money we receive from our congregants. This money, whether collected from the larger contributions of the wealthy or from the pennies of the poor, should not primarily be directed to meet the needs and aspirations of the institution. The maintenance of our church building, our programs, our staff salaries, and our budget are not the reason why we should give. We give in order to accomplish the mission that God has given to us – to minister to the university community and to the residents of the greater Charlottesville-Albemarle community. We give so that we can use our building and leverage our staff to equip disciples to serve as agents of Christ’s love and justice for those in need in our community. We give so that more people may be welcomed and included into our family of faith, not for our sake, but for the sake of a greater witness and ministry and mission. William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said: “The church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
Who are these non-members we can benefit here in Charlottesville? They are the university students, some of whom live in the apartments behind the church. They are the families of patients at the UVA medical center and the Battle Building across the street. They are the international students who come to our ESOL classes, or refugees who are re-settled in Charlottesville through the International Rescue Committee. They are the young families and their children who participate in our Pre-Kindergarten Playgroup every Wednesday morning. They are our Latino brothers and sisters who gather for Bible study and worship in our building every Sunday night. They are members of UVA Cancer Center’s support group that meet in our building every Tuesday afternoon. They are inmates at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. They are UVA athletes we are exploring to adopt. They are the homeless men whom we shelter during the first two weeks in February. They are our friends and neighbors who possibly come to a UBC picnic or Fall Festival, or a special choir program or Noon Tunes – or who pass along a prayer request for us to remember through our prayer ministry. They are our radio listeners during worship. They are our regular attenders in our congregation, some of whom are only in Charlottesville for a few weeks or a few years before moving on to the next chapter of their lives. Most of these folks will never be members of UBC, but our church exists not only to serve the needs of our members, but also these, our neighbors.
In a moment, we will collect an offering. If Jesus were here worshipping with us this morning, watching us put our offerings in plates, what would he see? Would he see the money going primarily into our treasury to meet our own needs, or will he see the money directed outward toward our mission? Would he see us giving comfortably out of our abundance, or would he see us giving more meaningfully, even sacrificially?
And the widow in this story? Perhaps a helpful way to see her is if we understand her as the Christ-figure in this vignette. Remember, Jesus sets up this story by casting a critical eye on the Temple of his day—and then he predicts the Temple’s own destruction. In other words, this widow gave her livelihood to an institution that was not worthy of her sacrifice. And continuing in Mark’s gospel, just a few days after Jesus notices the widow, he gave his life to a world that was not worthy of his sacrifice. In the eyes of the Temple, the widow’s two coins did not seem like much, and yet, it was all she had. In the eyes of the world, the death of a Galilean peasant did not seem like much, and yet, it was all God had. For God so loved the world, this unworthy world, that He gave His one and only Son. In the eyes of God, how extravagant was the gift of Christ! And in the eyes of Christ, how extravagant were the widow’s two coins!
What are your two coins? What are the two coins that extravagantly represent all that you have, all that you are? It may literally be two pennies. But it does not have to be money. It may be a talent that others may think insignificant. It may be a passion that animates and drives you. If Jesus were here worshipping with us this morning, what two coins could you offer Him to further the mission of Christ?
During this stewardship season, may we ponder this question, and may we in faith worship God by our own offering of the extravagance of two coins.
 Pete Peery, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).