Saturday, November 28, 2015

Interrupted By Hope

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Advent 1
November 29, 2015
William G. Carter

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

The woman looked up from the morning newspaper and said, “I just don’t know what the world is coming to.” The headlines were grim: gunman shoots up a clinic in Colorado, protests on Michigan Avenue in Chicago over a white cop shooting a black teenager, tensions are high between Russia and Turkey after a plane was shot down, and a presidential candidate makes fun of the disabled.

The world is a mess, no doubt about that. It’s tempting to think it is worse than it always has been, and that’s not true. The thorns and thistles have been with us since Adam and Eve found themselves expelled from the Garden of Eden. The names have changed, the situation is the same. The woman shuts the newspaper, folds it on the kitchen table, and heads off to church.

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and the preacher reads the ancient text: “Thus says the Lord: the days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Suddenly, for her, there is new glimmer of a star in the sky.

Advent begins by holding the world as it is with the world as it will be. We look around to see how things are, and we hold that in tension with what God declares is going to come. If we don’t hold both together, we either sink into despair or we stumble around in a pink bubble of optimism. Either we moan and groan that all things are swirling down the drain, or we put on a plastic grin and declare that it’s all going to get better.

The message of Advent is that neither position will do. Neither dark despair nor sunny optimism will do. We need something more. We need hope.

Hope is a misunderstood word.

  • Are the Yankee going to win the world series next year? “I hope.” But biblically speaking, that’s not hope.
  • Will the family get in for Christmas? “We hope.” But that’s not the Bible’s view of hope.
  • Will the next president of our country eradicate evil, rebuild prosperity, and get all of our leaders to work together for the common good?  “That’s our hope.” But you won’t find that kind of hope in the Bible.

Often, we use the word “hope” when we really mean “wish.” We wish for the World Series, the family travel, and national peace. All of those things are valuable, which is why we want them. We wish for them. Each may be out of our control, but we can wish for them to come true. I wish for a white Christmas with no ice on the roads, a full sanctuary for all of our worship services, and for everybody who made a financial pledge to the church to get caught up. When I open my eyes, I can wish that all of that is true.

Yet when the Bible speaks of hope, there is no wishing involved. And do you know why that is? Because it is not our wishes for the future, but God’s declaration of what is to come. The God who is eternal, who straddles past, present and future, already knows what is to come. And the same God who spoke the world into being is speaking the future into existence. God already knows what is to come, because God is already there. But God is also with us, here and now.  

I trust that doesn’t cause your brain to explode, and I wouldn’t want you to take my word for it. Simply put, this is how the Bible creates hope. God speaks from somewhere ahead of us, and when we hear it, we have hope.

Our three verses of Jeremiah are a good test case. They come out of the blue. You can tell from the phrase, “Thus says the Lord.” That’s how the prophets like Jeremiah announce the Holy Voice. It’s usually a Voice that comes out of the blue, hardly ever expected. And in Jeremiah’s case, God speaks when nobody knew what to say.

It was a dark and stormy time for the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. After centuries of internal upheaval, life was about to get worse. The Babylonian Empire was on the way to plunder the land and take all its riches away. As somebody notes, Jeremiah’s job was “to speak Israel into exile.”[1]

In his call, God gave him the word to “pluck up and plant” (1:10). Israel was going to be painfully aware of the “plucking up.” We grumble if we have to remove our shoes to go through a security screening, or recoil in anguish if terrorists strike somewhere else.  Imagine if your whole country were on the brink of destruction, the treasuries were to be emptied, and all the smart people stolen as slaves.

 Not only that: imagine all that happened, and you still hold the memory that God has said, “Your nation is my chosen and beloved. Your temple is my footstool on earth.” And the Babylonians still come. The questions would be many. Has God left us? Is the Babylonian Empire greater than our God? What will come of us?

Into this fearful time, “Thus says the Lord…” And we heard what God declares (it’s brief, I’ll say it again):

The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Now, there is the substance of the hope. God will keep the promises made to the people. God will send a Ruler to make justice and righteousness in the land. God will rescue the people.

  • So when is this going to happen? Nobody knows.
  • Why can’t it happen now? Ah, you’re wishing again.
  • How do we know it’s really going to occur? Because God says so. 
See, that is how the Bible understands hope, true hope. Hope is something that God declares. We can doubt it or dispute it, but the words are in the air. We can live as if it’s an ancient and archaic word, but the prophet wrote it down. Again, we live in the tension between the world as we know it and the world as God declares it will be. This is Advent. Officially speaking, Advent is only the season of four weeks preceding Christmas, but do you understand me when I say that, for all of us, Advent is every day of the year.

One of my daughters hates to be a sermon illustration, but I figure it’s safer to use her for a sermon illustration than to use one of your daughters or sons. She lives in Washington DC and goes to school there. One day this summer, she called. Her voice was shaking. One of her friends was getting out of a cab. A car sped by and there was gunfire. Her friend was killed, totally randomly, by somebody who was never found.

What do you say? “There, there, it will be all right”? No, that’s an empty wish. It has no spiritual protein. It’s not going to help. For a moment, I wanted to say, “Come home, we’re going to get you out of that dangerous place,” but that presumes a random act of violence will never happen here. That is unrealistic, and an empty wish.

I can’t remember what I did say. I think I stammered in fear, too numb to speak, too worried about my kid to have the best words to console. In time, however, what has come to me is the Advent promise of God. It goes like this: this is not how God will rule the world. God says “justice and righteousness.” God declares the lion and the lamb shall lie down together (Isaiah 11:6-7). God says our children will play together safely in the streets of the city (Zechariah 8:5).

In the image of Jeremiah, a “righteous branch will spring up for David.” That is an unusual phrase, which he has said before. The translation from Hebrew doesn’t quite fit our English, but the sense is this: a green sprout will come from the ground unexpectedly. It emerges from the mystery of God who speaks it into new life. And it’s a reminder to all of us that, should we see an unexpected emergence of a plant or a tree, God is behind it. And the One that God will send to rule over us will come in a similar way: unexpected, desperately wished for, and full of life.

So we gather this Advent, hoping for the Christ. As Christian people, we affirm God has kept the promises to his people. The Righteous One has come in the line of King David. He creates justice and righteousness among those who hear him say, “Love your neighbor, feed my lambs, speak truth to power, live in forgiveness, create peace.” We listen to his voice, believe it is true, and live by his words.

And yet we live in the holy hope that Christ will come again, and bring all things together in the justice of God. He will come because God is fair and gracious. He will come because God has not given up on the earth and the creatures that God has created. He will come because God has spoken our hope.

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Walter Brueggeman, Jeremiah 26-52: To Build, To Plant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 39.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Getting the Tenses Right

Revelation 1:1-8
Christ the King
November 22, 2015
William G. Carter

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Rev. 1:8)

Our scripture text comes from the book of Revelation, the last book for the Bible. That may be enough to make you sit up straight or chase you out the door. The book of Revelation is a difficult book. It is a difficult because it is a book of Christian scripture, and anybody who has not done the necessary work of heart and mind is going to misunderstand this or any other biblical book.

In the front of your pew Bible is the name of somebody I once met. In fact, he is the only person that I have ever met whose name is printed in our Bibles. His name was Bruce Metzger. He was the general editor and leader of the translation team that prepared the New Revised Standard Bible. Dr. Metzger taught New Testament at Princeton for forty-six years. I took two classes with him, and one was on the book of Revelation.

On the first day of class, he said, “There are two things you need to know. This is a hopeful book about Jesus Christ, and it is also the happy hunting ground for heretics.”

A lot of people avoid the book of Revelation, because it’s full of fantastic visions, wild creatures, and ecstatic speech. Some people only read the book of Revelation, because it’s full of fantastic visions, wild creatures, and ecstatic speech. Both perspectives are unfortunate.

The book is a collection of visions by a Christian prophet named John, which he sent as a letter to seven churches. Near the end of the first century, the Roman Empire has exiled him to an island off the western shore of Turkey. I have been to the cave where this man lived. Now it’s a religious shrine with tour groups and a lot of incense; back then it was a cave.

In that cave, John had visions of the Risen Christ, who opened to him the truth about heaven and earth. He could see, at points, heaven and earth are in conflict, and he could also see that, in the end, heaven wins. That’s what the book is all about. Don’t let some wild-eyed crackpot make it any spookier than it is. Heaven wins, God rules over the universe, Christ is the king.

In its wisdom, the church put this as the last book of the Bible, because this is where all things are headed. It provides the last word on God. How can you say anything more? Heaven wins!

At the same time, Revelation needs to be read with the rest of scripture, if only because the 404 verses of this book make 518 allusions to earlier passages of the Bible.[1] The writer of this book points to the books of Exodus, Daniel, Zechariah, and quotes a lot of Psalms. John uses the language of a lot of Bible texts to point to whatever he sees and hears.

This is ecstatic speech, mostly. The Greek scholars say he doesn’t worry about sanding off the splinters and providing a polished text. No, a lot of Revelation is offered in bursts of praise, like poetry or pieces of various songs. We know some of the songs:  “Holy, Holy, Holy” – chapter four. “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might” – the seven-fold praise is in chapter seven.  The Hallelujah chorus is found in chapter nineteen. It is possible for Christian people to sing their way through the book.

But as we heard in chapter one, twice John gives us an unusual phrase: “who is and who was and who is to come.” He is speaking about God, “who is and who was and who is to come.” But the tenses are out of order. How do we explain that?

Ever since English class, the teacher told us the proper order is past, present, and future. It should be “who was, who is, who is to come” – past, present, future, just like the three spirits that would visit Ebenezer Scrooge. That’s how John says it in chapter four: was, is, is to come (4:8). He knew the proper order, but here he rearranges it. Not once, but twice. What is he trying to tell us?

It is confusing. There is a proper sequence of events: something happened, then this happened, then that will happen. She graduated from school, has a job, and one day she will retire. The Penn State football team worked hard in the pre-season, didn’t look so hot yesterday, but there is always next year – past, present, future. That’s how it goes, but John begins with the present, and that moves him to the past and the future. What is he saying?

Sometimes it is the case that we experience something now, and it opens up the history of what happened before. The middle school class goes on a trip to Gettysburg, sees the fields and the split-rail fences. The guide points them to a house in the town with ancient bullet holes in the brick walls. What happened here? The present-day trip reveals an ancient event.

I recall overhearing a couple of kids talking in the early nineties. One of them mentioned the Beatles. The other one said, “Who are the Beatles?” The first one said, “Oh, that was Paul McCartney’s first band.” These days, of course, they might ask, “Who was Paul McCartney?” It is hard for a lot of people to imagine anything before they were born.

John writes to the Christians he remembers. They are scattered in a circle of seven towns in western Turkey. These people gather to worship Jesus. They welcome his grace and share his peace. They know the present reality of faith – they know what is.  But to remember what was - ah, that points to a deeper history, a longer story, and it all happened before they came along.

In his memoirs, the great preacher Fred Craddock remembers his childhood. The family was dirt poor, and lived outside a small town in western Tennessee. At eight months old, he contacted diphtheria. In those days, it was almost a death sentence. Medical care was rare and expensive, especially for such a family. When Fred took a turn for the worse, his father ran all the way into town to get a doctor. They didn’t think it would do any good, but it was a last attempt.

The doctor came, tried a few things, said, “We will hope for the best,” and offered to  stay with the family.  Fred’s mother stayed up all night and prayed, “Lord, if you let my little boy live, I will pray every day that he will serve you as a minister.” It was just like the prayer that the prophet Samuel’s mother prayed, as we heard last week. In the morning, the doctor said, “I think he’s going to be alright.”

“We will pay you when we can,” said the family. “I’ll send you a bill,” said the doctor, and he never did.

Here’s the thing: Fred never knew this story as a child. His mother never told him. He grew up, always a little sickly, but a good student. Through a variety of experiences, he decided to go to school and study to become a minister. The night before he took the bus, his mother said, “Sit down for a minute,” and she told him the story. “I never told you about my prayers,” she said, “because I wanted you to say yes to God and not to me.”[2]

Fred was stunned. He thought faith in God was his own idea. He believed that his faith prompted him to go forward.  But his mother had a head start on him. She asked God to influence Fred before he ever knew it. Before he could even recognize it, God was at work in his life.

God is, God was . . . and God is to come. That’s where everything is headed: toward God, in line with God’s purposes.

You know, when Jesus teaches us to pray “Thy will be done,” he is not saying “maybe,” as if to say, “God, we hope that you might get your way.” No, he is making a declaration: your will is going to be done. God is not going to wait for all of us to agree before God will do what God is going to do. God does not set the planet Neptune in orbit, then say, “I hope it keeps going.” Oh no, Neptune moves because God says it’s going to move. The orbit is not optional or conditional.

And when God says, “I’m the Alpha and the Omega,” that is, “the A and the Z,” the beginning and the end, the destination for all things belongs only to God. The end is not up to us. God gives us great respect, and lets us make a lot of decisions, but the final word is God’s. The whole story of our lives begins and ends with God. The whole story of the universe originates and concludes with God. God is that great.

As I told a couple of guys in the church choir, the reason why I picked the next hymn is because it has a phrase that declares God is “the potentate of time, Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime.” You and I don’t normally talk that way. We are not accustomed to thinking in such grand terms. We want God to fit inside our hearts or to come when we call. But God already stands ahead of us. God possesses the future, and knows how everything is going to turn out.

I remember walking into a Bible study one time. Some of the people had a lot of questions about the end of the world. Are we going to blow up our planet with atomic bombs? Are we going to defrost the ice caps and flood the coastal cities? Are we going to unleash a deadly nerve gas?  I wondered if they had been watching too many James Bond movies. They were really working themselves up. They wanted to know what the Bible predicted about all of this.

I asked everybody to take a breath. Then I said, “From the second page of the Bible, it is clear that human beings are capable of doing any number of stupid and destructive things. All of us are capable of that. But the future is God’s future, not ours. It’s like our birth - we didn’t determine the beginning of our lives; our lives were a gift.” They looked quizzically, and one of them said, “What about the book of Revelation?”

I smiled and said, “Yes, the book of Revelation. Do you how the book of Revelation begins? After the first heading and blessing, it says, ‘Grace and peace to you, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come.’ (1:4).”

“And do you know how the book of Revelation ends?” They didn’t know. “Chapter 22, verse 21: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints.’”

We can spend a lot of time fussing about the difficulties in the middle of our very messy lives. It can be a real distraction from the truth of God: that we begin and end with grace. 

I don’t know what you are carrying on your shoulders today, what troubles you bear, what fears you have, but I do know God is with you. And the God who is with you was with you from the beginning, and will be waiting for you at the end.

In the name of the One who is, who was, and is to come, Amen.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) 22-23.
[2] Fred Brenning Craddock, Reflections on My Call to Preach: Connecting the Dots (Indianapolis: Chalice Press, 2007) 20.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Praying When You Are Desperate

1 Samuel 1:1-20
Ordinary 33
November 15, 2015
William G. Carter

Life is not fair. You know that, and I know that.

The neighbor down the street has a perpetual smirk on his face. His kids have gotten into the best schools, scored top grades, and secured wonderful jobs. Whenever he stops to chat, he has to brag about how successful they are. He pauses, waits a few seconds, and asks, “So how are your underachievers doing?”

The lady in the front office has gotten all the good breaks. She is tall and good looking. Her speech sparkles with confidence. They keep moving her up the ladder. One day she sees you in the hallway and blurts out, “It’s been forever since I’ve seen you. Are you still a secretary? After all this time?”

A man holds the telephone in his hand. The caller on the other end has already hung up the line, but he is still stunned from the news. “Cancer,” they said. “It’s malignant.” Time is short. It just isn’t fair.

No, of course it isn’t. There has never been a promise that life dishes out equal servings of grace. So we can understand when Hannah says, “All I want is a child. Lord, is that too much to ask?”

The story we have heard is Hannah’s story. She steps onto the biblical stage and we know two things about her: she is one of the two wives of Elkanah, and she is barren. The other wife is Peninnah, and she has been having babies right and left. Hannah is unable to bear a child, and Peninnah keeps rubbing it in.

Hannah, it’s too bad you can’t bear as many children as me.
Hannah, the Lord has blessed me with plenty of kids; when will God bless you?
Hannah, it feels like another baby is about to come. Could you hold my other three babies?
Hannah, I’m running out of room in my nursery. Do you have some room to spare?

It begins as a comparison. It becomes a contest. In a long-ago land where children were seen as a blessing from God, here is a home with two wives – one is blessed with plenty of children, the other has none. And the blessed one scowls at the barren one and says, “What’s wrong with you?”

Hannah knows what you and I know: life is unfair. For some hidden reason, God doesn’t roll out a lump of cookie dough and then stamp everybody the same. There are differences and discrepancies. Some receive more, and that can be their burden. Others receive less, and it’s a different kind of burden.

What’s interesting about this story is the unfairness is exasperated when everybody goes to worship. Once a year, we’re told, the whole family goes up to the sanctuary at Shiloh. It was an important shrine, a central place of worship long before there was a temple in Jerusalem. Annually they go to Shiloh to thank God for their lives, to make offerings of well-being, to worship the Lord who brought them to the Promised Land and guided them with his Words.

That’s when Peninnah would hammer away at Hannah: “whenever they went up to the house of Lord” (1:7). It was not enough for Peninnah to chastise her housemate for her infertility. It sounds like she was trying to drive a wedge between Hannah and her God. And this went on, “year after year.”

Elkanah could see it. There’s no word that he ever said anything about it, but he could see it. And while we do not know if he ever told Peninnah to shush and be quiet, we know he treated Hannah to an extra portion of food because he loved her. He implored her, “Don’t weep! Have something to eat.” He countered Peninnah by showing kindness to Hannah. After she had something to eat, Hannah went to the sanctuary to pray.

When life has been unfair to you, do you ever bring that unfairness into your prayers? That’s one of the lessons here. Hannah will not wait until the sun is shining before she prays. She does not wait until her tears are dry. She does not pause if she gets a busy signal from heaven. No, she persists, and she lays out her complaint to God: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me . . .”

Can you hear what she is doing? She is complaining to God, because it is God who has been unfair. For her, this is not merely a household competition where the other wife is popping out more babies. No, it is a deep injustice where she feels scorned by her housemate because God is withholding a blessing from her. There is no reason for her to “pretty-up” her prayer. She looks toward heaven and says in her heart, “Don’t you forget me!”

I have a movie in my library called “The Apostle.” Robert Duvall plays a Pentecostal preacher who falls on hard times. His congregation doesn’t like him and his wife has taken up with the youth minister. He is bitterly angry, but one night he puts it into his prayer: “You’re my Lord and I’m your child, and you can’t treat me like this.” He unloads on God at the top of his lungs – it’s so loud, the neighbors call to say, “Can you turn it down?” He ignores them, because he’s not talking to them; he’s talking to God. He is not a polite Presbyterian.

Neither is Hannah in our story. She is sobbing, she is deeply distressed – and for some reason, she is offering her prayer silently. She directs her heart to God, not to anybody else. Her complaint is against God. Her argument is with God. She is not going to turn sideways and make a casualty out of innocent bystanders. She is going to take on the Lord directly - - and she knows that God can hear her.

Meanwhile, as this is going on, over here is the local priest, a man named Eli. In a chapter or two, the storyteller says Eli and his sons are corrupt and inept. They are bad news. And we get a glimpse of it here: Eli the priest can’t tell the difference between drunkenness and prayer – chew on that one for a few minutes, if you will. And he tries to shut her down – to him, it seems all wrong: there’s no incense, no ritual, and no need for a priest like him. She skips all the protocols, ignores the written prayers and set liturgy, all because she wants to address God directly.

As somebody notes,

Eli has never seen anything like it. In charge of keeping order in the sanctuary, authorized to guard and guide the religions life of the people, he sees her only as a bag lady, a drunk, and reprimands her, accusing her of violating the decorum of the sacred place of worship. But Hannah is not intimidated by religious authority. She will not be confined by precedent. She is more attentive to her heart than to the hierarchy. She dismisses his charges and asserts her right to pray in her own way by laying out the pain of her life before the Lord.[1]

It’s a daring prayer by a daring woman. Without a script, she prays her deepest longing. And all the old priest can say is, “Go in peace, may God grant your request.” He may not be very engaged with the spiritual life of this unusual woman, but at least he has the good sense to hand over the prayer to the God who can answer it. Life has been unfair to her, and she wants God to address it. Eli has to get out of the way.

One summer night, I was sitting on a porch swing at a family’s home. The crickets were chirping and we were making our own small talk, enjoying a balmy evening. There were three of us, a husband, wife, and me. Suddenly she blurted it out: “We want you to pray for us to have a child.” I gulped on my iced tea, her husband laughed nervously. I was going to make a joke about that being above my pay grade, but she was serious. Dead serious.

“The fact is,” she explained, “we’ve worked hard in our careers, and have everything else we could ever want, but I’ve been learning there are some things that only God can give you. No matter how hard we have tried, we haven’t yet been granted a child.”

Well, what’s a preacher to do? It was an awkward moment, but an honest one. So I stopped rocking on the swing, sat up straight, and said, “Why don’t we pray?” About ten months later, their first daughter was born. I can assure you that I had nothing to do with it. Was it a miracle? It was a miracle, the same way every child’s birth is a miracle. Was it an answer to prayer? Of course; some prayers are answered with a “yes,” some prayers are answered with a “no.” Beyond that, it is a mystery, and I’m OK with that.

What I will affirm, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that God heard the prayer, just as God hears every prayer. And in all the unbalances and unfairness in our lives, there is nothing more essential than telling God what is on our hearts and waiting for a response. In prayer, there is no assurance that we will get what we want – but there is the promise that we get something even better: we gain the presence of God. Prayer is entering the mystery of God, even when we haven’t received what we wanted.

Maybe that explains the most curious piece of today’s Bible story: that, after Hannah receives a child, then she offers him to God. The child she desires will not be hers – it will be God’s. Even before she receives an answer, she dedicates the answer to God’s purposes. So Hannah’s prayer is to bring a child into the world who will love God and serve God. With this, she sets an example for Mary, the mother of Jesus, who bursts into song just as Hannah does in the very next chapter. In a minute or so, we will sing the song that Hannah and Mary share.

Let me conclude this way. I don’t know what you have been praying for. I trust it’s something important, and I hope you keep at it. Whatever the challenges we face in this life, we bring them with us to the sanctuary. For it is here that we learn again and again that God takes us seriously. God invites us into the mystery of his holy presence, where we are welcomed and transformed. God grants us the gifts that will further his work in the world. You can count on it.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Eugene Peterson, 1 Samuel: Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) p. 19.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

All the Way In - Bethesda, MD

All the Way In
November 8, 2015

The November 1 sermon was also preached at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, MD, on November 8, 2015. Here is the link for watching it online:

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All the Way In

Mark 12:38-44
November 1, 2015
William G. Carter

As Jesus 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.”

This weekend marks the thirtieth anniversary of my first major failure in ministry. It was a stewardship sermon about the poor widow who drops in her two small coins. It did not go well.

I had been ordained as a minister for about a month. At the first-ever session meeting that I moderated, somebody mentioned that Stewardship Dedication Sunday was coming up. They wanted a good sermon, because they wanted to be able to afford their new preacher. Then they sat back, folded their arms, and smiled.

Well, I was up for the challenge. That was back in the days when I knew everything. I had preached a dozen sermons in my career, so I was an expert. I had a shelf full of books about the Gospel of Mark. To my distress, I opened them to discover they said hardly anything about this brief, little story. So I built a sermon on this wonderful widow who gave everything to the temple. Perhaps I invented a few details, but I thought it was a good sermon. This time, they sat back, folded their arms, and scowled.

The critique came quickly. The chair of the Finance committee pounced first: “Worst sermon I ever heard! You never mentioned the budget. You should have laid on some guilt, and made these people feel guilty for the pitifully small contributions that they make to the church budget. We will never make it on two pennies per person.” Then he spun around and stomped away.

A saintly woman approached next. “Thank you, Reverend, for your good effort. I could tell you prayed before you preached that one. I was praying for you too. But, well, I can’t afford to give any more money to the church. I’m afraid I don’t have the means, and I do need to eat.” And she shuffled away.

Then a third man came forward. “You kept my attention for a couple of minutes, Rev. You really did. But then my mind started to drift, so I picked up the Bible and read that passage again. Did you know that the widow gave her two cents to the temple that Jesus accuses of fleecing all the widows? ‘Beware the scribes who devour the widow’s houses.’ Jesus says that. That’s all I wanted to say.”

Clearly I wasn’t going to get a raise that year. No sir.

If we take it for what it says, this is a troublesome text. Jesus points to this anonymous woman and says, “Look at her!” She had taken her place in line, along with all the faithful who have come to donate to the temple. According to Mark, it is a few days before Passover. Jerusalem’s population will swell as all of God’s people came home to celebrate their identity. While in town, go to the temple, give thanks to God, and make a financial gift.

The wealthy people were putting in a lot, because they had the money to give. Then this woman comes and - clink, clink - she drops in two small coins. “Look at that!” says Jesus.

Mark says she’s a widow. How could he identify her that way? Did she have a big black “W” on her dress? Was she dressed in black and clutching a Kleenex? And how did he know she was poor? Was she wearing old sandals or a tattered shawl? We don’t know. There is no evidence that Jesus knew her. He never mentions her name.

Yet the irony is thick. As my third critic pointed out, Jesus has just condemned how some religious leaders mistreated women like her. It seems the scribes of his day had a habit of handling the estates of men who died, declaring their widows incapable of handling money. These scribes distributed the estates, claiming whatever professional fees they deemed necessary.[1] It was sanctified exploitation.

It reminds me of those old television evangelists in the 1980’s who loved to appeal to people who were too feeble to leave their own homes: “You, too, can be a Faith Partner of our Cathedral to the Sky. Call now, operators are standing by.” Then they used the donations from disadvantaged people to buy private jets, air conditioned dog houses, and water slides.

So what was I thinking, trying to excavate a stewardship sermon out of this text? The finance committee chair wanted me to speak gloom and doom about the budget, the saintly woman was feeling pinched, and the Bible student said, “In the Gospel of Mark, this is a conflicted passage, to say the least.”

But there’s still something about it. Jesus says, “Look at her.” Take a good long look. What does he want us to see?

It looks like she is making an enormous sacrifice, for one thing. We don’t know why. We already have a hunch why she shouldn’t.  But she does it any way. It’s astonishing. What we have here is the miracle of generosity. Have you ever seen that miracle at work?

After my father died this summer, it took my mother a couple of weeks to return to worship at her church. She had been skipping out, wanting to spend every possible moment with my dad before he passed. After he was gone, she wanted to return to church – but she couldn’t go back to the same pew that the two of them had inhabited for 53 years. The grief was too raw.

One Sunday she took a deep breath and said to herself, “OK, it’s time to go.” She sat with some friends. Everybody was glad to see her. She went to coffee hour and was glad to be back.

As coffee hour was winding down, something unusual happened. A lady she didn’t know very well asked, “Can I talk to you privately?” This woman is married to a dishwasher at a local hotel. She is on disability, and lives in a trailer park on the edge of town. She usually sits in the back of the church, and often wears the same dress. It may be the only dress she owns.

She gave my mother a hug and then slipped her an envelope. “Please open this later,” she said, “not now.” Mom thought it was a sympathy card, and slipped in her purse. Later that afternoon, she remembered it and opened it up.

There was a long handwritten letter on yellow paper. “Dear Ann, my husband and I are so sorry Glenn died. We are concerned about you. We watch out for people who are going through difficulty, and want to help any way we can." Inside the letter, there are two twenty dollar bills.

Mom called me immediately and said, “What should I do? It’s forty dollars. She can’t afford that. What do I do?” I said, “You always told me to write a thank you note. Turnabout is fair play.”

Mom said, “But I don’t need the money.” “Yes,” I replied, “but she needs to give it to you.” There was a moment of silence, and then she said, “Fair enough.” My mother knows if such a gift is given, whatever else we do, we guard the contributor’s dignity, express our thanks, and extend our gratitude by sharing what God has given us.

For this is how God works in our hearts to create the miracle of generosity. It’s like the woman in Jerusalem. There’s something at work in her soul to make her generous. Jesus notices that it is something more than the average rich person who gives because they always seem to have some cash. “They give out of their abundance,” he says, “but she gives out of her poverty.”

So I marvel at this woman that Jesus points out. She gives freely and generously. No doubt she knew what it was like to have needs. No doubt she knew the institution through which she was giving had its flaws. No doubt she believed somehow that God’s work would be done and God would be honored if she gave.

But here’s the thing: look at what she gave! She gave everything. Two small coins, equal to one of our pennies, quantitatively not much, but Jesus declares it is “her whole living.” Or to translate it literally, “her whole life.” She gave her life. No wonder Jesus, of all people, took notice of her. On the very next page, the Passion story begins and Jesus gives his whole life.

This is a story about sacrificial giving, about trusting God so much that you live a generous life. It’s about having your soul intact, that you might love God and neighbor even if the institutions around you are on shaky ground.

I have a friend named Carlos. Three years ago, in the middle of a storm warning, he looked out the church window to see a guy from the Weather Channel broadcasting live on the church lawn. That’s when you know it is going to be a tough day. When Hurricane Sandy stopped blowing two days later, hundreds of the people in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, had lost their homes. Two weeks after the storm, it was Stewardship Dedication Sunday.

Carl stood in the pulpit and said, “Today is not a day about fundraising. It’s a day about being the church. We exist to pray together. We exist to worship God together. We exist to care about human needs.” With that, the church offered individual prayers for healing. Then they prepared a free meal for anybody in the community who was hungry or needed a friend. Carl said, “This is what Christian people do.” Somehow there seemed to be plenty of money, because everybody wanted to be part of that. Now, there’s a church with its soul intact.

Jesus said, “Look at that woman over there. Do you see her?” She had virtually nothing, while the affluent people around her had more than enough. They put in large sums – but she put in everything. They offered their leftovers to God, but she put herself all the way in.

We can speculate all we want about her motivation. Was it obligation? Perhaps. Was giving her habit? Certainly. Was giving a spiritual practice for her? We hope so.

Here’s what I think. I believe she gave because she knew the purposes of God’s temple are central to our lives: to lead people in praising God, to gather around the sacred texts, and to listen and act when the scriptures say, “The Lord upholds the homeless child and the widow, but the way of the wicked God brings to ruin.” (Psalm 146:9)  

We know why she gives: because she gave herself to God - - - heart, soul, mind, strength, and pocketbook. Is God greater than the institutions that claim to do God’s work? Certainly! And in emptying her pockets, she worships the God who comes to save the world by building justice among God’s people. She gives because she wants to take part in that work.

“So look at her,” says Jesus. “Take a good look!” She gives her all for the work of God. So does Jesus.

What about you?