Have you ever used the phrase “I just want to add my two cents”? It’s a way of offering an idea or opinion without a lot of personal investment; the person you’re offering it to can take it or leave it – and if they leave it, you’re not going to be too upset. Well, that phrase about “adding your two cents” comes, in part, from today’s Gospel reading.
Let’s take a minute to set the context. For the last several weeks we have been following the flow of Jesus’ story as he and the disciples have been approaching Jerusalem. Each of the readings from Mark has been tracing the last months and weeks of Jesus’ public ministry, leading up to the Last Sunday after Pentecost in two week’s time, the last Sunday of the Church year, when we’ll hear part of the Passion Gospel from John – the exchange between Pilate and Jesus about the nature and reality of Christ’s kingship. It’s that Sunday that always seems so out-of-joint – Good Friday coming in November. Setting the context is important because there is a narrative arc here that has a climax, a goal, a point to the story… and the Christian story is what shapes us; when we know God’s big story, we can see how our lives fit with or intersect with God’s narrative.
So, where are we in the story? It is Tuesday in what we call Holy Week; Jesus and his followers are in the Temple, the holiest site in ancient Israel. It’s a big, busy place, with many people coming and going, offering prayers and sacrifices at different times, some people meeting and greeting others: a town square, a worship space, and a place of religious education and administration all rolled into one.Jesus is spending the day teaching the disciples, and anyone else who cares to listen, and debating with some of the religious scholars, the scribes. He tells the disciples to watch out for the religious scholars of their day because they are more concerned with having their religious practices noticed and praised by others, and given public honor and adulation, than they are concerned about caring for the poor and vulnerable. From Jesus’ perspective, they are missing the point of the Law and the Prophets completely.
And then, Jesus contrasts these scribes with a woman he notices at the Temple’s donation box. Amongst all the people who were making donations, there was a woman – a widow – who was very poor; in the eyes of the ancient world she had three strikes against her: 1) she was a woman, 2) she was a widow/no husband, and 3) she was poor – in other words, she was without standing in her community, the lowest of the low. Jesus points this woman out to the disciples, noticing that she has put her entire budget for the day into the donation box – two small coins, all she had to live on for the day; and he says that her offering was of far greater value than what anyone else had done. Well, that must have been a shocking thing to hear! But Jesus’ point is that the widow gave her whole self to God; she was making a complete commitment, but not one that would be easily noticed by anyone else; her love and trust in God enabled her to give with abandon.
Fast forward to America just after World War II: in the late 1940s and early 50s American society entered into a very prosperous time of growth and expansion; new suburbs were built; people could afford to have larger families; and church attendance swelled it a way it rarely had before. All across the US churches were overflowing, some even ran double sessions of Sunday School to accommodate the numbers of children, and being seen in church – perhaps by influential neighbors or even by your boss – gave you a lot of social capital, social standing. Of course there were many people for whom participation in a church community was a very genuine expression of their faith; and I’m sure there were others who came initially because it was “the thing to do” or “for the kids” and ended up discovering that life made more sense when God was in it and so faith began to grow on them and in them. But there were many others for whom church was just what one should do to get ahead, to fit in, to see and be seen… like the scribes that Jesus was calling out.
Desire for status and social standing does not produce genuine faith, and so when all the societal upheavals of the mid-1960s began to unroll, all those people who were in churches only for the social benefits began to walk away. There is much more that could be said about that period of time, and all the changes that have come subsequent to it, and the feelings of dislocation for many that came along with those changes; but where we are now is that anyone who is here, who is in church, who is part of a Christian community, is here for the right reason. You are here because you have found life; and understanding where your story and God’s story intersect is important to you, and you have a need to touch base with others who are also facing in a God-ward direction. Or at least you are curious and interested enough to want to explore and learn how prayer, and faith in God, and service to others, and being formed in the patterns and practices of Christian living and community give meaning and grounding to life. Like the widow in the Temple we are willing to give our lives to God in a wholehearted way – not out of fear, or trying to placate God, or score points with our neighbors, but from a place of openness and trust; a recognition that fullness of life is a gift of God that we exercise and receive when we can be trusting and open.
Brené Brown is an author and professor of social work at the University of Houston – she’s written lots of books and has recorded several TED talks; and she came through an emotional, vocational and spiritual crisis because of her research on shame and resiliency. What she thought she was learning about other people she recognized as being true for herself, as well, and this recognition precipitated a crisis that led her to realize that needed to embrace an adult faith, and she happened to find it in the Episcopal Church, and in fact is a parishioner at Christ Church, Houston. She has this to say about living whole-heartedly: “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” 1 When I first heard that quote, I realized that she was speaking to me, also. But that’s who God knows you to be – brave and worthy of love and belonging.
The widow in the Temple didn’t stop to say: “I can’t put my two cents into the treasury; it’s too small and of no value; if any saw me, they would just laugh at me., and I couldn’t stand that.” She didn’t say that; instead she offered to God what she had, her whole heart….and it was more than enough; it was an abundance. And that’s what God wants from us – our whole hearts; despite our fear of unworthiness, of not being brave enough, of not having accomplished enough, of not being enough. God showed his love and desire to embrace us when Jesus gave himself for us on the Cross – the most wholehearted gift that was ever given. And what the Lord asks in return is for us to give ourselves to him and to the path of life with the courage to be open and vulnerable; to acknowledge our sins and short-comings without being overwhelmed by them; to have the compassion to meet others as fellow children of God; and to exercise the trust that God is holding us in the palm of his hand and delighting in us as the apple of his eye.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we offer to you our whole hearts – bruised and battered and fearful as they may be – knowing that we can find rest, healing, and joy in your abundant love. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen.
1 Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 8, 2015