There have been times when I’ve run into someone at our local grocery store who has attended services here but not become an active member of the church. Their only contact with me is in worship. Sometimes it take a moment for them to recognize me. More than once I’ve had folks say,
“Oh! Sorry. I didn’t recognize you without your robe.”
Can you imagine if I wore my robe from the sanctuary to Meijer to pick up some milk and bread after worship? How do you think it would strike people if I walked through downtown Rockford, doing my Christmas shopping, in my robe and stole? I cannot imagine that it would draw people into our church!
This passage from Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus chastising the religious authorities for their desire to set themselves apart by wearing flowing robes. Their goal was to communicate authority. Rather than hungering for righteousness, they yearned for accolades of distinction.
Imagine now that I stand at the dam downtown and lift my hands heavenward and begin to offer lengthy prayers—loudly. Or I go to Ramona’s Table with some family members and project a detailed grace across our table and into the whole dining room. How do you think that would go over? Would it pack out our sanctuary the next week with folks who were moved by my public praying? Maybe.
Jesus lambasts the Temple authorities for their lengthy prayers. By definition, prayer is our conversation with God. Sometimes we pray in communal settings like worship. But these priests and pharisees subjected folks to their loud praying knowing that those around them had no choice but to listen. With the professional clout that they enjoyed, they knew people would at least tolerate their praying and maybe even be impressed by it. Jesus was not. He was not fooled by their insincerity and publicly called them out for their vain attempts to bring the focus to themselves rather than the God they served. You can imagine how well that went over with them.
Maybe you remember when the disciples trailed behind Jesus and argued about which of them was the greatest. Jesus, who had supernatural hearing, called them on it and taught them that, in His movement, the one who wants to be first must be last. They must have wondered if they had hooked their wagon to the right guy .
The temple leaders’ longing for high regard combined with a low regard for the needs of the poor. They spent their days studying the Torah, the Jewish Law for how to live a righteous life. But they did not fulfill the very laws the memorized. While promoting themselves in public settings, they overlooked those who were most in need of mercy.
Richard Swanson, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, writes, “Somehow in election years everyone is the friend of the deserving poor. Even politicians whose policies in every other year are corrosive to the connections that hold rich and poor together in bonds of mutual responsibility, even such politicians can demonstrate in an election year, how electing their opponent will be bad for the poor. That is because the poor have no real standing in such wrangles. They are just there as a figure of speech. When real policy-making demands real attention to the causes and effects of poverty, it will generally emerge that figures of speech do not vote or make campaign contributions or lobby effectively. Or, as in the scene at hand, they show up as stock figures that can be used to illustrate something else entirely…”
The widow who quietly gave her last penny to the temple offering was completely overlooked by those dropping heavy coins into the plates. Maybe some of you have been to Yesterdog in Eastown? They have a metal container high above the service container into which you are invited to toss your coins. The challenge, of course, is to see if you can make the shot. Even if you don’t make it, the sound of the coin hitting the outside of the can is entertaining. In the Jewish Temple there were five different plates for the collection that were horn-shaped. People dropped their coins into the broad opening and it went down into a container. The heavier the coin the higher the worth and the louder the sound. The “poor widow” would have placed her only remaining coins into the Temple fund, making almost no sound. She and her offering could be easily ignored. For everyone but Jesus, she was invisible. The religious elite were so focused on swishing through the common areas in their grand robes that they had no eyes for anyone who couldn’t add to their popularity. Jesus began this day with a tirade against the money changers who took advantage of the peasants. He ended with a commendation of a widow who sacrificed her all for God.
I wonder what the Temple Fund was used for. Perhaps it was like our congregation’s building fund. Our trustees administer this account out of which we pay for repairs, maintenance and improvements. Just over 100 years ago the building fund would have been used to add a foundation to our sanctuary. In 2012 we had to fortify that foundation on the east wall because it was sagging and leaking. We cut holes through the dining room walls to add steel plates to our tired foundation. The result was an open panel on the inside of the wall hat invited us to turn it into a display area for artwork!
In the time I’ve been at First Congregational U.C.C. we have needed to replace the roof twice. Our windows that date back to the 1870’s were sagging and needed to be re-leaded. We have upgraded the sound system several times and added the screen in the past few years. We could not have known how important that would be with the requirements to worship without hymnals or Bibles or bulletins for more than a year. We try to strike a balance between keeping our facility in good shape so as to maximize our ministry and reaching out charitably to others.
I’m so grateful for our congregation’s generosity in the past eighteen months. Amidst the challenges COVID forced upon us, we kept up with our commitment to give a tithe of our income away. PPP loans were used for salaries and building costs so we were able to honor our mission commitments. I believe that when we go out on a limb to give toward the well-being of others, like the blessed widow in Jesus’ day, something spiritual happens. God smiles when we demonstrate that we are willing to entrust our finances to the One we praise from one Sunday to the next. The poor widow contributed to the Temple Fund that was overseen by powerful people who were held in high esteem and who lacked for nothing. Our congregation, like other church families, is transparent about our spending. The Trustees spend hours prayerfully crafting a budget that both honors our responsibility to help out God’s people but also keeps us afloat. This is not an easy task. There will be no PPP loans this next year. We continue to have to contend with the COVID virus for the foreseeable future. We give toward the “Temple Fund,” but so much more than that. We are blessed with support staff members who have worked creatively and exhaustively to shape programming that continues to nourish our congregation spiritually. Whether we were in the building or not, we kept it heated, cleaned, watertight and in good repair. Amidst great financial insecurity, we have given away more than 10%, to help people like the widow in the Jerusalem temple.
Several weeks ago I asked folks through our congregation’s Facebook page if they supported charitable organizations other than our church. The responses were impressive. By being part of our parish, our membership is serving with folks who are generous to our world. Outside of what we give from our church budget, church friends are supporting at least these organizations: Guiding Light, the Humane Society, Compassion International, Feeding America, Family Promise, Sisters of Sobriety, Kids Food Basket, Hand to Hand, North Kent Connect, Eastern Star Charities, Shriners Hospitals for Children, Salvation Army and Heifer International. We have a culture of giving in our congregation like so many other worshiping bodies in our nation. We’ve learned that entrusting a portion of our livelihood to God makes for a more meaningful personal life. It also, when combined with other likeminded Christians, makes for deep friendships among people who are rolling up their sleeves to minister to the least and the lost. I am deeply appreciative of the giving hearts I witness in the name of the God of the widow who gave her all 2000 years ago.
The sobering statistic is that the greater our wealth, the more unlikely it is that we will give 10% away, as the scriptures suggest. Wealth weighs us down. Managing our assets takes time and costs us sleep. The widow, who quietly gave her all in a busy temple while larger coins made boastful clanking sounds, reminds us of a spiritual truth. We are called to trust God for our daily bread. Not for our 401K and an addition to our ample homes. Daily bread. Enough for today so that we don’t lose sight of our dependence on God. She didn’t need to know how God would provide for her when she emptied her purse for Temple life.
Her generosity was rooted in a faith conviction. She knew that God would care for her. Simple faith that’s not so simple.